A few days ago, while wading through a reliably satisfying meal at one of the many Mainland Chinas of Mumbai, I was asked The Question again. No doubt you have asked this many times yourselves, in your head or to your friends or the occasional visitor from the real mainland of China - how different is Chinese food in India from real Chinese food?
The short, maggi-sauce answer is easy (its different) but the longer answer - like all longer answers to Great Questions - is complicated. The first twist is in defining what one means by "Chinese" food. China, after all, is a really huge number of people and many different food cultures - and contrary to popular opinion they don’t all eat fried rice with kung pao chicken. In fact, food from one province can verge on the inedible for another, much like my soundly Bengali grandmother's opinion of a dosa. Indian Chinese food is heavily influenced by the first wave of Chinese immigrants who came to India from Canton province, and from the areas in and around Hong Kong. They settled originally in Kolkata and fuelled by the voracious Bengali belly soon childbirthed Indian Chinese. A couple of hundred years later, chefs like Nelson Wang were feeding the masses exotica like Veg Manchurian and Chilly Chicken, and we had a new cuisine.
The other complication is that even back in our own land, Indian Chinese is hardly the monolithic cuisine we pretend it is. Every place in India from roadside stall to five star sells the stuff. Chinese is possibly the most ubiquitous exotic (as in, not native) cuisine worldwide, but nowhere have I seen it as heavily localised as in India. The average roadside cook in India has taken his idea of Chinese food and made it his own in different ways. . Roadside chinese in India is basically Indian food with soya sauce, those characteristic soup spoons and the occasional noodle; there’s no real point looking there for references to anything more chinese than these three. Mumbai's chinese bhel or Bangalore's manjari chicken - comparing them to each other is hard enough, trying to cross the himalayas with them is impossible. Chinese food adapts to local tastes everywhere, but India has adopted it in ways that I’ve never seen anywhere. Usually, the people who cook these foods are of Chinese descent but India is different. Originally a whole generation of Nepalis were employed to ease the illusion but now you’ll even find sardars doling the stuff out of every crack in the wall. Desi chinese is proudly desi.
Which brings us back to the original question - with some modifications. What I think people want to know is – how do the fancy “authentic” chinese restaurants compare to the real deal? How authentic is “authentic”. The short answer – it is not particularly authentic at all. Unlike roadside chinese – this food clearly originates from Chinese food and uses many of the ingredients, techniques and combinations (including imported sauces and oddities like bok choy) but food is not just about techniques and ingredients. Cuisine, finally, is about individual dishes, the classic recipes that survive generations and come to represent the collective body called a cuisine. Tandoori chicken is Punjabi, tandoori salmon is merely a western chef trying his hand at bhangra. And this is where the fortune cookie crumbles.
Chinese cooking, depending on how far you dig into Wikipedia, is four or eight or nine grand traditions of cooking - they’re all characterized (like any cuisine) by particular recipes and dishes. Indian chinese is primarily Cantonese or Shichuan in origin, but if you look at almost any of the aforementioned restaurants – pretty much every one of these representative dishes is off the menu. Most Indian restaurants will not serve pork, beef or dried seafood, which leaves out the majority of Chinese dishes anyway. Most chinese vegetables are off the shelves (no, bok choy is not the only veggie they eat). Stickyrice the Indians will not eat. Tofu they find inedible. That does not leave much room for “authentic”. Even the five stars dumb it down – and with good sense; most Indians find authentic Chinese food as unattractive as chopsticks.
Mainland, Aromas, Royal, China Garden, Lings Pavilion are all restaurants that we love; luckily none of us are born chinese.