In my previous post I had described the Cantonese style food that was the rage in Bombay fifty years ago and how I still yearn for it. That food was prepared by Chinese cooks, expatriates by way of Calcutta, and it featured crisp vegetables and delicate flavors.
All that has now changed. As Indians replaced the Chinese in the kitchen, the food became progressively spicier and much closer to Indian than Chinese. Spices such as coriander, cumin and turmeric ( turmeric !) began to to used, often with a heavy hand. Potatoes and cauliflower, unknown in Chinese cooking, appeared on Indian Chinese menus, as did paneer. Szechuan and Hunan cooking first became popular in the U.S at the beginning of the seventies and soon made the jump to India. Both of them are very spicy cuisines and the flavors appealed mightily to the Indian palate. As a result Indian Chinese food has come to mean Szechuan / Hunan food with an overlay of Indian spices.Most dishes , in keeping with Indian tastes, have a thick gravy. Even at Kamling, which I go to religiously every time I visit India, the food is far removed from what it used to be.In the worst Indian Chinese joints , the food is Indian food with lashings of soy sauce and a sprinkling of chopped scallions.
This is not to say that all Indian Chinese food today is bad. On a recent visit to Pune, we had two very good meals at Mainland China and Silk Road. At the latter, we tasted the best chicken and sweet corn soup that I’ve had anywhere.The texture was just perfect, thick and rich but not gluey. The rest of the dishes were almost as outstanding. What made them so good was that they were not heavily Indianised ; the chef had a light hand with the Indian spices and the vegetables were crisp, not overcooked.
Most Indians in the U.S grew up with the spicy, gravied “Chinese” foods that I have described.They wax nostalgic for dishes like Chicken Manchurian, Chilli Chicken, Ginger Chicken, Chicken Lollipops, Manchow Soup and Hakka Noodles. ( Another shortcoming of Indian Chinese menus ,in my eyes, is that they usually do not have any pork or beef dishes ). I can quite understand their yen for the dishes that they remember fondly from their formative years … but my memories are those of an earlier generation, and different from theirs.
One last criticism of Indian- Chinese food is that it is more expensive than either Indian food or Chinese food. Why should I spend more for second rate Indian Chinese fare when I can get first rate Indian or Chinese food at any number of places for less ?
In the Edison area , the two best known places for Indian Chinese food are Ming, @ 1655-185 Oak Tree Road , and Nanking in the Hadley Mall in Piscataway/ South Plainfield. Nanking recently opened a branch on OakTree Road where the menu includes Moghlai and other dishes. I haven’t been to this branch since I tend to avoid places that offer Chinese,Moghlai , Thai and South Indian food and even chaat. I haven’t been to either Ming or Nanking for a couple of years now but, on earlier visits, I slightly preferred Nanking; my friends , however, have a decided preference for Ming. At the low end of the scale, Chopstix in the Sugar Tree Plaza has some decent food ( try the Hakka Noodles) but their dishes are sometimes are very similar tasting.