‘Want to go for a Chinese?’ may have lost its cool cachet in the UK, but for a new generation in India the casual dining out choice is definitely Indo-Chinese. You don’t go out to order dal. Manchurian chicken? Bring it on.
There won’t be any chicken on the menu at Bundobust as they launch a quartet of Indo-Chinese specials across their sites in Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool, available until August 29. The veggie/craft beer formula rightly rules. They’ve done cauli and mushroom Manchurian mash-ups in the past, favouring a sweet-sour sauce that’s a bit chippie-like.
And they’re not the only Manchester city centre Indian to put the Asian hybrid on the menu. Indian Tiffin Room confirmed its street food credentials by featuring diaspora dishes that originated in the old Chinatown of Kalkota (Calcutta) with influences from far beyond.
Take Hakka Noodles. To the traditional base of Indo-Chinese spices and soy sauce coated noodles the Bundobust chefs add stir-fried green and red pepper, mushroom and white cabbage. For a fiver it’s a gorgeous combo but begs the question: who were the Hakka?
It’s tiffin time in Kalkota’s teeming Tiretta Bazaar – the link between Chinese and Indian street food
In the late 18th century these folk emigrated from Northern China. A magnet for their silk and tanning skills was Calcutta, established by the British East India Company as capital of colonial India.
Two areas there vied to be Chinatown for them and other Chinese arrivals – Tangra and Tiretta Bazaar. Only the latter remains today as a food and cultural destination. Its restaurants are testimony to the inevitable fusion that quickly occurred to accommodate the deep-fried, chilli/spicy flavours Indians love. Key elements soy sauce, vinegar and the Hakkas’ essential Schezwan sauce substituting dried red chillies for Sichuan peppercorns
Nowadays you’ll find this Indo-Chinese cuisine across the Sub-continent. It’s especially popular in my favourite Indian city and great melting pot, Mumbai. In Kolkata, though, the influence goes much further, where’ll you’ll find the likes of Chinese bhel and Schezwan dosa. Any resemblance to authentic Cantonese or Sichuan food is fanciful.
Alongside is a more authentic approach to Chinese regional food, too. Around 1974 India’s first Sichuan restaurant opened up at the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai. A different kind of hot.
Chicken Manchurian was invented in Mumbai, by Nelson Wang, the son of Chinese immigrants in Kolkata. And that’s how umami made its entry into Indian cuisine. And made the Wang dynasty!
Indo-Chinese has been a slower burner in the UK, perhaps the flagship being Hakkaland in Harrow-on-the-Hill, but I recall a visit to Asha Khan’s much-missed Darjeeling Express off Carnaby Street, where some sizzling Tangra Prawns were on the menu.
Bundobust’s entry onto the scene is as playful as you’d expect, plugging into their own Gujarati-inspired small plate evolution.
Gobi Toast (£5.25) is deep-fried pav soldiers crowned with garlic and ginger minced cauliflower crusted with mixed sesame seeds. Served with coconut korma dipping sauce. Salt & Pepper Okra Fries (£5.50), where the Bundo top seller is tossed with peppers, onions, chilli flakes and soy sauce. And from leftfield, Tofoo 65 (£6.75), a Bundo debut for the bean curd, filling pakoras in a sauce rich with Chinese five spice, curry leaf, garlic, ginger, fermented red chilli paste and mustard seeds.
The sauce is “a Chinese spiced reimagining of the classic Chennai Hotel Buhari 1965 sauce recipe.” More research for me to do, then.
• Bundobust has venues in Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester Piccadilly and Oxford Road (the Brewery).