The New Rage

Red, spicy and incredibly hot, the tasty tale of Indo-Chinese food. By Indira Laisram

India has adopted a lot of cuisines but none as fervently as Chinese. While restaurants in India are still inventing more fusions in this genre of Indo-Chinese food, Indian Chinese cuisines have also taken Indian restaurants in Melbourne by storm. Perhaps there is not one Indian restaurant in this great multicultural city that has not embraced this food, be it by demand, or for purposes of variety. Whatever the case, the fiery flavours of Indo-Chinese food are here to stay. Or so it seems.
It is interesting to trace the history of Indo-Chinese food. It is said that Yang Tai Chow was the first recorded Chinese to migrate to India for better prospects. When he settled down in 1778 in Calcutta, now known as Kolkata, the then capital of British India, it was the easiest accessible metropolitan area from China by land.
Like Tai Chow, many mostly Hakkas followed suit. Not surprising then that by the early part of the 20th century, Kolkata had its own Chinatown with an interesting make up of professionals such as dentists, shoe shop owners, sauce manufacturers, tannery owners among others but it was the ‘restaurateurs that the Chinese found their fame and glory in India’.
A news report says, “The Chinese assimilated Indian sensibilities and beliefs. They even acknowledged one of our goddesses, Kali, as their own, and offered noodles, chop suey, rice and vegetable dishes in rituals as a sign of unity.” And thus began the Sino-Indian cultural fusion. The first Indo Chinese restaurant Eau Chew opened in Kolkata about 85 years ago.
“New restaurants mushroomed all over Kolkata, and legends like Fat Mama and Kim Fa were born, offering newer dishes with fancier combinations and names like August Moon Rolls and Fiery Dragon Chicken. Before you knew it ‘Indian Chinese’ had tickled the taste buds of folk in every small town and city across India. No small feat for a foreign cuisine.”
So popular is Indo-Chinese in India that one would find them even on highway dhabas or mobile vans selling chow mein and street food also has versions of Chinese bhel, Sichuan dosa, idli Manchurian, to name a few. Indian Chinese food stalls can also be found on every nook and corner of almost any city in India.
Cut to Melbourne. Over the past few years, along with the great migration wave of Indians and their demand for all things Indian, restaurants have almost unanimously adopted this food that even an Indian sweet shop tucked in Delahey has Indo-Chinese food on its menu.
Most of the chefs that this magazine spoke to were of the opinion that the comfort of Indian Chinese food lies in its garnishes and use of Indian ingredients topped up by its use of corn flour and soy sauce that gives it a special spicy flavour. Take the ubiquitous chowmein which is noodles tossed with garlic, chillies, cabbage, capsicum, carrots, ajinomoto, soya sauce, vinegar and garnished with spring onions. Or a chicken lollipop? Chicken wings stuffed with more meat cut loose from the bone end and pushed down creating a lollipop appearance, dipped in a red batter and deep fried. In China, there is no Szechwan rice or manchurian. It is also said that chicken manchurian was an impromptu creation by Nelson Wang, founder of Mumbai’s popular restaurant China Garden. Wang was asked by a customer to cook something unique that did not feature in the menu and he created the chicken Manchurian which is the byword for Indo-Chinese today.
For those ready to experiment, Indian restaurants in Melbourne offer enough fusion to explore.
These are what some of the restaurants have to say about the advent of Indo-Chinese on the culinary map of Melbourne.

Asha, Machan: We don’t have Indo-Chinese on the menu but we have them as specials and during functions where we serve chilli chicken or the manchurians. We are open to different kinds of taste and a bit of Chinese is very popular. We have it in India, so why not here? In fact for parties and functions, people always like something different so that’s when we cater a lot of Indo-Chinese. It’s a matter of variety. In fact, we have a lot of varieties on our specials. Chilli chicken is very popular with us. We are more focussed on authentic Indian cuisine because of our clientele. Our Kurchan is a take on Indo-Chinese chicken with capsicum and sweet sauce and is very popular.

Atul Khore, Masala Craft: I would say Indo-Chinese has become widespread in Melbourne in the past 2-3 years. We started in 2010 and it is very well recognised and you will be surprised to hear that even Australian customers are into it. Couple of days ago, I was doing a delivery of Indo-Chinese for one of the customers and to my surprise, the customer was a local Australian. I asked ‘how did you get to know about this food’ and he said one of his Indian friends introduced them to it. People like it because it has a totally different flavour. In some recipes we use tandoor masala with Chinese sauces such as schezwan and soya, the combination is something people love it. There is a bit of range and involves the use of authentic Chinese sauces such as plum sauce, hoisin sauce, schezwan chilli fused with Indian herbs such as coriander, curry leaves and ginger garlic. When we opened in 2008, for two years we only concentrated on Indian cuisines but then slowly we introduced chaat and Indo-Chinese in 2010. Chinese bhel is very popular in our restaurant. We are in Australia which is very cosmopolitan and all the ingredients are readily available here so that is great.

Gaurav Gujral, Chimes: When we started the restaurant we put on the menu Indo-Chinese such as chilli garlic prawns, chilli chicken, chicken lollipop, to name a few. We are introducing more in the new menu which will be out soon. It will be an elaborate Indo-Chinese affair. I am from Kolkata and I have brought forward the Haka Chinese style of Chinatown which is very popular among Indians. I know a lot of Indian restaurants now feature Indo-Chinese. I don’t take it as a competition because every Indian restaurant will have different taste. I don’t use MSG and except for soya sauce and vinegar I make my own chilli garlic sauce, something I learnt that from an Indian Chinese back home in Kolkata.

Karan Gandhok, Tandoori Junction: Part of the growth of Indo-Chinese food is due to economic reasons. Everyone is trying to do everything. Unfortunately that has been the downfall of Indian cuisines in Melbourne. An average Indian restaurant suddenly wants to do North Indian, South Indian, Indo-Chinese, Hyderabadi, etc. There is no chef in the world who can cook every cuisine in the world. Then there is man power. If you talk about the Taj group in India for instance, yes they can do because they have different kitchen section and the brigades to do it. Yes it is a very different take on Chinese food though I would question the flavour and authenticity of it. Nobody has tried to be creative, if one restaurants starts south Indian buffet lunch, everyone else wants to do it. Lot of people are doing it not because of the popularity but because the Indian community has grown and they like spicy food. Interestingly what a lot of people have overlooked is the growth of the Nepalese community in Australia. In the UK majority of the Indian restaurants have been run by Bangladeshis for years, Australia is also starting to see that majority of Indian restaurants are now suddenly being run by Nepali chefs just like in India. So that could be another reason why there is rise in the adaptation of Indo-Chinese food. Our restaurant does offer Indo-Chinese food for functions where we set up counter, but it is not there in the restaurant menu. We only make them on orders. The reality is that food is like fashion, if you want to stay longer, you stay with the staples. The people who are doing the rock standard butter chicken, sarson saag have survived. Look at the Moti Mahals for instance, nothing has changed.

Mili & Jeet Sidhu, Curry Leaf: Some of our signature dishes are the garlic chilli prawns, garlic chilli paneer, mushroom and cauliflower. We introduced them because our Indian clientele would ask for Indo-Chinese. We started Indo-Chinese with a few soups, fried rice, veg and chicken manchurian but the above has been our most popular because they are our signature dishes. Our prawns have been promoted as a special so that is how the Australian clients are also now hooked to it. From our experience, Indo-Chinese food has been received very well and there is a big future for it. I think Australians are ready for a change, ready for fusion and ready for experiment because of the food shows etc., and that is why there is the need in the market for a change. And Indo-Chinese fits in quite well with that. Probably this is one of the best fusions to have happened but there is a lot more that we could add. We are anyway working on a fusion menu at the moment that will not be traditionally Indian. I think that is the food of the future if you are to use one of the marketing terms for Australia’s food industry. People are tired of the same, old traditional style.

Nagesh Relangi, Hyderabad Inn: When I completed my study in cooking and hospitality in India I trained in a Chinese restaurant for six months where I developed most of my skills in Indo-Chinese cooking. Soon after that I worked in a restaurant in Dubai which was also big in Indo-Chinese food. Then when I came to Melbourne in 2007, I started Dosa Hut and introduced a limited item of friend rice and noodles which became instantly popular with some of the clients. Later when I started Hyderabad Inn in 2011, it was bigger and its big commercial cooking allowed me to expand my Indo-Chinese offerings. Today I have 150 menu on my list of Indo-Chinese food alone. Due to demand I am soon opening another restaurant with just Indo-Chinese and dosas in Williams Landing. People like the sweet sour taste, the chilly and so on. We use Indian ingredients for cooking Chinese food and people like the fact that it is different. I enjoy this cooking because it is not very hard. If you compare it with Indian food cooking we require big pots and sauces and more man power but with less margins. The ingredients such as cashew paste, tomatoes are also expensive. There is definitely a big future for Indo-Chinese food. Already 70-80 per cent of people like it.
Raj Singh, Punjab Curry Café: About five years ago, we had on board a chef who had specialised in Indo Chinese food back in India. Based on his suggestion, we started a few items beginning with chilli chicken, manchurians, cheese chilli and sometimes on specials chowmein. Since then it has grown in popularity especially among the Indian guests who miss the Indo-Chinse street food of India. When they look at the menu, they pick the Indo-Chinese as entres and then select the other curries for their mains. Yes most Indian restaurants have chilli chicken and manchurians as a must because these are food their Indian clients are familiar with having lived in India. In north Indian, 90 out 100 restaurants would have the same on their menu. So in a way it is a carrying on of a tradition, if you like. It is based on people’s demands that we have it here in Melbourne now. Even if you go to Chinese restaurants, you can’t get the ones that are served in Indian restaurants because it is unique in flavour. With more Indians coming here and settling down, there is definitely a market for it. And we still have our specialised chef and have people who come from very far to taste what is on our special Indo-Chinese menu.

Rajesh Mehta, Bhoj: Because of interest from Indian clientele we started looking at limited options, not just in Indo-Chinese but fusion of Indian and Chinese. It is mainly the Indian patrons who ask for Indo-Chinese food, perhaps the reason is because it is very popular in India and it is something different to the Indian food they have at home. The local Australians and others come for authentic Indian food. Indo-Chinese is spicy and is packed with flavours too. Most of the time it is snacks-based. We have some variety in vegetarian section and some in the non-vegetarian section. It is very hard to have a good authentic menu and requires a bit of innovation but a lot of effort, planning and staff. But to satisfy some of our clients we do go the extra mile. This is, of course, a good trend because this is an influence of Indian cuisine on other food rather than Indian food taking the influence of others. Still I still prefer to stick to my own authentic Indian menu. There are two ways of doing it, some people don’t care about their image they care about the length of their menu. Look at chicken itself – there is chicken 65, chicken manchurian, chicken lollipop, chilli chicken – the same product with very little variation. But those with culinary interest know the difference. We receive critiques and we have people who know the food, for us it is difficult to get away if we commit a silly mistake. In future we do plan to have a limited offering but with a lot of Indian influence, not plain Indo-Chinese.

Sachin Garg, Sachin Garg Catering: Indo-Chinese is a by-product of the migration wave we had. At the end of the day, this is all by demand and not something that has emerged on its own. People want it and go ask for it in restaurants who in turn have captured the demand. So it is working well for them. It is all part of how the market is evolving based on the taste and expectations of people. The problem is not everybody is able to do a good job. The reason I don’t do it is because I am not equipped, I don’t have chefs who can do it very well and I don’t sell average stuff. I sell exceptionally good things. My current business – both Shiva and Catering – is busy on its own. Indo-Chinese is for the Indian market and my clientele is more than Indian. I understand the basics and I don’t want to jump into the trend and start doing something which will not be good. I specialise in what I do now and my market is set.

Sumit Malhotra, Aangan: In 2005, we introduced veg manchurian and gobi manchurian. Perhaps we were the first one to do that, and today we credit these two dishes for taking Aangan to a different league. It was the biggest hit ever recorded and it made our restaurant very famous. Our veg manchurian is unique and very small so that the flavour can seep well into the balls. I started in 2005 because as a chef I am always innovating and trying to give my customers something new. We have a totally separate department totally dedicated for Indo-Chinese at Aangan. We have four-five chefs working in a big space equipped with high burner stoves. The chefs get about 45 seconds to complete one order and it is a very busy kitchen. There are about 24 dishes on the menu but we can extend it anytime. Indo-Chinese food is here to stay and it will become more popular. Indian Chinese food comprises sour and sweet, hot and spicy flavour which gives you a kick. As an entre, it works splendidly but as a main course, it will not come as close to north Indian curries. Nothing can compete the north Indian menu.

Sunil Tyagi, Indian Star: There is a lot of lead and MSG in Indo-Chinese food, which boosts the taste. Just as fast food burgers and chips fried in lard are tasty but sell well because they taste good. It is very harmful for the body and that also explains the rise in obese population. It’s like cosmetic food, it is tasty but a lot of people also get diarrhoea, headache and feel thirsty when they consume food cooked in MSG. That explains the popularity of Indo-Chinese food but there is no life for it. Authentic Chinese food has a different type of cooking but Indo-Chinese have MSG. As long as people don’t realise they will continue to relish it. We don’t add MSG in our Indo-Chinese menu. We are not caught in the trend, people come to us for Indian food not Indo-Chinese. Nobody would come to us for Chinese food, they would go to Chinese restaurant for that. We do have chilli chicken and manchurian. To develop any menu there are a lot of ingredients you can use. Cooking is an art, you don’t have to put artificial things to enhance the taste or bring the taste out. Our special ingredient is ginger, garlic onion and chilli sauce for these two dish but we don’t use other things. I cannot say about the future of Indo-Chinese but if I was to sum up, I would compare good food to a classical song whose tenure is life-long. People still sing old songs, you see.