If you go down to Southhall today, you might just be in for a big surprise. You won’t stumble upon any Teddy Bears’ Picnics, but you will discover a profusion of Indian restaurants offering fanatical local families the Indo-Chinese cuisine they crave. Family restaurants like Saravanaa Bhavan are filled to bursting with people chowing down on steel thalis heaped high with the sticky, neon-red chilli paneer that deserves the description ‘finger lickin’’ far more than than any fried chicken chain.
It’s Chinese food, but not quite as you know it – richly seeded with a broader range of spices; deeper; intensely savoury; deliciously alchemical. The origin of some dishes lies in the Himalayas, with Tibetan and Nepali dishes often varying in name only. Others are extensions on the theme; swapping Indian spices for Chinese herbs; exchanging proteins so tofu becomes paneer, pork becomes chicken, beef becomes lamb – and an outlawed Chinese dish becomes happily accessible to all.
Chefs like Cinnamon groups’ Vivek Singh and Adbul Yaseen are mad for Manchurian; La Porte des Indes’ Mehernosh Mody does a nice line in lotus crisps and chard and water chestnut pakoras; Zaika’s Jasbinder Singh spent five years learning all things Indo-China as Head Chef at the house of the Dalai Lama. A small collection of Gurkha-run restaurants showcase the unique flavours of that tradition – the military town of Aldershot being a good place to head for Nepalese to please.
Gurkha chef Pemba Lama has penned an entire book of wonderful Indo-Chinese fare and passes on his wonderful heritage with regular cookery classes in Winchester. Once you dip a tentative spring roll into the waters of the seemingly small Indo-Chinese cuisine, you discover a wok full of further variation – herbal, light, steamed, delicate; fiery, punchy, fried and fulsome. It’s intriguingly addictive, as those Southall hoards of clued-in Indian diners would attest as they slurp noodles.
Menus at Saravanaa Bhavan and its ilk boast a vast amount of Orientally-inspired fare – from spring rolls and herby, spicy wok-fried veggie dishes to Szechwan fried rice and Beijing noodles. Madhu’s Chinese-style gobi is a bestseller, and their legendary ‘spinning-buffet’ catering thrives on the chilli chicken. The Brilliant thinks Indo-Chinese is simply, well… brilliant. But interestingly, the enthusiastic Indian embracing of Oriental food doesn’t seem to have translated the other way.
Although a group of Chinese diners swooned over a feast prepared to Asma Khan’s traditional Indo-Chinese family recipes. A simple, broth-y Tibetan thukpa seemed to open a yawning void in the clans’ collective stomach. Prawn spring rolls were declared the best they’d ever eaten; a mountain of momos became a mere molehill and then not even that. Lemon chicken less resembled that sickly sweet, slippery version so often suffered than it did zesty, lusty chicken pakoras.
The group were delighted and intrigued. Standardised, bastardised Chinese food has suffered from the same malaise as its Indian counterpart – a handful of inauthentic, mass-produced atrocities becoming synonymous with the cuisine – and ultimately coming to define a once-proud and diverse dining tradition. Despite the Indo-influence in the flavours, the consensus seemed that Asma’s dishes whetted the appetite and fed the soul every bit as effectively as their own home food.
Garlicky seafood was devoured – Asma’s guests must have depleted at least one ocean of its prawn population. Piles of chilli beef saw the group ruminating over an entire ruminant, and brilliant vermillion gobi Manchurian turned elegant ladies into scarlet women. Hakka noodles needed no hawking. So perhaps Chinatown will soon come round to the kati roll. And if China won’t come to the Indians, Darjeeling Express is one Indian more than willing to put in the miles.
Want to know more on Indo-Chinese food? Tuck in to these tasty titles:
- ‘The Ultimate Nepalese Cookbook’; Pemba Lama & Nicki Gur; Grierson Publications
- ‘Cooking In Nepal’ – A Selection of International & Nepali Recipes; Ratna Pustak Bhandak; Damien Press
- ‘Himalayan Mountain Cookery’; Martha Ballentine; Himalayan International Institute of Yoga Science
- ‘Much Depends On Dinner’ Satasrupta Banerjee; Rupa & Co.