this morning, a friend who had tracked me down after years, thanks to writersbrew (that thought makes me so happy i listened to a young girl and started writing here), sent me a lovely little video on whatsapp. it was an edited version of the one here. do take a look, bound to touch you.
video credit uploader
i saw the short video and grinned. so many memories, delightful tastes traipsing in my head, making me hungry.
i have always loved chinese food. at least what we in india have always called chinese food. nowadays as we travel more and eat more “authentic” fare, it’s sort of done to laugh off the food we ate back then and thought of as chinese. it was the best ever though.
twenty years away from india, whenever i go back, i must plunge into some chilli chicken and fried rice and hakka noodle. at some not too posh, absolutely real chinese restaurant. this time on a holiday in calcutta, i fell upon the wontons and soupy noodle (forget the name) at calcutta club, ate chinese again at cc&fc, another club; and was taken to a new restaurant called chowman by my aunt and uncle. three chinese meals in seven days. i could have had several more.
it never felt strange that there were many chinese people in india. in 1962, india fought a war with china. we used to live in assam then. i was two and my brother only two months old, when my mother had to be evacuated with us, as india almost prepared to lose large tracts in the east to china.
my father stayed back with about ten other men from the oil company where he worked. their mission: blow up the oil silos should the chinese capture them. of course, if you were dynamiting huge stores of petrol, you wouldn’t survive the conflagration. my father wrote his one and only will at that time. he was thirty-three, my mother, seven years younger. war asks for crazy things of people.
thankfully, a cease fire was declared by the time the slow trundling train from assam in the utter east of india reached calcutta. interestingly, though china was seen as the enemy then, not for a moment was chinese food not loved. there was a chinese restaurant in digboi, assam, but the real treat waited in calcutta. every year, we’d go there to spend time with the grandparents, usually for a month. each trip, we had to go to a restaurant called waldorf on park street. it’s still there though i think the management has changed. there was also peiping on the same street, with quaint cabins that had swing doors. i think it was cheaper than the upscale waldorf.
i just read, peiping used to be called peking and was run by the lin family, it changed its name around 1962, that war messing with its happiness.
chinese food wasn’t the only thing, we had to have our hair cut by chinese hair dressers. they were the only ones who knew what to do with hair really. so there was a n john on park street that was visited every time for a nice bob; later in college, it was cecilia’s on wellesley street (now renamed rafi ahmed kidwai road) or sunflower on russel street. i have curly unruly wild hair, the girls would break into fairly pained exclamations in chinese (wish i knew which dialect) whenever i landed up. i just prayed they’d not take out their ire on my hair. they never did.
it was from shu, a beautiful young hair stylist at cecilia’s, that i heard about how a lot of chinese came to india in the fifties fleeing mao’s china, though many had come earlier, starting from the late eighteenth century, as workers in the docks and other places (you can find out more here). she said for years, they couldn’t vote… of course during the war, everyone was in a terrible state. but then things got better. her brother was a dentist, apparently another profession of choice among the chinese people in india. he was emigrating to the us. she said, she might too some day. she was such a fabulous stylist, maybe she did leave or maybe she is running a successful salon in india somewhere.
even in the late seventies, they tended to live within closed communities in certain areas like tangra, bowbazar/bentinck street, chinatown. but the restaurants were everywhere. every neighbourhood had its favourite chinese joint. and the moment a new one came up it had to be tried.
think my last restaurant meal with my father was at kim wah on garcha road, in the very bengali south calcutta neighbourhood. it was the new hot “chiney restoorent” then.
the other thing that had to be chinese were shoes. you got the best ones at henry’s in new market. or kowloon. my fawn wedges and truly thunky platforms, they were beauties. the chinese also ran some of the best dry cleaners.
i think the first city in india to get wondrous chinese restaurants was calcutta, however in time, delhi had some great ones: ginza, akasaka, sampan back then, ooooh the talu mein soup in ginza. i am getting withdrawal symptoms even thinking about it. bombay had many as well. while romancing with my boyfriend in the mid eighties, when we could afford only one soup at a medium priced place, we’d split a sweet corn chicken or hot and sour soup at this restaurant at the end of gamadia road, then walk hand in hand all the way down the arc of warden road, right at the end of which was this swish new restaurant at kemp’s corner, china garden. nelson wang, who was born and raised in calcutta, had started it and it was the place to go to. boyfriend and i would stand on the pavement and look at the door knowing it was unreachable, and promise ourselves, some day. now these are ambitions i like hehhe.
of course, every five star hotel in india had a chinese restaurant. the golden dragon at the taj bombay (where i once saw shah rukh khan and kajol with friends, promise, not lying), the house of ming at the taj man singh, impossible to pronounce chinoiserie at the oberoi intercontinental delhi (it was hep to call it i-con). but really, nothing to beat the chow mein, chop suey, fried rice, sweet and sour, golden fried prawns, and everything else at the smaller shops. even now.
i love the way they stayed creative and so inventive. every now and then a new dish would come up… like the hot and sour soup, or the talu mein, or the hakka noodles; or nowadays a lot of experimenting with coriander leaf in the cooking. smartly, words one didn’t really know the meaning of but which suggested “chinese”, “different”, or “must be authentic” were thrown in. i never knew hakka were a people. i thought it meant dry and well fried noodles. it was only after coming to singapore and getting several blank looks at “hakka noodles!” that i started to realise how funky, and with an unerring ken for selling, the owners and chefs of these restaurants were.
they aren’t easily fazed. the customer is deeply studied and something to suit her taste is created and mastered. for the bengali with that penchant for chilli hot and prawns and red meat, there were the old style dishes (or should i say original calcutta chinese dishes) like chilli chicken, mixed fried rice, chicken chow mein, sweet and sour prawn, fried prawn, sliced lamb with capsicum (please try the one at hatari on rash behari avenue near gariahat, it’s such true blue bengali chinese, sigh; they call it “stir fried lamb with onion and bell pepper” these days). as the large marwari community of calcutta, which is mainly vegetarian, grew to like chinese food, endless vegetarian takes on non vegetarian favourites came up. new dishes were invented too. and believe me, they all taste good. i am dreaming about the burnt ginger fried rice in bar-b-cue.
some things no one has to tell you is sort of your thing. i have always been a bit crazy about chinese food. in fact, the friend who sent me the video this morning recalled how i used to go to mandarin, one of monica liu’s restaurants, very often (been there since i was six years old i think). my brothers would go on strike if food was being ordered from outside and again it was what i wanted… i was always perplexed, why would anyone want to eat anything but chinese food, i’d wonder.
when i moved to singapore i was assured i’d not take to the chinese dishes here, they were so unlike our “not really chinese” chinese food. well, i love the chinese here too.
sometimes, i think, if there indeed are many lives, i must have been chinese in my last birth. i look at monica liu and am only delighted by her gumption, touched by her courage. next time in calcutta, i must go to tung fong. in fact, my cousin had come down from houston earlier this year and he took the whole family out for a feast there. what would the bengali do without the chinese restaurant. they say, in chinatown you get more “real” chinese food and the dimsum breakfasts are legendary… think i need to go back to calcutta soon.
picture taken during that meal at chowman i spoke of. note green tinge of soup… all that coriander experimenting and the starters (an idea introduced by more fancy restaurants) were crispy, delicious baby corn fried in some batter.