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Indian Chinese: Why This Fine Fusion?

by Ammini Ramachandran

Chinese Food in Asia (but not China, Hong Kong, or Taiwan)

Spring Volume: 2005 Issue: 12(1) page(s): 31 and 32

Among China's numerous legacies, the most outstanding are the delightful diversities and colorful traditions in their fine food. These, and simplicity, subtlety, and combinations of ingredients are hallmarks of this ancient cuisine. One combination is the fusion of Chinese and Indian foods. You have read about some of them in the last three issues of Flavor and Fortune; namely in volumes 11(2) on pages 13-14 and 28, in volume 11(3) on pages 11-12, and in volume 11(4) on pages 19-20 and 32. You may also have wondered about the whys and wheres of this fine fusion.

This particular phenomenon is extremely popular all over India. It can be seen at roadside vendors whose Chinese-type noodles are mixed with ingredients as odd as paneer, which is an Indian cheese. And, it is found in Chili Chicken made Punjabi-style at neighborhood restaurants. Many places are experimenting with Chinese spices and other ingredients, and trying Chinese cooking techniques to suit the Indian palette.

Some of the most popular of these Chinese-Indian dishes in northern India are Mixed Vegetables in Garlic Sauce, Chilli Chicken, Fried Rice, and Hakka Noodles. Prawns Salt ‘n' Pepper and Crispy Lamb are also typical specialties with good taste. In India, the fusion prawn and lamb dishes are prepared the traditional Chinese way but less ‘hot’ than some people might appreciate in Chinese cuisine. In southern India, combinations of Chettinad-Tandoor-North Indian-Chinese is another winning combination. Today, these fusion restaurant foods are gaining popularity outside of India, namely, in America and other western countries. Within India, no other cuisine has become as ‘Indianized’ as has Chinese food.

Chinese and Indian are ancient Asian culinary traditions as rich and varied as the lands and people within these two great countries. What you may not know is that fusion of their two styles of cooking is not new. It began more than two centuries ago in Calcutta, along India’s northeastern shores. How and when and why are intriguing questions.

Chinese were attracted to India for her fabulous wealth of learning, and they have been since ancient times. The Chinese scholar Fa-Hien during 399 to 414 CE, traveled to India in search of great Buddhist books. Later, Hiuen-Tsiang (603 - 664 CE), who was an outstanding Chinese scholar, visited India in search of aditional knowledge. Both before and after them, Chinese travelers and Shandong silk merchants trekked long distances over difficult and inhospitable terrain to trade with India. All of these traders were transient visitors.

Later, came Chinese who chose to settle down. It was the Hakka and the Cantonese who migrated from the Guangdong Province to Calcutta. Reasons given include escaping opium warfare and other political issues. These Chinese putting roots down in India can trace their origins at least to Atchew. He was a sailor-merchant from the Guangdong province who arrived in Calcutta in the late 18th century. Official records tell the story of a Chinese sailor, who in 1778, petitioned Warren Hastings, the Governor General of Bengal, to settle in Bengal. He wanted to bring as many of his countrymen skilled in agriculture as he could obtain conveyances for. The British gave land to settle in the suburbs of Calcutta; and they provided protection to him and his group.

Atchew set up the first sugar mill in Bengal some time before he died in December 1783. Though the sugar mill is long gone, there are reminders of its existence in the original settlement area. One is that the town is called Achipur, after the name of its first Chinese settler. A tomb and a Chinese temple are there, and Chinese families go to pay their respects to Tai Pak Kung, as Atchew was known to them. Meanwhile Britain’s insatiable thirst for tea in the eighteenth century grew steadily and fortunes were made from its trade. In 1834, the British government cancelled the East India Company’s monopoly on trade with China. In 1849, the repeal of the Navigation Acts allowed anyone in the world to bring tea to British ports. As demand skyrocketed, the East India Company began scrambling for new sources of supply. Since the Chinese had a monopoly on tea-growing, the solution was to plant tea in India. A British committee was sent off to China to collect eighty thousand tea seeds. These were planted in the Botanical Gardens in Calcutta and nurtured until they were sturdy enough to be replanted at newly prepared tea gardens. The British brought tea workers from China, and with their help learned the secrets of successful tea production.

Then, more and more Chinese sailors came to Calcutta. A Chinese settlement began to emerge as the first Chinatown in Calcutta; it was called 'Cheenapara.' A second Chinatown 'Tangra,' the heart of everything Chinese in India today, was established later, that was in the year 1910. Many Hakka Chinese settled there. They worked hard and in no small measure contributed to the betterment of their newly adopted country.

India, under the British, was an attractive place when compared to the China of those troubled times. As word of their success spread, many Chinese with skill and expertise or even contacts from relatives or friends, began to arrive in Calcutta. They did not hesitate to move within India, or outside for that matter, when opportunities arose. Nonetheless, Calcutta was and remains the fulcrum of the Chinese world in India.

Typical of most first migrants, most of the Chinese were either bachelors or those with families left behind in China. Many without wives married local women of Nepali or Assamese origin, perhaps because they had some mongoloid features. These women and their children were considered Chinese. The children were brought up in the father's Chinese culture.

By the first quarter of the twentieth century the number of Chinese women increased. The Chinese men in Calcutta were earning well, able to afford to return to China to marry, then return to India with their brides. As a result, by the 1930's the custom of marrying non-Chinese women became more rare.

These early settlers always felt that they would return to their country once troubles in their homeland were over. However, the communists and the chaotic period that followed sealed the fate of the Calcutta Chinese.

During the first half of 20th century, migration from China was at an all time high. Communities of Cantonese, Hupei, and Hakka settled in Cheenapara. With its open air markets, temples, schools, clubs, gambling houses, and restaurants, Cheenapara evolved into a home away from home for the Chinese.

The work the Chinese immigrants excelled in included shoemaking and tanning, carpentry, dentistry, and laundering. Shoe making, soon considered a forté of the Chinese, was never their innate craft. However, with local Hindu’s staying away from this unclean business, the Hakka from China took the opportunity to prove their ability to make a success of anything.

During the many years of living in India, southern Chinese were exposed to the traditional seasonings in Indian cooking. Over the years, they began to enjoy local flavors and create many home meals that integrated Chinese wok cooking with traditional Indian ingredients. They incorporated the Bengali favorites of homemade cheese, honey, and tamarind, into their own preparations. These ingredients, unknown in the Chinese cuisines they came to India with, became regular items in the diets of the Indian Chinese.

Today, in India, both Cantonese and Hakka Chinese are into food processing, manufacturing, and running popular Indian Chinese restaurants. These eateries are extremely popular in major cities as well as in most small towns all over India. Very popular are many Chinese foods including instant Chinese noodles that were introduced in 1989. Following them, Maggie brand noodles were introduced in the 1990's, and they became extremely popular.

Soon, the demand for instant noodles sky-rocketed. Today, restaurateurs keep using them and modifying recipes to suit local tastes. When people are not tuned to certain Chinese flavors they replaced them with Indian spices. To the Chinese and the Indian people, these fusion dishes are mouth-watering and appreciated in India. They are now popular and appreciated in the United States. These reasons can partially explain some of the why’s of this fabulous fusion. Better explanations can be yours by seeking out these fusion eateries and savoring their fine food.
Ammini Ramachandran had considerable expertise about the culinary history of Southwest India where she hails from, and from the other countries in the Indian Sub-continent. She is working on an Indian regional cookbook, an upcoming treasure that has expanded her knowledge about all of Asia.

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