Revisiting Calcutta’s love affair with Chinese cuisine – walking through Tangra and finding a Kali mandir which serves schezwan noodles to the Goddess, knowing loyalists who dine at the same restaurant across generations, skipping samosa-jalebis on Sunday morning for pork paos and dimsums, and knowing that ‘chowmein-chilli chicken’ will find more takers even today over any Bengali roll or fish fries.
I grew up knowing that chowmein and chilli chicken was as ‘fast food’ as rolls, chicken pakodas, and fish cutlets. Much later, when I began to take interest in what my Mother was cooking (she was always seen as the nemesis during meal times, whose sole agenda was to shove fish-and-rice balls down my throat) did I realize that noodles and chilli chicken were actually members of the main course. What helped was of course the fact that my parents are die-hard Chinese cuisine lovers, and the diva that my Mother is in the kitchen, Chinese used to be quite a weekly affair on the dinner table. Clear or brothy chicken soups would be drunk off ceramic soup bowls (I would follow my Dad and pour soya sauce and pepper into it), followed by chowmeins or fortune rices with Chicken in Manchurian or Singapore or Hot-and-Sweet gravies filled with spring onions and capsicum, and polishing off everything with vanilla ice-cream and sticky honey noodles. We would slump back in sheer bliss and swear my Mother’s Chinese cooking is the tastiest in the world. Later, I even mastered the chopsticks on that table, my initial snail-paced attempts leaving the food cold and my parents irritated. It is not an uncommon thing to find thankas or dragon masks on our walls. Or Chinese five-spice powder and chillies-in-vinegar sitting somewhere in the kitchen.
And even though I cannot say that every single Calcutta family are Chinese food lovers, of the ones I have seen-met-heard-lived with for eighteen years (that is a lot of Bengali families, I ensure you), most find ‘chowmein-chilli chicken’ as a natural option for their meals. It is a common occurrence to find mothers and aunts discuss recipes for Kung Pao Chicken for an urgent dinner for six, or hunt around the house for the ‘Chinese cuisine special’ issue of Sananda, a popular women’s magazine. Often, there is that irritating demand that kids tends to make – Make the chicken like that restaurant’s we ate at last week. Very honestly, Chinese food is not a big deal. When we used to go out for special birthday or anniversary dinners, it would invariably be Mughlai (because kebabs and biryani used to be tedious to cook at home in the pre-microwave days. They were preferred at restaurants. These days it’s a different ball game though) or Continental (again, macaroni used to be so exotic when I was a kid!). Chinese could happen any random Wednesday. We had our favourite Chinese restaurants which we would frequent every month or during our Durga Pujo shopping sprees. The staff at Capri on Beadon Street knew my parents well. They used to dine in this dimly-lit, cozy two-storied joint with their friends much before I happened. Every time we landed up at the restaurant, I would be audience to retellings of anecdotes from ‘the good ol’ days’ that failed to make me laugh. But it did introduce me to a very shocking fact – my parents existed before me, even they used to be ‘young’ at some point in the past. I think this realization dawns on every kid while flipping through family albums – I had my reality check in a Chinese restaurant. I remember the thick, red hot-and-sweet soup (always two by three) in Capri, lengths of pungent chilli garlic noodles that I was too young to manage and fiery lamb and chicken in Manchurian gravies or Crispy Konjee variations. We ate with the same comfort and familiarity with which we ate at home. And, after years of eating Chinese, even though the novelty of the flavours had worn out, the flavours themselves never seemed to bore my parents. I have weirdly inherited that. Winter afternoons would often mean a lazy stroll and lunch on Park Street, the most urban space in the city before malls came up and South Calcutta became richer and snootier. It still remains embroiled in a certain colonial tehzeeb that many old parts of the city have been unable to shake off. We would often land up in Peiping or Waldorf, alternating between the two. Both used to be spacious restaurants which bothered much more about what was on the plate than on the wall. The older restaurants hardly cared about décor or ambience. While there were numerous eateries dotting the area, Peiping was the first Chinese restaurant on Park Street that families started going to. During the 70s and 80s, Park Street reveled in jazz and blues, beer flowed, and youngsters thronged pubs like Trincas and Blue Fox and later tramped into Waldorf or Peiping for dinner. Conversations ensued over whisky and ganja. My Dad narrated stories of his college life, the grandeur and sophistication that Park Street possessed back then, and I would stare at framed black-and-white photographs of celebrities and political leaders on the walls of these haunts. To this day I cannot forget the tear-inducing peppered lamb noodles and crispy hong sau duck at Waldorf. The flavours were robust and tantalizing – alive. Another Waldorf specialty used to be kon chain phai kut or roasted ribs marinated in red wine and served with a special garlic sauce. The volume of the menu and sheer variety of delicacies Waldorf provided made it a favourite for Calcuttans across generations. Alongside, Peiping introduced me to all things considered exotic back then – blackbean sauce, oyster pastes, bamboo shoots, asparagus, tofu. Unlike today, one couldn’t walk into a greengrocer’s and pick up pao kilo asparagus back then. So, these restaurants brought the bell peppers and squids and oysters and shark meat into our lives. I also have fond memories of Eau Chew, possibly India’s oldest Chinese restaurant on Ganesh Avenue owned by the Huang family. A simple restaurant with white walls and cushioned steel chairs, it used to be an out-of-home restaurant serving authentic Hakka cuisine with ingredients sourced all the way from Sikkim and the mother country. Mr. Joseph Huang used to sit at the cash counter during the hot afternoons, a photograph of his grandmother, who started Eau Chew, dangling on the wall behind him.
The first documented Chinese immigration to West Bengal happened during the Governor-Generalship of Warren Hastings. Tong Achi, a businessman, set up one of the first sugar mill units in Budge Budge in South 24 Parganas, 33 kms from Calcutta. The area later came to be known as Achipur and even to this day, many Chinese families travel to the small town during the New Year to visit his grave and a temple situated there. Official documents show that migrations began in 1820, with most migrants being from the Hakka region of China. The settlements slowly moved to proper Calcutta and by 1849, Bow Bazaar had become the Chinese hub of Calcutta. They worked as carpenters, cobblers, and opened tanneries as working with leather was not a respectable job for upper class Hindus. Soon licensed opium dens came up and Cheena Bajaar remained the go-to place for one’s fix for as long as 1947. Slowly, the settlement, due to increasing population, shifted to Tangra and the country’s first Chinatown was laid. At its industrious height, Tangra had a total of 350 tanneries and the 20,000-strong Chinese population began thriving happily. Rather than clashing and magnifying differences, the two cultures seamlessly embraced each other. To the extent that, the Tangra Chinese Kali Temple, the only Chinese temple dedicated to a Hindu deity, is famous even till today for serving the Goddess noodles and chicken gravies for her bhog. Restaurants were opened, mostly out-of-house, and through food the community slowly seeped into the consciousness of the city.
Most of the population belonged to the Hakka region, known for their business acumen and migrating habits. Therefore, while the basis for the cuisine became predominantly Hakka, Cantonese, Hunan and Sichuan trickled in slowly. Hakka cuisine prefers steamed and boiled preparations producing succulent dimsums, noodle soups, and meat and vegetable broths. While this bland flavour was new to the Bengali palate, the various sauces helped Hakka cuisine find fandom in Calcutta. Soon a marriage of influences began. Cantonese preparations use frying and double cooking methods and so, Hong Kong and Chilli Chicken, and the Manchurian (has nothing to do with Manchuria. The restaurateurs created ‘Chinese sounding’ names to prove connect and authenticity) gravies are examples of culinary consummation. What is also true is that, flavours and spice-combinations have evolved over decades, changing and incorporating with every chef. The other two prominent influences were from the Hunan and Sichuan regions of China. While Hunan dishes use a lot of exotic vegetables in blander broths using fish and oyster sauces, the Sichuan or ‘schezwan’ flavours have found most popularity across India. Sichuan dishes like Kung pao chicken and konjee lamb preparations use hotter spices, creating a chilli oil-based gravy which renders a dark red colour. The journey of the Sichuan from a cooking technique to a chutney has ambiguous routes I still am to fathom.
I think we realized that the world is changing when Ajinomoto became a ‘bad’ thing. This would be around the turn of the millennium and suddenly everywhere news articles began grumbling and cribbing about this ingredient that made Chinese food ‘Chinese’. No one seemed to know that Ajinomoto was after all, a Japanese company and the product being banned was monosodium glutamate (Ajinomoto is also the company that produces aspartame). All around us, families began dumping the trademark white-and-blue boxes and feared that Ajinomoto was the reason why the whole Bengali population was addicted to chowmein and chilli chicken. The grocery stores stopped stocking the product. When out dining, I have seen customers tell the waiter to request the chef to not use the fatal ingredient. At local Chinese eateries and mobile carts that served noodles, chicken gravies, dumplings, and thukpa, crowds have roughed up owners for using ‘too much’ of it. Many even scholarly commented that MSG was why Chinese food was so tasty.
At home, the Ajinomoto box sat right next to the garam masala’s. Yes, Mother did stop purchasing it and since then we have been having non-MSG food at home. The taste has not declined in our kitchen just like the use of MSG has not decreased in restaurants around me. The turn of the millennium also saw an attitudinal shift in the way restaurants functioned in Calcutta. Words like ‘ambience’ and ‘complete experience’ buzzed around. The older establishments like Waldorf and Peiping went through numerous renovations and upgradations, losing out to the new bunch of Chinese joints that promised much more than just a meal. Much before Mainland China happened, Tung Fong on Park Street was the fanciest Chinese cuisine destination. Gone were the days of cramped uncomfortable seating, unattractive walls, and decades-old cutlery. Tung Fong is a sprawling space done tastefully in wood and gold, filled with exquisite traditional Chinese artifacts and sculptures, the circular ceiling holds an enormous golden dragon against paintings copied from myths and folklores, royal armchairs with carved legs and armrests, thankas, ostentatious lamps, immaculately dressed waiters, female ushers dolled up and dressed in Chinese kaftans, soft, tinkling ambient music – I will not be able to forget the awe and amazement I felt the very first time in TF. The food just blew my mind. Other than variety, the flavours married so well, in perfect balance, that you did not miss out on any aroma or essence. The noodles and rices were wonderfully nuanced, gravies both robust and kind on the tongue, and a variety of soups and starters meant for gastronomical nirvana. The Chicken Talumein soup soon became my favourite along with the succulent lamb in Hoisin sauce. Rice wine lobsters and Chilli lemon chicken with asparagus and button mushrooms with Cantonese chowmein remains food for the soul even to this day for me. What followed was bowls of daarsaan (fried flat noodles coated with honey and sesame) and caramelized walnuts with vanilla ice-cream. I had this meal in 2001. Bless my memory and too-many-to-count visits to TF to remember what that first meal was like. A spate of top notch Chinese restaurants followed suit, upping the ‘experience’ quotient along with quality of service. Flavours of China and Red Hot Chilli Pepper still rule the restaurant scene along with Marco Polo, Mandarin, and Jong’s. This group of new Chinese restaurants became a symbol of the change that Calcutta was going through. People had money and they wanted much more out of a mere lunch. Later, biggies like Mainland China and Pan Asia only did the same thing on a grander scale.
The favourite feature of Tangra’s dying Chinatown still remains the Sunday breakfast at Tiretti Bazaar. Every Sunday, Chinese families open their doors to serve crowds of Calcuttans enormous amounts of various Chinese dishes. What is most interesting is that, these families cook with recipes handed down by their older generations – the first migrants – and hence, this is the closest one can find to authentic Chinese food in the country. Away from all the adulteration and Indianization of the cuisine, warm and happy families serve bowls of fish ball soup, pork dumplings, and paos (milky white bread stuffed with cooked meat or prawns). Other items on the menu include dimsums, noodle soups, Tibetan thukpa, crispy spring rolls and juicy pork sausages (it is a visual delight to see fat ropes of scarlet meat hanging on makeshift bamboo hangers). No, it is not the healthiest of places to eat at – but this is the only surviving true flavour of India’s only Chinatown. Funnily Tiretti Bazaar was named after the Italian traveler Edward Tiretta who was the infamous Giacomo Casanova’s assistant for many years. Tiretta migrated to Calcutta after Casanova was sent on exile and settled down in Tangra with a French woman. Today Chinese aromas fill the air every Sunday morning. I have met pork bone and fish ball soup loyalists in Tiretti Bazaar and watched families hogging a rare delicacy – red roast pork – fresh slices of pork back, coated in star anise and a mysterious spice rub, and roasted to juicy perfection. Munchies include prawn fritters and Indian puris stuffed with pork and prawn cooked Hakka style. During the Chinese New year, one can find piles of maa faa, a traditional maida-based sweet, laap cheong or Chinese sausages which specifically need the pak fung (eastern winter winds) to draw the flavours out, and prawn and fish fritters. A quick visit to the Hap Hing Co., the oldest provision store in the city dedicated to Chinese supplies is like walking into an apothecary store in Diagon Alley. This dingy pre-independence store is run by Stella Chen now, with dark wooden shelves stuffed with the regular and the bizarre. You will find anything from green tea, glass noodles, pickled prawns and plums, dried fish, oil sticks, dehydrated soup cubes, to medicinal oils to treat hairfall-backache-ED. The septuagenarian Chen strikes up affable conversation with all her customers and still deftly uses an abacus to tell you how much you owe her.
And like that, amidst trams, bandhs and political rallies, a community survives in Calcutta, just on the basis of the wonderful food they serve, ensnaring the Bengali heart with chowmein and chilli chicken forever.
(Read the story in Man’s World India magazine November issue if reading off the screen hurts your eyes)
Image courtesy: Google images