Late in the evening, about a decade ago, Dad got back from work and convened an emergency family meeting. The issue was pressing: We needed to help him figure out where to take a visiting Chinese client and his wife for dinner. The Phadke household was stumped.
Ordinarily, this would not be a problem. We lived in Mumbai – India’s financial capital and a city that almost groaned under the weight of its restaurants. However, the visiting couple – who I vaguely remember as a Mr and Mrs Lee – had been in India for over a week now, had eaten local food for most meals and were dying for a taste of home. “They asked if we could go for Chinese food,” said Dad, thoughtfully scratching his chin. “Where do we get that around here?”
“Simple. Take them to Shiv Sagar,” piped up my grandmother, eyes still fixed to the TV drama she was watching. “Don’t you all keep ordering from there?”
Dad shook his head impatiently. Shiv Sagar wouldn’t do. Other restaurants – Dynasty, Jeevan and Daffodils – were similarly vetoed.
It wasn’t the restaurants per se that were the problem. It was the fact that the Chinese food they served was too Indian. It was what we now call “Chindian” food – that specific school of Chinese food in India, which has shapeshifted over decades to craft an identity that’s unlike anything eaten back in China.
“Everything I ate there was so bland, I wanted to empty half a bottle of chilli sauce over it,” Dad had told us just the other day, fresh off his first-ever trip to China for work. After spending only a week in Ningbo, a coastal city in Zhejiang province, he already considered himself an expert. No, the Lees wouldn’t like Chindian, he was sure.
“Then make it yourself,” grumbled grandma, thoroughly annoyed about missing half her show. Dad was frantic. It was almost dinnertime. Mum, the calmer of the two, stepped in. She called a few “well-travelled” friends for suggestions and soon, reservations were made at a swanky hotel whose midnight buffet was known for its spread of “authentic” Chinese food.
“How was it?” we asked Mum and Dad when they returned, having bid goodbye to the guests. The food had seemed pretty authentic, my parents said, by which they meant it was very different from the neon-orange, heavily spiced Chindian dishes we loved. Mr and Mrs Lee had eaten it with great relish. And as they walked to their car post-dinner, they made it a point to warmly thank the hosts for what they said was their “best meal in Bombay” so far.
“Their favourite part,” said Dad, bemusedly, as Mum tried to keep a straight face, “was how it had such a distinctly Indian flavour.”
He patiently waited until the rest of us had stopped laughing.
“Might as well have gone to Shiv Sagar then,” said grandma, coolly strolling out of the room.
Not long afterwards, Dad moved to China full-time for work. On his bimonthly trips home, he showed off his flair for chopsticks and a growing knowledge of Chinese food. He loved Hunan and Sichuan dishes, no longer wanted to carry a tiny bottle of chilli sauce around, and over beers at family gatherings, narrated his favourite story of the first time he tried duck feet.
Invariably accompanying the drinks would be plates of Chindian, ordered in from a neighbourhood restaurant: chicken drumsticks smothered in fire-engine red “Szechuan” sauce, some paneer chilli or perhaps Triple Szechuan – a ridiculously delicious jumble of fried rice, noodles and crispy noodles, topped with gravy – if you were extra-hungry.
If a Chinese person were to try it without being told what it was called, they’d probably not realise it was India’s own iteration of their country’s cuisine. Even the way we prefer to eat it is different – Indians love to pair rice and noodle dishes with Chinese gravies, as opposed to say, a standalone noodle bowl. It has been adapted, refashioned, bastardised – whatever you might want to call it – and well, we love it.
In November last year, I moved to China too. I now live in Beijing – a three-hour flight from my dad down south in Zhejiang. In my luggage, next to the garam masala and multani mitti face-pack, Mum had stowed packets of my favourite “desi Chinese”, as the label declared. Ching’s Instant Paneer Chilli, Hot-and-Sour Soup, Manchow Soup, and Maggi instant noodles. I hoard them in a Ziploc bag like crack cocaine, rationing them out and keeping them out of sight of my Sichuanese roommate, lest she severely judge me. If a Chinese gourmand were to spot these concoctions, I’d probably get deported. Until that happens, though, as I gingerly wade into a brand-new life, my Chindian stash is a little bit of home.
It's familiar but vaguely foreign – maybe that’s its whole appeal. “Sweet corn crab soup at Flora. Way back in the 1980s,” Anupamaa, a family friend had told me, when asked about her earliest memories of Chindian. Back then, though, it was known as just Chinese food and Flora was said to be the restaurant that introduced it to Mumbai. “I remember the soup being delicious but I had scalded my palate with the first hot, hot spoonful.”
Anupamaa’s memories – like with several others from my parents’ generation – are of the fledgling years of Chinese food’s popularity, when it was a deliciously intriguing cuisine served only at the city’s swankier restaurants. But the Chinese community’s association with India goes much, much further back.
Chinese traders had been sailing to India’s shores since as early as the 13th century, writes SM Edwards in The Bombay Gazetteer. Large numbers had begun moving here from the early 1800s, settling mainly in the port cities of Mumbai and Kolkata (then named Bombay and Calcutta, respectively). They found work as beauticians, dock workers, shoemakers, dentists and hotel staffers. Neighborhoods such as Bombay’s Dockyard Road and Tangra in Calcutta came to be known as mini-Chinatowns.
“Countless Dockyard Road lasses had their hirsuteness temporarily fixed at Queen’s Beauty Parlour, run by one of the Chinese aunties. Others had their teeth tended to at Dr Ma’s clinic at neighboring Mazagaon,” writes Nandini Ramnath in a Time Out Mumbai feature on the city’s Chinese residents. “Names like Shaolin and Waimai flowed as easily off our tongues as Mariza and Murtuza.” The community put down firm roots in their new home, even as they tried to recreate old familiars. Food, like with all migrant communities, was the most popular means to this end.
It moved out of home kitchens and onto Indian palates as some Chinese immigrants set up their own restaurants – Flora, Ling’s Pavilion, Kamling were among the earliest. In pre-Reforms India, the awareness and available options for “foreign” cuisine were few.
“The choice then was between fancy restaurants in five-star hotels, where the middle classes feared to tread or restaurants serving mainly north Indian food, which meant meat swimming in oil,” writes Sidharth Bhatia in a piece on the still-surviving Kamling in The Indian Quarterly magazine. “For a family that wished to be adventurous and go beyond the familiar, standalone Chinese restaurants were a good compromise.”
It was at these restaurants, over sweet corn chicken soup, Hakka noodles and mixed fried rice, that Indians first made their acquaintance with Chinese food. It was exotic but not too much – the taste was somehow comfortingly familiar. It was the food that Arun picked to impress Prabha, in Chhoti Si Baat – one of my favourite Hindi movies from the 1970s. They dine out at Flora, where Arun shows off his chopsticks skills, leaving his rival Nagesh to flounder, red-faced.
Maybe, just maybe, this was First-Wave Chindian.
Or maybe it was when Nelson Wang, a Kolkata-born chef of Chinese descent working at the swanky Cricket Club of India, was asked by a regular to cook something new. Wang, who now runs the hugely successful China Garden, whipped up a dish using a bunch of Indian ingredients (garam masala included). Thus was born chicken Manchurian – possibly our most popular “Chinese” dish. And no, it doesn’t exist in China.
Perhaps this was First Wave?
Hard to tell. It barely seemed to stay still. One minute, Chindian was a kind of food your fancy, well-travelled aunt treated you to after you scored high in your final-year exams. Another, it was what you ate at an interstate highway dhaba in the dead of night, on a trip up north with your college friends. For those who made it, it was easy enough to learn, a quick and cheap option to sell. If you were creative enough, virtually anything could be Chindian.
Walk around the gullys in Mumbai or Delhi, or any Indian city, really. Care to try some Szechuan (or Schezwan, as they seem to frequently spell it) vada pav, madame? How about a spring-roll dosa maybe — a South Indian crepe stuffed with sufficiently “Chinese” veggies like cabbage and spring onion, slathered with soy-and-chilli sauces, rolled up like a jianbing, and cut into spring-roll-sized pieces. Oh, and you gotta dunk it in coconut chutney or sambar before you eat it obviously, since it is still a dosa.
Some go even further out. At my first job, a favourite haunt for the team was a restaurant named Race View. The majority of its appeal was that it was right next to work, served excellent fish fry, and was well within the budgets of penurious journalists.
Once on a whim I decided to order something called “Race View Special Noodles”. It was a work of art, really. On a large plate, in three differently coloured concentric circles, were noodles. One was bright yellow, the other orange and the third, smallest circle was made out of fried noodles. In the centre of this creation stood a tiny metal katori, filled with their house Szechuan sauce.
It still is among the most bizarre-looking foods I’ve ever eaten. Possibly nauseating for weaker stomachs. But not for me. I ordered it at least once every other visit, and yes, my colleagues still judge me. It tasted great.
It’s hard to explain what Chindian food tastes like to someone who's never tried it. Soy-tomato-chilli – this is probably the Holy Trinity of its flavour profile. Food writer Vir Sanghvi tried to break down that quintessential taste in a feature for Hindustan Times’ Brunch magazine: “It is the soya sauce (light, not dark) that gives the dish its Chinese character. And tomato ketchup provides the red colour and sweetness that makes it look like Indian-Chinese. To this basic combo, you add chilli to taste. And suddenly, you have an Indian-Chinese dish.”
Chinese pakoras, stuffed with cabbage and spring onion (I can hear the ghosts of a thousand Chinese grannies howl in agony as I type this) were my uncle’s favourite after-school snack. “A street-vendor right next to Godbole Hospital sold it,” he recalls. Conveniently located, joked Mum, in case of any mishap.
Manchow soup, with fried noodles floating on top, was another popular snack. A tiny stall named Peking near my uncle’s school sold it. For those who wanted to try making it at home, community cookbooks like Annapurna, which my mum still has a moth-eaten copy of, featured recipes for Hakka noodles, fried rice and sweet corn soup. In the 1980s and ’90s, many soon-to-be brides signed up for pre-matrimony cooking classes that provided a crash course in preparing “Continental” dishes (anything vaguely European) as well as “Chinese” dishes.
Other relatives and parents of friends remember a time when streetside Chinese fare sold for ten rupees. A few years ago, my college mates and I worked on a Mumbai documentary. One of our interviewees – a factory worker – lived in a tenement in the far suburbs. We climbed a rickety ladder to get to his home – a barely 10x10 ft space. After the shoot, he and his wife insisted we stay for chai and dinner. The meal comprised gobi (cauliflower) Manchurian and Hakka noodles from the street-stall down the lane. It cost about 30 rupees a plate. It was a meal they couldn’t really afford but they treated all six of us to it anyway.
I remember the food was swimming in masala and oil. Did it taste great? Not really. Did we make sure we finished every last bite? Yes. Did that wonderful gesture get us a bit teary-eyed? Also yes.
It was a long, long way from the poshness of Flora during its heyday, that meal. It’s also a sign of how far this particular type of food had travelled, shapeshifted and made a space for itself in such diverse contexts.
And it’s a hardy little bastard. Cities like Mumbai and Delhi today are packed with Chinese restaurants that focus on dishes from specific regions; they brand themselves as “authentic”, and the food can be spectacular. The dim sum I eat in Beijing might remind me of a past meal at a swanky Mumbai joint. More than ever before, chefs are trying to introduce Indian palates to food that accurately reflects the way it’s prepared in China.
Tell that to the chef who’s spent two decades rustling up Chindian for generations of loyalists, however, and he or she might just chase you out the door. What on earth is this “Chindian” nonsense, they might demand. Their food is Chinese food. How dare you accuse them of not being “authentic” enough?
Because who’s to say that Chindian food, as it exists in all its technicolour glory across India, isn’t authentic, anyway?
Half a year into my life in China, I’m still excited about it being perfectly okay to eat noodles for every meal. It’s not a junk-food treat as it is back home. I love my dandan mian, I love my jiaozi, I love malatang to bits. But then, every so often, I’ll get home tired and hungry on a cold Beijing evening, and decide to make myself some Ching’s Manchow Soup. It takes all of five minutes – emptying the soup powder into my favourite earthen mug from back home, then pouring in boiling water from the kettle and stirring vigorously to break up the clumps of flavour crystals.
The taste transports me back to blurry nights out with friends at Mumbai dive bars, sitting across tables laden with vodka-Sprite and Szechuan chilli potatoes. To family dinners where everyone split the sweet corn soup “one-by-two.” To the siren song of those neon-drenched abominations from Shiv Sagar that we can't stop ordering.
Sometimes, a girl just wants a taste of home.
text by Mithila Phadke. banner photo by Febin Mathew.
Vir Sanghvi opens his penetrating 2015 feature “How Chinese Food Has Taken Over The Indian Palate” with an eye-roll for Londoners who ooh and aah the opening of Alan Yau’s newest concept: a Chinese gastropub. Sanghvi is not impressed. What's the big deal about beer paired with Chinese-inspired bar food? “We’ve been doing that for a long time in India,” he writes. Sanghvi's blasé dismissal gives way to rumination on the phenomenon he terms “Sino-Ludhianvi food,” which culminates in a grand unified theory that situates Indian-Chinese amid the evolution of the Indian palate over the last half-century.
One figure looms over this story of cultural collision: Nelson Wang, founder of Mumbai's China Garden, the original see-and-be-seen venue that rocketed Chinese fine dining into the mainstream. Megha Shah for GQ India pens a nostalgic reminiscence of the China Garden glory days, an era of glamor and innocence, that demands to be read in entirety (and quoted in brief):
The restaurant was beautiful, and everyone felt they had to live up to its elegance. To me, it seemed like a magical time where the honey on my fried noodles with vanilla ice cream was sweeter and the spring rolls crackled more loudly; where stews were more tender and friendships more sincere. A time when no one questioned the authenticity or origins of food.
Nelson Wang has a credible claim as the author of the Chindian classics that won over a nation of a billion-plus eaters. The Fortune Cookie Chronicles author Jennifer 8. Lee, speaking with Nelson’s son Edward, writes of the jolting realization that she is “probably looking at the man who had influenced the Chinese dining experience for more people on the planet than any single other person.”
Indians abroad, then, know exactly who to blame for the Manchurian-shaped holes in their appetites. Take Abha Gosavi, a Mumbai engineer and Chicago transplant who goes through hell and high water – who “trudged over the deserts for seven days and waded across the frigid river” – in search of the best desi Chinese food in America, only to find that if you want something done right, there is just one person for the job.
Mithila Phadke is a journalist from Mumbai, recently transplanted into Beijing. Her writing covers remote valleys in North East India, the crowded bylanes of Old Bombay and currently, her brand-new home. She treks occasionally, eats constantly, and tweets as @PhadkeTai.