I recently saw an ad of a noodles brand. Frankly an endorsement of a noodles brand is not new or unusual. In fact, it gels perfectly well with our products, be it an endorsement for desi ghee or multigrain atta. Now, that put me on to a different level of thinking, thanks to noodles or rather Chinese noodles. An ancient Chinese staple, noodles was originally made by hand. For us in India, retail outlets usually stock machine-made versions. But let me come to the point, I'm talking about Chinese Cuisine with all its spices. Full Stop.
The ancient world discovered Indian spices through sea routes more than 7,000 years ago. China was an entry port to maritime traders sailing from India to Alexandria in Egypt and the Mediterranean coast. With maritime commerce, the characteristic flavours of these spices made inroads into China.
"Cumin, cinnamon and cloves are spices commonly associated with Chinese cuisine, be it a staple dish or sauce. Many of these spices can be traced to the days of maritime sea trade," said Rajesh Dubey, Chief Culinary Officer, Speciality Restaurants Ltd, which runs the chain of Mainland China restaurants in India.
Having said that, what is it that fascinates us about Chinese food? "There's a comfort level that Indians enjoy with Chinese food. Like the five-spice powder, made with star aniseed, cloves, black pepper, fennel seeds and ginger powder. These spices are extensively used in Indian cooking," highlighted Dubey and added, "The spices levels in regional Chinese cuisines like Sichuan or Szechwan is just what Indian foodies would aspire for, it's spicy, hot and oily, and uses garlic and chili peppers. However as today's foodies are well travelled and well informed, even Cantonese cuisine which is steamed and less spicy, is getting acceptance here."
Whatever the case may be, no one can dispute the fact that Chinese cuisine is popular in India. Perhaps it's also to do with the fact that Chinese cuisine came to India much before Italian, Japanese and a host of other international cuisines. The cuisine traces its roots in India to Kolkata or former Calcutta, the erstwhile capital of British India.
The cuisine gained acceptance because of a small community of Chinese individuals who settled in Kolkata over 100 years ago. Chinese hawkers whipped up a dish or two in Kolkata's China Town. It's anyone's guess that some enterprising Chinese individuals spread its flavours by setting up stand-alone Chinese restaurants in various metros. Five star hotels also brought in Chinese chefs to lend authenticity to their Chinese restaurants.
Besides accessibility, the fact that many dishes are deep fried or starchy and boast of a fiery spicy concoction of pepper and ginger has given the cuisine a desi appeal. "Pepper, ginger, clove and cinnamon are common to Indian and Chinese cuisine. But the manner of cooking and a combo of veggies and meat makes Chinese cuisine different," felt Dubey.
In fact the presence of Chinese in Kolkata gave birth to a desi version of Chinese food, which we are all familiar with. Our phoolgobi or cauliflower was sprinkled with pepper before being doused with Manchurian sauce. No one complained, but simply enjoyed the outcome which we all know as Gobi Manchurian. Almost every street corner has a bhel-chaat vendor, who will spice up some Indo-China dish in a jiffy. This fusion food may not resemble the authentic fare, yet the manner in which it is braised, stewed and steamed, heavily spiced with hot chili, pepper and ginger makes it palatable. Spices, Indian veggies, soy sauce and a quick stir resulted in popular dishes including Chicken Manchurian.
I couldn't help thinking about all this because of the forthcoming Chinese New Year. Also known as the Spring Festival, the Chinese New Year falls on February 19. The New Year marks the first day of the Chinese calendar which is a Luni-Solar Calendar, and the Chinese Zodiac is based on a 12-year cycle. "Called Sheng Xiao, each year relates to an animal sign and this time, it's the Year of the Wooden Sheep or Wooden Goat" he concluded.
At the end of the day, it's all about using spices to balance the yin and yang in food. So enter the dragon? Well, yes, in a spicy manner. What do you say?