New Taj Darbar. Punjabi Momos. Sri Murugan Cafe. Swathi Gardenia. These are among the top Bangalore restaurants that show up when I search for Chinese food delivery on the Zomato app. All are ‘pure veg’ so I can only assume that the red dish in many of the display pictures is chilly cauliflower or some iteration of it.
India’s most-favoured global cuisine—one minister triggered outrage when he suggested we ban it as a diplomatic strategy—may have been revamped unrecognisably when it got a tight jhappi in Ludhiana, but the south wasn’t too far behind. ‘Chinese’ food is on the menu of almost every not-so-stuck-up Udupi restaurant. Yet, in Bangalore, it’s easier to find good Korean, Thai, Japanese or Vietnamese food than Chinese. And no, I was not enticed by the Naughty Malai Momos, described on the Punjab Momos menu as ‘fried momo in fresh garlic cream, soft and juicy mixed in fresh cream’.
Until recently I had a go-to Chinese restaurant, but the last time I ordered, I got a selection of ‘gravy’ heavy dishes that all tasted the same. Even you can do better, the Naughty Malai Momo whispered to me in a dream. And so I Googled ‘How to cook Chinese food’.
Now I’m addicted to Souped Up Recipes, a YouTube channel by a young Chinese woman who married an American and lives in Florida. Her large family is spread across many regions of her home country and she cooks from several of the eight culinary traditions of China—Anhui, Cantonese, Hunan, Fujian, Jiangsu, Shandong, Szechuan and Jiangsu. No, Manchurian is not a regional cuisine of China, just some inedible fried stuff conjured up by restaurateurs in Mumbai, Ludhiana and Tirunelveli.
The rewards were instant. Who knew that tossing a few vegetables with ginger, garlic, spring onions (and using the right technique) could give you better tasting food than your neighbourhood Chinese restaurant? It turns out that at least two women in my close circle discovered this more than a decade ago.
The first, my sister-in-law Sangeeta Kinariwala, began cooking Chinese in her teens. “When I ate Chinese for the first time I thought it was the best food I had ever eaten and decided I wanted to make it at home,” she says. Back then she devoured her mother’s cookbooks and, soon, her sister couldn’t get enough of her chilly chicken. Now Kinariwala uses authentic ingredients and experiments with food from different regions. Once she starts, it’s impossible to stop her. “It’s so easy. When I have all my ingredients and sauces in front of me, I keep churning out the dishes, four or five of them. It takes no time at all.”
The second, my friend Tushita Patel, dived into Chinese cooking after she moved to Bangalore in 2011. “The Chinese food in Bangalore is horrible. Kolkata is the only place where you get good Chinese food,’ says Patel, who also likes the upscale Royal China in Mumbai. Her first encounter with a Sichuan Pepper in Shanghai changed the way she looked at the cuisine. “My mouth went numb and at first I thought I had had too much to drink,” she says.
Until then she had eaten mostly Cantonese food but this experience opened her eyes to another kind of Chinese food that looked and sounded exotic but was easy to make. Or so she says, but then she has written a cookbook. Her Chinese cooking inspiration was another cookbook author, Fuchsia Dunlop, an Englishwoman who specialises in Sichuan food.
Patel’s repertoire now includes everything from Dan Dan noodles made with vegetables and the 100 grams of pork mince left over in her fridge to smashed cucumbers and a full fish steamed with ginger and spring onions and topped with scalding oil. Her fried rice is spring onions and eggs, stir fried into fridge-cold leftover rice.
I don’t have Patel’s or Kinariwala’s instinctive ease of cooking, but the husband Samar Halarnkar, a food columnist and cookbook author himself, is my secret weapon and has been co-opted in my quest for homemade Chinese. Meanwhile, a couple of friends who heard I was embarking on this culinary adventure and know my competency level in the kitchen quickly sent recommendations of their favourite affordable Chinese restaurants in Bangalore.
One of them, second generation Chinese restaurateur Simon Hsieh, was born in Kolkata but grew up in the south. For many years his parents ran Pearl City, a Chinese restaurant in Hyderabad. “In Hyderabad, customers just want spice,” says Hsieh who moved out of the restaurant business and then returned to it when he opened Jade in Bangalore in 2008. “In Bangalore they say they want spicy food but they don’t really want it.”
His most popular dish wasn’t even on the menu when the restaurant first started. “It’s chilly chicken, a concoction of ginger, garlic, chillies and soya sauce,” he says. My friend had emphasised I should order off the menu and after talking to Hsieh I understood why. The food served in the restaurant is very different from the food his family eats at home. At home the meat is poached or stir fried, at work it’s deep fried. Lots of sauces are used in the restaurant but at home he limits the ingredients to ginger, garlic, good quality light and dark soya sauce, rice wine, imported Chinese herbs and spring onion for garnish. “We don’t have extra gravy like in the restaurant,” he says. “Home-cooked Chinese is very simple. It’s just that we complicate it.”
I can feel Naughty Malai Momo watching over me as I take the next steps in this culinary adventure.
Priya Ramani is a Bengaluru-based journalist and is on the editorial board of Article-14.com.
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BQ Prime or its editorial team.