I arrived in Mumbai at 5am on a flight from Mauritius so I could make dinner reservations the same night at China Garden, one of the most famous Chinese restaurants in India. As one Mumbai resident had already told me: “It’s not a restaurant, it’s an institution.”
For a quarter-century, the restaurant has been a favourite of Bollywood celebrities, billionaires, politicians and the middle-class. Chinese food is a great equalizer in India. It is a national obsession. When they are not eating Indian food, they are most likely eating Chinese food.
As I checked into my hotel, I asked the man at the front desk if he knew China Garden.
Nelson Wang and his son Edward at their restaurant (Photo by: Madhu Kapparath / Mint)
“Yes, of course!” he said.
“Looks like you or looks like me?”
“Looks like you,” he said. He said he only eats in Chinese restaurants run by Chinese people. “If I see an Indian preparing Chinese food, it does not feel authentic.”
Authentic Indian-Chinese food? Or authentic Chinese food?
Chinese food has become one of the many dichotomies that Indians face every day: vegetarian versus non-vegetarian; northern versus southern; Chinese versus Indian. It is sold by hawker carts, in holes-in-the-wall, room service menus of resorts and in the best Indian restaurants (I stopped by Trishna, a popular Indian seafood restaurant in Mumbai, which made its way on to R.W. Apple’s list of 10 restaurants around the world. The last two pages of Trishna’s menu were devoted entirely to Chinese dishes).
But, if there is a godfather of Indian-Chinese cuisine, it would be China Garden’s owner, Nelson Wang, a third generation Chinese-Indian who was born in Kolkata, and given up for adoption when his father died three days after he was born. As one customer described him: “Chinese blood, Indian brain.”
A streetside Chinese stall in Mumbai (Photo by: Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint)
Kolkata had long been the hub of Chinese immigrants—mostly Hakka and Cantonese. The first wave of Chinese migration began in the early 19th century when the silk merchants arrived to trade with India. The second wave occurred during the Qing Dynasty, and following civil wars, and the third wave followed the communist victory in China in 1949. Because they fell outside the caste system, the Chinese took on jobs that were “polluted” in the eyes of the higher class Indians: tanning, shoemaking, hair salons, restaurants.
But much of the Chinese community in India fled after India and China went to war in 1962 and India started restricting the rights of Chinese residents. Most of Wang’s foster family moved to Canada, but he did not want to leave India. Instead, in 1974, he headed for Mumbai with Rs27 in his pocket. He worked his way up through a series of jobs in restaurants until he was ready to open a Chinese fine-dining establishment in 1984.
China Garden became an immediate sensation. Walk-in customers were willing to wait two hours for a table. Even those with a reservation had to wait up to an hour. Bollywood celebrities—the likes of Amitabh Bachchan, Karisma Kapoor, Salman Khan were regulars—took no chances and made reservations. Even so, Wang kept the prices relatively low because of his own rags-to-riches background.
Shantung Prawns: A China Garden speciality
Wang is credited with having introduced Mumbai and India to the Indian-Chinese fusion fare they love: vegetarian Manchurian dishes (he wanted a very Chinese name), fried creamy corn (he hated to waste the leftover congealed corn in the fridge), fried chicken lollipops (he wanted to find a way to use up chicken wings), and date pancakes (he wanted a new dessert that catered to the Indian sweet tooth).
There are a handful of other high-end Chinese restaurants in Mumbai: Golden Dragon, Royal China, Mainland China. But China Garden, newly renovated to a sleek red and black interior, still captures the imagination of the Indian foodie.
I had assembled the few people I knew in Mumbai: Priyanka, a lawyer; Amar, my college classmate; and Komal, Amar’s wife, who was in the jewellery business. Amar and Komal, both born in the US, had been married in New Jersey in a traditional-but-updated Indian wedding. The couple had moved from New York to Mumbai a few months earlier. Amar was a serial entrepreneur.
“The Chinese food is better here!” said Komal.
In the US, the Indian immigrant community has brought their love of Chinese restaurants stateside. Indian-Chinese restaurants —many started by former cooks from China Garden—have popped up in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Houston and the Bay Area, offering the classic favourites to a local clientele: chicken Manchurian, chicken lollipops, Hakka noodles, sweet corn soup.
I opened my menu and was pleasantly surprised by the healthy selection of authentic Chinese dishes. There was a whole range of Cantonese dim sum and seafood specialities. Komal mentioned her friend had recommended we order the kung pao potato and okra. I peered into the menu, but there was no vegetarian section in the menu that I got. I looked over Priyanka’s shoulder and realized I had been given a completely different menu—theirs was mostly in English, featuring Indian-style dishes. Mine had the Chinese names of the dishes first and came with long pages of Chinese specialities, leaving out many of the Indian favourites.
Amar, surprised, asked if Chinese restaurants really offered two distinct menus.
Yes, I said. “There really is a secret menu.” When you go to a Chinese restaurant and you see all the writing on the wall you can’t read? Those are often the chef’s specials meant to be communicated only to those who can read them.
“Is it because they think Chinese people don’t want to eat what the locals eat or that the locals don’t want to eat what the Chinese people want to eat?” Amar asked.
I thought for a moment. “Both.”
I pointed to a dessert on the Chinese menu: white fungus with red bean soup. “Indians aren’t going to want to eat that,” I said.
“White fungus like mushroom?” asked Komal.
“No. White fungus like…fungus.” My mom had kept it in our kitchen, but I had no idea what it was or where it grew. Probably, in a dark cavern somewhere. It looked somewhat like the frilly white underskirts of cancan dancers.
“Is it sweet?” she asked.
“No.” I paused. “It doesn’t really have a taste, but they make it sweet.” Chinese people are all about textures—kou gan or “mouth sensation”. The white fungus has a rubbery texture, but the frilliness makes it thrilling to the mouth.
So, the group opted to order an abundance of Indian-Chinese classics: chicken Manchurian, chicken lollipops, Hakka noodles, the kung pao potato and okra. Priyanka ordered a lamb dish and I threw in American chopsuey for good measure (“it’s made with ketchup,” I explained). The kung pao potato and okra was actually very good.
Towards the end of dinner, Edward Wang, son of the owner, came over to our dinner table. Edward, who can read and write Hindi, but not Chinese, spoke to us about how his father came up with the idea for fried creamed corn and the Manchurian dishes.
“You guys created veg Manchurian?” asked Amar, perking up.
“Yes,” said Edward.
“That’s good stuff,” Amar declared.
When I met with senior Wang, he immediately barked at me, “What are you?”
“My parents are from Jinmen.” He looked at me blankly. “Quemoy? Kinmen?” I made little bombing motions with my hand. My parents’ home island had been the object of heated dispute between China and Taiwan, resulting in bombings and strife.
Wang speaks three Chinese dialects (Hakka, Cantonese and Mandarin) and five Indian languages (Hindi, Bengali, Gujarati, Punjabi and some Tamil). India looks like one country, but in reality it feels more like five or six. China may have thousands of dialects, but there is only one writing system. “We should thank the Chinese emperor who unified the Chinese written language,” he said.
He told me that several years earlier, China Garden had experimented with fortune cookies. An Irani man from a baking family, Zyros Zend, started a fortune cookie company in Mumbai in 1998. The cookies were designed for an American palate. Instead of snapping with a vanilla crunch, they crumbled like butter cookies.
But Wang discontinued them after he found out it would delay diners at the restaurant. “They take too much time at my table,” he grumbled. “I give them fortune cookies, then the customers are like ‘ha hah hah’. It takes another 15 minutes.” At such a busy restaurant, turnover was critical.
So instead, for dessert, his restaurant offers honey noodles with ice cream and date pancakes—both Indian-Chinese classics. The honey noodles were like deep-fried, flat chowmein-like noodles served in American Chinese restaurants, but coated with a sweet layer and sprinkled with sesame.
I looked at it curiously.
“Indian people love the crunch,” explained Komal.
“And they love sweet things,” said Priyanka. Those two passions were joined in the honey noodles. What did I think of it? they asked. To me, it tasted like frosted cornflakes. The date pancakes were their creation, Wang told me. Without Wang’s support, fortune cookies never really took off.
As I was sitting there, interviewing Wang, I suddenly realized that given India’s population, the Indian passion for Chinese food and Wang’s role in Indian-Chinese cuisine, I was probably looking at the man who had influenced the Chinese dining experience for more people on the planet than any single other person.
Jennifer 8. Lee is the author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food, published by Twelve.
Jennifer 8. Lee
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