Food

Why an Indian Minister’s Calls to “Boycott Chinese Food” are Ridiculous

“The people who eat it are Indian. We, who cook it, are Indian.”
22 June 2020, 7:42am
chinese food in india
Photo courtesy of James Sutton / Unsplash

Tensions between India and China reached a new high on June 17 after at least 20 Indian soldiers were killed in a violent face-off using primitive weapons like sticks and stones, at the Indo-China border.

While diplomats and officials figure the way ahead for India, people all over India are “retaliating” against China in their own ways. Some are smashing their “made in China” televisions, some have made #BoycottChina trend on TikTok (ironically, also an app that people want to boycott because of its Chinese origins), and some have burnt effigies of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un mistaking him for Chinese President Xi Jinping. Those championing the ‘Boycott China’ strategy believe that the ban will hurt China economically. And among these is also a Union Minister, who on a previous occasion, has been ridiculed for his “Go Corona Go” protest chants.

Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment, Ramdas Athawale, said in a tweet in Hindi on June 18 that roughly translates to: “China is a country that betrays. In India, all Chinese products must be boycotted. Chinese food and restaurants that sell Chinese food should be closed down in India.”

People online had a lot to say about it.

In these times of high tensions, as people in power make such conflicting statements, it is worth asking: Who exactly is our rage hurting?

“The people who eat Chinese food in India are Indian. We, who cook it, are Indian,” said Ganesh, the manager of Noodle Bowl, an Asian eatery in southwest Delhi to VICE. “The ingredients we use are Indian; the noodles are made in India. All of it is Indian, so where is the sense in boycotting it? The ingredients come from our very own Indian farmers—do you plan to boycott them too? Or just us?"

Manu Chandra, executive chef and partner at the Olive Group, echoed the sentiment. In a statement to Livemint, he said, “A call on banning Chinese food is just an expression of cheap activism, because someone fell off the news cycle. People know that cuisine-specific restaurants are owned, run and patronized by Indians, with zero bearing on anyone from China.”

A call to boycott an industry already so hurt due to the pandemic seems not only misplaced but also extremely imprudent. "Sales have already been down because of the virus. If something like this is implemented seriously, it would harm so many of us,” added Ganesh.

The National Restaurants Association of India (NRAI) had stated in early May that over 7 million people who were dependent on the food and beverage industry have already lost their jobs. “At a time when the hospitality industry is fighting to survive in the business, statements like these are likely to harm their interests,” said Nivedita Jayaram Pawar, a lifestyle journalist who also writes about India’s food industry. “It's ridiculous to think that you can tackle the Chinese by banning Chinese food in India.”

But then, how would you even go about banning Chinese food anyway? "You could boycott clothes, phones, and other items, but how can you even boycott food—food that is not even “Chinese” in the traditional sense?" asked Ganesh. And he’s not wrong. The comforting “Chinese food” that we have grown to love so much—from mouth-watering Chilli Chicken to Gobi Manchurian to spicy Chowmein—can hardly even be linked to China. “It is not Chinese at all,” reaffirmed Jayaram Pawar. “It's Chindian, meaning a merry mix of Indian and Chinese spices, made to please the Indian palette.”

While the exact history of how Chinese food became something so inexplicably Indian is not clear, desi Chinese dates years back to when small Chinese traders from the Hakka community settled in erstwhile Calcutta, the then capital of the British empire in India. In “Chinatown” here, the immigrants made their food using locally grown spices and ingredients, which gradually evolved into Sino-Indian cuisine that merged Hakka traditions with the fiery flavours Indians love. Over time, dishes in this cuisine started popping up that probably no Chinese person would even recognise.

"Initially, the Chinese eating houses were for the Chinese only," chef Joel Hong of Kolkata restaurant Eau Chew in Kolkata had told VICE for a story on the fusion cuisine. "But soon, they realised that Indians wanted to eat in these, too. So they came up with food for Indian tastes, because the Indians refused to eat bland food." Hong's grandfather was the inventor of "Schezwan sauce," now a fixture of every Hakka Chinese kitchen in India. "Chinese tastes are too raw, too fresh for Indian appetites. The first Chinese recognised that Indians love spice and oil. So they developed different sauces made from chilies and Indian spices that Indians would eat."

In Kolkata's Tangra area not far from Chinatown, the unique cuisine took shape. Tangra, which means "tannery" in Bengali, was home to Chinese leather factories, which were shut down after the Indo-Sino war in 1962. But once the hostilities died down, some Chinese people in the area moved back in and converted the tanneries to restaurants. Here, spicy and tasty Chinese food began to be sold with cheap alcohol. When chefs from the area moved to New Delhi and Mumbai, so did their food. Today, Hakka Chinese food is eaten all over the country in its various forms: Hakka Chinese in Old Kolkata, Indian Chinese in Tangra, Punjabi Chinese in New Delhi, and even Masala Chinese in the West.

The cuisine we call “Chinese” then probably deserves more of Modi’s “go vocal for local” push than a ban, as Indian as it is.

Then what exactly is it about the cuisine that bothers people like Athawale? The label? “If it is the name that makes people uncomfortable, change it,” said Ganesh. "Call it north Indian food, or anything else you want, because the truth is that it has less to do with China and more to do with us.” And while what Ganesh says does make sense, maybe don’t let the government hear what he's saying. They actually might follow through.

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