My love for Chinese food began from the streets of Calcutta. The just sprouted roadside stalls tucked in every other corner of the city would sell stir fried, extra bouncy Chowmein, a.k.a Chowmin as pronounced by the local Bengalis. It was served with squirts of orange red tomato ketchup and onion-cucumber julienne.
I was the child of eighties. That was the time when home made Chinese food was not in vogue. We were used to the 3-5 courses of traditional Bengali gastronomy. Once in a while we did go to the restaurants that sold Chinese food. But then that was a rare indulgence. One such restaurant, I remember, had a fancy name, “China Palace”. This quaint little place with red dragons and golden chimes on the walls, was the most sought after eatery in the neighbourhood. Having to eat there was an affair to remember. We would plan for hours many days in advance and once the day arrived our excitement knew no bounds. The restaurant was nearby and the aroma of irresistible Chinese broth would draw us to the restaurant sooner. We would sit on the same corner where the regular happy waiters would pry on us. The course invariably would start with my father’s personal favourite, clear chicken soup. It was a broth prepared with miserly amount of chicken and lot of spring onions. My sisters and I used to skip it in order to binge on the main course. The main course would almost always include mixed fried rice, boneless chili chicken, mixed noodles and sometimes we would eat ice creams as dessert. That was the standard platter and we didn’t get to experiment beyond since that was all the quaint eatery had to offer.
Later, as I was growing up I realized that the Chinese food that we were eating was actually a over simplified version of Indo-Chinese flavour. The Calcutta Chinese food was generated from the Chinese diaspora living in Calcutta since the eighteenth century. A cluster of people came from China in times of turbulence and worked as labourers. More people flocked in due course and they formed a sizeable community with unique appearance, culture, belief and cuisine. They started to live as a separate community in Tiretta Bazaar and the adjacent areas of Bow Bazar. Soon they started dispersing in Tangra area which came to be known as the city’s Chinatown later.
This was that chunk of China that came to Calcutta when still young or the second gen of the diaspora who was born in Calcutta. To start with they contained in themselves but soon they started selling their unique stuffs in order to sustain. They sold home made stuffs like sauces, condiments, steamed and fried food which they later incorporated in small eateries and liquor shops. Some opted for leather and carpentry business. The Chinese diaspora in Calcutta started experimenting with their food which went through exciting changes over the years to oblige the Bengali taste buds. The typical red gravy, heavy on sauces along with ginger, garlic, hot chilies and a consistency reminding of Indian curry soon became a delectable Indo-Chinese concoction that the world drooled over.
Calcutta had a few reputed Chinese restaurants as well. But not everyone could eat there and the pocket friendly roadside eateries had hygiene issues. Some small local restaurants had to close down to other lucrative businesses and we were left with the option of over simplified Chinese food made at home. It was cheap, "healthy", tasty and soon the children started to swear by it. Meanwhile, the raw spaghetti like noodles was abundantly available in the market and soon the Bengali families were indulging in the most sought after food at home.
In my teens, while play dating once, I remember eating noodles cooked with soya bean chunks and potato fritters along with onions, tomato ketchup, black pepper etc. in a friend's place. We persuaded our mother and soon she too gave in and one day, to our dismay, our lovely cook prepared the most delicious noodles at home. And that was the beginning.
Chowmein became extremely popular because it made both the children and their mothers happy. The forever anxious mothers had learned the trick of sneaking in lot of seasonal vegetables in their noodles and finally their kids were eating veggies. My sisters and I used to love it as well. Once in a while good restaurant happened and we were satiated.
Several years past, as I look back now, I see it as an unhealthy eating trend. Today, I wouldn’t want any kid to eat noodles as much as we did as children. The in depth demonization of health standards is not only deeply rooted in our system but is hard to eradicate. However, we can certainly educate our children towards better understanding of healthy food fads. But then that's another story altogether.
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