"Have you eaten" ?
Updated: Oct 15, 2020
Despite claims of authenticity you will hear from numerous new, often pricey, Chinese restaurants all over India today, you have to visit a desi-Chinese home if you want to eat the “real thing”. Laiying Liang in Bangalore is one of the fabulous home cooks I met when researching desi-Chinese food for a book. A second generation Cantonese, at 27 she married a Chinese carpenter from Calcutta, who eventually moved with his young family to Bangalore and started a noodle factory. Laiying grew up in hard times, in Calcutta, without her mother who had passed away when she was very young. Better times only came along well after she married and had 3 children and the noodle factory prospered after Indians began eating out at Chinese restaurants. But even when times were tough, she says, she always cooked for an unexpected 5 or more friends her youngest son, Ming, “expectedly brought home unexpectedly”, every other day. According to her, the numbers went up as he grew older, but that wouldn’t surprise anyone who has eaten at her table. It was here that I first experienced Chinese home food and discovered to my delight, how subtle, nuanced and exquisite it can be, after having grown up on the usual Indian Chinese at restaurants. “ In Calcutta, there were a few grocery stores in Tirretti Bazaar (Kolkata’s China town) that stocked ingredients from China, that came on the Chinese ships, but after the war these became scarce and it was tough, we had to find local substitutes for ingredients” she tells us. “Everything became tough during the war, I even needed a daily permit to go cross the city to go to the zip factory where I worked and times were very hard and I couldn’t afford to lose my job” she reminisces.
Mrs. Liang’s pork and prawn stuffed tofu is one of my favourites. Perfectly balanced in taste and texture, it’s quite an art to make. The tofu is cut into large cubes and a corner cube-wedge is cut out, then stuffed with a seasoned prawn and pork mixture, that is fried and either served as finger food with a dipping sauce or immersed in a thick, delicious soya gravy. Not having had her mother around, Mrs. Liang learnt cooking from her older sister in law, fondly called Ah Koo ( aunt) by everyone, and when they get together, the kitchen turns out even more exotic fare like the stuffed fish. In fact, this is a signature dish of their village Soi Thang, and the elderly Cantonese in India can identify a person from the village just from the fact that he/she can cook this dish! Ah Koo and Mrs. Liang are two of of a handful in India who still know the art of making this particular dish.
Ah Koo at work. The fish is mixed with shiitake and herbs,
and then carefully stuffed back into hollowed out fish skin.
A very fresh fish is first pre-ordered (the success of the dish depends on the freshness of the fish ) and then it is carefully and expertly hollowed out leaving the skin with head and tail intact. The flesh is then seasoned and mixed with shiitake mushroom and other herbs and sauces and stuffed back into the fish skin. The fish is fried whole, carefully turned on both sides till it’s cooked through and served whole with a gravy, garnished with greens. As a spectator in the kitchen, you keep holding your breath through the entire process of hollowing out and filling of the fish skin, but Ah koo went through the entire process effortlessly, with her usual calm half smile. To see Ah Koo and Mrs. Liang both laugh later, as we sat around the table to eat, you would never imagine they just spent the last two hours over the hot stove, in their small kitchen, making some pretty laborious preparations. They are both also typically, quite self-depreciating about their cooking skills and your praise will be received almost poker faced.
My earliest taste of Chinese home cooking, however, was at the home of Angie Tham. Of the Si Yep community, she and her husband Peter, ran a vintage furniture store in Bangalore and I had bought some lovely furniture from her when I first moved to the city. I would often stop by on the way home from work, to browse around her store. I once happened to stop by around lunchtime, one day and she shyly asked me “would you like some homemade Chinese sausage?” I had never tasted Chinese sausage before, so I happily agreed and she pressed a packet into my hand with instructions on how to cook it. Very soon, on various occasions, if it was around lunchtime, she would ask “have you eaten?” and I would often be carrying home little take-aways of Drunken Chicken or the best Chili Chicken ever, which I soon found out was the signature dish of her late father in-law’s restaurant, the famous Nanking on Grant road (now Vithal Mallya road), which had closed down many years ago. But it was an iconic restaurant in the Bangalore of yore, visited by even Amitabh and Jaya Bacchan during the shooting of Sholay in Bellary district .
After many years of pressing her for a cooking lesson, she finally consented and one fine morning I landed up at her place with two of her Indian friends (who had also been asking her for lessons for years).
She first served us jasmine tea in her lovely vintage cups and showed us how to hold the hot cup. Thumb on the rim and two fingers below the base. A comfortable way to hold a piping hot cup of tea. "the Chinese are very economical”, she says smilingly, “no cup handle or saucer, we make do with the minimum”. But looking at the beautifully hand painted bone china cups we were drinking from, with an elaborate dragon motif, there was no minimalism there!
Angie was economical in the kitchen too. But mainly with the way she used her time and her hands. She handed out written lists of ingredients to us and then turned to the task at hand, requesting us to keep any questions we had for later, after she had finished cooking. Ingredients were already kept chopped and handy, the right sized woks were on the hob, while her hands efficiently reached and stir fried, and poured and sprinkled, all her chopped vegetables and meats, sauces and wines were within arm’s reach. The economy of course was restricted to her movements. With her ingredients, she displayed the usual generosity I have come to associate with the Chinese in India. Rice wine, Chinese sausage, fermented red bean, ear cloud mushrooms, prawns, pork belly, and whiskey, (her substitute for Shaoxing, the Chinese cooking wine). Use the cheapest whiskey she told us…it’s got the most flavor and you will have no qualms putting in a cup or two. “but if you have, use it, if don’t have, no problem” she smiled. “In a Chinese kitchen, there are no hard and fast rules about ingredients. You use what is available and it still tastes good. Our recipes are designed for that way of cooking”. “ That way of cooking” must have helped the Chinese people through some pretty hard times throughout their history, so one might also say that the Chinese cook that way because of their need for adaptability.
I also discovered that many ingredients are circulated in a “secret club”. Browsing Angie’s kitchen, I picked up a bottle of delicious pink rice wine and another bottle that contained the thick pulpy residue, both equally delicious. Where can one buy it? I asked, “you can’t” she laughed, “It’s home made by a Chinese friend in Assam” and she went on to tell us that the pork in Assam is always the softest and best tasting because the pigs are fed the residue of the rice wine!
The Chinese eat heartily at the table, and you soon pick up a few subverted codes of table etiquette. One never over eats and usually stops eating just before the “full stomach” feeling (a custom also credited to Confucius). Diners do not each have his or her plate on which one serves all the courses but each has a tiny bowl and they then reach out for food from dishes that are placed in the center. The person who prepares the food eats with everyone and children will not reach out for food first nor will anybody reach out for a choice morsel if it is on the far side of the dish.
When I eat with my Chinese friends, I am reminded again of the Ang Lee film Eat Drink Man Woman. The sensuous and seductive opening scene of the Sunday meal being prepared by Mr. Chu, a famous but aging chef in Taipei. The freshness of the ingredients, (the fish are still swimming and the chicken still clucking when he starts cooking), the chopping, the steaming, the sizzling, the colour, you can almost smell the gentle aromas. “My memory is in my nose” says one of Chu’s daughters, when remembering her childhood growing up around her father’s large hotel kitchen, like so many of us here in India could say, remembering our family kitchens. What I love most though, is the opening line of the film, when Mr. Chu asks gently of someone on the phone “have you eaten?”, which says a lot about Chinese culture. Food is so important that to say a simple hello, you can ask, “chi le ma?” “have you eaten?” if it’s around mealtime. Like Angie Tham asked so often of me, when I dropped into her store.