The gobi manchurian belongs to no place in India, which is why it belongs to every place in India. We could anoint it our national dish without treading on regional toes

Back when I was a child, my father and his friend Mr D would, on many an evening, discuss global politics threadbare. Despite our 1965 win over Pakistan, our 1962 defeat at China’s hands was still fresh in people’s memory. Mr D unfailingly posed one question to my father (whom he considered the fount of all wisdom) every time they met. His eyes round with fear, he would ask in a trembling voice, “Do you think China will invade us?” I was too young to follow their verbal peregrinations but I well recall how the dreaded word ‘China’ would chill me to the bone.

If it were today I would have told Mr D not to worry. While his worst nightmare has come true in a virtual sense, with China bombarding us with cheap goods, its physical attempts to invade us would get a fitting response. At the border we would launch a surprise attack. A barrage of round, soft objects would rain down upon the Chinese soldiers. Caught on the back foot, they would sniff at the ammunition suspiciously and then be unable to resist gnawing at it. Their appetites having been whetted by its maddeningly intriguing flavours — the familiar soy sauce and hint of spring onion combined with exotic ingredients hard to identify — they would be led by their noses from snowy slopes to sun-baked plains until they had lost the will to fight.

The Curious Case of the Manchurian Cauliflower would have given Sherlock Holmes much to chew on. Who invented the faux-Chinese gobi manchurian that millions of Indians swoon over? Subject to correction I would venture the hypothesis that it was concocted in a kitchen of one of our numerous ‘Indian Chinese’ restaurants by a Tibetan cook who was apparently unaware that gobhi is cabbage and that its floral cousin is called the phool-gobhi. The soy sauce is its sole, uniquely Chinese ingredient. By a tortuous stretch of the imagination I could tease out a couple of further links to that country by pointing out that the Gobi desert is in China, adjoining the region termed Manchuria, but somehow I am loath to believe that these were the facts that inspired the creator to come up with the name. Be that as it may, the burgeoning popularity of the gobi manchurian could not be contained within the four walls of a restaurant kitchen and it soon burst forth into the great outdoors where it instantly occupied pride of place on the pushcarts of street vendors all over India. The name is often mangled on menu cards and signboards, but the taste remains the same, although in appearance it takes on a range of fetching hues from russet to sienna.

What accounts for its addictive qualities? I can’t put my finger on it. Is it the sauce? Is it the chemical additive in the sauce? Whatever it may be, you will admit that it compels one to have more than one. (I too was a fan until a painful incident, which I shall save for later, scarred me for life.) My choice of topic this week was prompted by two instances brought to my attention in the past week of gourmands with a passion for this dish. A young reader of mine complained that she was obliged to go on a diet for medical reasons, as a result of which she was banned from eating “good food”. And by good food she meant “the likes of the bilious orange gobi manchurian that I used to crave for”. Craving, get it? It turns you into a junkie. A friend spoke of her friend, a resident of Manhattan (that paradise for foodies) who, not long after she had arrived home in Bangalore, expressed her craving for gobi manchurian. She devoured two plates of it in one sitting.

There have been disastrous attempts in the past to pinpoint what could be termed our national dish. Any suggestion, in a country with wildly differing regional cuisines, would be immediately shot down, and therefore I dare not recommend the imposter we speak of. But consider this. Although the masala dosa has gained a national foothold it has an indubitably southern origin, while the pan-Indian samosa is, strictly speaking, a foreigner. The gobi manchurian, however, belongs to no place in India, which is why it belongs to every place in India. We could anoint it our national dish without treading on regional toes.

And finally, the life-changing incident I referred to: I was in Shimoga on an official visit, and on the evening of my return I dropped in, for tea, at the house of a well-known personality. Tea consisted of “very good” gobi manchurian that a nearby restaurant was famous for. After eating a few I started feeling queasy but my host munched on with evident relish, repeatedly pointing out how “very good” the preparation was. He pressed more and more of the stuff on me. On the night train back, I began to feel distinctly uneasy. I threw up. Several times. Right until morning. I arrived in Bangalore, a shadow of my former self.

From that day on, whenever I see gobi manchurian I turn away with a shudder. But let me not stop you. Go on, have another. I know you can’t resist it.

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