“Gobi manchurian, chili chicken, hakka noodles, American chop suey.”
If you see these dishes—plucked from the vast canon of “Indo-Chinese” food—listed on a menu at an Indian restaurant outside of India, you’re guaranteed good food. That is to say, it’s a sign that the restaurant is catered for Indians (as is a distinct lack of sitar music).
Tangy, sweet-sour, spicy, umami-packed and explosively red, Indian Chinese serves as everything from a midweek meal to a comfort-eat or a street-eat. But what’s fascinating about “Indo-Chinese” or “Chindian,” as it’s affectionately called, isn’t that it’s a cuisine. Rather, it’s that it is so far removed from Chinese cuisine that when I first learned an “American chop suey” was not a red vegetable gravy with chicken, deep-fried noodles and a crispy fried egg to garnish, I was admittedly confused.
I’ve had “real” Chinese, having grown up in Singapore and a handful of other places in Asia, but growing up, I’d never thought to distinguish the Chinese food I think of as Chinese as being inauthentic.
And depending on who you ask—it’s not.
The cuisine we call “Chinese” in India is traced back to Chinese immigrants in Calcutta (now Kolkata, in the state of West Bengal). According to records from the National Library in Kolkata, the first Chinese person to settle in India (then under British rule), Yong Atchew, arrived in Calcutta in 1780 to start a sugar mill. In the decades that followed, business opportunities attracted hundreds more Chinese settlers.
Later, in the 1830s, the British imported manpower from China to work on Assamese tea plantations, while later still—with the Sino-Japanese War and the Chinese Civil War—thousands sought refuge and a better life in India. By the 20th century, people of Chinese origin were well-settled in eastern India, with careers spanning dentistry to leather tanning and shoemaking.
And with them, of course, came their food. It wasn’t long before Calcutta had two Chinatowns, Tangra and Tiretta Bazaar, bursting with Indian Chinese restaurants. Over the years, this food would be adapted to Indian palates, intermingled with local ingredients and cuisines, as Chinese-origin people ventured to cities further west and south such as Mumbai (then Bombay) and Chennai (then Madras).
Amongst these creations are dishes like idli manchurian, idlies, pillowy steamed rice cakes, tossed in a dark, zingy ginger-garlic gravy. There’s also Chinese bhel, a take on bhel puri, a crunchy-tangy quintessentially Mumbai snack.
It’s this hodgepodge of cuisines that’s resulted in creations that Amal Sankar, author of “Creation of Indian-Chinese cuisine: Chinese food in an Indian city” notes “can neither be considered [...] authentic Chinese food nor Indian food.”
“You won’t get this cuisine in China,” notes Kolkata-based restaurateur Freddy Liao, whose family has run Golden Joy restaurant for over 20 years, having recently expanded globally with a location in Jakarta, Indonesia.
When I ask him how the restaurant is doing, he replies with, “It’s good food! People are responding well!”
With a “mixed” clientele dining at their Jakarta outlet that weighs in favor of expatriate Indians seeking a taste of home, I can see why. On weekends in Singapore, my parents made us take the metro to the city’s “Little India,” a district jam-packed with Indian restaurants and shops in addition to temples and mosques, to eat at Fifth Season’s Tangra Chinese. All this was accompanied by a note from my mother about how much (Indian) Chinese she ate when she was expecting my sister (a fact I’m still convinced she was mistaken about; I was the one born in Calcutta). But to my parents, this food was a taste of home.
A 2007 study found that “Chinese” was the most popular “foreign” food in India, then projected to rise in popularity at 9% a year. Despite escalating tensions with China that previously resulted in some Indian politicians calling for a boycott of Indian Chinese food in 2020, Liao says the community supports his family, and business they received at the time was strong. “We are Indian,” he asserts. “We’ve been settled here for four generations.”
And it appears that Indians have held true to their culinary preferences too. As Indians have settled in Southeast Asia, East Africa, Canada, the UK and the U.S., so has the appetite for Indian Chinese fare.
“There’s a huge demand for [Indian-Chinese food] outside India,” says Liao, adding that there are Indian restaurants in the UK, Canada and the U.S. that carry Indian-Chinese dishes on their menus.
As to whether it is or isn’t Indian or Chinese or both, I cannot say (nor is it for me to decide). “The blurred position of this [cuisine] differentiates it from other foods of ethnic origin,” writes Sankar, and I’m inclined to agree: It has a rich, albeit bespeckled, history of being both Indian and Chinese in its evolution.
However, in a world that increasingly values the daring, exciting nature of fusion food, Indian Chinese cuisine is pitifully unknown. So, the next time you’re looking to try something new, give it a taste. Start with a chili chicken or an American chop suey, but be sure to end with date pancakes.