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Growing up in Bombay, my absolute favorite go-out-to-eat cuisine was Indian-Chinese—dishes with oddball names like vegetable Manchurian, Hakka noodles, chilli paneer, and American chop suey were hot, spicy, greasy, and tangy, with an indescribable X factor, that made them so supremely satisfying.
When I was getting ready to move to the U.S. twenty years ago, I was certain I'd get my weekly fix, knowing how large the Chinese population was. Imagine my shocking devastation, then, when I walked into a Chinese restaurant somewhere on the East Coast to find that neither the server, owner, nor chef had heard of any dish with “Manchurian” in the title. Neither had any other Chinese restaurants nor any Chinese home cooks.
Soon I came to know that there were many Indians like me, who were feeling similarly disappointed, with another thing to add to the long list of what we missed about home. As Megha Agrawal, the Social Media Director of Inchin’s Bamboo Garden Franchising, the largest Indian-Chinese restaurant chain in the U.S., wrote to me, “we created IBG (Inchin’s Bamboo Garden) with the idea that it would satiate appetites that missed the local Indian-Chinese food in India.”
So what is Indian-Chinese exactly? Call it Chinese food adapted to Indian tastes, or the merger of Chinese ingredients like soy sauce and vinegar with garlic, ginger, and chile peppers used in generous quantities—not as a means of seasoning, but as primary ingredients—to create dishes with uniquely amped-up flavor profiles.
According to Fazal Rahmani, assistant general manager of Red Hot Chilli Pepper, a popular Indian-Chinese restaurant in the San Francisco Bay Area, it's defined by "bold flavors that mix Chinese spices with traditional Indian ingredients."
Indian-Chinese cuisine originated in India and is a uniquely South Asian phenomenon, drastically different from the Cantonese Chinese cuisine available in the U.S. Towards the end of nineteenth and start of the twentieth century, Hakka-speaking Chinese immigrated to the eastern Indian city of Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta) to work in tanneries, ports, and railways and soon established the country’s only Chinatown.
Like immigrants have been doing for centuries, these Chinese settlers, too, adopted and adapted to their resident country’s practices, customs, rituals, and eating habits. As Chinese ingredients were manipulated to suit the spicy, fried food-craving palates of Indians, a food fusion took off, with new restaurants spring up around Kolkata to satisfy the demand for this supposedly-foreign cuisine with a spice like their own.
The invention of Chicken Manchurian in 1975 by Nelson Wang, an Indian chef and restaurateur of Chinese descent who’s often called the pioneer of this cuisine, serves as a later example of how Indian-Chinese food must have come about decades before.
At the time, Wang was working as a caterer at the Cricket Club of India in Bombay. When asked to create an off-menu dish by a customer, Wang deep-fried cubes of cornstarch-coated chicken, then started a sauce with basic Indian ingredients like garlic, ginger, and green chile peppers sautéed in oil. But instead of going the full Indian route with onions, tomatoes, and garam masala, he added soy sauce, cornstarch, and, finally, the fried chicken.
This dish went the equivalent of viral in that analog age, through word of mouth, and spurred Wang to establish his own restaurant, China Garden, in Bombay. A reputed fine-dining restaurant even today, Wang’s China Garden has expanded to other Indian metros, too. Chicken Manchurian became a must on each on every Indian-Chinese menu, irrespective of class, location, and clientele. Vegetarian alternatives called Vegetable Manchurian or Gobi (cauliflower) Manchurian popped up, too.
While Indian-Chinese food had a longstanding presence in Kolkata, it wasn't until the 1980s that it took off in the entire country. According to a 2007 survey, it's now India’s favorite “foreign” cuisine, second only to local food, especially among the youth, and it easily exceeds the newly proliferating Italian and Thai food in popularity. It’s available in fine-dining restaurants, food courts, boardwalks, food stalls, fast food restaurants, and even food carts with names like Hungry Eyes and Dancing Buddha. Many of the fast food eateries that once existed primarily to sell quick “tiffin” (snacks) items like dosa and idli have expanded to serve Indian-Chinese like Vegetable Noodles, Vegetable Manchurian, and, here’s the kicker, “idli chilli”—pieces of idli, a steamed dumpling made of soaked and ground rice and lentil dough, stir-fried with soy sauce, garlic, ginger and chile sauce.
One reason Indian-Chinese food is so popular is that the Hakka Chinese catered their dishes to the eating habits of Indians, upping the heat, spice, and grease and making plenty of vegetarian options available. The Hakka settlers who started Indian-Chinese restaurants took care to roll out a sizeable vegetarian menu to suit the Indian population, 31% of which are vegetarian (with an even larger percentage abstaining from meat on certain days or in certain months for religious reasons). Every meat dish has a vegetable counterpart. Not only that, but there is a Jain variation excluding garlic, ginger, onion, and potatoes, too.
Along with the original chicken Manchurian, other popular dishes include:
- Hakka Noodles: udon or soba cooked with vegetables stir-fried with soy sauce, ginger and green peppers
- Vegetable Manchurian: deep-fried balls of finely cut vegetables, ginger, all-purpose flour, and cornstarch in a sauce of vinegar, soy sauce, chile sauce, tomato paste.
- Gobi Manchurian: cauliflower florets battered in all-purpose flour and cornstarch and deep-fried, then stir-fried in a sauce made of vinegar, soy sauce, chile sauce, tomato paste
- Szechuan Fried Rice: rice, vegetables, and/or meat stir-fried in Szechuan sauce (made out of dry red chile peppers, shallots, sesame oil, garlic, ginger, soy sauce, and Szechuan peppers)
Most are eaten with rice and accompanied by condiments like chile-garlic sauce, soy sauce, green peppers marinated in vinegar, and sometimes baby onions marinated in vinegar.
This cuisine has so penetrated the culinary DNA of India that it is mingling with long-established dishes and spawning offspring, like Szechuan Dosa—where vegetables stir-fried in soy sauce and spicy Szechuan sauce are used in place of the traditional spiced potato filling—and Chinese Bhel—a riff on the Indian street food bhel puri. Deep-fried noodles are mixed with julienned fresh vegetables like cabbage, bell peppers, and carrots and a chile-garlic-tomato sauce.
And as Indians have settled around the globe, Indian-Chinese cuisine has spread to Kenya, Australia, Malaysia, and Singapore and slowly to the U.S, as well. The I.T. boom in the 90s brought many first-generation Indians to the U.S., and within the last fifteen years, Indian-Chinese restaurants have opened in New York City, Chicago, San Jose, San Francisco Bay Area, Cleveland, and Los Angeles. These restaurants have a clear target audience: the Indians, who are craving a slice of home, a throwback to Indian restaurants forty or fifty years back. In the current culinary landscape bubbling with enthusiasm for fusion cuisine, it should not take as long for Indian-Chinese cuisine to delight food adventurers.
For the Manchurian balls:
- 2 cups grated cabbage
- 1 cup grated carrots
- 1/2 cup shredded green beans (in a food processor)
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch
- 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon grated ginger
- Vegetable oil, for frying
For the Manchurian sauce:
- 2 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons ketchup
- 1 tablespoon Sriracha or Thai chile sauce
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch
- 1 tablespoon sesame oil
- 2 medium garlic cloves, peeled and diced
- 1/2 cup diced scallions
- 1/2 tablespoon white vinegar or rice wine vinegar (optional if the chile sauce is tart, too)
- 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 6 ounces soba or udon noodles
- 1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 serrano pepper, thinly sliced lengthwise (optional)
- 1/2 cup carrot strips, 2 inches long, 1/2-inch thick
- 3/4 cup red bell pepper cut into strips, 1/4-inch thick and 2 inches long
- 1 cup chopped cabbage
- 1/2 cup thin, round slices of scallions
- 2 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 medium garlic clove, chopped
- 1/4 teaspoon red chile powder