Wok the talk

How an unassuming eatery in Kolkata, Ah Leung, and its iconic dish is the inspiration behind filmmaker-musician Jaimin Rajani’s latest documentary Singhara Chow

December 31, 2022 09:51 am | Updated 09:51 am IST

The much celebrated Singhara Chow (right) and chilli chicken (left)

The much celebrated Singhara Chow (right) and chilli chicken (left) | Photo Credit: Jaimin Rajani

A few hundred years ago, when the Hakka Chinese settled in Kolkata’s once-bustling Chinatown, they brought with them their history, traditions, and most importantly, their culinary dexterity. Each of their dishes had a strong heritage that usually came from a grandmother’s recipe or a grand uncle’s secret ingredient. One such dish — the singhara chow— is the star of documentary maker and musician Jaimin Rajani’s latest documentary Singhara Chow, which will be released in January 2023 at the Kolkata International Short Film Festival.

A study in itself, Kolkata’s Tangra is a conundrum of history and its many ironies. Once a place where people in two-piece Mao ensembles passed by the Chinese Kali temple (where hakka chow is offered to the deity even today) and sat forintellectual addas (informal conversation) at roadside tea stalls, today’s Tangra is only a shadow of its former self. What pervades the air is the stinging smell of tanneries and the slowing flurry of a dwindling past.

What is the singhara chow?

Calcuttans frequenting Ah Leung have appropriated their wanton chow as “singhara chow”. This curious nomenclature comes from the close resemblance of the wantons with the Indian samosa or singhara as they call it in Bengali. Since then, the eatery has been much celebrated for its “singhara chow’‘

Entrance to the unassuming Ah Leung

Entrance to the unassuming Ah Leung | Photo Credit: Shreya Banerjee

In the Tangra of today, somewhere out of the focus of Google maps, lies the unassuming eatery called Ah Leung. Tucked away from the imposing presence of prominent restaurants, one has to ask the local tea sellers or shopkeepers for directions. The 20-year-old restaurant is run by the Yung family. Li Kuo Yung, 60, the patriarch of the family, was born in Calcutta, while his father and grandfather migrated to the city decades ago. With no physical menu or employees, the restaurant follows the recipes of Li Kuo Yung and is managed entirely by the family.

Food on film

Jaimin, who has been a patron of the restaurant ever since he was introduced to it by friends, decided to capture Ah Leung’s intriguing history on film. . “I was amazed by Ah Leung’s unusual setup inside a house in a deep pocket of Tangra, and the fact that they dish up delicious, authentic Chinese food, far removed from the banqueting and street-style Indo-Chinese counterpart that’s ubiquitous here. I wanted to capture this experience and share it with others.”

Director of the documentary, Sharon Flynn, states that “I frequent Kolkata and I love how the city holds on to its roots. It’s a photographer’s and filmmaker’s paradise. The city is visually and sonically very interesting. I found Li Kuo Yung’s story to be compelling and worthy of being told through a documentary.”

Seated on a stool, eyes fixed on filling dumplings, Kuo Yung’s son, Kit, says, “My family is from Moyang in China. My grandfather came here and started a small leather factory around 70 years ago. My father was not happy working in our family’s leather business., so when he was 16, he ran away and tried his hand at cooking — something which came naturally to him.”

Behind the scenes at Ah Leung

Kit’s grandfather followed the trail of Chinese traveller Ahchi who was one of the first people to have settled in the city. A curious overlap is that the word achhi in Bengali translates to ‘I am there.’ Like several other Chinese migrants, Li Kuo Yung started his journey in a leather factory until his heart strayed to cooking authentic Chinese — a rare feat in a city where Indo-Chinese is a domineering culinary presence. After 22 years of running Ah Leung, it is rare to spot the patriarch with a skillet in hand. We, however, were lucky enough to catch him in the act.

Once a dream he chased, today it is rare to spot Li Kuo Yung in the kitchen.

Once a dream he chased, today it is rare to spot Li Kuo Yung in the kitchen. | Photo Credit: Shreya Banerjee

Kit adds, “I have been working at the restaurant for 11 years now. My sisters are married, my mother (Chu Li Yan), father, and I help prepare the meals that we serve every day (except Wednesdays) from 7am to 12.30pm and 6pm till midnight.“

Chu Li Yan prepping the Singhara Chow.

Chu Li Yan prepping the Singhara Chow. | Photo Credit: Shreya Banerjee

Students Voshiana Williams and Tanya Rozario are regulars at Ah Leung. “We have been coming here for the longest time. We enjoy authentic Chinese flavours over Indo-Chinese. Our favourites are chilli chicken, moon rice noodles and moon wantons.”

Kiara Chen, a local, visits Ah Leung every now and then. Over a steaming hot plate of noodles, she explains, “This is what you call kiaow-mien. Mien in Chinese means noodles and kiaow is essentially these condiments or what they call samosa. “

The famed Ah Leung Chilli Chicken

The famed Ah Leung Chilli Chicken | Photo Credit: Shreya Banerjee

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