Chinese food, Indian-style

Just before I visited India in 2007 I came across this article in the Guardian – what do people in India eat when they want a change from their indigenous cuisine? The answer was Chinese, sometimes known as ‘Chindian’ – the most popular ‘ethnic’ food in India, and with a particularly Indian take.

Chilli paneer
Chilli paneer – the classic Indian cheese in a Chinese-style sauce with chilli

Obsessed by how food moves across cultures, I asked my colleague in Mumbai if we could go out for some Chindian. The clumsy abbreviation didn’t exactly roll off my tongue, and she had no idea what this Chinese-Indian fusion food was. To her there was just Chinese. And she was very happy to take us to a glitzy mall with a popular Chinese restaurant called China Garden. This restaurant was instrumental in popularising Chinese food in India in recent decades, and according to this CNN article, its entrepreneurial founder Nelson Wang invented some dishes that are now seen as staple to Chinese cuisine in India – although they’d be unknown in China. Chicken and vegetable Manchurian for example which involves pakora-like fritters doused in a fiery sauce of onion, chilli, garlic, vinegar and soy.

The popularity of Chinese restaurants in India goes back to the emergence of a Chinatown in Kolkata in the early 20th Century. Chinese workers, mainly from Hakka province, had settled there a century ago to work in the tanneries, and there were further waves of emigration following the border disputes of the 1962 Indo-Chinese War.  Chinese immigrants, without local language skills, opened eateries and food stalls, initially catering to other Chinese and later to the Indian population. But the food needed customisation: locals loved the flat broad noodles and vegetables but found the flavourings bland, so cooks made these spicier and zestier with flavours like chilli and cumin, and these became known throughout India as Hakka noodles.

This fiery chilli heat, along with Chinese style sauces combining soy and vinegars with Indian masalas, are common threads of Chinese-Indian food.

But this is street food foremost, so there are no hard rules; it’s about adapting to what’s available and what customers want.

thai noodles from Bombay Chinese
Thai-style noodles

In Auckland we have Bombay Chinese in Three Kings where we can sample Chinese-Indian street food. Owner Darryl Fernandes opened the small takeaway outlet in 2004, shortly after emigrating from Mumbai where he and his wife ran a catering business. Initially known as DA Bombay BBQ, the Auckland shop started by selling more familiar Indian fare. But after including a Chinese-Indian fusion dish called chicken lollipops in a catering job, word soon got out among the Indian community that this was the place to go when craving street-style Chinese. Customers dubbed it Bombay Chinese, and the shop’s name was changed accordingly.

Fernandes says, “Roadside eateries selling fusion Chinese are very common in Bombay [Mumbai] where you can find a food cart selling Chinese food at every nook and corner. It’s wok to plate in less than 30 seconds. We were avid fans.”

He says Chinese-Indian street food was developed by people who needed to make a living in a new country, and that meant adapting to local tastes. “As the food travelled across India each state adapted the fusion Chinese food to their own local liking. Today the food is still evolving.”

Fernandes has continued this tradition in his own shop. For example he uses wheat noodles in his excellent Thai noodle dish rather than rice ones as Indian customers found the rice noodles too slimy.

“You cook a meal with ingredients you love to eat and incorporate flavors you love….and you have a winning recipe.”

Bombay Chinese is currently participating in the Taste of Puketapapa Festival – November 15-22, 2012.

Where to eat Chinese, Indian-style in Auckland

Bombay Chinese, 2 Dornwell Street, Three Kings, Auckland. Ph 09 624 3786

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