Chinese Food In India – History In A Menu

by Chris Devonshire-Ellis

May 25th, 2009

One of the great things about traveling is to sample the regional cuisine, and then, for a bit of fun, (and a bit of a hit or miss affair) occasionally sample the local take on another cultures food. With that in mind I was taken to one of the best Muslim restaurants in Bombay, the Delhi Durval, just opposite the Leopold’s Café. Apart from having a great menu, its also culturally interesting – entire Muslim families, old men with beards dyed bright orange, and where you get to see how a woman clad from head to toe in hijab, gets to eat. All that aside, the quality of the local menu is superb – plenty of lamb of course, but no pork and no alcohol. Feeling adventurous, we tucked into the sheep brains masala (the brains were creamy and tasted a little like cottage cheese) and the lamb’s trotters. Thinking about the latter, as little trotters were served in a delicious, tangy sauce with tomato and coriander, this must be a dish for the wealthy. Lambs grow up into sheep, and are productive in wool and dairy products, eating them therefore is the height of decadence. There’s not much meat on a lamb’s trotter, mainly a bit of skin and gelatine (which is fine) but the delight is saved for last – the age old ritual of bone marrow sucking. It all felt rather Biblical, and I’m sure tales of marrow munching occur in the Koran as well. Abraham would have recognized the ritual. Then, full of Islamic sheep, I spotted the restaurants alternative menu – and it was Chinese. I took a good look to ascertain the authenticity, and actually, the internationally traveled “vegetable spring rolls” were all present and correct, as were “Sliced Chicken in Schezwan Sauce”, “Chicken Lung Fung Soup” and Vegetable, Mushroom and Bamboo Shoots”. But even these, apparently standard Chinese dishes reveal both the complexity of China, and of China’s perception by the rest of the world, and old habits die hard. Chinese restaurants will note “Sichuan” Sauce, not “Schezwan”, the latter being based on the Wade-Giles system of romanization of Chinese characters invented in 1892, pre-dating the current pinyin system which was actually adopted by the Chinese government in 1952. Overseas Chinese restaurants still often (and charmingly in my view) use the Wade-Giles system, demonstrating that old habits die hard – it is more than 50 years out of date, and demonstrates just how old the Chinese overseas diaspora – most of whom still use Wade-Giles – is. Then, “Lung Fung” is Cantonese, from Hong Kong, basically translating as “Wind of Dragon”. Quite what effect that would have as a soup on ones digestive system I cannot imagine. The menu goes on to specify “Vegetable Hakka Chow Mein” – with the Hakka being a Southern Chinese people, inhabiting the coasts of Fujian and Guangdong, and “Chicken Manchow” – a reference to the Manchu, who were the ruling class in China until 1912. The Chinese menu therefore, has become a sort of time capsule in which both language and food have been handed down as they were from 50 —100 years ago. That’s quite impressive, and makes the menu itself rather enjoyable.


Then it all goes contemporary. “Arab Chicken Chilly”, “Jeera Fried Rice”, “Fish & Chips” and even “American Chop Suey” all make an appearance, however I am accordingly reminded of China’s relationship with foreign powers over the centuries – Arabic traders were hugely influential along the Southern coast of China around the 13th-15th centuries, while Jeera Rice is an Indian dish flavored with Cumin. The British, with their colonization of parts of China, and notably Hong Kong and Shanghai, make an appearance with their fish and chips as does the Californian invention of “chop suey” – a dish one never finds in China.  


Purists may turn their noses up, but I disagree. Such menus tell us much about the perceptions of China, its history and the movement of its people. Bon Appetit !