It’s old, it’s quaint and has some of the most delicious Chinese cuisine on offer in India. I’m talking Chinatown in Kolkata’s neighbourhood, called Tangra. It has been an integral part of the city’s cultural and communal landscape for so long that it could officially be labelled as the birthplace of Indo-Chinese cuisine – a unique taste profile that includes Schezwan sauce, Hakka noodles and Manchurian.
Kolkata Chinese or Tangra Chinese, as it’s called, has spread beyond the walls of Chinatown to not only casual and fine-dining old-school Chinese eateries that dot the city but also to several Chinese restaurants across the globe.
En route to Tangra
I have visited Tangra quite a few times since my college days, which was almost three decades ago and with each visit, I witness a fragile, ageing community that had once embraced Kolkata and vice versa. Much like when I see our parents ageing a bit more on each visit back home, my heart feels heavy.
The large Chinese diaspora who had once found a home and made a pulsating living in the alleys of Tangra seems to be disappearing at an exponential rate. My recent visit, last month, didn’t prove anything different. Apart from the Chinese restaurants with their entrances flanked by red lanterns, visions of Laughing Buddhas and Chinese symbols in ornate gold, the traces of a bygone Chinese neighbourhood were looking faint.
However, guessing by the over-spilling diners queuing at the restaurants’ entrances, it was heartening to note that these eateries were still doing great business. A beautiful pagoda still stood tall at one of the main entrances to Kolkata’s Chinatown - probably India’s only official Chinatown.
A moment of crisis
Almost in the last minute of my hours of exploration, I caught a Chinese woman riding past on her Vespa. I gave a huge sigh of relief - yes, Kolkata’s Chinatown still lives! You might think I’m being dramatic but my visit to Tiretti Bazaar, another older Chinese neighbourhood in central Kolkata, had felt almost the same a decade ago and now has all but disappeared. Could Tangra be the next disappearing chapter from a city that boasts so strongly of a multi-communal existence?
Ask anyone who calls Kolkata home – this was a crisis that hit at the very heart of this dynamic Indian city.
Rendezvous Ms Liu
“Don’t judge a book by its cover,” I reminded myself. Maybe, a different story still brewed inside the brick walls of Tangra, which once housed many Chinese families for generations. They still do probably, who knows.
So, on my visit this June, I got in touch with Monica Liu. A successful restauranteur, a woman who is undisputedly the grande dame of Tangra’s Chinese food business. Liu owns the popular Chinese restaurants in the city - Kim Ling and Beijing in Tangra, Tung Fong in the upmarket Park Street and two branches of Mandarin in other parts of the city. I was summoned to Beijing, where Liu held office daily and still cooked in its kitchen. A few days earlier to this tête-à-tête, we had a family get-together over lunch at Tung Fong. Sans exaggeration, the delicate flavours and tastes from that lunch still lingered as I headed to Tangra, especially the subtle steamed prawn wantons and lamb in hoisin sauce!
I walked into Beijing at peak Saturday lunch hour. It was a full house and as I waited to be guided, the strong aroma of fried garlic and chillies, soy and all the familiar scents of what comprised typical Kolkata Chinese food in my memory, engulfed me. I had missed all of this with the pandemic stalling my usual culinary hauls in Kolkata for a while.
On my way to Liu’s office on the first floor, I passed through a massive and busy kitchen space. As I waited in the office, I mentally browsed through all the information that I had gathered over the internet about the woman I was about to meet.
Don of Tangra
The ‘Don of Tangra’ and the ‘Queen of Chinatown’ were amongst the many adjectives that floated around. As she walked in, it was clear that Liu had been busy cooking in the kitchen she helmed. I was greeted warmly and soon enough, as her stories unfolded, I delved into her culinary journey and personal life.
Liu agreed that the Chinese food served in her restaurants was completely different from what she cooked at her home, or the the type of food she had grown up eating. However, she disagreed vehemently to the terms that some diners used after experiencing her food - Indo-Chinese, Indian Chinese or Chinese food cooked in the Indian style.
She said, “First I ask them, when you came to my restaurant and tasted my food, did you see me using any spices like turmeric or other Indian masalas? We mostly steam or pan-fry our food. The Chinese people are here for so long that we realised that the local people liked our food better when it was tastier, crispier and spiced up. Today, even we - the Chinese people - like food cooked in that way.
”When I was a child, my mother used to make Chilli Chicken. She would cut the chicken into small, boneless pieces. Then she pan fried them slightly and added a bit of chillies and garlic. It’s definitely not at all the taste that you will probably like.”
How did the famous Kolkata style Chilli Chicken originate?
According to her, the Chilli Chicken phenomenon started much before Liu’s time, but not the way it’s cooked today. Bones were kept and made much like how her mother used to cook it. Slowly, the demand for fried and crispy chicken led to frying the chicken pieces with onions and garlic. Green chillies were added at a later stage of its evolution, as it became a sought-after snack accompaniment. Another version of Chilli Chicken with gravy, became popular too, but more as a side dish accompanying rice or noodles. There are no secret ingredients. Chicken pieces are mixed “nicely”, as emphasised Liu, in some sauces, cornflour and flour and then fried with a little garlic and chillies.
Indo-Chinese travels abroad
The large exodus of the Chinese community from Tangra meant that most Chinese restaurants in India or any Indian immigrant opening a Chinese restaurant in a foreign shore, borrowed heavily on the recipes from Chinatown. The famed restaurant Tangra in NYC or the Tangra Prawns on the menu of Asma Khan’s famous restaurant Darjeeling Express in London, are proof of that.
From the foothills of the Himalayas
Liu talked about her childhood, and how she picked up cooking. Growing up, she helped her parents at their eatery in Kalimpong, a hill station in the foothills of the Himalayas in West Bengal.
Her father originally moved to India in 1940, from Canton in China, also known as Guangzhou located along the Pear River, at the age of 14 years. He later got married in China, and returned with is wife. Liu was born and brought up in India.
Her parents’ eatery was small and served Momos and Thukpa, a clear noodle soup accompanying the dumplings.
She was filled with nostalgia as she recalled a light soup that her mother used to make with steamed fish balls. I was surprised to learn that the fish used was Chital, or knifefish. The same fish is used to make the Bengali delicacy Chital Maacher Muitha, in which fish balls are first steamed, then fried, and cooked, in a spicy gravy.
As we talked more about Bengali food, she affirmed that no one cooked the famous Shorshe Bata Maach or the Bengali preparation of fish in mustard sauce better than she did!
A day in the life of…
Liu was a busy woman and on a typical day, her day starts as early as 5 am. She visits markets like Tiretti Bazaar and other local markets for sourcing fresh ingredients. She often visits Shiraz, a restaurant known for its Lucknow food. Two cups of tea, one roti and a plate of Daal Gosht shared between Liu and her best friend who, like many others, would be leaving Chinatown soon, are some memories she’s busy creating at this moment.
During the day, she is busy either cooking for the diners herself, creating recipes or training staff in Beijing’s kitchen. She was excited to share that all sauces and condiments, even noodles were homemade in her kitchen. Not a single ingredient was imported. Beijing’s kitchen served like a central kitchen to all her other restaurants too for some of the supplies. What could be more trendy than supervising all her other restaurants singlehandedly over WhatsApp!
The last of us
Speaking about her breakfast escapades at Shiraz with her best friend, a bit of sadness engulfs Liu. The community was dwindling faster than before and the younger ones migrated to countries like Canada. She lamented that even peers her age were also leaving Tangra for foreign shores.
“I have three children and I have asked them whether they are interested in continuing my business in the future. Or else, I will close my restaurants. Whom else are these for? My children have decided to stay back and continue to work in the family business. Even my grandchildren are going away.”
For someone of Chinese origin, born and brought up in India, Liu emphasised how Tangra has been a home to her since she moved as a child with her parents from Kalimpong.
Despite the initial years of her struggles of juggling between family and a saloon business that kept her away for long from her young children, it were the restaurants that brought success and fame to her. She sensed a gap in the market long ago when she felt that Kim Fa, the oldest Chinese restaurant in Tangra didn’t cope up well with the increasing numbers of diners.
She filled the gap with astounding success. However, she’s quick to add that extreme hard work was required on her part to do so. She also marvelled at the perseverance of the people in her community who had made their names in professions like the leather business, dentistry and others. Adapting to the local culture and understanding the taste preferences of diners, was definitely one of her mantras to success. For example, every year during Durga Puja, the annual autumnal festival commemorating the deity Durga, Liu adds new dishes across all the restaurants’ menus. Even today, Chinese food is offered to the deity Kali in the Chinese Kali Temple in Tangra.
Time to eat
“Have you had lunch?” demanded Liu, while parting. I reluctantly confessed that I did, but I guess it wasn’t convincing enough. Even to myself! She summoned a staff member, asked him to guide me to the restaurant, and said, “I will order some dishes that you will definitely like.”
As I settled into a cozy cove, I softly pleaded to the waiter, “Make everything half portions please - also, not too many dishes!” As the food arrived, I savoured every spoonful of the mixed chow that was prepared in the Cantonese style, served alongside was Chilli Garlic Pepper Chicken and Chilli Garlic Pepper Prawns. Each preparation was flavourful, not overtly oily and yet, rich in taste.
I have eaten in Beijing before, but this time it felt very different. I was seeing Chinatown through the eyes of a culinary veteran of the neighbourhood.