"My grandmother used to make Cantonese-style soup and vegetables for Chinese bachelors missing home food," says third-generation Chinese Indian Walter Chung as he drops a small piece of cauliflower in oil to see if it's hot enough.
Chinese immigrants have been coming to India for over two centuries now, settling mainly in the east Indian city of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), where Chung's grandmother ran a small home kitchen restaurant. Mostly from southern China, the Chinese Indian community was involved in dentistry, shoemaking, and leather processing in the city.
In recent years, however, many old Chinese Indian families have branched out into the restaurant business and migrated across India to serve Indo-Chinese food.
Chung is one of them. His restaurant is called Kim Lee and is in the south Indian city of Bangalore, nearly 1,200 miles away from Kolkata. The board outside the restaurant reads "Authentic Chinese" but everybody in India knows exactly what that means: a spicy, greasy amalgamation of Indian and Chinese cooking with firmly established flavours. It's quite unlike the trendier "Asian fusion" cuisine found in other Indian cities.
Today, Walter is showing us how to make a quintessential Indo-Chinese dish, cauliflower manchurian, popularly known as gobi manchurian ("gobi" means cauliflower in Hindi.)
"Indians like colour. Here, food is also eaten with the eyes," says Chung as he coats the remaining florets with batter before deep frying them. "Other Chinese restaurants add red colouring to make cauliflower manchurian attractive but I don't. I am confident of my product."
Deftly taking the florets out of the wok before they turn brown, Chung explains to me that there is actually nothing "manchurian" about the dish he's making for us. The phrase generally refers to food from northeast China, but gobi manchurian is almost certainly Indian in origin. There are many theories about how the dish was created in the country, but the Chinese Indian community likes to credit its invention to one of their own: Nelson Wang, chef and owner of Mumbai-based restaurant China Garden.
Chung sticks by their story.
"Sometime in the 80s, Wang came up with a dish called chicken manchurian, which the local Mumbai 'veg only' restaurants adapted to create cauliflower manchurian," says Chung as he heats up another wok to stir-fry the partially cooked cauliflower florets. He is using the same Indian masala and Chinese sauce mix that Wang used to create his signature dish.
In India, "masala" usually refers to dry spice mixtures but it is also the word for fresh ingredients used to flavour a dish. To complete the cauliflower manchurian, Chung fires up a second wok in which he stir-fries the classic Indian fresh masala ingredients: finely chopped ginger, garlic, coriander leaves, and green chilies, along with diced onions.
Once the masala is cooked, Chung adds the Chinese ingredients: soy sauce, chili paste, chili sauce, and that universal Chinese restaurant favourite: MSG.
"I am going to stop using it, this is from my last batch," Chung claims as he adds a few of the deadly crystals to the wok along with salt and sugar, and follows it up with some artful tossing of the cauliflower.
Indians are travelling more than ever before and tastes are changing as a result. Indo-Chinese restaurants like Chung's used to cater to the well-heeled but these days, a growing number of Indians are craving Western-style Chinese dishes like Kung Pao.
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"Restaurants like Yautcha are doing very well," he says referring to the London-based, Michelin-starred restaurant's Bangalore branch. Yautcha was set up by Alan Yau, who also launched the famous Wagamama chain in the UK.
But Chung is disdainful of the cuisine served at upscale Asian fusion restaurants in the city.
"Indians now think that's authentic Chinese," he says.
It has been a while since I have eaten at one of India's "Authentic Chinese" restaurants and I wonder if I can handle it. But like most Indians, cauliflower manchurian has always been my favourite "Chinese" snack and I have an almost Pavlovian response to the familiar aroma wafting from the plate.
Fusion cuisine or authentic dish, I dig right in regardless.