Indians have made Chinese food their own; boycotting it only betrays our culinary culture and middle-class

In the wake of the conflagration at the border, Ramdas Athawale, union minister, has decided that the patriotic Indian must launch a boycott of Chinese food. What he does not realise that Chinese food in India has as much to do with China as a Japanese curry has to do with our korma and qalia.

Sandip Roy June 25, 2020 11:28:37 IST
Indians have made Chinese food their own; boycotting it only betrays our culinary culture and middle-class

China might be a foreign power, and these days a hostile one, but there’s nothing foreign about Chinese food in India anymore. Chinese food has long become atmanirbhar in India. It needs no parts from China, unlike our mobile phones and laptops.

In the wake of the conflagration at the border, Ramdas Athawale, union minister, has decided that the patriotic Indian must launch a boycott of Chinese food. “My suggestion is that restaurants and hotels that sell Chinese food should shut down.”

What Athawale does not realise that Chinese food in India has as much to do with China as a Japanese curry has to do with our korma and qalia. For goodness sake, we sell Manchurian gobi, crispy chilli baby corn and chilli paneer. When I visited the temple town of Badami in Karnataka it turned out Manchurian gobi (spelled in many creative ways) was quite the iconic dish of the area. There was not a Chinese person to be seen but Kannadiga-run Manchurian gobi stalls and carts were everywhere. In Kolkata, long before there were Bengali restaurants, the standard eating-out options were Punjabi, Continental and Chinese. Chinese restaurants like How Hua, Eau Chew, Waldorf, Bar-b-Q, Jimmy’s Kitchen were legendary and a New Year’s Day ritual for generations of middle-class Bengalis. Since then chow joints have become the easy go-to meal for the busy commuter alongside Kathi rolls and momos. Chinese food now is as much comfort food for many Indians as dal chawal.

Indians have made Chinese food their own boycotting it only betrays our culinary culture and middleclass

The (in)famous Manchurian gobi. Image via WikimediaCommons

Years later as a student in the United States, I encountered American Chinese. In a small university town in the American midwest, one with no Indian restaurant, a little mom-and-pop Chinese eatery was the closest thing to “comfort food” and a taste of home. But I was aghast that they had nothing called American Chopsuey, bathed in tomato ketchup with a fried egg on top of the crispy noodles. Where was the simple soy sauce green chilli studded chilli chicken I was accustomed to? Where were the spicy garlicky flavours? Where was the darsaan, crispy fried, honey-sweetened with vanilla ice cream for dessert? And what were these Crab Rangoons and fortune cookies?

That’s when I realised our Indian Chinese was a beast unto itself. At that time I didn’t know my pak choi from my bok choy. Now there are restaurants in the US and Canada with names like China Mirch that specialise in what they call Indian Chinese. “The secret to its success was the use of a ‘holy trinity’ of ingredients - tomatoes, soy sauce and chilli - that offered Indian customers a taste of something they couldn’t often find in local food,” writes Maria Thomas in Quartz.

Kolkata has the country’s oldest Chinatown, a shadow of its old self but still around. Nanking was the first Chinese restaurant in town dating back to 1924. Thomas writes the credit for Chinese Manchurian goes back to Nelson Wang, the son of Chinese immigrants who working as an assistant chef at a Taj restaurant was experimenting by mixing ginger, garlic, chillis and soy sauce and cornstarch to thicken the gravy and hit upon a winning combination albeit one that has more to do with a kofta than Manchu food. It’s only now that some higher-end Chinese restaurants in India have started recreating the many kinds of Chinese cuisine that exist in China — Sichuan, Cantonese, Hakka etc. Indian novelist Chandrahas Choudhury even set a book in a local Chinese restaurant. Days of My China Dragon is based on a restaurant he knew in Mumbai owned by one Rupesh Pai but in the fictional version, it’s an Udupi restaurant which gets reincarnated as a Chinese restaurant by Mumbaikar Jigar Pala, a 100 percent Indian story despite the dragon.

At a time of hostility, restaurants are the easy targets, the low-hanging fruit. During the 1962 India-China war, hundreds of Chinese residents were rounded up and shipped across the country to an internment camp in Deoli in Rajasthan under the Defence of India Act of 1962. The war lasted barely one month. Some of the internees languished at the camp for three-five years. No-one was ever charged with espionage but there were no apologies or reparations. One of the internees Yin Marsh remembers the food they had there — watery dal, rice with stone chips.

Indians have made Chinese food their own boycotting it only betrays our culinary culture and middleclass

File image of Chinese New Year celebrations in Kolkata's Tiretta Bazaar. Image via WikimediaCommons

Once they were excited because they got meat. “There were things floating around — little tubes and bits of intestine,” she said. “It was camel!” Monica Liu who now owns several restaurants in Kolkata including Beijing, an eatery famous for its golden fried prawns, cannot stand potatoes and lauki or bottle gourd to this day. “For five and a half years I ate that only,” she says. “I don’t want to smell that even.” When they returned from camp, the Chinese found their businesses gone, their neighbours ostracised them, school mates greeted them with racist abuse. Many started from scratch selling dumplings, working in tanneries. In the book Deoliwallahs: The True Story of the 1962 Chinese-Indian Internment, Dilip D’Souza and Joy Ma tell the story of a John Wong whose family had a flourishing timber business in Tinsukia in Assam. He lost his five-year-old sister to chickenpox in Deoli. He went back to Tinsukia to find their trucks had been stolen and the elephants they used had disappeared. “Eventually he and his father gave up the idea of trying to resume their timber business and he started a restaurant in Tinsukia which still exists. It’s called Hong Kong Restaurant and it’s in a part of Tinsukia that’s called to this day China-patti,” says D’Souza. But the Chinese of China-patti are gone. Many emigrated at the first chance they got embittered by what happened to them post-1962.

We obviously did not learn the lessons of 1962. “It's this whole exercise to identify and throw out people you think are foreigners. The reason it gets recycled again and again is because it's such a politically expedient thing to do it. It fires up your base,” says D’Souza. At that time we made scapegoats of ordinary people of Chinese origin living in India, some for several generations. Now a union minister is hitting even further below the belt — at Chinese food. As Prithvish Chakravarti, owner of the popular Tak Heng restaurant, says “We might sell Kolkata Chinese, but we are as Indian as you are. We pay our taxes to the Government of India, not China.” Targeting Chinese food just hurts other Indians (that too in the middle of the economic doldrums of a lockdown) and does nothing to Beijing.

An army might march on its stomach but it’s a foolhardy task to get into the tricky business of labelling food as “foreign”. Once he goes down that slippery slope Athawale might one day find himself needing to boycott no end of things he takes for granted on his plate today. Chakravarti has a few suggestions. The plump juicy litchi, the pride of Muzaffarpur, is believed to have originated in China and come to India via Burma. Would Athawale want to take on the litchi next? Or perhaps ask Indians to stop drinking chai, another Indian favourite with Chinese roots?

If the honourable minister wants to really get into this boycott business he should perhaps look closer to his own home. Boycotts, like charity, should start at home. For example, with his mobile phone. It’s more likely that was truly made-in-China unlike the chilli roasted pork (dry) with egg fried rice at the local “Chinese” restaurant.

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