Manchuria Masala

For years, I was obsessed with procuring the secret menu offered at certain Chinese restaurants—the one reserved for Chinese diners. The intervention of a Mandarin speaker would often be required, but the effort was worth it. Let the uninitiated feast on beef with broccoli or moo goo gai pan. I had a hankering for braised pig’s ears and intestines with sour cabbage.

Lately, however, I’ve become nostalgic for the Americanized Chinese dishes of my youth. The typical 20th-century Chinese restaurant menu may be derided today by those seeking “the real deal,” but it reflected the need to adapt recipes to the palates of American customers as well as to the ingredients that were available here. Of course, this form of hybrid cooking also emerged in other parts of the world. India, for example, has a robust Chinese cuisine—which will come as no surprise to readers of Amitav Ghosh’s essay in this issue, “The Dragon Amid the Tigers.”

Ghosh writes about the enduring influence of Chinese culture on Indian life, focusing on his birthplace of Kolkata, where an influx of artisans, professionals, and laborers led to the creation of a vibrant Chinatown. As food-mad Bengalis flocked there, and to a second Chinatown arising in the eastern part of the city, a distinct fusion cuisine developed that continues to be celebrated. In The Calcutta Cook Book (1995), Minakshie Das Gupta, Bunny Gupta, and Jaya Chaliha write: “We are often asked, ‘Do you get real Chinese food in a Chinese restaurant?’ We answer, ‘You can if you ask for it.’ Restaurateurs try to cater to the tastes of the people of the place and a tradition of American-Chinese or Calcutta-Chinese food has grown up which is interesting though not Chinese-Chinese.” But perhaps this question of authenticity is the wrong one to ask.

Every year, I prepare an elaborate Chinese dinner on Christmas Day. Most recently, the menu consisted exclusively of Chinese-Indian fare: morsels of deep-fried chicken bathed in a spicy chili sauce, cauliflower cooked in the so-called Manchurian style, stir-fried noodles flavored with soy sauce and garam masala. Was this Chinese food? Was it Indian? It was delicious, and perhaps that is all that matters.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Sudip Bose is the editor of the Scholar. He wrote the weekly classical music column “Measure by Measure” on this website for three years.


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up