What do you get when you marry the flavors of dark soy sauce and vinegar with ginger garlic paste and garam masala? If you are in India you get the base for the local adaptation of Chinese food known as “Chindian.”
Indian-Chinese has become one of the most popular cuisines in India, although there is very little about it that is Chinese. Not many Chinese would recognize the origins of chili paneer in their national cuisine, and the spicy sauce known to lovers of Chindian as “Schezwan” has barely any relationship with the Chinese Sichuan sauce on which it is notionally based.
Nevertheless, Chindian is my go-to comfort food, and I believe that chili paneer (spicy cottage cheese) has the magical power of driving away the blues. I have heard my cousins in the U.S. talk with similar nostalgic longing about sweet and spicy Indian chop suey (known to Indian street stalls as “chopsee“) — a dish of crisp noodles tossed with stir-fried vegetables and drizzled with thick tomato and chili sauce.
As a newly minted Indian expatriate in Kuala Lumpur, a city with vibrant ethnic Chinese and Indian communities but a serious lack of Chindian restaurants, I finally understand their hankering after the familiar taste. Every so often, I toss noodles with various masalas from my spice box, along with old favorites such as green bell pepper and new discoveries like baby spinach, and sigh in satisfaction at having eaten something from home.
Chindian’s peculiar status among Indians was demonstrated some weeks ago after a border confrontation with China in the Himalayan region of Ladakh — seen as an invasion by Indians — cost the lives of 20 Indian soldiers. Amid rising political tension, the Indian government ordered a ban on dozens of Chinese apps on national security grounds, including the TikTok and WeChat social media services.
As the situation escalated, some politicians tried to stoke nationalist fervor by calling for a boycott of Chinese goods, and social media channels were filled with images of people smashing their “Made-in-China” television sets while chanting jingoistic slogans.
But when Ramdas Athawale, a minister in the Indian government, suggested banning Chinese food his proposal was met with scorn. Restaurant owners called the proposal bizarre, while Twitter exploded with memes and jokes that showed how deeply Chinese food is loved in India, especially in its Indianized form.
Chinese cuisine in India dates back more than a century to the arrival of Chinese immigrants in Kolkata (then called Calcutta) on the east coast to work in the city’s tanneries and railways. There is still a small, tight-knit Chinese community in the city, along with a bustling Chinatown neighborhood with its own social clubs and temples.
The immigrants brought with them their food, which they slowly adapted to suit Indian ingredients and cooking customs. Nanking, the first Chinese restaurant in India, opened in 1924 in Kolkata, and quickly established a loyal clientele that included film stars.
Over time, Chinese cuisine made its way through the rest of the country, steadily becoming more Indianized to cater to local palates that demanded spice and sauce with everything. The trend really took off in the 1970s when Nelson Wang, an Indian chef of Chinese origin living in Mumbai (then called Bombay), created the dish now known as chicken Manchurian. It is said that Wang simply fried cubes of chicken coated with corn flour and added it to a pan with soy sauce, ginger, garlic and chili peppers thrown generously into the mix.
This glorious Indo-Chinese fusion of spicy, tangy and greasy rice with noodles and gravy has become a mainstay of eating out in India, found everywhere from street stalls selling quick bites to plush restaurants that claim to serve authentic “specialty” cuisine. All big Indian cities now have Chinese restaurants, mostly with names like Chung Wah, Wangs, China Gate and Memories of China. Most have Indian chefs at the helm.
Popular Chindian dishes span a wide range from gobi (cauliflower) Manchurian to more recent creations such as Schezwan dosa, a savory rice and lentil pancake, with a filling of stir-fried vegetables or noodles tossed in Sichuan sauce instead of the usual dry potato curry. Chinese bhel is a variation of bhelpuri, a popular street snack in which noodles are deep fried and crushed, and then mixed with julienned onion, bell peppers and cabbage, garnished with coriander leaves.
For Indians, Chindian signifies food that is enticingly exotic, but also reassuringly familiar. The recent hostilities on the contested border suggest that political conflict with China is likely to remain a staple of Indian life. But India’s love affair with Chindian food is unlikely to fade.
Charukesi Ramadurai is an Indian freelance journalist, currently working in Kuala Lumpur.