Every time I return to Bombay, I seek out the saucy and spicy flavors of my childhood. We ate home-cooked food most of the time, but we loved going out to eat, which always seemed like a special outing. Our number one choice of cuisine was Indo-Chinese because it covered all the bases of comfort food with its noodles, rice and chicken sauteed with Indian spices and herbs.
Remembering the salty sweet flavor of golden brown Gobi Manchurian makes my mouth water even now. It could be described as a spicy version of General Tso Cauliflower. I haven’t experienced the real thing in years. Indo-Chinese food is my favorite “foreign” cuisine in India—and the rest of the subcontinent seems to agree with my preference. As I walk through the scarlet doors of my favorite restaurant in greater Bombay, I’m greeted by a delectable scent of red chilli and soy sauce. It feels good to be home.
From the Port of Kolkata to the San Francisco Bay, Indo-Chinese cuisine has become popular all over the globe—and for good reason. These delightfully flavorful recipes combine traditional Chinese cooking methods with a heavy dose of Indian spice and sauces to create a culinary tradition that Indians and Americans alike adore.
Kolkata: Birthplace of Indo-Chinese Cuisine
Indo-Chinese cuisine is not fusion since it has existed in India for so long, nor is it Chinese (despite dish names like Schezwan, which intentionally alters the name of a southwestern Chinese province). What all Indians know and all outsiders question is the fact that Indo-Chinese cuisine has very little (if anything) to do with the authentic flavors of our neighbors to the northeast. In fact, most locals would attest that traditional Chinese food is bland to the Indian palate. We prefer our version—a spicy, gravy-covered concoction full of Indian sensibility with little hints of mainland China here and there.
This popular cuisine came to the subcontinent with Yang Tai Chow in 1778, along with waves of other Hakka Chinese settling in the capital of British India at the time. These immigrants to Kolkata sought economic advancement through the tea and sugar trade, and many ended up working at the docks along the busy Hooghly River port. India’s only Chinatown grew vibrantly out of this area and became home to carpentry, tanneries, and a new culinary tradition.
Today, Tiretta Bazaar is home to around 2,000 Chinese Indians who keep the tradition of Indo-Chinese cuisine alive. Legends such as fourth-generation Eau Chew and traditional Beijing Restaurant hold the title of oldest and best cuisine, while new local favorites like Chowman and Kafulok bring Indo-Chinese flavors to Tangrans of all budgets. Kolkata’s Chinese quarter is particularly lively around the Chinese Lunar New Year, much like our local Chinatown in the northern part of San Francisco.
Indo-Chinese Flavors Inspire Across the World
From its roots in Tangra, Indo-Chinese cuisine spread rapidly across the subcontinent. You can easily find good restaurants in urban areas from Delhi to Chennai, or go for a more “fast food” option by savoring the goods along
highways. Passing chow mein lari carts and momo dhabas along Bombay’s busy streets always brings me serious nostalgia. That’s the main fast food I purchased on my way to the rail station when I needed a quick bite of something spicy and delicious.
You can also find Indo-Chinese food around the globe. San Francisco in particular has a thriving Indo-Chinese culinary scene such as the Inchin Bamboo Garden (where I always order the paneer latmai).
If you’re looking for authentic Indo-Chinese cuisine, be on the lookout for menus that include “chilli,” “hakka,” and “manchurian” dishes, and you’ll definitely find an option that differs from your average Americanized Chinese locale. To emulate the tastes of growing up in Bombay, you should order the crispy American Chop Suey. Just trust me on this one—it’s 100% Indian and uniquely delicious.
DOSA’s Favorite Indo-Chinese Dishes
As an executive chef, I have the opportunity to create dishes that remind me of home. DOSA’s Chinese New Year menu last weekend included several of my very favorite Indo-Chinese dishes, prepared in the traditional way with plenty of spice and history. Don’t worry; we bring them back from time-to-time during Christmas week and for Happy Hour! We always serve a few of my favorite dishes with vegetarian, seafood, and meat options to satisfy all tastes.
- Spicy Szechwan Prawns: This fiery seafood dish is brightened with Szechuan peppercorn, scallions, ginger, bell peppers, and cumin. Of course, we include chili, garlic, and soy in this traditional sauce.
- Crispy Lamb (or Paneer) Chow Mein: Ah, chow mein. The perfect blend of sautéed noodles, green chillis, and chilli paste with the warm spices of Indian cumin and coriander.
- Chicken (or Paneer) Fried Rice: An Indian take on a traditional Chinese mainstay, this dish incorporates basmati rice, garlic, and egg. We season it well with traditional Indian peppercorn, cumin, ginger, and, of course, turmeric.
- Gobi Manchurian: My all time favorite Indo-Chinese dish is sweet and spicy. Fried cauliflower’s naturally warm flavor is enhanced with chilli, garlic, and soy sauce for a comforting classic.
Participate in the Indo-Chinese Tradition
What I love most about Indo-Chinese cuisine is that it’s so much more than another part of the San Francisco fusion craze. It’s got far more tradition than Cali-Mex and more deeply local flavor than a Pan-Asian mix. Authentic Indo-Chinese recipes date back centuries into India’s history and incorporate the tastes of generations. That’s why, as a native of India, I’m proud to recommend this lasting culinary tradition to new visitors and locals alike.
As the Chinese New Year approaches every year, I can taste red chilli in my dreams. It may be time for another trip back home—but in the meantime, I’ll be savoring the local San Francisco offerings instead. On Chinese New Year (based on the lunar calendar) and the week of Christmas, join us at DOSA by reserving your table at one of DOSA’s locations—either on Fillmore or Valencia—as we celebrate with a few Indo-Chinese favorites along with our traditional South Indian fare.