Punjabi Chinese


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WHEN Yang Tai Chow, the man who planted the seeds of India’s Chinese community, first landed on the banks of the Hooghly in 1778, he came to do business in a country where the ‘red-haired barbarians’ had only recently planted their flag. Yang started a sugar mill and collected a community of Chinese men around him. Most of them had jumped ship, like the Sylheti seamen who got Britons addicted to curry.

Together, they established India’s first Chinese community, Achipur (named after Tong Achi, which is how Yang became known locally), 33 kilometres on a bumpy bus from Kolkata. The progress of history has obliterated traces of the sugar mill, the town does not have a single Chinese family, and the only reminders of Yang’s presence are his semi-circular grave and a temple that he built.

Yang, by the sparse accounts about him, died a lonely man. But the streams of Chinese immigrants who came after him and their descendants have managed to leave behind a most enduring edible link with their mother civilisation that is thriving in India and has travelled the world with emigrants who have been leaving India, mainly for Canada, since the India-China hostilities of 1962.

From Tangra in Kolkata, India’s original Chinatown, to Wimbledon Park near London, to Cerritos, California, Indian Chinese restaurants are earning critical acclaim in new markets with Vegetable Manchurian and Chicken Lollipops (the Drums of Heaven in North Indian menus). The New York Times food columnist Julia Moskin writes: ‘Chinese-Indian food, like Chinese-Cuban and Chinese-American, took shape when a community of Chinese immigrants had to stretch its home cooking to accommodate a new environment and new ingredients.’ She was commenting on Vik Lulla’s Chinese Mirchi restaurant, which dishes up the ‘strange but satisfying hybrid of two of [New York’s] favourite cuisines’ on Lexington Avenue.

At no other Chinese restaurant in the world, but in an Indian Chinese joint, are you likely to be asked whether you like your dishes ‘dry or with gravy’, as Moskin was at Chinese Mirchi. The experience reminded me of the pain with which a chef from Beijing, brought in with much fanfare by the owner of The Chinese restaurant in Connaught Place, related to me his first brush with the North Indian palate. He had been making food in authentic Beijing style till his guests started asking for gravy. It didn’t take him long to figure out that if he wanted his food to sell, he would have to drown his dishes in gravy thickened with dollops of cornstarch. When this realisation dawned upon him, he booked the next available ticket back home.

Had he arrived a couple of centuries ago, he might have just stayed on. The Chinese have been coming to India since the fifth century after Christ (you’ll find their legacy in the far South, in Kozhikode’s Silk Street and in Kollam’s Chinakatta or Chinese market), but it was only in the 1800s that they started emigrating in recognisable numbers. Why they chose South-East Asia over India will remain a mystery, but the Bengali writer, Haraprasad Ray, makes this point in his short account of the India Chinese community’s largely unrecorded history.


The first record of modern Chinese emigration to India, says Ray, can be found in a short notice that was published in the Chinese book, A Maritime Record, which appeared in 1820. It mentions that Calcutta was home to a small Chinese population from Fujian (Fukien) and Guangdong (Canton). It appears they were in the opium business. A police record dating back to 1788 indicates that a sizeable number of Chinese people had settled close to Bow Bazar Street. Generally sober and industrious, they occasionally used to get intoxicated and commit violent outrages against each other.


Around 1830, Ray continues, a Chinese-born Vietnamese envoy named Li Van Phuc met Calcutta’s Chinese residents during his stay there. Li put their number at many hundreds, though the police census of 1837 gave the figure of 362. He described the Chinese people as very poor, but at the same time mentioned that they owned a temple dedicated to Guan Yu, a historical figure of the Period of Three Kingdoms (AD 220-280).

Possibly, these early Chinese were Hakkas from Fujian and Guangdong, who later were greatly valued as sailors in Calcutta (and whose community name, which means ‘guest families’, has survived in the Hakka noodles). Hakkas have travelled all over the world, from Singapore to South Africa, and they have produced world leaders like Myanmar’s Ne Win, Guyana’s Arthur Raymond Chung, China’s Deng Xiaoping, Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, Canada’s Adrienne Clarkson and Thailand’s Thaksin Shinawatra, besides writers like Han Suyin, Wagamama restaurant chain founder Alan Yau, shoe designer Jimmy Choo and Hollywood action hero Chow Yun-Fat.

Another traveller, C. Alabaster, left behind a pen sketch of the Chinese community in the Calcutta neighbourhoods of Kasaitollah and Dharamtollah in 1849, saying that they were mainly carpenters, lard makers and opium dealers. They would worship at the temple of the Sea Goddess Tianhou (‘Heavenly Spouse’) in Bow Bazar.

The continuous state of disorder in China, from the First Opium War (1840) to the exit of the Qing Dynasty after the 1911 Revolution, and the nascent India tea industry’s demand for trained workers, led to trickles of Chinese emigration to Kolkata and Mumbai, where there used to be a thriving Chinatown in Byculla. Soon, the Chinese, though essentially an insular community and the object of racial slurs, became part of Kolkata’s, and to a lesser extent, Mumbai’s melting wok. Hakka tanners and shoemakers, Hupeh dentists, Cantonese carpenters and restaurateurs left their indelible imprint on these cities.


The success of Cantonese tanners has led to the coining of the phrase ‘pariah capitalism’ – by excelling in a task traditionally reserved for pariahs, the Cantonese tanners became entrepreneurs who produced custom-made shoes and fitted polo teams around the world. Indian attitudes towards the community, though, pushed them into ghettos – our love for Chinese cuisine did not extend to its creators – and now, as a result of a Supreme Court order in 2002, Tangra’s tanneries (650 of them) have been relocated to a 1,100-acre plot owned by cricket czar Jagmohan Dalmia in Bantala, on the fringes of Kolkata. Pariah capitalism has lost its most famous address.

Tangra’s makeover, in a way, is emblematic of the Indian Chinese community’s decline since independence. This is the subject of an incisive article by the City University of New York’s Professor Tansen Sen, who points out that the ties between Kolkata and China snapped in the early sixties, ‘when deteriorating Sino-Indian relations resulted in the closure of the Chinese consulate in the city, the expulsion of the manager (and the subsequent closing) of the Bank of China, and the forced deportation of Chinese immigrants in West Bengal.’

The consulate, which remains closed, has a special place in China’s history, because it was where that country’s first woman diplomat, Yuan Xiaoyuan, earned her spurs. The closure was the legacy of the 1950s, the roller-coaster years of New Delhi’s relations with Beijing. In those days, the Indian Chinese community first suffered the collateral damage of Jawaharlal Nehru’s antipathy for Taiwan during the heyday of Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai and then it was condemned to enemy status following the eruption of hostilities between India and Mainland China. In the 1950s, pro-Taipei members of the community were either deported or detained under the Preventive Detention Act. After the demise of Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai, hundreds were deported to Deoli in Rajasthan and subsequently repatriated to Mainland China. The Indian Chinese either held invalid pass-ports issued by the Nationalists before they were ousted by Mao, or simply didn’t have any papers to establish their status.

It spurred the exodus from India’s original Chinatown, which continues till today, as young people look out for better prospects. The Home Ministry woke up only in 1998, when it allowed India’s Chinese community the right to become naturalised citizens. There were not many takers. Waves of emigration had reduced the Indian Chinese community to a minuscule group of 10,000 people.


But Tangra lives in the flavours of its kitchens emanating from Delhi’s Chungwa to Manhattan’s Tangra Masala. Nondon Bagchi, Kolkata’s resident bon vivant, wrote in The Telegraph recently: ‘The Chinese have to be the most successful culinary colonisers the world has ever known.’ He’s right. Indian Chinese cuisine, born in the bylanes of Tangra, is the most preferred dining option in India after street food.


It was in foul-smelling Tangra (the vile stench, mercifully, has gone with the tanneries) that Cantonese cuisine got currified, coriander and onions made their way into the wok, deep frying gained acceptance, and mutton, not very popular among the Chinese for its ‘gagging odour’ (shanwei’r), emerged as the favoured alternative to pork. The cuisine’s transformation was in sharp contrast to the way India’s Chinese diaspora has held on to other cultural anchors, from lion dances performed during Chinese New Year and the annual celebrations of the Lantern Festival, to the language spoken at home.

The Hakka spoken in Kolkata, for instance, is said to be the least corrupted form of this much-travelled dialect. The words achcha and aloo are the only concessions made by Kolkata’s Hakkas to their adopted country’s language.

Very little is known about the earliest Chinese restaurants, but Chinese cuisine seems to have become mainstream only after independence. That was when Cantonese families fleeing Mao’s revolution landed in Kolkata for a safe haven and to earn their rice, opened restaurants, ran laundries and managed beauty parlours. Some of the restaurants rose to the eminence of Nanking, which declined with Park Street in the 1980s and did not recover.

Many of them have become a part of Kolkata’s mythology, like Fat Mama (the subject of a recent BBC World documentary by Rafeeq Ellias), whose eating house was where you could have the most memorable chicken rice noodle soup this side of the Yellow River in the ’70s and the ’80s. After Fat Mama died, her children abandoned her restaurant and opted for more lucrative careers – last known, one of them had migrated to Dubai.

But some, like Eau Chew on Ganesh Chandra Avenue which dates back to the 1930s, are proving to be doughty survivors. Its Chimney Soup continues to be as famous as it was at the start of Eau Chew’s career. And New Cathay’s Chinese Mixed Soup, served steaming in the restaurant next to The Oberoi Grand, continues to tempt old admirers like Bagchi. The tradition of these old restaurants has been reinvented by self-made entrepreneurs like the flamboyant Nelson Wang (Amitabh Bachchan’s favourite restaurateur) or debugged by a minuscule minority of restaurateurs like Baba Ling who are single-minded in their pursuit for authenticity.


From the grimy kitchen of a Colaba restaurant, where he invented Chicken Manchurian to impress the restaurant’s Punjabi owner, Nelson Wang has risen to the point where he schmoozes with Bollywood stars, owns a fleet of Mercedes Benz and drinks only Blue Label. Wang can justifiably claim to be the Father of Punjabi Chinese, founded on the belief that ginger, garlic, soy sauce and chilli paste are the essential ingredients of all Chinese dishes. He had to be, because his patrons at China Garden, the restaurant he owned till the municipal authorities got after him, were mainly Mumbai’s newly rich Punjabis.

His compatriot from Mumbai, Baba Ling, may not have Wang’s flamboyance, but he has built a following by being loyal to the simple elegance of the Cantonese food he grew up with. It was his father, Yick Sen Ling, after he found himself stranded in Mumbai following the Japanese invasion of Shanghai, who launched Nanking in a pokey corner in the shadow of the Gateway of India in 1942. Ling appears in Beyond Frontiers, filmmaker Cheuk Kwan’s ode to ‘second-generation’ Chinese eateries, which has travelled the world, from the banks of the Hooghly to the Brazil’s frontier towns by the Amazon.


Another set of remarkable people featured in the documentary are the Yeh Brothers – Samson, Richard, Samuel and Stephen – who take turns to run Kolkata’s New Embassy Restaurant, a favourite haunt of journalists, and Darjeeling’s Hotel Valentino. Together, they share an uncertain future. The Indian Chinese community, spread across Kolkata, Mumbai and Bangalore, has experienced an alarming attrition since the 1980s, with the new generation emigrating in thousands to America and Canada via Taiwan, besides Sweden and Australia.

And they have taken with them their distinctive cuisine wherever they have gone. Three Indian Chinese restaurants are thriving on Manhattan’s Curry Hill. A swath of Queens, from Jackson Heights to Maspeth, hosts a dozen establishments serving what a blogger describes as ‘Chinese food reconfigured for Indian tastes.’ At Tangra Masala, the stars are Hot & Sour Soup, Chicken Lollipops and tender mutton chunks braised with onions, ginger, garlic and hot peppers, and sprinkled with coriander. In Atlanta, Sidney Chang’s two-year-old Hot Wok is rated as one of the city’s best restaurants. Chang was born in Kolkata and raised in Mumbai, where he mastered the wok at China Garden, and he is still happy to cook Hakka Noodles and Chilli Chicken to satisfy the cravings of expat Indians. At Wimbledon, ex-Bombay Brasserie chef Udit Sarkhel’s Dalchini serves a Bengali-Hakka fusion cuisine, reflecting the fare that is served at his wife Jennifer’s home in Kolkata.

Back in Tangra, with the tanneries and the stench becoming a distant memory, business is booming for Chinese restaurants, like Kimling, the ghetto’s first air-conditioned eatery run by Monica Liu, who has built her reputation on Pepper Fish, Crispy Fried Chicken Wontons and Prawns with Black Bean Sauce.

Like Liu, Xie Ying Xing, owner of the tannery-turned-restaurant Big Boss, belongs to an old tanning family whose business went into a state of terminal decline. For Xie, who has worked at Waldorf restaurant, there’s no going back from satiating his guests with spicy Kung Pao Paneer – in a competitive market, he can’t afford to take chances.

In 1999, Liu opened Beijing, her second restaurant, with a menu that was teeming with novelties like Fried Meatballs and Peking Chicken (breast of chicken cooked in hoisin sauce). She needed to, because Kimling couldn’t cope with the footfalls. Tangra’s food scene isn’t dead. For proof, visit Kafulok, which is yet another restaurant thriving on hardy perennials such as Chilli Garlic Prawns and Stir-Fried Chicken.


Pritish Nandy had once said that only two restaurants serve traditional Bengali food in Kolkata (today, the city has four), but it has over 2,000 Chinese restaurants. He might have added an additional zero in an inspired moment, unless he counted every pushcart selling chow mein, but he made his point. Punjabis can’t be blamed for Chinese cuisine as we know it, though it was a Panjabi (Camellia Panjabi) who introduced India to Sichuan cuisine when she conceptualised Golden Dragon at Taj Mahal Hotel, Mumbai, with chefs flown in from Hong Kong in 1973.

And even though her lasting contribution to Delhi’s dining scene, House of Ming at the Taj Mahal Hotel, is better known as House of Singh, she can at most be held responsible for the ‘Panjabification’ of Chinese cuisine with inventions such as Crispy Fried Spinach and Salt & Pepper Jumbo Prawns. What Panjabi also didn’t do was replace the aromatic yet numbing Sichuan peppers with the gentler Kashmiri lal mirch. What Panjabi did was re-establish an old gastronomic link between India and Sichuan. Historians believe that Sichuan’s cuisine was influenced by Indian teachers and traders who had been visiting Chengdu, the provincial capital, in the ancient times. The Sichuan peppers, however, aren’t related to red chillies. They belong to an altogether different family of plants called Fagara. What the Chinese cooks in India have done is colonise the chilli.


The only place in the country where you can savour the authentic Indian Chinese experience, in the form in which it survives in the kitchens of Kolkata’s Indian Chinese families, is the breakfast bazaar on Sun Yat Sen Street, near Poddar Court, which opens at 5 a.m. every day. At the bazaar, you can stand on the street and have your fill of steamed bao packed with onions, celery, boiled eggs and diced chicken, puff pastries with pork or mutton mince and diced coconut, pork or prawn mince on toast, and spring rolls stuffed with celery, spring onions and pork. These don’t bear even the remotest resemblance to restaurant staples like manchow soup, fried rice, chilli paneer

Tangra’s lasting contribution to Indian Chinese food is the ubiquity of the chow mein and Chilli Chicken. In Mandarin Chinese, chao mian is used to describe a dish of previously boiled wheat noodles (mian) stir-fried with meats and vegetables. The Americans have called the dish chow mein since 1903, but it has been the everyday staple of Tangra’s Chinese homes for a much longer time.


Chilli Chicken, unlike chow mein, is as Chinese as cricket. It is very likely that Kolkata’s Chinese immigrants, none of whom were from Sichuan, developed a palate that wanted to add zest to the highly evolved Cantonese cuisine. The Cantonese believe in marrying flavours and not letting one dominate the other; they worship freshness, which explains why they steam their fish, poach their poultry and barely blanch their vegetables. But if you grow up in a city where everything is deep fried, pungent and swimming in gravy, you can be excused for being cold to such delicate dishes as poached chicken in oyster sauce or steamed cod with preserved duck-egg yolk and minced garlic, or braised fresh crab meat with eggplant, or sweet and sour bean curd with barbecued pork.

Chilli Chicken is light years away from the most acclaimed Cantonese delicacies – whole roasted milk-fed pigs and steamed dim sum – yet it’s as Chinese as the Nonya dishes of Malaysia and Singapore. Nonya Assam Curry Fish, Brinjal Curry and Popiah, to name a few, are the offspring of Chinese-Malay inter-marriages. Nonya specialities, in fact, bear an uncanny resemblance to Madagascar’s Chinese-Malagasy cuisine, which also uses generous helpings of coconut milk and spices.

Chilli Chicken is also as Chinese as chifa (the word originates from the Mandarin chi fan, which means ‘eat rice’), or Peruvian Chinese delicacies such as Lomo Saltado, a stir-fry of beef, onions and tomatoes, seasoned with soy sauce and served over French fries. The truth is, wherever Chinese cuisine has travelled, the wok has successfully absorbed local influences.

But Chilli Chicken certainly is not as authentically Chinese as American chop suey, or the much ridiculed ‘chop sewage’, which spinners of gastronomic yarns had said was invented in a San Francisco restaurant in the 1860s. It wasn’t invented by the Chinese railroad workers in California nor by the cooks of a Chinese diplomat, Li Hung Chang, visiting the US in 1896, as an antidote to a particularly bland White House dinner.

The University of California, Riverside, Professor of Anthropology, Eugene Anderson, points out in The Food of China, that the dish is native to Toisan, which is in Guangdong’s rural south, home for most of the earliest immigrants from Kwangtung to California.

Its name is derived from the Cantonese tsap seui (tsa sui in Mandarin), or miscellaneous scraps, and it is made with leftover or odd-lot vegetables stir-fried together. Noodles are often included. Bean sprouts are invariably present. The rest of the dish varies according to whatever is around.


The first Oxford English Dictionary citation of ‘chop suey’ dates back to 1888. ‘Most likely, the dish came about because early Chinese miners and railway workers cooked together whatever vegetables and meats they had, and when Americans began buying meals from them, the Chinese dubbed the new Chinese-American invention "a little of this and that" or "chop suey",’ says the dictionary entry.

The story of India’s romance with Chinese cuisine cannot be complete without the tale of the Kung Pao Chicken (which the Chinese call gongbaojiding). This is one Sichuan dish that acquired a cult status in India and I wonder why. It is named after a high official who served as Sichuan’s Governor-General under the Qing Emperor Xianfeng. One day, says Joshua Samuel Brown in The Beijing Scene, he came back home with a group of friends, but his cook hadn’t prepared for the guests. All he had was a chicken breast and some vegetables.


The cook diced the chicken into tiny bits, and fried it up with cucumber, peanuts, dried red peppers, sugar, onion, garlic, bits of ginger – sundry ingredients that had been lying around. Ding Baozhen and his guests really enjoyed the improvised meal and it became a regular item on the official menu.

When Ding Baozhen was promoted to Governor-General, his cook went with him to the Sichuanese capital where he began experimenting with the local produce, including hot broad bean sauce and Sichuan peppers. Soon, the humble chicken preparation became Sichuan’s best-known dish and the people honoured Ding Baozhen by naming the dish after his official name, Gongbao. (His surname ‘Ding’ has nothing to with the ‘ding’ in gongbaojiding, which simply means cube or piece.)

The moral of the story, Brown writes, is that if you work hard at your craft, like Ding Baozhen’s chef, one day a dish you’ve made will be named after your boss. Tangra’s Chinese cuisine may not have had royal patrons, but from the bylanes of this enclave, Chilli Chicken has been all over the world. So, the next time you turn up your nose at ‘Punjabi Chinese’, remember Kolkata and its most admired invention.