Calcutta Chinese by Amit Chaudhuri
Updated: Oct 2, 2020
An extract from Amit Chaudhuri's book Calcutta: Two Years in the City
Chinese food has long been Calcutta’s favoured foreign cuisine: it belongs to the eternal, and now paradoxically lost, childhood of the Bengali middle class. Its bottles of soya sauce and Hanâs chilli sauce, its minutely chopped green chillies swimming in vinegar, its chicken sweet corn soup, chilli chicken, sweet and sour prawn, spring rolls, and American chop suey are all part of a delectation free of guilt about fried food and unburdened by connoisseur-ship: a simple, elemental pleasure. It goes back, this cuisine, to the time when Calcutta was a Bengali city, and never dreamed it would be otherwise. To the old guard belonged restaurants such as Waldorf (on Park Street), Jimmy’s Kitchen (which my maternal uncle, always emphatic in his loyalties, swore and even threatened by), Mandarin (which was born in the post-Naxal era as a downmarket imitation of the older restaurants), Hatari (a meeting place for middle-class couples, its shabbiness the perfect milieu for its spring rolls), Peiping on Park Street (always preternaturally crowded, I recall from childhood, with every kind of bhadralok, of which little remained when I visited it in the late seventies but its inflated reputation). There are others, except their names elude me. But, even as I formulate that sentence, two return: one is near Statesman House, on Central Avenue on the way to North Calcutta, a mysterious, disreputable place, such as Chinese restaurants at least the good ones were classically designed to be; and another one is located on the “arcade” on Chowringhee near the Grand Hotel, on the vestibule thronging with tourists, locals, magazine vendors, blind beggars, and sellers of little plastic toys, to which my father came once weekly (so he’d told me in his lucid days), when he was a student, for the pure, solitary joy of a plate of American chop suey. I know the first one no longer exists; the second, even if it does, as good as doesn’t. I’ve seen them both at some point in my life, but can’t summon up their names. I go to R, a truer Calcuttan than I, and describe the first one; “I know the place you mean, wasn’t it Nanking’s?” I dismiss the suggestion outright. I go to my father and ask him, very loudly, if he can recall the Chinese restaurant he used to visit on Chowringhee. At first, alarmed by the volume at which I’m speaking, he’s anxious, and worried that something’s wrong; then he’s got it, his face is lit by a smile of comprehension, he nods vigorously. He still has the ability to remember many things, my father, but can’t any longer express himself coherently. “Is it the Hong Kong?” I ask loudly but, I hope, tenderly; he shakes his head, the Hong Kong rings no bell. It’s my maternal uncle, finally, who supplies the names over the phone; at eighty-five, he’s clear-headed and still a great advocate of those restaurants. “That was Nanking near Statesman House!” he exclaims, proving my disagreement with R, a bona fide Calcuttan, was ill-advised. “What an amazing place it was! I took my in-laws to eat there soon after I was married. It wasn’t much to look at from the outside, so they weren’t sure about it, but they loved the food!” He’s puzzled by the second one; there was never a Hong Kong restaurant in Calcutta, he says. Then he knows the one I mean: “New Cathay?” “of course, New Cathay! Fantastic place! That’s it.” When I tell my father, he nods, his eyes bright, and mumbles the name. He’s relieved I have my answer. When my uncle says “New Cathay” and I repeat the name to him, then to my father, a sensation passes through me, an imperceptible lifting of the diaphragm, as if the excitement might, who knows, make me weep, not for my father, not for New Cathay, but for something gone, which I can no longer make present.
The new international Chinese food came to Calcutta well before chef Lian Yu Li arrived at Taj Bengal, with the advent, in the nineties, of a new luxury hotel, ITC Sonar Bangla, on the featureless EM Bypass. Word began to spread, via Anglophone dailies and among the affluent, that Pan Asia had the most chic Chinese food in town. No sooner was news circulating than I was invited by a well-worn society magazine, called, uncannily, Society, to have lunch with my wife at the Pan Asia for a feature. I wanted to be snobbish and turn down what was surely an improper request to a serious writer (as I’d begun to see myself), but gave in, as I sometimes do, at the prospect of what promised to be a terrific free meal.
I didn’t quite know what to expect, but the name itself “Pan Asia” carried the clipped accent of globalisation, and had little to do with the smoky Orient of colonisation, which had given birth, everywhere, to restaurants with names like Nanking and Golden Dragon. The interior was dark, but not dark in the way that Chinese restaurants used to be ”atmospherically dark,” so that you had to peer hard in the barely lit gloom before you spotted the chillies submerged in the vinegar, and only ever saw your soup in half light and half shadow; and its few colours came from the suspended Chinese-lantern lampshades and the red dragons on soup spoons. No, Pan Asia was dark in a business lounge way, the dark and quiet of a space in which you don’t expect to be threatened by crowds of people, its decor angular and minimal, without undue references to the Orient. Speaking of crowds, not far from the ITC Sonar Bangla was where the post-middle-class bastion of Chinese cuisine ”post-Waldorf; post-Nanking; pre-Pan Asia” had sprung up in the last two decades, in the tannery district, Tangra, catering to the vernacular clientele of this city that was now without a definite name ”Calcutta, Kolkata” serving all kinds, from real estate promoters and their families to academics and theirs, all who’d been levelled out into one harmonious congregation by Left rule, serving anyone who’ll brave that intricate maze of lanes and plunge headlong into the stink of the tanneries. Tangra was, thus, at once famous and infamous. The Chinese had traditionally been in the tannery business; and, at some point, as the respectable Chinese eateries of yore became a spent force, the Tangra families must have decided it was an opportune time to set up restaurants. In the early eighties, as Calcutta imploded and the middle-class migration outward soared and eating out dipped,
Tangra began to gather a reputation for providing “real” Chinese food cooked by “real” Chinese families, this “realness” authenticated and properly endorsed by the smell of the tanneries and drains surrounding places like Golden Joy and Beijing.
Now, here was the crystalline, refracted Pan Asia, offering not only real, upmarket, international Chinese cuisine, but international Mongolian and Japanese food too. Chinese food once belonged to the domain of the neighbourhood, ”not just Chinatown; any neighbourhood” an ethos of loiterers killing time on workaday porches and signs with a particular kind of English lettering denoting the Chinese were nearby. Pan Asia implied there were no neighbourhoods; there were lounges, constituting brief, tranquil arrests on overnight journeys. At least that’s what we felt it was telling us as we slipped from the early afternoon sun into its interior. Its already celebrated, blade-thin, rectangular grill was on the left, with bar stools on every side. There was almost no one in the restaurant but us; it’s an experience I’ve only had in the static sadness of Indian small towns, of eating out without the general and, really, indispensable accompaniment of other customers, enrhythmed in the semi-animal bliss of now noticing, now ignoring, now being noticed, now being ignored; no, in the small town, you are alone, being lavished attention by three waiters who’ve been galvanised by your sullen otherness, and item after item which you’d abstractedly ordered now stubbornly makes its way towards your table. At Pan Asia, the three of us, the journalist from Society, my wife, and I, sat side by side on the bar stools like partners at a seance, and watched the short, agile young chef’s hypnotic dicing of vegetables, his playful shoving and retrieval of cuttlefish from different directions, as if they’d never once been alive and were no more than a kind of ornament, like pasta shells. His spatula was at once a magician’s wand, bringing forth an illusion, and a conductor’s baton, making music. Everything he touched, vegetables, cuttlefish, prawns, were somehow reduced: he knew the art of transforming the plentiful into the economical. When we asked this performer respectfully if he was from China, he said no, he came from Nepal. “Chinese chef come and give me training” he explained.
The food had been made with finesse. It had what we now think of as the strengths of good Chinese food: delicacy, simplicity, a fastidious avoidance of overcooking, a resultant crunchiness, a hushed regard for the taste of fresh ingredients. All this was new to Calcutta: an alien and as yet untested idea. We were later , though we were uncomfortably full, forced to try Japanese ice cream, in green tea and litchi flavours. We succumbed completely to Pan Asia. We set aside our vestigial dignity. We even took in our stride the cheesy photographs of ourselves that appeared later in Society magazine.
For a week later, our mood alternated between a marvelling at the green tea ice cream and a corroding guilt about the Mephistophelean pact we’d entered with Society and Pan Asia, in a country in which farmers frequently subsist on mango leaves and every other day kill themselves. Then, a year later, we set aside our scruples and revisited Pan Asia. We perched on almost the same bar stools. We stared, agog, at the performance. But something had changed. It was the food. The prawns were covered in a giant melt of thick, rich, creamy sauce. The green tea ice cream had become, mainly, home-made vanilla; you had to strain with fanatical, blind faith to believe you could taste green tea in it. I had one of those schizoid moments I’d had with cheesecake and ginger pudding: had I simply imagined, or invented, the earlier experience?
“No” said the chef, confirming I was still moderately sane, “Indians not liking those subtle flavours so much. They’re saying what is this ice cream, it’s not sweet. When American or Chinese visitor come, I making food more Chinese way”
“Then you should have made it more Chinese way for us” I said, barely able to contain my frustration.
“I’m not knowing, sir” he responded wistfully. “Next time”
If, indeed, there is a next time. “Kormaisation” is what this process, integral to Indian cuisine, might well be termed: a suffocation of individual ingredients in the interests of the sauce poured over it, the result of a dozen impossibly unlike condiments brought to a simmer and then turned into this all-purpose national deluge. It’s what had happened to the prawns. That chic, suggestive, but eventually vulnerable taste had perished only a year after it had arrived here.