The first time I ate Chinese food was at the Kam Ling Restaurant opposite the Brabourne Stadium in Bombay and it was way back in 1957. What I remember most about that meal is the wonderful aroma that hit us as we entered the restaurant. In part, it was the smell of sliced green chillies pickled in vinegar, that ubiquitous condiment available in every Chinese restaurant in India. In part, it was the smell of stir fried vegetables – cabbage, carrots , onions and bamboo shoots – and soy sauce. They all blended together to produce a distinctive aroma that I have never smelt in any other Chinese restaurant. Not in India, not in Britain, not in America. Not even in China. Nor have I come across food like that served at the Kam Ling of those days.
At the time , the Kam Ling and other Chinese restaurants in Bombay were staffed by Chinese cooks. Originally from the South of China they had migrated first to Calcutta and then moved down to Bombay. The food they cooked was Cantonese, the food of their native region, supplemented by certain dishes developed for the restaurant trade. A typical menu would feature dishes like Chicken and Sweet Corn Soup, Egg Rolls, Chow Mein, two kinds of Chop Suey ( Chinese and American), Sweet and Sour Pork/ Chicken, Stir Fried Vegetables, Egg Foo Yung ( with Chicken / Roast Pork) and, of course, Fried Rice. The difference between the two Chop Sueys was that the Chinese Chop Suey used “Chinese” vegetables like bamboo shoots, water chestnuts and snow peas + onions, while the American Chop Suey used the more familiar melange of carrots, cabbage, onions. All the food was on the bland side but diners could ( and did) enliven it with the afore-mentioned vinegared chillies. There were three things that we loved about this fare. First, the crispness of the stir fried vegetables, so different from the way they are treated in Indian cooking. Second, the novelty of unfamiliar vegetables such as bamboo shoots, water chestnuts , snow peas, bean sprouts etc. And lastly, the mild, almost bland, flavor and the unctuous texture of the mild sauces, a welcome counterpoint to our daily fare. What I’ve described is no different from the Cantonese cuisine served in the U.S then and later. What set it apart was the flavorful Indian -grown vegetables and some subtle changes in seasoning imparted by the Chinese chefs. What these were I cannot say but they made all the difference. For those who might say that I’m just waxing nostalgic let me offer this anecdote : A couple of years ago, we were at Jose Antonio’s, a Peruvian restaurant in Chatsworth, a Los Angeles suburb. Peru has a large Chinese population and the menu featured several Chinese dishes. Feeling adventurous, we ordered a Fried Rice and a noodle dish along with the regular Peruvian dishes. The food arrived, we smelled the heavenly aroma and before I could articulate my thoughts, my sister-in-law remarked” This smells just like the Chinese food we used to have in Bombay.” Alas, we could not figure out what it was that made it different.
There were only about 6 or 8 Chinese restaurants in Bombay in those years, all of them in South Bombay. In addition to the Kam Ling , there were Fredricks ( near Strand Cinema), Nanking and Kok Wah near The Gateway of India, The Shanghai and , a little later, the Flora at Worli. The Nanking was considered the best with Fredrick’s a close second but Kamling was my first love and I kept returning to it. The Kok Wah soon closed down, the victim of a malicious rumor – the type that bedevils Chinese restaurants all over the world. It was rumored that they featured rabbit on the menu at just the time when pet cats in the immediate area were mysteriously disappearing.The Kok Wah was replaced by the Kowloon and, the last I knew, had become the Hong Kong.
Notice that the title of this post said “Chinese food in India” not “ Indian Chinese food“. That came later as the Chinese cooks were replaced by Indians. It’s a totally different cuisine and will be the subject of my next post. When I wax nostalgic about Chinese food in India , it is this Cantonese version that I yearn for. Since India is too far away, I’m going to have to check out the Peruvian restaurants to see if they feature the Chinese dishes of my youth. I would be grateful any of my readers who have similar experiences and can can steer me in the right direction.