I am flipping through a menu in a restaurant in Jakarta when the ‘Chindian’ fare on offer catches my eye: you know, that blend of Indian and Chinese cuisine that is usually so spicy that it would make even the most uppity and audacious Chinese hacker run for cover (no offence to Chinese hackers, seriously).In my mind’s eye, the most quintessential Chindian dish that comes to mind is Szchewan paneer. As I dig through a plateful of chicken hakka noodles, certain Chindian memories come to mind.
When I was growing up in my hometown Guwahati, a favorite treat from parents if and when I did well on exams was to take me to “China Town”, a little ‘Chinese’ joint in town.I would feel a certain thrill running through my spine at my first experience of ‘global’ cuisine. The rumor that the owners had actually emigrated from China a couple of generations ago added to the authenticity of my experience, though I did remember being puzzled as to why a Chinese restaurant should be serving American Chopsuey. But such was my dedication to ‘Chinese’ food that I even learnt how to spell ‘Szchewan’. A highpoint in teenage life was when i discovered’momos’, those delectable dumplings stuffed with minced meat and served with a freshly ground, dangerously spicychilli sauce, a combination that could inspire poetry as well as copious tears. I fell in love with the momos at a ‘Chinese’ restaurant called Abba in Shillong. Teenage was a mix of crushes, momos, birthday parties, chopsuey, best friends and chilli chicken – all fused in the recesses of my memory in a distant, happy blur.
A few years ago,I left for America armed with my extensive knowledge of ‘Chinese cuisine’.The Goddess-Who-Clears-False-Notions paired me with a Chinese room-mate. Did reality hit hard! What I had known and grown to love as Chinese food was NOT Chinese food. The way my roommate cooked was to boil a big cauldron of water and throw in noodles, fish balls, leeks, soup powder and other suspicious-looking ingredients which she would buy from the Yu-Yu Chinese store. When this concoction was about ready, she would break an egg in it and let it boil some more. That’s it.The first time I saw this, I was horrifed. What?!? No soya sauce? No capsicum? (Green bell-peppers as we indians call it).To make sure that this wasn’t some terrible misunderstanding, I decided to make my version of Chinese Hakka noodles for her. I shredded cabbage, fried chicken strips and tossed the noodles around with soy sauce, chilli sauce and vinegar most lovingly. Just as I had seen it made in ‘Reboti’, that fantastic streetfood corner in Guwahati where I would often sneak in between classes to have egg chowmein. My Chinese room-mate tried my noodles as I watched nervously. Then she delivered her verdict: it was the most delicious noodles she had ever tasted, but she had never eaten anything like that in China.
Ouch!Have you ever experienced that feeling when your deepest beliefs come crashing down? That blow in the stomach when everything you ever thought you knew turned out to be false. I felt cheated, but by whom? To add insult o injury, I also discovered that momos were actually central to Tibetan cuisine. I know China took over Tibet, but “Beijing, you need to leave momos alone already.” In brief, I had spent my teenage years being in love with a Tibetan dish that was being passed off as Chinese, in a Chinese restaurant which was actually not a real Chinese restaraunt. Now, that is messed up. I recovered from all these blows very slowly, just like one recovers from heatbreak. I was finally able to make peace with the ghosts of the past when I discovered the term ‘Chindian cuisine’ in a menu in an Indian restauarant. That seemed like a more authentic and appropriate description of the food I had grown to love.Finally, finally had a genre into which I could classify my beloved chilli chicken. Other discoveries gave me comfort too.I went to a couple of a ‘Chinese’ restaurants in America and I came to the conclusion that Chimerican food cant hold a candle to Chindian food (well, except maybe the eggplant chicken at P.F. Chang’s). At least India was doing a better job at distorting Chinese food than America was.
But the thought that gives most comfort is that I am going home in a few weeks.I will be able to order a misconception-free Chinese Chopsuey from China Town.