By Rohini Mohan
Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, tiny immigrant populations moved to India from China and settled in big cities like Calcutta and Bombay. As time went by, these Hakka Chinese melted into the society, adapting with aplomb to the various ethnicities in their adopted country. So taken were they by the abundance of spice liberally sprinkled in Indian food, that they slowly started to introduce it into their own cooking; this gave birth to that most delectable of fusion cuisines; Indian Chinese.
Chinese food has always been all the rage in India. In my experience, the only kind of Chinese food you get in India is Indian style Chinese. Walk into any restaurant, from your neighborhood Saravana Bhavan to the local Dhaba anywhere in the country and you can treat yourself to an array of spicy Hakka dishes. Manchurian Cauliflower is a typical fixture on the menu card (in the Deep South, it is better known as Gopi Manjurian). Another is the ever popular Hakka Noodle – pronounced Newdull by many up north, it looks truly interesting written in Hindi. American Chop Suey is another staple. In the US this is actually a Pasta dish made out of elbow macaroni, tomato sauce and ground beef, and does not even remotely resemble it’s Asian cousin, but no self respecting Indian Chinese restaurant can ever avoid having it on the menu. I have gobbled up many many pungent versions of it, and enjoyed each one. If your mouth doesn’t water at the thought of Chilli Chicken or Chili Paneer, Sweet Corn soup, Fried Prawn or Potatoes in hot garlic sauce, your Indian origins may seriously be in question.
What is Indian about Indian Chinese? Spice and lots of it! Cumin, coriander, turmeric, ginger, chili, garlic and even yoghurt. Lots of Veggie options and cleverly created variations of Paneer. What is Chinese about Indian Chinese? The special cut of the vegetables and meats, the liberal use of spring onions and soy sauce and the delicious flavor.
When we moved to Europe, I was shocked when I had my first taste of Chinese food. A friend who had no doubt subjected his stomach lining to much torture from hot and spicy treats once complained that the European concept of food is cabbage and their concept of spicy food is cabbage with salt! Being a true lover of the pungent and fresh off the boat from India, this bland nothingness was simply not acceptable to me. I mourned my loss deeply till we moved to Canada, where I was instantly transported to paradise. Toronto must be the city with the largest per capita number of Hakka Chinese restaurants in the world, each more authentic than the other. I reveled in it till we moved to California, even getting an order to go to eat on the flight as a final farewell.
But the Bay Area is never to be outdone. While there may not be restaurants dedicated to the cuisine, there is certainly no dearth of places you can go to where it is on the menu. My favorite is Spice Hut in Fremont or Sunnyvale; their Hakka noodles is dee- licious! Masala Grill also in Fremont next to Naz8 Cinema is another good option; Bollywood and Indian Chinese do jive well together! Temptations in Mountain View (if you are ok with the prices) and Passage to India would feature next on my list. I am quite partial to the Sweet Corn soup in Temptations and the Chop Suey (read Chop Suez, don’t ask why!) in Passage to India. Even Tirupati Bhimas in Milpitas recently introduced some items into their menu. A true taste of India, no?
As you can doubtless tell by now, this is my fav cuisine – so if there are any eateries I have missed, no matter how hole in the wall, I would definitely like to hear about them. Me, and the other connoisseurs of fine Indian-Chinese dining that are definitely out there!