Indo-Chinese relations heat up on the street … and it's tasty
The Chinese impact on Indian food can be traced back centuries, but the latest fusion of the two cuisines is a quirky mix served street-side. It's called Chinese chaat - "chaat" being Hindi for a range of savoury snacks that are usually served from roadside carts or stalls.
On the menu is everything from paneer (Indian curd cheese) with sliced capsicum, onions and noodles, to Drums of Heaven - chicken drumsticks marinated in chilli and soy sauce then coated in a masala-laced batter and fried.
Then there are dosas (rice and lentil flour pancakes) wrapped around noodles and what is known here as Sichuan sauce - tomato purée, ginger, garlic, chilli paste, vinegar and sugar. The popular Mumbai street snack of bhelpuri has also been given a makeover with pieces of crispy fried noodles replacing the puffed rice and tamarind sauce taking over from Sichuan sauce.
One of the stalls at the forefront of the craze is Golden Fiesta in Lajpat Nagar Central Market in New Delhi. Its offerings include fried potato Chinese chaat, which is based on the famous North Indian street snack aloo chaat (fried cubes of potato with spices and chutney). This version's potato is shaped more like French fries - an influence from modern Western food - soaked in a red, MSG- and food-colouring laden, sweet and sour and spicy sauce.
A nightmare for the health conscious, but it sure is tasty. And cheap: at Golden Fiesta, a plate of mixed vegetarian chaat costs 95 rupees (HK$13) while the non-vegetarian dish is 140 rupees.
Golden Fiesta's owners say price was important.
"We wanted to bring Chinese food which was only available in restaurants to street level," says Saurabh Malani, who runs the stall set up by his father, Arjun. "Street food isn't as common in India as it is in other parts of Asia, so we took inspiration from places like Hong Kong and provide easily available and affordable Indian Chinese food."
With some dishes you would be forgiven for struggling to taste the Chinese connection at all. For example, also available at every Chinese restaurant across India, you find chicken Manchurian, or the vegetarian cauliflower Manchurian.
The dish was created by chef Nelson Wang in Mumbai in 1975, when a customer asked for something off the menu. He took cubes of chicken, coated them in corn flour and deep fried them. He dropped them into a sauce made from basic Indian ingredients - chopped garlic, ginger and green chillies - but he also added soy sauce and vinegar and left out the garam masala mix of Indian spices. The customer loved it.
Wang's China Garden Indian Chinese restaurant remains a Mumbai institution and the dish is synonymous with Chinese food in India, although you would be hard pressed to find it on the mainland.
But Wang wasn't the first to popularise the style. The Indo-Chinese restaurant Eau Chew, opened in Calcutta around 1925. Calcutta was the most easily accessible city from China by land, and it attracted enough immigrants, mainly Hakka, for a Chinatown to develop. These immigrants excelled as restaurateurs, assimilating the local cuisine and creating a type of cuisine that is how Chinese food is defined by most Indians.
But the Chinese impact on Indian food extends much further back. The Keralan coast was a transit point for spices from Indonesia, and it was probably via Kerala that Chinese products and ideas first found their way to the West. The impact of Chinese settlers is apparent in South India today.
"Some believe the use of steaming as a cooking technique was brought to India by the Chinese," says celebrity chef Marut Sikka, who spent a decade researching India's food culture and serves dishes with interesting histories at his Delhi restaurant, Kainoosh. "The appachatti, the small wok-like pan used to make the appams [rice batter and coconut milk pancakes] of South India are also believed to have been derived from the woks used by Chinese settlers centuries ago."
But while long-time staples appams and Manchurian chicken are an integral part of many Indians' diet today, the newer Chinese chaat has yet to gain popularity. The snacks may be a passing fad, but Kavita Sharma, a 22-year-old regular customer at Golden Fiesta, believes they are here to stay. "It's greasy, glutinous, sweet and sour and spicy at the same time, easy to eat and cheap - who wouldn't love it?" she asks.