With its rice and graWith its rice and gravy-based dishes, Chinese food was the ideal combination of foreign and familiar fased dishes, Chinese food was the ideal combination of foreign and familiar for Indians.
Swiggy’s annual report on the country’s food ordering habits revealed that Indians ordered an average of 95 biryanis per minute, or 1.6 biryanis per second, in 2019. The biryani market in India is estimated to be approximately Rs 1,500 crore in the organised sector, and Rs 15,000 crore in the unorganised sector.
The top five dishes ordered across the country on the Swiggy app included Chicken Briyani, Mutton Biryani, Butter Naan, Masala Dosa and Dal Makhani. Another interesting trend was that across India, North Indian cuisine followed by Chinese came out on top as the mood of the nation, scoring high on orders from the North, South, East and West.
Restaurants with names like Golden Dragon, China Pearl and Chung Wa can be found in almost every city in India, while demand is so great for the local take on Chinese food that roadside food vendors make good money hawking cheap and tasty versions of it from stalls or out of vans emblazoned with jokey names such as Second Wife, Dumped by a Dumpling, and Me Love Your Tofu. Favourites include Chinese bhel – a variant of chow mein – Sichuan dosas (pancakes) and the iconic chicken Manchurian, batter-fried and awash with a chilli garlic sauce. So the love story is quite passionate and timeless.
So much so that even restaurants serving Indian food will usually include a Chinese section on the menu. This will feature all the usual favourites – fried rice, chilli chicken, sweet corn soup – and many will think nothing of ordering a dish or two.
But how did Chinese food become so beloved in India? Like many great stories of food culture around the world, it begins with immigrants and the interaction between different communities, which over the centuries produced a hybrid cuisine that took on a life of its own in India.
The story of Indian Chinese food begins in 18th century Calcutta (now Kolkata), which the British East India Company established as the capital of colonial India. Located in the midst of a thriving trade route through which items like tea and silk were transported from China to Britain, Calcutta soon began to draw communities of skilled and unskilled Chinese workers.
The very first Chinese migrant is believed to have been a tea trader named Yang Dazhao, popularly known as Yang Atchew, who arrived in 1778 and set up a sugar mill on land given to him by the British, bringing people from the mainland to work for him.
By 1901, the census recorded 1,640 Chinese people living in the city, researchers Zhang Xing and Tansen Sen write in a chapter on the Chinese in South Asia in the Routledge Handbook of the Chinese Diaspora. By the end of the Second World War, they say, the number had surged to at least 26,250.
There isn’t a lot of academic work on how exactly Chinese food began adapting itself to Indian tastes, but various accounts place its starting point in Calcutta’s second Chinatown, located in Tangra, where the Hakka Chinese set up leather tanneries. The restaurants they went on to establish in the area began incorporating techniques to make food more appealing for Indian customers, notably using a lot more of chilli.
How the idea of Indianised Chinese food spread from Tangra to the rest of the country is also a bit unclear. What we do know is that in about 1974, India’s first Sichuan restaurant opened up at the Taj Mahal hotel in Bombay, introducing locals to a type of Chinese food they had never experienced before: fiery hot.
Essentially it is neither Chinese nor Indian, but Indo-Chinese, which is a separate cuisine by itself. It is an adapted version with more Indian ingredients to suit the local food preferences and taste buds. The fusion Chinese holds little resemblance to authentic Chinese. Most of the dishes we eat now under the pretext of Chinese were developed in India. If you go to China and ask for Schezwan chicken or Manchurian they will blink.
In China there is a region called Sichuan which is in the central-eastern region and different types of food are available there. There is no such thing called Sichuan/Schezwan fried rice or chicken there. Black bean sauce, kung pao chicken are all from the Sichuan region. The Sichuan and Hunan region dishes are what you find popularly in India as they are spicy and are synonymous with Indian flavours.
With all its rice and gravy-based dishes, Chinese food was the ideal combination of foreign and familiar for Indians. These days, though, the Chinese restaurants across the country are mostly Indian-owned and have Indian cooks.
Asian fusion food is exploding in every metropolis, and urban Indians are savouring much more exotic dishes like ramen, khow suey, and char siu bao. But to this day, there are few who can turn down a plate of crispy honey chilli potatoes or chicken manchurian, because nothing quite hits the spot like Indian Chinese food.