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The definition of Chinese food available in India, served in restaurants as well as off handcarts, defies easy labelling. (Photo: Mint)
The definition of Chinese food available in India, served in restaurants as well as off handcarts, defies easy labelling. (Photo: Mint)

Now Sino-Indian fusion food is put on the front burner

Culinary experts and food industry experts think the call to ban Chinese food in India is just ‘cheap activism’

Gobi manchurian, chilli chicken, veg hakka noodles: If you travelled across the length and breadth of China, you’d be hard-pressed to find these dishes on restaurant menus. They may have evolved from the culinary traditions of mainland China but today they are as Indian as aloo gobi.

It, therefore, came as a surprise when, faced with growing calls for banning Chinese goods, Union minister Ramdas Athawale said restaurants selling “Chinese food" in India should be banned too.

Anjan Chatterjee, chairman and managing director of Speciality Restaurants Ltd that owns restaurant brands like Mainland China and Gong Modern Asian across India, said the minister’s tweet is a “loose cannon".

“Our ingredients are Indian, cooks are Indian and the people eating it are Indian," he said. Chinese food has evolved in different countries with local tastes—spicy in India and loaded with mayo in America.

Chinese food is ubiquitous in India. The minister did not say if the boycott should extend to handcarts selling ‘gopi manchuri’ in Bengaluru, and street-side stalls in Kolkata serving greasy, spicy ‘paneer hakka noodles’ —at 20 a portion.

Perhaps anything with soy sauce and vinegar should be considered “Chinese food"? But then, even the green chilli sauce, a staple of Indo-Chinese cooking, is probably an Indian invention and forms the basis of a popular and intensely hot chilli chicken dish served by Andhra restaurants like Nagarjuna in Bengaluru—which they claim is their own recipe. Is that Chinese food, or Andhra food, or both?

Even culinary experts are confused about that one. And there are thousands of such examples across India’s food landscape.

“A call on banning Chinese food is just an expression of cheap activism, because someone fell off the news cycle. People know that cuisine-specific restaurants are owned, run and patronized by Indians, with zero bearing on anyone from China," said Manu Chandra, executive chef and partner at the Olive Group, which runs, among others, Cantan-Chinese Bar House in Bengaluru. “For a sector that has been battered by covid, rendering lakhs unemployed, statements like these are very unfair," he said. Chandra doesn’t consider the vast majority of food served as “Chinese" in India to have anything to do with Chinese cuisines like Cantonese, Shandong or Zhe.

Indo-Chinese probably evolved in Kolkata, thanks to its large ethnic Chinese expatriate population.

“We have grown up eating this food. It may have started off as vaguely Chinese, but it has evolved to suit the Indian palate for over 60-70 years. Indo-Chinese has its own identity," said Rajeev Kothari, owner of BarBQ, one of Kolkata’s oldest Indian-owned Chinese restaurants.

Then there’s Maggi. “Will you ban Maggi? It’s noodles, after all," said Vivek Salunkhe, chef and partner of Asian restaurant Dofu in Bengaluru. “People think Schezwan sauce comes from China. They don’t know that we export Guntur chillies to China for their Schezwan sauce."

Jahnabee Borah contributed to this story.

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