I had one of those love-hate relationships with Chinese food. Because, for a long time I associated it with Shinkows in Ooty. Which, honestly, is a perfectly nice restaurant, set in front of the scenic St Stephens Church. Unfortunately, when I was in boarding school in Ooty it was also one of the only nice restaurants in town. Which meant it was always the venue of The Last Meal for most of the boarding school kids, just before our parents abandoned us to Dining Hall dinners, rife with boiled beetroot, thick stews and over-ambitious blancmange.
Shinkows was a classic Indian-Chinese cliché. Dim lighting, dawdling waiters and chequered table-cloths, all affectionately cloaked with that familiar all pervasive aroma of soya-vinegar-chilly chicken.
Think back to your first Chinese meal in India, and you’ll probably conjure up an image that is startlingly similar. After all, for those of us who grew up in an India where a Chinese meal meant jasmine tea, fried rice and chicken lollypops, Chinese restaurants were strangely standard. What changed were the memories. After all, eating out in those days was usually to celebrate an occasion: birthdays, anniversaries, promotions. (And it’s just my luck that I start thinking of steel trunks, dormitories and home sickness!) That’s probably why so many people are so loyal to old-fashioned Chinese, even though it’s quickly becoming outdated in today’s India where foodies turn their nose up at the blanket term ‘Chinese’ and talk of food that’s specifically Cantonese, Hunan, Sichuan etc.
Most people get a warm fuzzy feeling when they walk into an old-fashioned Chinese place even today. There’s something inexplicably reassuring about settling into sauce-stained upholstery in a restaurant bristling with Feng Shui to order a thick sweet-corn chicken soup.
In Chennai, unfortunately, many of the old Chinese places are gradually disappearing as customers shift loyalties to hipper Chinese restaurants, like Mainland China, which have changed the way we view this genre of food. It’s now lighter, healthier and more authentic, with constant inputs from the land of it’s origin in the form of Chefs and food festivals to ensure enough authenticity to give it an edge, even while it caters to desi palates brought up on unabashed Indian-Chinese. The dark, bustling Southern Chinese, which was on Mount Road, is gone. So is Chung King, with its huge tanks of gold fish, musty carpeting and friendly waiters.
So it’s interesting that Canton, now 15 years old, still has so many loyal customers, many of whom have been eating and ordering from the restaurant right from when it opened. Most of them, predictably, order the same things — Dragon chicken, chicken lollypop, minced chicken prawn rolls. There’s wonton soup. Schezwan fried rice, mandarin fish: This is just the kind of unapologetically clichéd old-fashioned Chinese that will take you back in time.
After unsuccessfully trying to find something healthy on the menu, we decided to throw caution to the winds and settle for all the gloriously deep fried food, which is a trademark of Indian-Chinese. The meal opens with dim sum, juicy with a bland steamed skin of translucent dough. We try the Hunan chicken, in a dark, rich soya sauce teamed with Kung Pou rice interspersed with baby corn. Also a plate of deliciously wicked golden fried prawns.
The food lives up to expectations. After all, this is not high end dining; it’s regular food, priced conservatively for customers who are sensible about budgets. Everything is either fried or comes in sauces – red, black and white. Unless it’s both fried and sauced.
Yet, the ingredients are fresh, and food is served piping hot with those good old favourites to jazz things up: soy sauce, vinegar with green chillies and flaming red chilly sauce. No wonder Canton’s so popular for lunch, when they deliver to most of the offices around them, as well as to the British, American and Singapore consulates. The best part? Portions are huge and prices are low.
Canton is in Nungambakkam, next to Hotel Ganpat.
Call 28272197/ 28214445/ 42139417 for details. A meal for two costs roughly Rs 300.