Monday, August 8, 2011

The way I remember it: Chinese Food Craze

Dear Readers,
Ok....This post is something entirely about some of the nostalgia of a Mumbai-ite growing up in the suburbs, in a middle class family. And this is also about something that really took place when we grew up and grown to such an epic proportion that has even left its mark in the food capital New York.

This post is about my observations into a very Indian phenomenon called Indo-Chinese cuisine that I discovered in the US, one glorious evening out with some old dear friends in downtown New York. We went to this amazing Indian restaurant, celebrating a wedding anniversary of our friends. It was my first time going to a proper restaurant after we had our little boy. Proper: meaning, anything that doesnt involve drive-through, pick-up, or I was really nervous, hoping the baby wouldnt ruin everyone's evening, but my son was the perfect angel that night and let us enjoy our food in peace, busy making funny faces and cooing and laughing in his car seat wedged between the booth and the bench.

I remember we had some real good appetizers that night. I got to taste some lovely Chicken Manchurian and Chilli Gobi (Cauliflowers) there. And those dishes in their taste and in their simplicity and  have made their own place in our lives from that day. That evening truly opened my eyes as I looked around and saw the amazing eclectic mix of a lot of cultures stuffed in that restaurant, chatting happily and tucking into Asian inspired dishes seasoned delectably with aromatic Indian spices and served with American beverages. And all this creative cooking under one banner of Indo-Chinese Cuisine!

For you who are not from India, Indian-Chinese cuisine is not some amazing diplomatic union between the two nations' cuisines. Its more like the discovery of Soy sauce and AjinoMoto (Monosodium Glutamate) by the Indian Chefs. When they finally discovered it, they started incorporating it into the basic noodle and rice dishes. And because any self respecting Indian wont touch any food that doesn't have chillies or spices on it, they had to modify the authentic, simple ingredients of Chinese cuisine into delectably spiced variations of the originals. Paneer Fried rice, Gobi Manchurian are all excellent examples of that trend. There were also some brilliant creativity by the cooks in the form of American Chopsuey, which is nothing but fried rice or noodles with egg.

And note that I said cook. The most popular Indian Chinese recipes were born as street food in the streets of big cities such as Mumbai and Delhi. The bright red carts with a super hot wok propped up everywhere like weeds in a lawn. And I remember my Dad catching on to the fad, took the family out to one of these. We all had Chicken Hakka Noodles and Sweet Corn Soup. The veggies used were purely out of the traditional mold for us. Bell peppers, Corn, Green Onions were all available in the markets but using them in Indian cooking was still kind of a strange thing for my Mom's South Indian kitchen.
We loved the soy, garlic and vinegar sauce assortment on the table where we could customize our food the way we wanted it. Us kids, who never had a choice when it came to food rejoiced as if we were given voting rights.

And we prayed to God every night after that, and the prayers mostly featured this delicious discovery. Back then, eating out was a luxury we could afford only once in a blue moon. So yeah, praying was the only thing that worked.

And somehow God heard us and the other hundreds of kids in our neighborhood who had or yet had to taste these delicacies. Our neighborhood had its first Chinese Fast Food Center opened. And miracle of miracles, they did home deliveries too. The whole business boomed and soon our streets were filled with tiny red four wheeled carts which initially had peeling paint, and sold Cone Ice creams and Pav Bhaji (fried Sourdough Buns with deliciously spiced Cooked Veggies in butter). And every other cart proclaimed its connection to China through the adoption of names that ranged from Bruce Lee movies to Dragons to simply the Mundane. (Some I still remember are Mandarin Cin, (our Family favorite), The Cantonese, Enter the Dragon Chinese, Golden gate, and the Warrior Dhaba)  I remember jobless young men from Nepal who actually resembled Chinese in their facial profile were whisked away and trained to work in these small cafes to give it an authentic feel. Blood Red Walls, Dragon Murals, Chinese Lanterns and Nepalis speaking excellent hindi, serving you delicious "Chinese" food. Such lucrative thriving business, made many Nepalese quit their jobs as prized corporate security guards and go into full time restaurant business.

Coming back to this fusion cuisine, people were thrilled to have a change from the regular rice, rotis and curries, which made these the latest fad. 5 star hotels with star chefs were already serving a Chinese and Continental menu to the crowds, who could afford it. But the street stalls still continue to thrive due to the simple different and economic fare, they cook right in front of customers and serve or pack for the people waiting at home.

Years later, when I went to college and almost every birthday lunch we friends went together to, were in these tiny Chinese restaurants.  Even now, when it gets too hot to cook in my hometown, my parents dial the number and in half an hour we have steaming food ready to be devoured, delivered right to the door.

When I finally came to the states, I got a chance to sample the amazing simplicity of authentic Chinese cuisine. The lightly cooked seafood, the stir-fried vegetables, the clear soups and steamed dumplings took my breath away. Authentic Chinese Food is still my true love, means I love it as it is, but then again I love the fusions that followed it. Its really like a bright yellow touching the orange and creating that vibrant hue of ochre or the blue trailing into the green to create that startling aqua marine ocean blue. Well, who knew two entirely different culture's cuisines melding would make me go color wild?

Anyways, before I knock myself out with my verbal diarrhea, what I really want to say is this month, I will be sharing with you 4 of my most favorite Indo-Chinese recipes. These are dishes that are moderately high in oil and sodium (thank Soy Sauce!) but full of veggies and makes the My Plate concept (that replaced the Pyramid structure of food) easy.

So stay tuned......Wishing you Good Times!


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