What is it about Chinese cuisine that has enabled it to travel to every nook and corner of the country?
We squeal in unison as our rickety bus narrowly misses a nonchalant goat. Our co-passengers look up from their gleaming tiffins, drippy with idly-sambar, and shake their heads disapprovingly. Suitably chastened, we try to concentrate on the scenery and the ‘continental breakfast' served at our grubby seats, from a wobbly cardboard box. It features four slices of bread and a sachet of jam. Strangely, it fits in perfectly with the scene, as people tear off chunks and, using the jam like a chutney, carefully dipping it into plastic cups of scalding tea from a flask.
On the road to Pichavaram to explore the mangroves, we quickly learn luxury isn't priority. Yet, we perversely try asking for bhel puri at a ‘high class vegetarian' restaurant we stumble upon soon after emerging, hot and grimy, from the bus station, ankle deep in slush. After all, this is contemporary multicultural India, where almost all little restaurants offer ‘North Indian-South Indian-Chaat-Chinese.' And, remember, we did have an almost-Parisian breakfast, right? The waiters giggle. One nudges the other and whispers “Next they'll want Chinese.” They guffaw in unison and bring us huge steel plates heavy with bowls of sambar, rasam and dal. As they ladle out steaming rice, we nibble thoughtfully on huge appalams.
Our next stop's Pichavaram. So much for images of wine and cheese in a boat under the stars. At the rate our culinary standards are plunging, we reckon we will have to catch fish with our teeth for dinner. Yet, that night, in Pichavaram, after an eight-hour journey from civilisation (or at least what we define as civilisation, which I admit includes hair spas, shoe shops and tiramisu) we're slathered in odomos, crouched on the bed to avoid spiders and — despite a power cut — happily eating a torch-lit Chinese dinner of fried rice and chilly chicken.
What is it about Chinese food that has enabled it to travel to every nook and corner of the country? The little TTDC (Tamil Nadu Tourism) restaurant in Pichavaram boasts all the Indian-Chinese classics — chicken 65, egg fried rice, veg noodles — right beside the pan-Indian staples of chicken curry, fish fry and lime rice.
In fact, the genre's so popular that the desi Diaspora's carried it abroad, to Malaysia, Singapore and even New York. (Stylish Manhattan now has restaurants like Chinese Mirch, boasting chicken coriander, Telcherri pepper chicken and lamb Manchurian.) Although this is a cuisine that changes rapidly, since it's so open to interpretation, there are some basic tenets. Made rapidly on a high flame in a single wok, it's perfect for the roadside pushcarts. The food is a practical mix of Schezwan, Cantonese and Hakka cuisine styles, taking bits and ideas from each cuisine and then tweaking them for the Indian palate. Schezwan for pungency and spiciness. Cantonese for the sauces — Hoisin, oyster, plum — since Indians love potent gravies. Hakka, since this food was popularised largely by Kolkata's Chinese community, primarily from the Guangdong province (Southern China).
Originally involved with the tanneries, they're now best known for the Indian-Chinese food in Tangra. What the Tangra-Chinese and all subsequent Chinese cooks have done is use ingredients easily available in Indian supermarkets. So unlike Thai food, for instance, which requires infuriatingly evasive galangal, lemon grass and kefir lime, all you need to whip up a Chinese dinner — besides your regular groceries — are soya, vinegar and spring onions. Paneer replaces tofu. Powerful ginger and garlic fill voids once occupied by Sichuan peppercorns and star anise. And a generous pinch of ajinomoto compensates for any deficiencies.
Our Pichavaram Chinese is a poster-food for the genre. The chicken's unabashedly deep fried, lolling in a thick soya sauce afloat with onions. The fried rice is chunky with beans, scrambled eggs and shreds of chicken. It's served with tomato sauce on a steel thali plate. The Chinese will never recognise it. Every Indian will.