Ask the average Indian to list the names of cuisines and Chinese cuisine is almost always likely to be the second item in the list, just after Indian. Indeed, Chinese cuisine is a big thing in India; although what we call Chinese is very different from traditional Chinese fare. Our version of Chinese is in fact a fusion cuisine, known more accurately as Indo-Chinese cuisine, and Calcutta plays a major role in its story.
It all started when Yong Atchew settled in a place 24 kilometers south of Calcutta, now called Achipur in his honour. Around 1780, Governor General Warren Hastings granted him land for a sugar plantation and around 150 Chinese men came to work for him. After his death in 1783, they moved to Calcutta.
Slowly, their number started to increase as they settled in the Territy bazar area near Burrabazar, whose Aphing Chowrasta was a major area for opium trade back then. Throughout the 20th century, and especially during World War II and the Mao Revolution, their numbers started to swell; and this immigrant community is now the single largest Chinese community in India.
Most of the people in Calcutta’s Chinese community hailed from the Hakka region, and were tanners and shoemakers by profession. Curious foodies, looking for new things to eat, often sought out the interesting and unique foods these people had to offer. Slowly but steadily, a number of small eating houses popped up. Eager to cater to local tastes, the Chinese added tweaks to their own traditional dishes, finally giving birth to Indo-Chinese cuisine.
Calcutta’s Chinatown is now situated in Tangra in East Calcutta, which teems with Chinese restaurants. I’ve been to a couple of them, A particular favourite of mine is Beijing, whose Chilli Garlic Pepper Chicken is to die for. Other familiar names include Golden Joy and Kim Ling.
Indo-Chinese cuisine involves a liberal use of green chilli, ginger, garlic and black pepper and an occasional use of Indian spices like cumin and coriander. Soy sauce, vinegar, green chilli sauce, ketchup and MSG are other staples. There is use of liberal amounts of onions and bell peppers which add texture.
The staples include fried rice and noodles, which can be served dry (Hakkanese) or with a gravy (Cantonese). Hakka noodles is one of the most ubiquitous Indo-Chinese dishes out there. They can be eaten with a side dish or as it is, with a mandatory helping of the condiments laid out on the table; ketchup, green chilli sauce, vinegar with bits of green chilli, and soy sauce.
The naming of dishes usually follows a simple format; one part describes the dish either by its primary ingredient (chilli or garlic) or by the name of a province (Manchurian, Hunan or Schezwan), while another mentions the primary protein or veg in the dish. So, you’ve got Lemon Chicken, Fish Manchurian and Schezwan Prawns, for example. There are ample vegetarian options too, like Chilli Paneer and Gobhi Manchurian.
Other staples of the Indo-Chinese menu include a myriad of soups, from clear to egg drop to hot and sour; starters to accompany glasses of fresh lime soda and cans of beer, which can be fried tidbits like wontons or drier versions of stir-fries. Desserts include tutti frutti (a sundae featuring scoops of ice cream, fresh fruit and jam) and the iconic darsaan, which involves tossing fried noodles in honey and serving them warm with a scoop of ice cream.
The provincial descriptions are incredibly loose and usually don’t reflect the cuisine of the said province; instead they have become blanket terms to describe certain styles of sauce. Manchurian is usually a tad sweet, Schezwan is spicy and heavy on the chilli and garlic, while Hunan is a mild and white in colour. Many of these dishes come with an option of dry vs gravy, the former usually washed down with drinks as a starter, and the latter accompanying the noodles and rice in the mains.
Tangra might be Kolkata’s current Chinatown, but Territy Bazar still has a huge Chinese community. The local company Pou Chong produces sauces that are a staple in the local restaurants and also elsewhere in Kolkata. Every morning, local carts sell delicacies like fish ball soup, pork baos and rice cakes among other things; go during the winters and you can also get lap cheong sausages. Breakfast at Territy Bazar, preferably on a winter’s morning, must be on the bucket list of every Calcutta foodie.
There are many small Chinese eateries in the area including D’ley and Pou Hing, Chung Wah, one of the oldest in town, and Eaw Chew, whose Chimney Soup is a Calcutta Chinese classic. But my personal favourite is, was, and always will be, Tung Nam. I remember the first time I visited the place, on a drizzly afternoon in June of 2013. It is a 10-minute walk from my college and, having heard a lot about it, decided to drop by with a few of my friends. The interior was pretty nondescript but undeniably Chinese, with red paper lanterns and a Chinese lucky cat.
I have lost count of the number of times I’ve visited the place since, and their Dry Chilli Pork is one of my most favourite Calcutta dishes. Thin slices of pork with the perfect meat to fat ratio, the sweetness of the onion, the heat of the chilli; it is heaven on a plate. Of course, they have many other amazing dishes like the Salt and Pepper chicken, Pork in Hamei Sauce and the hearty wonton soup, but I have my biases.
Tangra Chinese has now become a nationwide affair, and for good reason. It is the perfect example of how we have adopted a foreign culture and made it our own, much like the Italian-American fare of deep-dish pizza and chicken parm. It has an identity of its own, and has made its mark in the global scene as well. Authentic Chinese fare might be making its mark on the Kolkata food scene as well with places like Yauatcha, but Indo-Chinese food has a place of its own. It is amazing, and is here to stay.