Perhaps one of the most vibrant and evocative books about the food of China is Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China by Fuchsia Dunlop, who spent many years of her life in China; at first, lured by the study of ethnic minorities in China, and then falling head over heels in love with the food, and plunging deeper into the study of that. Through Shark’s Fin, I got my first glimpse into the cuisine of a country that is as variegated and diverse as my own. Dunlop fills a great deal of the book with her experiences with Sichuan cuisine, both eating and cooking it. It is said that Sichuan food is the most vividly flavoured of all Chinese regional cuisines, the ‘spice girl’ if you will, and it was through her book that I learnt about such delights as fish-fragrant aubergines, and Sichuan hotpot.
Delightful though they seem, I can’t see those dishes taking hold in India in the way, say, pastas and pizzas have. Instead, we have been captivated by the slightly more lurid charms of Triple Schezwan rice, noodles, vegetable and paneer swept by a waterfall of orange gravy; fiery chilli chicken; crisp Gobi Manchurian, among others. No Chinese person would recognise these dishes as being from their country – most appear to be made from a mix of soy sauce, chilli sauce, tomato ketchup, and Schezwan sauce. It is a cuisine all our own.
That is not to say that we don’t have more ‘authentic’ Chinese food on offer, say at Ling’s Pavilion in Mumbai. But by and large, India has been swept by a craze for Indo-Chinese (Sino- Indian?) food. So popular has it become that it regularly features on menus of multi- cuisine restaurants everywhere. Street food vendors everywhere offer such delicacies as Chinese Bhel and Chinese Dosa. Even certain Irani cafes have now succumbed to popular demand and offer it on their menu.
The Unbelievable Popularity of Indian Chinese
Authentic or not, the food has grasped our taste buds and refuses to let go. It has infiltrated almost every city in India, from Hyderabad to Ludhiana to Kerala. Spicy, crispy Gobi Manchurian makes an excellent drinking companion to cold beer, and even the least talented cook can fling together a hasty fried rice, preferably glistening with oil and soy and chilli sauce. Tarla Dalal and Sanjeev Kapoor offer recipes, and even masala brands offer a Gobi Manchurian instant mix. So beloved has it become that even in the US, you can now find homesick Indian expats opening restaurants serving Indian Chinese food.
And while I enjoy red braised pork and tea-smoked duck gizzards, there’s no denying the charms of Spring dosa and Chinese samosa. After all, it tastes just like home.