Column | Gobi manchurian and the food war

The recent banning of the Indo-Chinese dish in Goa is a reminder that we must take authenticity debates with a hefty pinch of salt

February 15, 2024 05:31 pm | Updated 05:31 pm IST

Mapusa in Goa has banned gobi manchurian over the alleged use of synthetic colours and other additives in the dish.

Mapusa in Goa has banned gobi manchurian over the alleged use of synthetic colours and other additives in the dish. | Photo Credit: Illustration: Sreejith R. Kumar

I went to Badami in Karnataka to see 6th century cave temples. The sculptures were exquisite — a Vishnu, kicking his leg high like a ballet dancer, a bull and an elephant sharing a head, carved from red sandstone.

But the real surprise in Badami were all the carts selling gobi manchurian, each one misspelled more imaginatively than the previous. I researched local food bloggers and found that for some reason gobi manchurian is one of the “iconic dishes” of the area.

Now, gobi manchurian is in the crosshairs of food evangelists in Goa. The Goan town of Mapusa has banned the batter-fried cauliflower smothered in vaguely Chinese sauces. Some of the zeal is apparently because all kinds of synthetic colours and dubious additives were going into the dish. But nobody is sure why the authorities are throwing out the gobi with the bathwater instead of just cracking down on the additives.

It also feeds into a larger authenticity debate cooking around the country. Not long ago, Goa decreed that beach shacks needed to serve fish curry and rice. They feared Goan cuisine was disappearing because the shacks were catering to North Indian palates.

Butter chicken debate continues

Meanwhile, in North India, there’s a court case raging as two families duke it out over who owns the authentic butter chicken. The owners of Moti Mahal and Daryaganj each claim their forefather was the one who invented butter chicken.

One side insists their forefather Kundan Lal Gujral, worried about what to do with leftover tandoori chicken, decided to turn it into a curry with chopped tomatoes, cream and butter. The other side says Kundan Lal Jaggi came up with the dish when a large group came to the restaurant and he had just some tandoori chicken on hand. The irony is the two Kundans were partners. Both had fled to Delhi from Peshawar during Partition and started Moti Mahal to serve food from the Punjab they had left behind. Butter chicken was born in tragedy though it is now being cooked in farce.

Oddly, this story sounds not too unlike the origin story of chicken tikka masala, where one Ali Ahmed Aslam of Glasgow claimed he rustled up the sweetish gravy on the spot when a customer complained the chicken tikka was too dry and spicy.

All this to say we should probably take origin stories of popular dishes with a hefty pinch of salt. The question is, does it matter to anyone other than Moti Mahal and Daryaganj who “invented” butter chicken? Or whether gobi manchurian is authentically Indian or not?

What’s in your sambar?

Gobi/ chicken manchurian also comes with its own “authentic” origin story. This one involves Nelson Wang, a Chinese chef from Kolkata, who supposedly dredged chicken cubes in cornflour and tossed them in a garlic-soy-vinegar sauce at his restaurant in Mumbai and created the dish. No one has contested this yet, but the quest for authenticity when it comes to food is futile. Each home has its own “authentic” way of preparing beloved local dishes. The fish curry my mother was used to at her maternal home tasted different from the fish curry she had at her in-laws’ place. But one was not less authentic than the other.

“Only completely fraudulent people swear by authenticity when it comes to food,” writes Krish Ashok in his book Masala Lab. Or food bloggers on Instagram who claim to know the one and only authentic hole-in-the-wall joint for everything. Ashok points out that the carrots and cauliflowers that are always part of sambar were once called “English vegetables”. His grandmother grew up with sambar that had neither but happily incorporated both into her sambar when she moved to Chennai from rural Tamil Nadu without worrying about authenticity.

The point about Indian food, says Ashok, is that we can Indianise everything from pastas to sushi. It’s the flavour profile that matters more than specific ingredients, which is why a bit of soy and chilli sauce turns batter-fried cauliflower into something “authentically” Manchurian though no one from Manchuria would recognise it.

This is not to say we should not encourage those Goan shacks to serve fish and rice. Or that food heritage does not matter. It’s just that food heritage, like much of the rest of Indian history, is a glorious celebration of inauthenticity and impurity. Many feel threatened by that now and search for an authentic, pure, unsullied past forgetting that inauthenticity has its own strength. That’s what gave someone the confidence to ‘invent’ gobi machurian. The dish might be “Manchurian” but the jugaad that went into it is fully Indian.

Though I am no fan of its goopy taste, there’s no need to turn it into some ‘Manchurian Candidate’.

The writer is the author of ‘Don’t Let Him Know’, and likes to let everyone know about his opinions whether asked or not.

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