In India, there is one type of cuisine that dominates much of the restaurant scene — and it’s not Indian. For more than a century, Indians have gone nuts for Indian-Chinese cuisine, so much so that in some neighborhoods, it even outnumbers the Indian spots.
This mash-up of the aromatic spices of Indian food with classic Chinese techniques and preparations is best represented in dishes like chicken lollipops, Hakka noodles and vegetable Manchurian.
The story starts in the early 1900s when many Hakka Chinese, a minority ethnic group in China, immigrated to India after the Opium Wars to build railroads for the East India Company. Most settled in the northeast, in cities like Darjeeling and Kolkata, due to its proximity to China.
As often happens when immigrant groups land in a new country, the Chinese soon felt a longing for their native cuisine and started using newfound local ingredients to recreate their beloved dishes. The family of Stacey Lo – who owns New York’s Indian-Chinese restaurant The Chinese Club with her husband, chef Salil Mehta – was part of this movement.
Lo’s great-grandfather opened up the original Chinese Club in 1914 in Darjeeling in order to bring a taste of home to the Hakka Chinese community. According to Lo, it didn’t take long for Indian generals to start frequenting the place, asking for traditional dishes with increasing amounts of Indian spice and seasoning. Before long, the food became equal parts Indian and Chinese. Through the years, Lo’s great-grandfather and many other Chinese immigrants contributed dishes to what is now a vast, wildly popular cuisine in India. “[Indian-Chinese cuisine] became my home food,” Lo recalls of her upbringing.
The most defining dish of Indian-Chinese food is Hakka chili chicken, bits of chicken that are battered and fried, then tossed in a sauté of onions, chili pepper, garlic, soy sauce and Shaoxing cooking wine.
Another iconic dish, vegetable Manchurian, was allegedly invented by a Chinese immigrant named Nelson Wang in Mumbai, when he made a fritter of cabbage, carrots, onion, garlic and cilantro, seasoned it with soy sauce in lieu of any kind of masala, then plunged it in a typical Chinese brown sauce infused with black pepper, garlic and ginger.
A perennial favorite of Indian children is lollipop chicken, which, depending on region, is either drumsticks of tandoori chicken (in Delhi), garlicky fried chicken (Northeast), or wok-fried kai chi chicken that have been shaped into a ball at one end (Mumbai).
And no Indian-Chinese meal would be complete without the famous Chinese-inspired corn soup, made simply of creamed corn, chicken stock and egg whites.
For many Indians, Indian-Chinese food has supplanted their definition of traditional Chinese cuisine. “If I were to go to a traditional Chinese restaurant, I’d feel like something was missing: my ginger, garlic, chilies, and cilantro,” says Salil Mehta, who grew up in Delhi. “Both cuisines have that umami factor. They go together well. And now, Indian-Chinese is our comfort food.”
At The Chinese Club, Mehta and Lo want to introduce New Yorkers to this often- misunderstood branch of Indian cuisine. “This is not fusion food, it’s evolution food,” Mehta insists. The restaurant has even gone a step further in introducing new dishes that aren’t traditionally part of the Indian-Chinese canon as an attempt to localize Indian-Chinese cuisine to Brooklyn in the same way Chinese food was initially localized to India.
“I feel like you can express yourself a little more down here in Brooklyn,” he says. “People are willing to experiment with food.” Accordingly, he’s added a dish of barbecue ribs cooked in a Tsingtao beer batter, and a dessert with ube kulfi stuffed inside a Chinese bubble waffle. “We want there to be the kinds of things you wouldn’t see in another Indian-Chinese restaurant,” he says. “We want to express our part of the history.”