Friday, October 03, 2008

Hack wok

(Just an example of what I do for pelf. Published under the imaginative title "Wok our way")

In the 1970s, a Calcutta lad moved to Bombay and ended up performing as a limbo dancer. He moved on to work as a chef in Geoffrey’s and eventually set up his own restaurant. Which became, to put it mildly, very popular. Because it took Indian Chinese upmarket. This, boys and girls, was long before you could add a handful of chopped coriander and a dash of turmeric to chicken broth and pass it off as fusion cuisine. The man in question was (of course) Nelson Wang, but his contribution to the culinary map goes beyond China Garden. Nelson Wang gave the world Chicken Manchurian.

Now Chicken Manchurian has nothing to do with Manchuria (and in some versions, sadly enough, precious little to do with chicken). Wang himself has said that he named this mongrel dish after the region of Manchao which is traditionally viewed as barbaric. But the simple expedient of soaking batter-fried chicken dumplings in a spicy chilli soy sauce opened the flood-gates for the million “Chinese” restaurants that now serve “Hakka noodles”, “golden fried prawns”, “sweet and sour chicken” and “four treasure vegetables”. And, of course, everything from chicken to cauliflower “Manchurian”.

This is the essence of what we proudly call “Calcutta Chinese” food – any faintly Chinese ingredients spiced up with large amounts of fresh garlic, ginger, and hot chillies, “like ramped-up curries minus the ground spices”, as New York’s Village Voice put it. It may not be Chinese, but boy, does it sell! And it originated in an eastern corner of Calcutta called Tangra, which is special because it is possibly India’s only Chinatown At least three Chinese eateries in New York named “Tangra” attest to the universal popularity of Tangra style food.

Purists like the formidable Ram Ray, one of Calcutta’s premier foodies, tend to look askance at this version. For them, authentic Chinese cuisine in Calcutta means either the Bengal Club, where the signature dish is the sesame prawn toast, or the Chinoiserie at the Taj. The Pan Asian at the ITC Sonar Bangla, as its name suggests, is not limited to China alone. Chefs Pramod and Harpavan recommend the sautéed jumbo prawns and pine seeds in hot garlic chilli sauce (xiang shong ren xia ren. What, you didn’t want to know?!) and the chien tzu, wok fried vegetables with rice wine and pepper.

The Chinoiserie prides itself on its authenticity – even the chillies for the chilli paste are flown in from China. Kim pao is the Shanghai style duck at the Chinoiserie, spicy and flavourful. They also serve an aromatic crispy duck, but the piece de resistance is the Beijing duck with Mandarin pancakes, served usually with sweet bean sauce but with goy sin sauce available on demand. If you can’t make it to Quan Ju De in Beijing itself, this comes pretty close. (Having tried both, I can vouch for it.) Chefs Lian and Srinivas wax lyrical about their dim sums. Having tasted these, I can see their point. Served wrapped in reed leaves in traditional Chinese fashion, these include the authentic glutinous rice with pork, the yang bao or rasin bread with mildly spiced lamb (which stays fresh and succulent inside the dough) and a real work of art, the hargao or Cantonese dumpling with a shell so thin it’s translucent and one can see the pink fresh shrimps inside.

A number of Taj personnel have struck out on their own, the best known being the Red Hot Chilli Pepper chain. Their fried rice was superb, mainly because they cooked the rice in stock and not water. Nowadays, however, they have had to adapt to the Indian palate rather than stick with authenticity. Perhaps authenticity is affordable at the Chinoiserie alone, where a meal for two would set you back by at least 3500 rupees.

Mainland China on Gurusaday Road also serves dim sums including hargao, but they are closer to the Bengali heart and palate (and pocket!). Their crackling spinach – ideally eaten with honey ginger sauce – is quite wonderful, but they pride themselves on the steamed fish in lemon soya sauce and the jumbo prawns in chilli bean sauce, both innovations by chef Rajesh Dubey. In other words, variations on a Chinese air, to suit the Bangali babus.

The premier fish dish, however, is served by Josephine Huang of Eu Chu. Tucked away on the first floor behind a petrol pump on Ganesh Chandra Avenue, this eatery, started in the 1910s by Mr. Huang’s grandmother, is a cult among Calcutta foodies. Josephine’s steamed soya fish is different from the usual Calcutta Chinese. A whole young bhetki is grilled in a sauce of rice wine and ginger with black beans, then served with scallions, chives and Chinese parsley. Her signature dish, Josephine noodles, is a mixed platter of pan-fried, slightly crisp noodles and mixed meat in an egg-based sauce with a hint of soya. Not found in China, perhaps, but very good indeed. Eu Chu (meaning Europe) is also one of the last bastions of a Calcutta favourite, chimney soup. This was most famously associated with How Hua on Mirza Ghalib Street (Free School Street as was), but that venerable institution, alas, has given up the ghost. So now Josephine Huang will serve your chimney soup made to order, with the unique flavour imparted by the charcoal grill in the centre.

The standard Tangra fare these days is more Shyambazar than Shanghai, more Patiala than Peking. The more popular eateries – Kafulok, Beijing, Golden Joy - are full of Bengali clans clamouring for what is essentially Bangali food with noodles added, spiced with cumin, coriander, and turmeric. Some dishes even feature yoghurt! Dishes are by default served with generous helpings of gravy, although they can also be ordered "dry" or "without gravy".

There’s a short-hand to interpreting the menus here. Chilli means hot and batter-fried, Manchurian dishes (even cabbage Manchurian!) come in a sweet and salty brown sauce, and Szechwan dishes come covered in a spicy red sauce. Large portions, strong on the palate, but not the taste of China. If you want that in Tangra, you have to seek out Kim Fa (The Old Man’s Place or Old Man Kim’s, though the ancient proprietor’s real name is Hsien). This little eatery serves beef belly in fermented lime with vegetables, or fried and served with rice wine – hot favourite with the local Chinese population. You can also get whole roast suckling pig, Chinese style, but this requires an order to be placed two days in advance. One day to marinate it, one day to cook it slow. I must make special mention of Auntie Chung and her husband, who don’t run a restaurant but cater a fabulous ten-course spread at Chinese weddings. Starting with roast pork, this gastronomical orgy also includes steamed chicken, authentic four treasure vegetables or chow ka tan, fried fish in a hot and sour sauce, seafood and meat dumplings with fried bread, sui mai, mushrooms with shark’s fin, and kwang, which is scallops with egg and carrots. Possibly a test of the newly-wed couple’s powers of endurance!

Calcutta’s Chinatown was earlier centred round Tiretti Bazaar in the heart of the trading district, and the Chinese breakfast there used to be the stuff of legend. These days it is a pale shadow, with a few straggling stalls set up in the early morning on the sidewalk behind Poddar Court. Most of them sell greasy fried abominations that are neither Chinese nor appetizing, but some still offer good sui mai (though I’d steer clear of the prawn), noodle soup, moon cakes or nyat biang, and variations of the Chinese fried bread, bao, best eaten with kongee or “rice soup”. Not haute cuisine, but substantial and very cheap – you can eat your fill for fifty rupees.


There used to be some family-run restaurants in this area too. I still remember the foo yung rice and kup tai mei foon (rice noodles with what I thought was pork liver, turned out to have kidneys and heart as well!) in Tai Wah on Synagogue Street, but it’s closed down now. Chin Wah in the next lane is still open, but it’s just a more wholesome version of the sidewalk stalls outside Writers’ Building that peddle “chow mein” during the lunch hour. In fact most of the Chinese eateries of the 70s and 80s are now closed or made over. Peiping on Park Street was the place to go to once upon a time. They served a wonderful breaded pork chop that, for strange reasons, was labeled “French” on the menu. Gone with the wind, alas, as is the quality food at Jimmy’s Kitchen near the Theatre Road corner which once claimed to have invented sweet and sour chicken. (The essential ingredient, of course, is pineapple chunks). Over on Central Avenue – sorry, C.R. Avenue now – the venerable Chung Wah still retains its unhurried charm and the same staff who served my father. Their Mandarin crab and chicken rice in oyster sauce are not only flavours of the past, they are also delectable examples of Calcutta Chinese cuisine.


Which only proves my basic point. Chinese food as she is ate in Calcutta may taste more of the Indian karhai than the classic wok, but it is still a unique culinary experience and well worth trying.

11 comments:

Nalbyuites said...

Saving this page...thanks for sharing such invaluable info. Will surely check these out the next time in Kolkata.

Gamesmaster G9 said...

No more Chimney Soup at How Hua? Say it ain't so!

In all seriousness, this is an excellent post. For the first couple of years I was in the US of A, I used to miss Indian Chinese food a lot. Who would have thought that fried rice would be so difficult to come by? My Chinese roommate had never heard the terms chow mein or chop suey and, in spite of being from Manchuria, had never heard of "Manchurian cooking". Her dinner usually consisted of tofu/pork/leafy vegetables in one of a variety of sauces with rice (and chicken claws soup - its exactly what it sounds like). The only restaurant that had chow mein on the menu, served us something not unlike Haldiram's bhujia.

However, when I went to an "authentic" Indian Chinese restaurant in Schaumburg, and happily ordered gobhi manchurian with hakka chow, I realised much to my own horror that it was unpalatable. Not because it wasn't what it advertised itself as - in fact it was exactly that. The problem is that I no longer have a taste for the too-greasy extra-spicy curries with too many jostling flavours. This was reinforced when I visited India, and found even the Taj's Chinese distinctly sub-par (by which I mean that it was not really Chinese).

Anannya said...

Kheede paachhe.

eve's lungs said...

Good wok ,JAP . I do like the food in Mainland China esp the crackling spinach and the dim sums .Did you know that a lot of Chinese who emigrated to Canada run very successful Indian Chinese joints ?

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Nalbu, why Chinese alone? You have but to ask.

G9, I agree about the Ludhiana flavours. As for authenticity, a lot of GENUINE Chinese dishes are quite unacceptable to the Indian palate. I was there for 2 weeks once, and even though I'm willing to experiment, it was Not Easy.

AD, we should gorge together when I'm next in Bombay.

E Lungs, not Canada alone. Who do you think started the restaurants in NYC named "Tangra" ?

J.A.P.

amit varma said...

Good piece. I'm sure you enjoyed your research for it, eh? :)

puloma said...

JAP- I am relatively infrequent about leaving comments on your blogs but am a fairly dedicated follower. This post however is capable of stirring up the shiest of the lot. I am bengali but not from Calcutta, unfortunately. One of my primary reasons to consider my self less fortunate for being brought up elsewhere is the food in Calcutta, as lame as this may sound. I have always maintained that I have not had food that good anywhere. My earliest memories of food in Cal include walking with my Mesho to a place that sold extraordinary chicken rolls by a lake in Tollygunj. I live in New York now, and a very enterprising lady from Cal has attempted to recreate the magic here in a chain called the Kati Roll company. Its extremely popular among Indians in New York, especially since its great drunk-food. But for me, nothing will ever be quite like chicken roll from Pippin. This lady's husband attempted to introduce authentic Calcutta cuisine with a very New York look. I thought it was extraordinary-not only did it have fantastic Bengali food, he had even attempted to capture the burmese and chinese influnces in Kolkatta cuisine. He called it Babu. Sadly, the attempt sank without a trace, or actually not quite- it sank with lawsuit slapped on it by celebrated Italian chef Mario batali, who claimed that this restaurant shared its name with his flagship restaurant 'Babbo'- yeah right! Maybe it was just too early to introduce a sub genre of Indian food to New York.Guess they prefer the dalda laden sub par punjabi food- anyway that is probably the bengali in me talking.
I am very impressed with the kind of chinese food you've just discussed. I will save your post for the next time I am in Calcutta. Thanks very much for it- you have made the foodie in me very very curious and happy.(Btw the food network in the US did cover Bengali food- I was very pleased- finally these ignormuses have determined what good food is all about!)

progga said...

Loved this - awakened old memories. How about one on a food mission in Calcutta in general, similar to Asterix and the Banquet?

Tanu said...

When I spoke to Nelson, he always claimed he grew up in Durgapur. In fact, had a Bengali girlfriend he nearly eloped with. Just FYI.

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Amit, could have enjoyed it more if ALL the places were good. They were not.

Puloma, after that comment, I'm curious about your blog.

Progga, that would need a separate forum. Maybe after I recover from jaundice.

Tanu, your friend V Sanghvi mentions the girlfriend. Durgapur may be true too.

J.A.P.

Suki said...

More food posts please Uncle Prufrock! Brilliant recommendations, and now I know where to go when the Chinese food craving hits again.