Did the Chinese really invent Chicken Manchurian? Come on, all of you know what a Chicken Manchurian is. It’s a spicy, combustive Chinese dish that is made usually of chicken, but also done with cauliflower or paneer. It is that one dish that is your entry to Chinese food. It’s a dish that is universally available at any Chinese restaurant in India, now so commonly ordered in several corners of the globe and is available nearly everywhere, except probably in China. So why is Chicken Manchurian, not really available in the Greater Manchuria region or in fact anywhere in China? Well, let me start off by explaining how Chicken Manchurian is made.
In a large bowl, beat egg with salt and ginger-garlic paste, then mix in minced chicken and corn flour. Make balls of this chicken mixture and deep fry and keep them aside. So what did you just do? What you have done is, you’ve actually made pakoras from the chicken kheema, spiced with ginger garlic and with corn flour instead of besan. Now make a gravy. Heat some oil in a pan, add slit green chillies, chopped ginger and garlic and minced onion. This is the ever-familiar method of tempering, or tadka, as you would with any Indian dish. When half-cooked, add Schezwan sauce, soya sauce, red chilly sauce, vinegar, salt and pepper. Add water and corn flour to thicken the sauce. Toss in the chicken balls and garnish with coriander. This is not only as desi as it can get, it is a simple enough recipe for anyone, including a street-side vendor to comprehend, grasp and execute. That is Chinese food in India.
The Birth of Indian Chinese Food
But it is important to get a peek into the history of Chinese food in India to fully appreciate a cuisine that evolved from the local home-cooking of immigrants to the second-largest selling Indian cuisine in the country. Indian Chinese food was born in Kolkata, somewhere around the 1700s when the Hakka Chinese (a much oppressed people) settled in the city. These Chinese traders and immigrants missing their own home food started selling dumplings, dim sums, noodles and rice as street food to feed their own, in areas like Tiretta Bazaar. Even today, if you go to Tiretta Bazaar in Kolkata (commonly referred to as Old Chinatown) at 5 in the morning, you can be assured of a hearty breakfast. I have gone there several times and feasted on hot, steamy dumplings, siu mai, fish ball soup, rice and sesame seed sweet balls, coconut balls, and breaded pork chops with sticky rice and a variety of stuffed, steamed bread and dim sums. All homemade and sold steaming on the streets.
As the Chinese prospered, they opened small Chinese restaurants in Tangra, the other Chinatown in Kolkata. Having lived in India for a couple of centuries, the Chinese adapted their food with local ingredients which by now suited their own palate as well as helped allure the Indian customer. Legend has it that the first Indo-Chinese restaurant to open in Kolkata was called Eau Chew (really?).
The Origin of Chicken Manchurian
In Mumbai, the Chinese invasion (of the preferred kind) started in the blatantly infamous red-light area of Kamathipura. I was told that it was at Shuklaji Street in Kamathipura, an allegedly disreputable street even today, that the first-ever Chinese restaurant opened in 1895. It was called “Lok Jun” and I leave it to you to decide whether “Lok Jun” sounds anything like Chinese, or is a dreamed-up and fabricated Hindi word.
As the food became more popular amongst the Bombay locals, and the Chinese prospered, lots of Chinese restaurants started opening around the Colaba area in the south of the city. There were families like the Thams and the Lings who were enticing Mumbai’s dauntless and adventurous with Egg Fried Rice, Sweet and Sour Pork, Stewed Noodles, Sweet Corn Soup, Fried Pork Balls, Barbecued Spare Ribs, Chilly Pork, American Chop Suey, Steamed Fish, Prawns with Chilli Black Bean, Wantons, Foo-Young, Chow Mein, Manchow and Hakka Noodles. Till then, all Chinese restaurants in Bombay were Cantonese and Hakka—the milder, blandish cuisine from China’s Canton region and Hakka people—that use moderate sauces like Sweet and Sour Sauce, Oyster Sauce, Hoisin Sauce and plum and lightly stew, braise, or roast their meats and seafood. It was Camellia Panjabi of the Taj who started India’s first Sichuan restaurant at The Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai. Golden Dragon was born when Camellia tasted spicy Chinese food at a restaurant in Hong Kong, poached the cook and flew him back here.
But while meandering through the annals of Chinese food history in India, we better not forget what we started talking about. The origin of Chicken Manchurian. It starts with the story of a man born to Kolkata Chinese immigrants. Nelson Wang came to Bombay and worked as an assistant cook in a Chinese restaurant and flourished. He opened a small place in Kemps Corner called China Town and also won the Chinese catering contract at the Cricket Club of India. That is where, on the insistence of a club member who wanted something spicy and different, Nelson decided to toss chicken pakoras in a red sauce with onions, green chillies and garlic, and poured some vinegar and soya sauce to create what can be the most memorable, eternal and beloved Indian Chinese dish ever. So, to answer the question, “Did the Chinese really invent Chicken Manchurian?” Well yes and no. It was invented by a man of Chinese origin, but in India. So, I stake claim and proclaim, Chicken Manchurian is as Indian as pakoras can be.
Kunal Vijayakar is a food writer based in Mumbai. He tweets @kunalvijayakar and can be followed on Instagram @kunalvijayakar. His YouTube channel is called Khaane Mein Kya Hai. Views are personal.