Sunday, May 06, 2007

Indian Chinese – The invasion of a hybrid cuisine

Long back when I went to visit my brother in Dallas he took me to a restaurant called Bombay Chinese – Bangladeshis serving horrendous food. Till then I did not believe that there was cuisine that the non-residents yearned for called Indian Chinese. This is what we Indians living in India know as Chinese food – the peppery, fiery, double schezwan style cooking with powdered coriander and sometimes garam masala. Indian Chinese is the cheaper version of the Chinese cuisine available at mid range hotels in downtown India.

Gobi Manchurian, as the name suggests, is an epitome and a cherub offspring of such a cultural culinary merger. I know places in hinterland Karnataka where Gobi Manchurian is a form of entertainment than a food. Ask a guy from Mysore what he does in the evenings, he will proudly proclaim ‘I go to Ashoka Road and eat Gobi Manchurian’. For an Indian this cuisine is as easy as understanding ‘cauliflower pakodas in sauce’.

The geographical variations of Indian Chinese are astounding with additions of ajwain and mustard oil in the north, vegetarian fervor with sweet and chaat masala in the west, more sweet and poppy seeds in the east and coriander powder garnished with hair oil in the south. The penetration of this cuisine is deep and wide – weaker only to the behemoth Punjabi cuisine (that is another story). I know restaurants in Belgaum and Chingelput where the menu is generously sprinkled with haka, hunan and schezwan along with traditional local food. The best (?) such dish that I have come across in schezwan chilli idlis. Let me explain this here.

You dice a few idlis and throw them into a kadai (the Indian wok) along with generous portions of schezwan chilli sauce (yes, the one in conical bottle with fake Chinese fonts all over it), sautéed red chillies, a lot of tomato ketchup (preferably Kissan), sesame seeds and curry leaves. Let the edges of the idly crisp a little and it can be served on a square piece of plaintain leaf over a stainless steel plate along with a small cup of chutney. The locals think that this is departure and the visitors think that it is a local variant. It is a win-win.

Later when I was starved of spicy food I went to a vague Chinese restaurant in Charlotte and discovered the American version of Chinese – it was $8 buffet. All the dishes where cooked in fat, were heavy, bland, reeked of old fish, barbecue sauce and excess monosodium glutamate. I understand desis and their yearning now!