When neighbours are as close geographically as China and India are, there is bound to be osmosis of cultures and that (to repeat myself once again) includes food. In the case of these two nations, India has been more open to the influence of Chinese cooking, ingredients and flavours. Of course, over time, we have developed our own brand of Chinese food — Indian Chinese — where the flavours have been crafted keeping in mind the local tastes and availability of ingredients.
The Sino-Indian relationship was based on not just trade of goods but also of culture and religion — the most significant of these being Buddhism. The exchange of goods had a major impact on Indian cuisine. Certain ingredients and food stuffs that are an essential part of our cuisine today came from across the border. Some of these are oranges, peaches, apricots and spices like cinnamon, mace and nutmeg.
Tea, which is often seen as a British import to India, is a native of China. The words ‘tea’ and ‘chai’, come from the Chinese tê from the Hokkien dialect spoken in the Fujian Province, and ‘cha’ from Mandarin. It is said that countries where tea arrived by sea called it tea and where tea arrived overland, it was christened chai. However, it was the British who made India a major player in the tea industry, when the East India Company began exporting the bounty from the tea estates it developed in Assam.
One of the earliest records of people coming from China to live in India dates back to 1820. By 1837 there were 362 Chinese living in Calcutta, the then capital of British India. They originally settled in a village in West Bengal called Achipur in the late 18th century, later moving into the city and finally into their present home in Tangra at the eastern edge of Kolkata. The main reason for the Cantonese tradesmen and sailors to set down roots in India was trade and business.
As time went by, both the local and foreign cultures evolved under each other’s influence; food changed as well. Chinese cuisine, which is quite varied, is governed by the environment, availability of ingredients and culture. Back at the time, of the three factors, the first two underwent major adaptation as not all ingredients required were available. When the new residents went into the food business, they spiced up their native milder Cantonese flavours. They introduced sliced chillies and hot sauces, creating unique dishes such as chicken sweet corn soup, chilli chicken and chicken manchurian.
The Chinese effect was not limited to eastern India, it went as far as Kerala and even today imprints of the past stand tall and proud. What am I talking about, you ask? The answer is hidden in plain sight… or it would be if you were standing at Fort Kochi gazing out to sea. Your vision is likely to be interrupted by some impressive (read big) fishing nets. According to legend, these are said to have been introduced by the Chinese explorer Zheng He.
During the time the fishermen of Kochi knew how to fish in low lying lagoons. The overseas traders taught them to use huge nets to fish in the ocean, which would operate even during high tide. The engineering and mechanism remain the same till date. The large, flat nets are set up on wood and bamboo poles and are lowered into the water by a crane-like structure during high tide. It takes three or four men, along with counter weights, to accomplish this. The nets are pulled out after a few minutes, trapping the fish within. In exchange for this useful technique that they gave us they bought from us ginger, garlic, coconut and betel nut to take home to their land.
This list of exchanges and influences is by no means exhaustive and I reckon it would be good fun for you to dig out other interesting nuggets from the treasure trove of history. What say? For starters, I could put you on the scent of one interesting remnant of India and China’s shared culinary evolution. It is round, usually deep and used for cooking; most likely found in your own kitchen.
The answer will be revealed in next week’s column. Have a good weekend!