Hakka is the jewel of the much-maligned Indian-Chinese cuisine -- but is it now endangered?

It is not surprising that India has developed different variations of Chinese cuisine from Ludhiana to Kanyakumari. However, Hakka cuisine remains the original.
Representational image.
Representational image.

A corporate honcho I know had business partners visiting from China. He advised his colleague to take them to a popular Chinese restaurant in town for dinner. He had heard they served “authentic” Chinese cuisine. Next day he enthusiastically asked his guests how they liked the food, expecting a superlative response. The polite visitors thanked him profusely for treating them to an excellent “Indian” meal. Thereby hangs the tale of Chinese food in India. “Authentic” is a term people use indiscriminately. But is there any “authentic” Chinese or for that matter any other kind of cuisine?  

Among all international cuisines, the spread of Chinese across the world is unparalleled. It is obviously tied to the history of Chinese migration. The second example is probably Italian though restricted largely to the US. From the look of it, Indian could be the next big thing. But all of these are linked to the spread of the diaspora.

The Chinese boat people moved in motley groups of different trades. Upon landing in a place, different families would take up their respective professions, while one family would run the common kitchen for the entire community. There lie the origins of Chinatowns.

In India, the Hakka Chinese arrived nearly two hundred years ago not in Tangra but down the Hooghly towards the sea near Budge Budge. It was later named Achhipur - after Tong Achew the first Chinese trader to land in India. In fact, it is the Hakka Chinese, hailing from South China, who were the early immigrants. Thus it was Hakka food that marketed Chinese cuisine across the world.

However, the migrants could not carry with them large supplies of ingredients except dry condiments. While noodles could be made locally, they had to adopt local ingredients especially fresh produce, meat, poultry and fish. Thus they imbibed local food influences and adapted to the tastes of the host country using native vegetables and spices. In Kolkata, the Chinese made their own variants of soya and chilli sauces. Green chillies marinated in vinegar is also a Kolkata invention. And these innovations are not unique to India though Indian Chinese cuisine has taken it to a different level altogether.

In fact, Indian Chinese is much maligned. Singaporean Chinese cuisine unapologetically uses Madras Curry Powder and generous amounts of sugar. Along with that, it borrows from Malay Chinese, which itself has been born out of Hainanese Chinese. Hainan is an island province in the southern tip of China. It is the only regional food genre of China, to the best of my knowledge, that uses coconut and coconut milk. Chicken cooked inside a tender coconut shell reminds me of Bengali Daab Chingri, which could well be an import from Malaysia just like Chingri Malai Curry. Similarly, being so far away, many of us may not know Filipino Chinese is a fusion of Chinese and Spanish.

Coming back to the original question about “authentic” Chinese food - let it be said there is no one Chinese cuisine just like there is no one type of Indian food. Perhaps, Cantonese - thanks to the accessibility of Hong Kong - has been a common denominator of Chinese food across the world. But it is by no means representative Chinese food, just as Punjabi food is not the signature or even the flagship Indian cuisine. As we know, the food of Yunnan is miles apart, not just geographically, from Shanghai cuisine which is even more bland than Cantonese. Those who think Sichuan food is spicy need to try Hunan (Mao's province) cuisine to know the meaning of fire.

So, it is not surprising that India has developed different variations of Chinese cuisine from Ludhiana to Kanyakumari. However, Hakka cuisine remains the original. But, with Hakka Chinese migrating from India to Canada, Australia and elsewhere, it is becoming a rarity even in Kolkata. Now, I am told, there are more Kolkata Hakka Chinese restaurants in Toronto than you can find in Tangra as the new touristy places serve a strange hybrid of Tangra, Punjabi and Thai. (For more on Tangra, read my old blog The Hakka Route).

However, there are still a few old style Hakka Chinese jewels tucked away in most unlikely places, for example Coimbatore. Try Kowloon or Peking. Also, the good old Shinkows in Ooty. But my personal favourite is Ling’s Pavilion in Colaba, Mumbai. It is one place where you still find Chinese expatriates and tour groups visiting. His brother Baba Ling’s son Jason runs Nanking in Vasant Kunj, Delhi. It serves excellent Cantonese, which only the discerning appreciate. But now its owner Nini spends more time with his grandchildren in Canada. So it's not clear for how long it will keep running before he too leaves India like Nelson Wang of China Garden.

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