Inside the Birthplace of Indian-Chinese Cuisine

When Chinese immigrants arrived in Kolkata two centuries ago, they put down roots and created a delicious fusion cuisine that blended Hakka traditions with the fiery flavors Indians love.

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Apr 27 2017, 3:00pm

The morning air in Kolkata is thick with history and fresh with preparations for the day's meals. It is still dark at 6 AM, but crowds have begun to gather at Tiretta Bazaar, a market in the historical neighborhood where Chinese immigrants made their home nearly 250 years ago. The market is positioned next to Poddar Court—close to the larger neighborhood of Dharmatala, which is part of the old city.

Every Sunday morning at Tiretta is Chinese breakfast. At daybreak, stalls open to sell pak choi and strings of Chinese sausages, and locals hustle around corners in search of condiments for their siu mai. Pork balls and soup make the quickest sales at the market, and a few lucky regulars manage to acquire steamed pork buns. Middle-class Bengali families, throngs of young students, old Afghan men, and Bangladeshi labourers all flock here—a reminder of the city's diverse culinary history.

The first Chinese in Kolkata arrived in the late 18th century. Like the city's very first Chinese migrant, Tong Achew, they came as sugar-mill workers; in the 19th century, they continued to participate in the city's flourishing trade during British rule. Many of them came from what is now Guangdong, with some taking to shoemaking, carpentry, and other crafts. The Hakka Chinese, however, began to open small eating houses for Chinese workers.

A vendor at Tiretta Bazaar. All photos by the author.

Tiretta Bazaar sits in front of Nanking, the city's oldest Chinese restaurant. Opened in 1924, it was where Bollywood stars legendarily ate chili chicken in horse-drawn carriages. Today, Nanking is a worn-down building that moonlights as a hub for the sale of heroin, but at nearby Eau Chew, a restaurant born during the Nanking generation, chef Joel Hong is full of stories about the history of Chinese food in Kolkata.

"Initially, the Chinese eating houses were for the Chinese only. But soon, they realized that Indians wanted to eat in these, too. So they came up with food for Indian tastes, because the Indians refused to eat bland food."

According to Hong, Indians, though versatile and experimental with their own cuisines, are less adventurous with foreign ones.

"Chinese tastes are too raw, too fresh for Indian appetites. The first Chinese recognized that Indians love spice and oil. So they developed different sauces made from chilies and Indian spices that Indians would eat," he says.

The entrance to Eau Chew, one of the oldest Chinese restaurants in Kolkata.

Hong's grandfather was the inventor of "Schezwan sauce," now a fixture of every Hakka Chinese kitchen in India. Schezwan—an Indian pronunciation of "Sichuan"—is a sauce made from onions, ginger, garlic, a mix of Indian spices, and large amounts of oil. I mention to Hong the sauce's prevalence in other dishes—Schezwan naan, Schezwan chaat (a mix of fried Indian snacks doused in chili sauce), and Schezwan popcorn—and he is amused.

"Indians have no boundaries," he says.

Hong brings out a plate of roast pork, pink around the corners, just the way it should be. "This is real Chinese food. But I added fried onions and chilies on top."

Chef Joel Hong at Eau Chew.

Before the Chinese arrived in Kolkata, the city's restaurant culture was limited to Indian cuisine. Biryani and Kolkata rolls were the go-tos for fast food. It took nearly a century after the first Chinese immigrants arrived for Hakka food to become an intrinsic part of the city's culinary landscape, thanks both to the mix of ingredients in Chinese kitchens and the marriage of Chinese men to Indian women. Like Schezwan sauce, other dishes were created exclusively for Indian tastes: potatoes were deep-fried and doused in chili, fried eggs and peppers were added to noodles, and the slow Indianisation of Chinese food began.

At the office of Pou Chong sauces, Kolkata's last standing Chinese sauce factory, Dominic Lee tells the story of a legendary green chili sauce. Pungent and spicy, the green chili sauce is used to top up chow mein, is eaten with samosas, and remains central to street food across the country.

"When my grandfather made the green chili sauce, he gave it to some street side vendors to use with their snacks," says Dominic Lee, owner of Pou Chong. "One kheera [cucumber] seller began to put it on his slices and sell it to children. They loved it, and so he began to make more."

Dominic Lee of Pou Chong.

Though the beginnings of Hakka Chinese food in India can be traced to innovators like Eau Chew and Pou Chong in the old city, it is in Tangra, a neighborhood 30 kilometers away, that the cuisine took true shape.

Tangra, which means "tannery" in Bengali, was home to Chinese leather factories, which were shut down after the Indo-Sino war in 1962. After India granted asylum to the Dalai Lama in 1959, relations between India and China began to weaken. In 1962, China invaded India through Ladakh in the north, which spiraled into a disastrous war between the two countries. India lost many soldiers to the war, and in response began to imprison the Chinese immigrants in detention camps in Rajasthan. After the war, hostilities between the Indian and Chinese communities began to grow leaving Chinese businesses in Tangra, and restaurants in the older Dharmatala area, to suffer.

After the animosity caused by the war died down, however, some Chinese moved back and converted the tanneries to restaurants, and Tangra became the new center of Indian-Chinese cuisine.

A Chinese sausage vendor.

"The restaurants at Tangra are different from ours" says Hong as he cooks a next batch of pork for his customers. "They come from a background of factory workers, not chefs, and the Tangra Chinatown has a more business-oriented approach towards food."

Near Big Boss, the first and largest Tangra Chinese restaurant in Kolkata, there are shops that sell alcohol by the bottle to drink with your meal. The restaurant seats more than 500 people, which makes it a perfect place for large family affairs. Menus are long, containing local favorites like golden fried prawns, dragon fish, and crispy chili lamb. The restaurants often feature dim red lighting, efficient service, and the kind of spicy, tasty food that best pairs with cheap alcohol.

"If the restaurants at Tiretta began just as humble spots you could get a quick meal at, the Tangra Chinese establishments focused more on creating whole experiences" says Hong.

"They are like an event, comprising luxurious settings and an atmosphere of celebration. And who likes celebration more than Indians?" he adds.

Today, Chinese food is eaten all over Indian, in infinite variations.

In the 1970s, chefs from Tangra began moving into Bombay and New Delhi to spread the cuisine among the big city populations. At China Garden, one of Mumbai's first Chinese restaurants, chef Nelson Wang invented the "Manchurian" style of cooking—which is now found across the world. Wang, then the caterer of Chinese food at the Cricket Club of India, took cubes of chicken, covered them in flour, deep-fried them, and dipped them in a spicy peppery sauce.

"People loved it" says Lee, as he recounts having eaten Manchurian at China Garden himself. "Gobi Manchurian, the best kind of Manchurian, came about like this. And now it is popular everywhere."

Today, Hakka Chinese food in all its forms is eaten all over India in almost infinite variations. Hakka Chinese in Old Kolkata, Indian Chinese in Tangra, Punjabi Chinese in New Delhi, and even Masala Chinese in the West. It is perhaps the country's most democratic cuisine, the only one eaten widely in all parts of India.

The numbers of Chinese have now dwindled in Kolkata; from 30,000, only 500 families remain. But in plates of greasy spring rolls, bowls of deep-fried honey chili potatoes, and whimsical renditions like hot-and-sour soup that taste exactly like they sound, the legacy of the first Chinese in India continues through their food.