Off-Centre | Food

All tangled up: The straight and narrow of Chindian food

A vendor prepares spicy noodles in Himachal Pradesh.

A vendor prepares spicy noodles in Himachal Pradesh.

Isn’t it fascinating how food somehow plays a catalytic role in almost every socio-political discourse in our country? From the kind of meat one is ‘allowed’ to eat, to the rather banal debate often centred around the North’s roti reverence versus the South’s obsession with rice, we’ve been spectators to it all.

But none perhaps more contentious than what we know, love and yes, paradoxically hate, as ‘Chinese food’. A cuisine that we’ve ingeniously co-opted to form a hybrid in the form of our coriander leaf and garam masala-redolent Chindian food.

In 2012, a khap panchayat in Haryana’s Jind district blamed the consumption of chow mein for the growing incidents of rape in India. Yes, try chewing on that indigestible titbit.

The most recent salvo against the cuisine was fired by Union Minister Ramdas Athawale, who called for a boycott of “Chinese food”, demanding that restaurants serving it be banned. All this vilification, notwithstanding the fact that chow mein is probably as Chinese as chaat! Or that another Chindian staple, chicken Manchurian, was invented in Mumbai in the late 1970s by Nelson Wang, a third-generation Chinese chef born in Kolkata.

What’s interesting, however, is that we in India have had a tryst with Chinese cuisine way before dishes like chow mein and chicken Manchurian entered our local culinary lexicon. Unbeknownst to us and thanks to ancient international trade routes like the Silk Road and to the Chinese Buddhist scholar Xuanzang, who travelled extensively around India in the 7th century, Chinese cuisine has lent us several regional noodle and dumpling iterations. Much like it has to Italy’s celebrated pasta repertoire, something many believe to be a direct result of 13th-century cultural appropriation by the famous Italian explorer Marco Polo.

Speaking of Italy, we may as well set the record straight about the whole which-came-first-the-pasta-or-the-noodle conundrum. Irrefutable evidence in the form of a 4,000-year-old bowl of millet noodles unearthed at an archaeological settlement in the Laija region of Northwest China has proved that most forms of noodles and dumplings — be they rolled, pulled, cut or extruded — have indeed come to the world from China.

Super-fine hybrids

And that is also how one of India’s most beloved and popular vermicelli-like dried noodles — seviyan or semiya — came into being. Adapted from Italian vermicelli, also called angel hair pasta or minutelli (which was itself adapted in the 14th century from an ancient Chinese super-fine rice noodle called mai fun), this rice noodle is used in both sweet preparations like sheer khorma and payasam and in savoury ones like upma. The slightly fatter and freshly extruded idiyappam or noolputtu, as it is known in Kerala and Tamil Nadu respectively, is another hybrid rice noodle that is steamed in coils and eaten with both sweet and savoury (think egg curry) accompanying dishes.

Idiyappam with egg curry.

Idiyappam with egg curry.

Similarly, the translucent corn or arrowroot-starch noodles found at the bottom of a glass of falooda came to India from Iran — another pivotal country on the Silk Road — where they are called faloodeh. The North Indian sweet called sutarpheni is another rice-based noodle of Chinese origin that was introduced to India by way of the Turkish, who call it pismaniye.

It is by turning our attention to lesser known, more regional varieties of Indian noodles and dumplings — particularly in the high north and northeast of the country — that we see how well the original Chinese ones have been adapted and assimilated into the culinary milieu. Take, for instance, the steamed Shanghainese nian gao rice dumplings made from dense rolls of pounded glutinous rice. In both Ladakh and Spiti, the kyu made from wheat dough and cooked in a warming stew along with yak meat is a popular dumpling and a dead ringer for the nian gao.

Chutagi, another Ladakhi dumpling that came to the region via the Silk Road from Central Asia, is a bow-tie shaped dumpling (much like the Italian farfalle pasta) used in a soup that is made from meat and vegetables and similar to a thukpa. Ladakhi cuisine is also known for its sweet dumpling called pakchel mirku that is cooked into a warming dessert along with ghee and dried yak cheese called churrpi.

Assam too has its own version of the Chinese bee tai bak (rat tail) rice noodle that takes the form of anguli pitha. Named after the pinky finger (anguli) that they resemble, these extruded rice dumplings are eaten as a teatime snack when cooked with onions, green chillies and tomatoes. The chushi and jhinuk pitha originally from east Bengal are further examples of dried rice flour-based dumplings that can be reconstituted by adding them either to a savoury curry or a creamy, milk-based payesh.

Buying seviyan on the eve of Eid in Old Delhi.

Buying seviyan on the eve of Eid in Old Delhi.

Versatile dumplings

This sweet-savoury adaptability is also one of the chief characteristics of the tiny ring-like dried dumplings called sarvale. Found in the cooking of Goan Muslims, sarvale are either boiled and served with a topping of scrambled eggs for breakfast or as yet another kheer-like thickened milk dessert. Substituting dairy for the thick, first extract of coconut milk is the delicious coastal Maharashtrian noodle dessert called ‘naralyachya dudhache shiravlya’ where rice noodles are cooked with the coconut milk along with sugar and cardamom and served during festivals like Ganesh Chaturthi.

While most of China’s noodle and dumpling varieties are made from either rice, corn or wheat, there are a few made from legumes like the mung bean cellophane noodle called fen si. Interestingly, Indian dumpling adaptations — particularly in regions like Gujarat, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh — seem to focus on these.

With its glossy surface speckled with tempered black mustard seeds and a scattering of freshly grated coconut and coriander leaves, the Gujarati khandvi made from a mixture of gram flour and buttermilk is also spread on a flat surface to set before being rolled up into bite-sized morsels, much like the Cantonese dim sum dumpling called cheung fun.

Again in Gujarat, the wheat-based dumplings of dal dhokli that are submerged in a spiced lentil stew are another example of adaptation. As are other regional Rajasthani dishes like the chickpea flour dumpling strip-based besan chilla ki subzi and Varanasi’s sui mai-meets-ravioli-like wheat pockets called dal ka dulha.

Wonder what Marco Polo and Xuanzang would have made (pun intended!) of these?

The Mumbai-based writer and restaurant reviewer is passionate about food, travel and luxury, not necessarily in that order.


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Printable version | May 24, 2022 11:45:06 am | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/food/all-tangled-up-the-straight-and-narrow-of-chindian-food/article32113300.ece