Sunday, August 17, 2014

China to Ludhiana

It was Vir Sanghvi who had coined the term Sino-Ludhianvi Cuisine. But, Butter Chicken had reached the nooks and corners of India much before Chow-Mien had meandered across to Punjab, I suspect.

Outside of Calcutta, “real Chinese” was available mainly in some of the 5 Stars – though not all. As a kid we used to hear stories about the Golden Dragon in Taj, Mumbai – which was the first to introduce Sichuan or Szechuan Cuisine (spelt as Shezwan – almost like Kashmiri Wazwan)  in India.  But, that was a distant dream. The closest, we humble Calcuttans managed to get was to The Ming Room on Park Street, which too allegedly served Szechuan Chinese. I remember going there for one of my earliest dates. Many years later – when I had the opportunity to visit China one discovered Sichuan food was nothing like what was palmed off in India and also not as hot as it was reputed to be. Food from other regions – Yunan for example was far more fiery (almost tongue numbing). Indian Shezwan – essentially used a lot of red-chilly powder or even chilli-paste (seldom the original Sichuan Peeper-corn) to make tangier for the desi-palate. In a way, I think this was the inspiration for Ludhianvi or Punjabi Chinese.

Strangely, of all places, Ranchi had small Chinese community and a couple of nice Chinese Restaurants near Doranda. We were told of them by by Ajit-Mama’s partner, Jimu-da (Dr P K Sur) of Allahabad – whose wife Binita-boudi was from Ranchi.  We went there on a road-trip from Calcutta to Daltongunj and still remember the Chop-Suey I had at a place also called Chung Wah. But, now those restaurants are extinct and the Ranchi Chinese people must have also moved elsewhere. On recent visits to Ranchi, I have tried looking in vain for true Hakka Chinese.

(Photo courtesy: Trip Advisor)

Dravidianisation of Chinese

My earliest recollection of a proper Chinese Meal outside of Calcutta was at Shinkow’s in Ooty. It was probably in 1973 or 74 and I was 13-14 then. Those days – people could still take long vacations. Like most Bengalis Abba too would try to club his annual leave with the Durga Puja holidays spilling over Kali-Puja / Diwali, which would give us a cool 4  -5 weeks break when we would go and camp in a place for a month. For these long holidays – we usually teamed up with my Aru-Mama’s family – as he and my Dad (both difficult people in their own way – but extremely methodical and stickler for order) got along famously. In Ooty, we were putting up at the house of A V Ananthakrishnan – a tycoon of the Shipping Industry of Madras and son in law of the legendary Sir C P Ramaswamy Iyer    a friend and business associate of Aru-Mama (Captain Ronnie Ghosh), who was in the merchant navy. Like good hosts, the Ananthakrishna’s drove down all the way from Chennai to settle us into the house and took us out for the first meal to Shinkow’s.

At Shinkow’s we were quite amused to find – one had to place the order by writing the item number from the menu card on a chit-pad (a practice which they still follow). We later discovered this was common in South India and Chicken 65 derived its name from being the 65th item on the Menu at Buhari’s restaurant.

Inside Shinkow's and Roast Pork
Contrary to our impression of all “Madrasis” are vegetarian – the Ananthakrishnas weren’t. But, the Chilli Chicken that arrived, much to our surprise, was not brown in colour (as we had expected) but red – much like Chicken 65, I would say. One can possibly call that - the Dravidianisation of Chinese.

Shinkow’s still remain our favourite and a mandatory stop in every visit to Ooty-Coonoor, which has now become quite regular for us. But, now we gorge on the pork and beef more – both, especially the latter, not easy to find in most Chinese restaurants. Shinkow’s have a limited range of cooking style. Most items have the red “masala” – called by various names. But, we like it that way – as  for us that’s what characterizes Shinkow’s or Nilgiris Chinese.

Nelson Wang
After Calcutta – Bangalore emerged as major centre for Indian Chinese. This is partly because of the large Tibetan settlement there. In fact, there used to be a restaurant near the junction of Brigade Road and MG Road – which local legend had it was owned by a sister of the Dalai Lama. Doubt if there was any truth to that rumour – but they made a very good fried acrid chicken, the only other place I had it was Kunga in Old China-Town Calcutta (they also ran the Chinese kitchen at The Calcutta Swimming Club in the 70s). The great Nelson Wang – is also supposed to have briefly worked at a restaurant in Bangalore’s Church Street area before moving to Bombay to make history.

Photo Courtesy: Samil Malhotra

Chinese Tadke-walla

The origin of “Punjabi Chinese” was, I believe, from Nirula’s in Connaught Place (also credited with invention of the Indian “Espresso” Coffee, which - milky and sweet – made frothy and ‘mouth scalding’ hot by injection of steam from a pressure jet -  is nothing like the Italian Espresso ). I first went to the Nirula’s Chinese Room in early 70s. We were on a family holiday in Delhi – when Mesho-babu (Amma’s elder cousin’s husband) was visiting on work from Calcutta and staying there. I was too young to understand – the shades of difference between Calcutta and Delhi Chinese. It was only much later did I realize – Nirula’s had started a whole new sub genre of Indian Chinese.  

That leaves the stories of the 2 Last Emperors of Chinese in India Baba Ling and Nelson Wang - but they deserve more than a chapter.

Baba Ling

Recipe: Cheat-Sheet - Sweet & Sour Vegetable:

  • Mixed Veggies (anything goes)   carrot, rench beans broccoli or cauliflower florets, button mushrooms (the more adventurous can try ribbed gourd or very tender bitter gourd too);
  •  1 medium bell pepper - red, green or yellow, chopped or cut into 1 inch square and finely chopped celery;
  • i medium onion quartered and layers separated;
  • 2/3 garlic cloves, ½ inch ginger;
  • While Vinegar (Or apple Cider); Dark Soya Sauce; Tomato Ketch-up;
  • Blanch Veggies and set aside in cold water to preserve colour (keep the veg stock for later use)
  • lightly fry the onion, garlic and ginger;
  • add the blanched vegetables; 
  • pour the sauce ingredients (soy, vinegar, ketchup - to taste) - add tea-spoon of sugar, salt and a pinch of pepper (can cheat with ready-made chilly-garlic sauce/paste or Tabasco);
  • Mix 2 heaped tsp of corn-flour in half a cup of water; mix and stir (don't let lumps form);
  • add some more vegetable stock if you need more sauce;
  • a pinch of aji-no-moto (MSG) always helps :)

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Hakka Route

I was probably all of 3 or 4 then. Remember, the Sunday trips in our grey Morris Minor from Ballygunj to my "Mama'r Bari" in Shyam-Bazar. Abba - my father - would take the slightly longer route via Central (now Chittaranjan or CR) Avenue. On the way up we'd stop by - the now Chandni Chowk Metro Station - to pick up packed Fried Rice and “Chilly Chicken” from Chung Wah - for Amma (my Mother)’s kid sister Tukun – my doting Mashi-moni -  who loved "Chinese".

Chinese Dentist Association
Those were my first memories of Calcutta's Hakka Chinese. Hakka - I later learnt - means 'itinerant' (‘guests’ in the host country) – who migrated out of China. Thus there are ‘Hakka’ Chinese and ‘China Towns’ all over the world. Calcutta's Chinese date back to the late 18th century  and their original Chinese settlement (in Achipur) is believed to be one of the oldest - outside of China. The Chinese of Calcutta led a very insular existence – a Chinese teacher of my school compared themselves to the Amish people of the West. He took pride in claiming they are the purest “Hakka Population” in the world (excluding those in China, of course).

Today, by China Town one understands the locality called "Tangra" – close to the Eastern Metropolitan By-pass behind the ITC Sonar Hotel. But, Chinese Restaurants there are a relatively recent phenomenon. This was the area - where the Chinese had tanneries. The effluent of leather washeries (containing lethal amounts of carcinogenic Chromium)  would flow out into the sewerage grounds of Dhapa close by. A Supreme Court order forced the tanneries to shift out of the city – though many actually shut-shop. Simultaneously, the younger generation of the Indian Chinese started migrating abroad to Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Some moved to other cities in India – mostly in the restaurant trade. Those who stayed back in Calcutta discovered an opportunity – almost fortuitously - to convert the abandoned factories to restaurants, sauce and noodle factories.

Till the 80s, Tangra had just a few "Eating Houses" catering to the Chinese owners and staff of the leather factories. When in College - we would go on the occasional adventure in Motor Bikes for lunch to Tangra.

I wrote 'adventure' because Tangra was considered "out of bounds" for the Police and was notorious for crimes. The Opium dens still existed. One evening, I took 2 of my Mamas - Ajit (visiting from Allahabad) and Mukul - to buy dinner from Tangra for an "adda"sessions at our place. Though both of them were quite "dare-devil" (as the Bengali expression went) even they were rattled to see old Chinese Men smoking Opium under gas-lanterns in small shanties and shady characters hanging out. After that, their impressions about their pet 'Bhagne' sure slipped a few notches, but they decided to be discreet at home – afraid that Abba – known for his sharp temper - would blow his fuse hearing about places the son was frequenting.

The Eating Houses were run by the Ladies of the family. The drill was they started cooking only after you placed the order. The portions always had to be large - for example they would only make a full Chicken (usually bought fresh in the morning) as freezers weren't still common. While one waited - Beer or some cheap Whisky were on offer. The Menu was limited to Rice, Noodles (Hakka-Noodles - Chow mein ("Dry") or Chow-chow (with “Gravy"), Chicken and Pork. There were essentially 2 kinds of sauces – the Black Bean (Dark Soya) with onion, garlic and green-chillies or a red sweet and sour gravy with loads of Garlic. All items would have a generous dollop of corn-flour and a large pinch of Mono-Sodium Glutamate (MSG or aji-no-moto) . Fried shrimps balls or sometimes tiger-prawns would be an indulgence -when one was feeling rich.

Prior to this, the “original” or old China-Town was in Tiretta Bazar - the area lying between Bentick Street and the Police Head-Quarters at Lal Bazar on the West and Central Avenue Calcutta Medical College (close to the ‘Central’ Metro-Station – which should have been named old China-Town, if you ask me).

‘Nan-King’ in Phears Lane (which Bengalis thought was “Fears” Lane – as there was quite a bit of ‘fear’ associated with the area which ‘non-locals’  would avoid in the evenings) – was probably the first ‘proper’ Chinese Restaurant of Calcutta – dating back to early 1900
Nanking (Courtesy Rangan's Blogspot)
till it closed down in the 80s. The same area also had Kunga – Calcutta’s only Tibetan Restaurant, (will talk about it someday in my  ‘Momo-affairs’).

But, for the middle-class Calcuttans” Chinese meant Chung-Wah on Central Avenue and Peiping on Park-Street until Waldorf appeared on the scene in the late 60s.  Waldorf Food was slightly different from the “Hakka” cuisine and had a Cantonese touch to it. They probably used less of corn-flour than the regular Hakka cooking that was greasy and over-fried  and the sauces were sweeter – which I think appealed to the Bengali palate. For the middle-class Bengali – who could not were intimidated  by the snooty Skyroom, Blue-Fox or Trinca’s (even Flury’s wasn’t quite for the ‘junta’ – except their confectionery counter) – Peiping and Waldorf (and, perhaps, Kwality’s for North Indian or ‘Punjabi’) was as far as they could infiltrate Park-Street.

For us a trip to Waldorf was always an occasion – usually to celebrate some relatives’ Wedding Anniversary (generally from my Mother’s side of the family – her large bunch of cousins for whom she was the favourite ‘sister’) or when my ‘Santa-Claus’ Ajit Mama was visiting from Allahabad and would be badgered (by the same cousins) for a treat – which he’d succumb to after some initial (mock) resistance. On one of those outings, I remember (must have been 7 then ) my Mukul-mama announced Bulbul mami was pregnant. And, a few months later my dearest cousin Tushita was born.

Those days – one never had ‘clear’ soups unless you were sick or had an upset tummy. So people would get split into 2 groups – those who liked Sweet Corn Soup and – the slightly evolved among them – who would go the for more exotic crab asparagus soup (both heavily laden with corn starch). Similarly, there were Noodle lovers and the Rice lovers. It was always Fried Rice – no one would go to a restaurant and waste money on  steamed rice, which one had every day at home. The idea of enjoying the pristine subtle flavours of the food was alien (actually, it still is. Remember many years later I was ticked off by my father-in-law for ordering Steamed Rice at the Chinoiserie in Taj Bengal).

The standard order along with the Rice and Noodles would be Shrimp Balls (more like Pakodas) for starters, Chilli Chicken, Manadarin Sweet and Sour Fish, at times Chicken with Cashew-Nuts. Mutton and Pork - certainly not Beef - was not common on the Menu. The now ubiquitous Darsan or Date Pancakes hadn't yet arrived on the scene - so the meal would end with Vanilla or Tooty-fruity ice-cream with a Wafer wedge stuck on top - that was a primary attraction for the kids.

Vegetarian entrees were hard to find on a Chinese Menu. Credit for Vegetarian innovations should squarely go to Nelson Wang of China Garden fame in Mumbai – who introduced Chinese to the Gujaratis of Mumbai. ‘Veg Manchurian’ is believed to be his invention. The Marwaris of Calcutta were late converts to Indian Chinese.

For the affluent and higher echelons of Calcutta Society - The Chinese Room at the Great Eastern Hotel was popular. Have faint memories of going there only once - after the wedding of Mashimoni (Tukun) - for a dinner in the honour of the 'jamai' and the new "in-laws" by my Mother's Kaka-moni who was the head of my Mamar-bari family.

Chung-wah still exists - probably have changed hands several times - but now has been
converted to a somewhat seedy "cabin restaurant and bar" in the old wing and a sleazy Dance Bar at night in the Sooterkin (Prafulla Sarkar) Street section. But, they still make a mean Chilli Chicken (try the ones with bone - they use only spring chicken not the heavy broilers) and Fried Rice - tho' I wouldn't trust their Pork anymore. Waldorf (probably also with new owners) has now relocated to Russel Street
next to Sutton Seeds across Bengal Club. They run either a Hilsa or Duck Festival round the year - which I find a huge turn off and have never stepped into the place since they closed down their original place on Park Street.

The action has now shifted to Tangra and the "Tangra Style" restaurants all over the city and the more up-market Mainland China and Red Hot Chilly Pepper. But, still a few old gems - like Eau Chew and Jimmy's Kitchen  remain tucked away. But, what's most significant is "Chow-Mein" has become the national food of Bengal - perhaps only after Chicken-Egg Roll and Biriyani - available at every street corner and 
now, even on trains.

Amma’s Quick and Easy  Chilli-Chicken:

 f            - 1 full dressed chicken (without skin) diced into small pieces (less than 1 inch);
-             - Marinate with Dark-Soy-sauce, ginger,  garlic and a sprinkling of corn-flour for                 30 mins - 1 hour;
-               Blanch (par-boil) with a little water and pat dry ;
-             - Deep fry  in boling oil (refined sun-flower) – add diced onion and green-chillies –             and some more soya-sauce with a pinch of MSG (optional);
-             - Serve hot;

 (Recipe can be adapted for fish and Duck – while Fish would require little time for marinating – duck needs to be soaked for 3-4 hours or preferably over-night in the fridge and more of pre-cooking than chicken) 

(to be continued - watch this space)

Daal, Roti and 100 Pipers

I’m basically a Daal, Roti and Scotch person !! 

For long I resisted suggestions and prodding from family and friends to write on food.  I was reluctant because these days I find every second person these days is a Food Blogger and almost everyone is a “Foodie” ( a term I detest – but more on that later). I never fancied myself to be a gourmet and an epicure I am certainly not. I don’t know much about the history of various cuisines nor  “Food Anthropology”  (another fashionable term). I have tried my hand at cooking occasionally with the odd success, that too mostly for the family (and once burnt my hand - literally - with boiling oil while trying to over-turn a whole chicken in a Kadai, a scar I still bear )– but can hardly claim to be a modern day metro-sexual wannabe master chef. I hardly watch Food Shows on TV (which are mostly scams anyway) and read only the occasional food column. I’m deeply cynical of Food Reviews – which I suspect are obtained  either through free-meals and wine – or , at times, simply paid-for (unless it's the Michelin Guides - there are very few food critics like the late Egon Ronay - who always paid for their meals). And, oh – I love Nigella Lawson. But, only for her looks, not culinary repertoire (which I have a creepy feeling they are largely outsourced or crowd-sourced).

Then what are my credentials – at all to write on Food ? To be honest, none actually. Like most ordinary people I like to eat.  Hunger is a natural desire we humans have been gifted purely for reasons of survival – embellished with a sense of taste, smell and touch that makes it a pleasurable experience. No wonder someone coined the term 'gastro-sexual' - as enjoying food is very much giving in to the senses. I believe even the most ascetic of individuals – even those practicing strict gastronomical abstinence - enjoy food. That’s why most fasts end with a feast and I have seen spiritually evolved persons of all religions (read - monks, nuns priests  and saints) indulging in the occasional repast with great relish.

I am no different from them. Perhaps, a wee bit more experimental and adventurous – but, certainly not one of those who “live” and are willing “to die for”  food.  For me food is more about memories, company and conversations.  Snapshots stored in the mind’s soft-disk indexed by the taste-buds and aromas.

The posts that will follow are part of that journey that I have taken through highways, by-lanes and alleys of the food trail the meals that I have partaken not only in restaurants, cafes, small road-side eateries, pubs, bars, dhabas - people's homes and clubs that has shaped my own private gastronomical universe.