A look at the popular Indian-Chinese dishes we love eating
You can take Chinese apps off our telephones but it will be really difficult to take Chinese food out of India. The biggest reason being, the Chinese food available here is a pale imitation of the real deal. It’s a highly coloured, spicy, desi version, suitably called desi Chinese or Chindian food. It would be difficult to find a paneer chilli or Chinese bhel in China, that’s for sure. Some people may call this India’s second favourite cuisine. It could well be –you will find desi Chinese on the streets, in Indian restaurants, in fine dining establishments, in pop-ups and more. We got some people to share their memories of eating desi Chinese and why this mixed cuisine holds a special place in their hearts and on their plates.
Mixed Fried Rice
In the ’70s, Debi Sen Gupta’s father was a rarity: a foodie. At a time when most middle-class Bengali households would rarely order in or eat out, her father would take the family to restaurants or order food home. Debi’s fondest memory is of visiting the restaurant Mandarin, near her home. The owners were Chinese. “Our order would be two packets each of mixed fried rice, and noodles. There was no concept of gravy. The dish I remember fondly is the mixed fried rice with spring onions, ham, prawns, eggs, and veggies,” says the Gurgaon-based CFO of the NGO, Frend Foundation. “I’ve never tasted ham like that it anywhere in the world.” The restaurant still exists but the ownership has changed hands. And though Debi has made this fried rice at home, it doesn’t taste the same. The ham is missing.
Adarsh Balasubramanyam has tasted and liked Indian Chinese cuisine in all kinds of restaurants – thelas, Udupi, regular, cuisine-specific, franchisees and more. “A memory that always brightens me up is eating gobi noodles from roadside shops or vegetarian restaurants in cities and towns along the east coast like Chennai, Puducherry, Nellore, Vijayawada and Tirupati,” says the Mumbai-based manager. The gobi (cauliflower) is coated in batter and deep-fried, and then added to noodles making for a spicy and crunchy one-dish meal. “It is a unique amalgamation of Andhra curries and Chinese dishes that I love,” he adds. This gobi noodle is not to be confused with the saucy gobi manchurian noodles. The former is a dry dish with some veggies in the noodles and very little soy sauce. Gobi can be substituted for mushroom, baby corn and chilli while the noodles can be substituted for fried rice. The only equivalent he found in Mumbai is the baby corn koliwada.
Burnt Garlic Noodles
HR professional Ruchi Amlani loves garlic in her food. When she moved to Pune to study at Symbiosis Centre for Management and Human Resource Development (SCMHRD) in Hinjewadi, she found her ultimate garlic treat: burnt garlic noodles. “There was a restaurant called Shanghai Court outside the college. Their quantities were large, enough to feed three people at a time. My two friends and I would go there and order the same thing: crispy chilli potato and burnt garlic noodles. They were very generous with their garlic and I loved that,” she says. Amlani lived in a hostel and the canteen food was bad so she visited Shanghai Court at least twice a week. She has tried eating the same dish at other places in Mumbai but hasn’t found better Chinese food than the now-shut restaurant.
Indore-based chef/consultant Amit Pamnani first tasted schezwan chutney when he started his own Chinese takeaway in Pune. “The cook I hired [from Nepal] made it during his trials. I was hooked,” he says. The takeaway shut down, but Pamnani carried the recipe with him and started making schezwan chutney at home. “We use it like a pickle. It is homemade so there’s no artificial colours or MSG in it. It has all the tastes: sweet, sour, salty, spicy and a bit of umami. It is versatile – you can mix it with leftover rice to make fried rice, use it in wraps, rolls, sandwiches, as a dip, as a pickle, on pizzas, as a marinade for tikkas, or grilled meats,” he says. His recipe has onions, ginger, garlic, green chillies, star anise, Kashmiri chill paste, salt, sugar, soy sauce, chilli sauce, vinegar. And though Pamnani does eat desi Chinese food – fried rice, hakka noodles, chilli chicken, chilli paneer, gobi manchurian, crispy corn – the chutney remains a favourite.
Trupti Abhyankar’s first ‘Chinese starter’ was chicken lollipops, but her favourite dish is American Chopsuey. “As a kid, I loved it for its crunch and the sweet and sour gravy because others dishes would be too spicy,” she says. “There’s something about perfectly made American Chop suey – the sweet-sour sauce, the crunch and texture of the slowly softening crispy noodles, the fried egg – all combine to create a well-choreographed dance in your mouth.” Though she rarely orders it when dining out with others – the portion sizes are too large – it remains a guilty pleasure at home. The Pune-based education consultant has tried the chop suey at Udipi restaurants too – they do not have the chicken or egg but their noodles are done right, and they create the right ratio of ketchup-soy-pineapple-vinegar.
Vishakha Bhuta’s love for Chinese cuisine runs deep. “It all started when I was young. My father took me out on weekends to eat street Chinese. I would sit on a mat at Five Gardens or on stools outside Charni Road station and enjoy manchurian and fried rice, hakka noodles, and soups. I have loved this cuisine ever since,” says the travel and lifestyle blogger, and recipe developer. Her favourite is manchurian and schezwan rice, which she eats at least once a week. She cooks this at home, loading it vegetables like cabbage, carrots, onions, capsicum, and cauliflower. “It’s a fantastic way to feed vegetables to children,” she says, adding that her son loves the dish. “The beauty of this manchurian is that you add anything to it, the flavours won’t change. You will still get garlicky, spicy, delicious vegetarian balls in gravy, which is a perfect accompaniment with fried rice or noodles,” she says.
Chicken Triple Fried Rice
Sachin Bhandary was introduced to Triple Chicken Fried Rice as a teenager, by an older friend. “We met every evening and ordered chicken triple fried rice, 1 by 2, and would sit and discuss everything under the sun,” he says. The love for this dish stayed with him as an adult. “I think you get good chicken triple rice only in Mumbai. I lived in many different places after my HSC and eating this dish here meant I was back home. The fact that it has rice, noodles, gravy, chicken and fried egg makes it one of the best value meals of all time,” says the Mumbai-based travel writer and story-telling coach for start-ups. His favourite places are China Bite in Santacruz and Icy Spicy in Mahim but the ‘best taste’ comes from bars like Ambience in Lower Parel, Ratna Palace in Mahim, Tara Punjab in Chembur.
Garlic Red Hot (Chicken)
Rukmini Ray Kadam’s love for Chinese food started with the meals her family ate at Kimling restaurant in Chinatown, Kolkata. “It was my introduction to Chinese food. Kimling had this incredible Chinese spread. My favourite was the Garlic Red Hot but we called it Chilli Chicken. It has been cooked in my house for so long,” says the Mumbai-based writer who runs the décor blog: Trumatter. The dish was essentially chicken meatballs (a dumpling without the coating) in a Manchurian gravy. Kadam picked up cooking early in life and this dish was one of the many she perfected over time. Now, it is one of the many dishes she prepares on Thursdays, which are dedicated to Chinese food. True to its name, garlic red hot is a spicy dish. “I cannot handle too much heat but if you don’t put the chilli in this dish, something feels off. It’s not for the faint of heart,” she says.
Anindya Basu’s memories of desi Chinese are linked to the long yellow noodle packets that the family would buy back in the ’80s. His aunt would make the noodles and treat the kids. Soon, his mother started making these stir-fried noodles or chowmein as a celebratory meal. “We loved it for all possible reasons: it was flavourful, loaded with Indian spices and easily available in every corner of the city,” says the Kolkata-based food and travel writer, and photographer. As a child, his biggest dilemma was whether to use his pocket money on phuchka or chowmein. “A hot plate of chowmein won most of the time. On normal days it was a veg chowmein with carrots, capsicum, cabbages, and cucumber. Celebrations and birthdays with friends meant extravagance – chicken or egg chowmein.” Chowmein remained a favourite and when travelling, it offers him a taste of home. “It’s comfort food when I am depressed, support when am left in a land of bad food, and a love when I am in a celebratory mood,” he says.
This distinctly Indo-Chinese preparation, similar to the chowmein, is Virali Modi’s favourite dish. “It’s so versatile and such a simple staple that can be accompanied by any desi Chinese main course,” says the motivational speaker. When Modi lived in the USA, every visit to her family in Mumbai meant accompanying her cousin to gorge on desi Chinese food. We would always order veg manchurian and hakka noodles and just dunk the gravy on the noodles,” she says.