Do you like Schezwan Chowmein & Desi-Style Manchurian? This is how ‘Chindian’ food won Indian hearts

IIt’s sweet, sour and spicy. It’s deliciously spicy and just the right amount of fat. It would also not be recognized in China. So instead, we’re talking about a unique cuisine loved by millions of Indians: Chindian.

Whether it’s chowmein or Manchurian, Chinese food is probably as Chinese as chaat – it bears very little resemblance to the food eaten in China!

Whether it’s chowmein or Manchurian, Chinese food bears very little resemblance to the food eaten in China.

Made with ingredients indigenous to Indian taste buds, these dishes have earned a special place in the Indian culinary lexicon. So much so that most restaurants serving Indian cuisine usually have a Chinese section on the menu that offers all the usual favorites – chowmein, chilli chicken or manchow soup.

But where was this hybrid kitchen born? And how did it come to life in India?

Like many great food origin stories, this story begins with an immigrant community and involves many enterprising entrepreneurs.

In the 18th century, Calcutta (now Kolkata) was in the middle of a thriving trade route between China and Britain. The city, then governed by the British, attracted thousands of Chinese workers. As is the case with immigrants everywhere, once they settled down, they began to miss their food at home,

Soon they were cooking their food and selling it on the street to their colleagues. Over time, they improvised the taste and incorporated local ingredients to make their food more appealing to Indian customers, including using more spices.

“Authentic Chinese food is usually meant to be bland. Indo-Chinese cuisine is prepared with additional spices like chili peppers, onions, etc. Pemba Tsering of How Hua restaurant in Kolkata told National News.

As Chinese flavors began to mingle with local flavors, a unique hybrid palate developed which gradually became an integral part of Kolkata’s culinary landscape.

Do you like Schezwan Chowmein & Desi-Style Manchurian?  This is how 'Chindian' food won Indian hearts
As Chinese flavors began to mingle with local flavors, a unique hybrid palate developed in Kolkata.

“When my grandfather made green chili sauce, he would give it to street vendors to use with their snacks,” says Dominic Lee, owner of Pou Chong sauce factory in Kolkata, at VICE. “A kheera (cucumber) seller started putting it on his slices and selling it to children. They loved it, so he started doing more.

Do you like Schezwan Chowmein & Desi-Style Manchurian?  This is how 'Chindian' food won Indian hearts
Australian celebrity chef Gary Mehigan at Kolkata’s famous Pou Chong sauce factory.

In the 1970s, these chefs from Kolkata began to move to Bombay (now Mumbai). Interestingly, all of Mumbai’s early Chinese restaurants served Cantonese cuisine, a regional cuisine even milder than the more common Chinese cuisine.

Pioneering restaurateur Camellia Panjabi gave India its first taste of fiery Chinese cuisine and red sauces, just as most of us love our Chinese cuisine today. Camellia established the Golden Dragon, the country’s first Sichuan restaurant, at the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai. It is still famous for its world-class golden fried shrimp.

Do you like Schezwan Chowmein & Desi-Style Manchurian?  This is how 'Chindian' food won Indian hearts
The famous Golden Fried Prawns of Golden Dragon

Golden Dragon’s spicy Sichuan food quickly became a rage, and people started demanding the same from other local Chinese restaurants, which were struggling to source the same ingredients.

“They didn’t have ingredients like Sichuan chili peppers and all the things the Taj had access to, so they improvised. Basically, the principle was to fry meat and put it in a sauce thickened with cornstarch, and for the spices, we used Indian spices as much as possible,” said journalist and food writer Vir Sanghvi at Quartz.

The “Sichuan” (or Schezwan, as most Indians call it) taste that we all know came thanks to a fiery sauce (made with lots of ginger, garlic, onions, Indian spices and oil) created by chef Joel Hong’s grandfather. .

When VICE asked Joel about the prevalence of Schezwan in dishes like Schezwan dosa, Schezwan chaat and Schezwan popcorn, he amusedly replied, “Indians have no borders.”

However, it took Nelson Wang to come along and create a true blue Chinese delicacy.

Born in 1950 to Chinese immigrants in Kolkata, Nelson left home to seek work and a better life, first in Hyderabad and then in Bangalore (now Bengaluru). After trying his hand at various odd jobs, including cobbler and fire-breathing limbo dancer, in the early 1970s he landed in Mumbai with a suitcase and some cash.

He found a job as a kitchen assistant at Frederick’s, a Chinese restaurant, for a modest salary of Rs 20 per month. Learning on the job, Nelson realized he loved working with food. So one day he experimented by spicing up soy sauce with green chilies, garlic and ginger – quintessential Indian ingredients – and then thickening the sauce with corn flour.

The result was the now ubiquitous “manchu”, which today has evolved into variations of chicken, gobi, baby corn and paneer. Dishes with the sauce are now commonly available, not only in Chinese restaurants, but also in street carts, fast food joints and South Indian restaurants.

Do you like Schezwan Chowmein & Desi-Style Manchurian?  This is how 'Chindian' food won Indian hearts
Manchurian gobi ready to be served from a street cart.

Appealing to the country’s sauce-loving palates, Manchurian sauce essentially kickstarted the Chinese culinary revolution. In the years that followed, Nelson would run several Chinese restaurants in Mumbai. But it is best known for the legendary China Garden, which attracted the finest of the city’s high society. Hollywood star Goldie Hawn once stopped by for a visit!

Even today, as urban Indians explore authentic Asian dishes more than ever, few (yours included) can turn down a plate of street chowmein with Manchu, because nothing beats desi Chinese food. In fact, Bollywood star Kartik Aryan was recently spotted enjoying Chinese food at a roadside stall in Juhu, Mumbai.

Do you like Schezwan Chowmein & Desi-Style Manchurian?  This is how 'Chindian' food won Indian hearts
Kartik Aryan seen enjoying Chinese food at a roadside restaurant.
Credits: Yogen Shah

This is also why the cuisine has crossed the borders of India to countries like
Singapore, the United Arab Emirates and the UK, where restaurants like the Indian Tiffin Room, Imperial Dragon and Hakkaland offer classic Chinese dishes. Flavors may vary, but wherever you eat them, they always taste familiar enough to transport you straight to India.

(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)

About Francis Harris

Check Also

Pune finds a solution to the problem of food delivery platforms charging high commissions

Two years ago, when Aniruddha Patil started his business PuneOrders.in – the first food delivery …