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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  Kolkata Chromosome | The last emperor

Kolkata Chromosome | The last emperor

Kolkata's oldest surviving Chinese restaurant mirrors the beginning and decline of the city's Chinatown

Joel Huang heads the kitchen at Eau Chew. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint.Premium
Joel Huang heads the kitchen at Eau Chew. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint.

Jennifer Huang, having just turned 30, wants her story to be left out of an article on Eau Chew, the Chinese restaurant that she runs with her mother and younger brother in central Kolkata.

For its patrons, Eau Chew—with only a small signboard advertising the restaurant above a decrepit petrol pump on Ganesh Chandra Avenue—has always been around with its culinary innovations like Chimney Soup and Josephine Noodles. Many, including the community body The Indian Chinese Association, reckon that Eau Chew is currently the oldest surviving family-owned Chinese restaurant in India, run by the community which settled in India from mainland China.

Business is conducted strictly within seven working hours; beyond are the cherished family hours. On occasions when hungry guests, finding the restaurant closed, made over to the Huang home nearby, they had to be turned away. Please don’t mention our residential address in the piece, is another of Jennifer’s requests for remaining unidentified beyond Eau Chew matters.

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The restaurant’s signature dishes. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

These days, Joel, 27, heads the kitchen. Their mother, Josephine, from whom the siblings learnt cooking, is there to help. On high-pressure days, Jennifer chips in. Right from doing the daily bazaar, chopping of vegetables, cooking, laying out and clearing tables and billing customers, everything is done by the three Huangs. In-between, they catch up with guests, “some of whom came to Eau Chew as children accompanying grandparents and now bring their own children", says Josephine.

Yet, what remains unknown is the exactitude of Eau Chew’s birth: Some regulars think it’s 1922, which would mean the restaurant turned 90 this year. Others think it was established a few years later. The Huangs know it is the early 1920s but can’t pin a year when the great grandparents of Jennifer and Joel arrived at the port city of Calcutta in early 20th century from south China’s Moi Yen village. The lady soon set up Eau Chew, as a low-priced eating house and tiffin provider, informs Jennifer, for Chinese immigrants working in the city.

Yet, the name itself—Eau Chew means Europe in Mandarin—represented the outward-looking mindset of the family and for a period, Eau Chew also had cutlets and pork chops on its menu for its European clientele in British India. These days, its exhaustive Chinese menu is regarded by foodies as closest to the original, and its Chimney Soup, Meat Ball Soup, Steamed Fish with Soy Sauce, Chicken in Wine Sauce, Flaming Fish and Fish with Chilli Black Bean remain the Chinese food cognoscenti’s favourites.

It’s a place that stresses on undercooking and retaining original flavours, avoids oil, abhors ajinomoto and sticks to fundamentals of Chinese gastronomic traditions. Consider the Josephine Noodles. That came about when a long-time customer asked for something off-the-menu, original and authentic. For his patience, he got noodles topped with a light gravy, thick with fresh and juicy vegetables, prawns and meat. Regulars called it Josephine Noodles, after its creator. The name stuck and continues to be the menu showpiece.

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Long journeys: (From left) Joel, Josephine and Jennifer Huang of Eau Chew. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

Not so in the case of the education of the Chinese community’s later generations in Kolkata, the only Indian city with a Chinatown. About 10,000 Chinese resided in the city till a few decades back; currently, their numbers are between 2,000 and 3,000, informs Paul Chung, president of The Indian Chinese Association. Having moved on from the opium trade, in later decades the community ran tanneries, shoe shops and was acknowledged for dentistry, carpentry and hairdressing skills. These days, about 40-odd Chinese-run restaurants and eateries in Tangra (the new Chinatown in east Kolkata; the old one is in central Kolkata) and elsewhere are the biggest markers in Kolkata’s culinary-cultural register. Even as you read, though, some are closing shop.

“Newer generations have studied in English medium schools and don’t involve with their parents’ food business," says Chung. “Many have moved abroad and I’ve heard that some even send remittances to their parents asking them to avoid selling food at the street-side Chinese breakfast venue in central Kolkata."

The 55-seater Eau Chew’s claim as the oldest surviving Chinese-owned restaurant in India is reinforced by the fact that the city’s Nanking Restaurant, of the same vintage, closed down in the mid-1990s. So has Hou Hua on Free School Street. Chung Wah, another old Chinese-owned restaurant, changed hands a few years ago, while Song Hay, a central Kolkata haunt, shuttered up earlier this year with a farewell meal for friends. Often, closures have coincided with the Chinese owner-family members eventually, and almost inevitably, moving abroad, especially to Canada.

Canada looms like a temptation over Eau Chew too. Barring the four remaining Huangs in Kolkata (including a differently-abled sister of Jennifer and Joel), the rest of the family has shifted to the North American nation.

In a restaurant where everything remains consciously constant—the red sunmica-topped tables, brassware dating back to Jennifer’s grandfather, a door sticker informing of “cash only" transactions, two Chinese lamps, four framed artwork and much of the menu—Canada is a constant urge towards change.

Increasingly, as we speak through a lazy Eau Chew evening, it becomes difficult to isolate life stories of the Chinese community from the restaurant’s history—from birthdays, weddings to the post-funeral ritualistic meal, it has hosted innumerable community events.

Jennifer’s story, despite her mild protestations, is also part of Eau Chew’s and vice versa. As a child, Jennifer remembers playing in the dining area. The siblings would engage a table for tuitions and Jennifer occupied a room now marked as “store". And like her mother and relatives, once back from classes at Loreto College and later from work, she would help in Eau Chew’s running. Jennifer has worked with multinational companies in Kolkata and Mumbai; and also done a brief stint in Singapore. She quit work after her father’s death.

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A Chinese breakfast vendor at Poddar Court. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

Today, Jennifer is part of Eau Chew’s defiance against the prevailing consumerist culture, of the restaurant business in particular and life in general. With quality food and loyal guests as support (some customers even get Josephine her black beans from foreign travels), Eau Chew has eschewed something as ubiquitous as the credit card machine. Says Jennifer, “If we survived this long without it, there’s no need for that stupid machine now."

“Mom taught us that what god has given is sufficient and we’ll do only what we can do," she says. I hear about her family values, the Indian Chinese community spirit, virtues of simplicity, her love for her home city, Kolkata, and home, Eau Chew.

Joel agrees in spirit with his sister when we meet next day. He wants to take Eau Chew forward without changing its core values.

And tomorrow she’ll be gone. Before the year runs out, Jennifer will leave for Canada—one less from Kolkata’s Chinese community, a third less from Eau Chew’s operating force.

She will join her husband there; the couple got married in January and a banquet was hosted at Eau Chew. Like her previous generations who held marriage feasts there, family members joined hands to cook for the guests.

As Jennifer lays down a brass pot with steaming Chimney Soup at my table, I also find myself dwelling over an indistinct sense of loss.

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Updated: 13 Dec 2012, 07:44 PM IST
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