Chinese food in restaurants is pretty staple but sometimes you chance upon a dish that surpasses expectations…

Chinese food in most Delhi restaurants is much of a muchness, same old brown gravy, viscous with corn flour starch. Imaginatively named Singapore, Mongolian or Schezwan, not so imaginatively tasting of ginger, garlic and cheap, dark soy sauce. But sometimes a dish is served that surpasses expectations, and then it becomes the Flavour of the Month.

At Nanking the other day, I had something called “Three Cup Chicken”, and the waiter's description was informed — he didn't say “Ma'am it has unique spices” or “it's made with the chef's special sauce” — he actually told us how it would be flavoured and cooked. Despite this, it was the dish I had least expectations of. But it turned out to be exceptional: delicately flavoured, lightly cooked, and pretty. So of course it had to be made at home, tout de suite, twice in one week; once as a soup and once as a “dish”.

Fundamental difference

The home version was fundamentally different in that I had prawns in the freezer, so it was Three Cup Prawns and not chicken, and, second, I didn't remember exactly what it had tasted like. Maybe there were diced bell peppers, which I omitted because, though they add colour and crunch, they're not my favourite flavour. And the spices were guesstimated, but even then the home version was good. Reactions started with oohs of appreciation at the look, even from the resident laconics. And then aahs and mms when they actually ate it.

The restaurant version had had a little light-brown gravy, with clean white bits of chicken, and some crunchy veggies. What set the dish apart was its fragrance, which came from was a combination of spices that worked well together and which I think we cracked at home. The prawn version was prettier, because it had prawns that had turned bright pink, and deep, emerald green broccoli.

Ubiquitous sauce

Since we're on the subject of “Chinese” dishes, another one is garlic-chilli sauce. Years ago I spent some months in a professional kitchen. There they made many fine things, from the simplest salads to the most complicated desserts. The purpose of the whole exercise was to familiarise myself with what went on in the bellies of large hotel chains, not to transform me into a chef. I suppose I saw and absorbed several processes, but didn't learn too many “dishes”. The only one I did was the hot garlic chilli sauce, ubiquitous in Indian Chinese restaurants. This so took my fancy that it's more the flavour of the decades than of merely the month. In a big hotel's Chinese, a pot of chicken stock is always simmering. Passing chefs add water, a stick of celery, a chicken bone or a carrot to the fragrant, bubbling broth, but somehow the taste is more or less standardised. In those days they used this instead of water in everything, just ladling as much they needed into the wok. Probably it not only added to the richness of flavour, but, being hot, it made for speedy cooking.

It has, predictably, a very strong flavour, so it takes over the taste of whatever you eat with it, unless used judiciously. A spoonful mixed with mayonnaise makes a lively dip with fried foods of the blander kind, like fish fingers or just potato crisps. Or it can be added to any curry where you want this kind of pungency.

Vasundhara Chauhan is based in Delhi and works with Pratham's ASER (Annual Status of Education Report).

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