EAT, DRINK AND BE MANY
The Bengali craze for chow mein, freedom fighters drinking Dab Sherbet, and a charming tea-room destroyed by glitz — Calcutta’s myriad cultures of food
Twenty-one-year-old Robert is an apprentice at a Chinese restaurant in Tangra. It is run by his parents and was started about 35 years ago by his grandfather, who came to Calcutta with his family from the Guangdong province of China about half a century ago. He can rattle off the ingredients used in the food they make in their restaurant. But when I asked what goes into the preparation of the meals they eat at home, he pointed at his mother, saying only she would know that. The off-hand manner in which she described their fare of boiled rice, vegetables, pork or chicken with a sprinkling of salt betrayed bewilderment. Her amused smile at my question suggested how inconsequential she felt these details were. (She hardly speaks any language other than Hakka, and Robert was translating her answers to me.) The food she prepares for her customers is remarkably different from what she prepares for her family, in spite of the former being a version of the latter. A sizable section of the Hakka community in Calcutta earns its livelihood from restaurants mainly in Tangra. Most of these eateries are small, family-run units, started after the government of West Bengal came down heavily on the illegal tanneries in the area.
A people, it is believed, moves with its food. Culinary habits, much like religious practices, are adhered to as much as possible, even in times of calamities or while migrating. There is an attempt to resist the change, but deviation from set practices of making and consuming food is inevitable. Food, perhaps, is one of the first elements of the culture of a people to bear the brunt of change. Even though a lot of the old practices and nuances are lost, some others are retained, and fusing with the newly adopted lifestyles, create recipes that bear the traces of movement and of the original character of the people.
It is no surprise, therefore, that the history of the Hakka community in Calcutta is reflected in their engagement with their food. Hakka is a Cantonese word for guest. A series of migrations pushed the Hakka people further and further away from their places of origin — first within China itself and then to other countries of the world. In this light, the transformation of the Hakka cuisine, especially the Hakka chow mein, through its confluence with other cultures and peoples, becomes part of the story of this ever-wandering community.
The Hakka noodles have rapidly gained the status of a fast food. Represented by roadside counters in cities across the world, its presence in Calcutta is felt in the number of carts and shacks selling chow mein that dot the pavements. A heap of packaged noodles (the most common variety in Calcutta goes by the name of ‘Best Quality’) is boiled at the beginning of the day. One can see one’s plate of chow mein being instantly prepared, as the pre-boiled vegetables (and meat or chicken) go into the pre-heated tawa to be fried in plenty of oil. The vendor will often ask you your preference of sauces, and accordingly add the requested quantities of chilli sauce, soya sauce, vinegar, tomato ketchup, and perhaps even kasundi (a sauce made of mustard paste to which green mango is added for the tang). The makeshift nature of most of the roadside stalls could be said to resemble the wandering, ‘guest’-like life of the Hakka Chinese — except that most of these stalls are run by Bengalis.
The craze for noodles in Calcutta is somewhat strange. What makes so many people in offices, at parties or gatherings, and on the roads, order chow mein whenever a quick bite is sought? It could be because the flavours in this dish are different from those in a Bengali or Indian meal. The taste of this variety of noodles is far removed from the flavours of the authentic Hakka cuisine where vegetables are not fully cooked, a very strong scent of meat is retained, and spices are used sparingly. The noodles are kept soft, and never deep fried and crispy. The flavours are indeed very subtle as Hakka cuisine tries to blend the sweet, sour, hot and bitter flavours. Therefore, the sharp smell and taste due to the heavy use of soya sauce, vinegar, ajino moto, pepper and chilli sauce all at the same time, is a Bengali legacy to the Hakka chow mein in India. The original form of the Hakka food being too bland for the Indian, more specifically the Bengali, taste buds, a more spicy variety of this dish was fashioned.
What is striking about the production and consumption of Hakka noodles in Calcutta is how closely it resembles the character of the people who introduced it in India. Hakka is a self-appropriated label. The Hakkas are historically considered to be a subgroup of the Hans from the north-central provinces of China. But most of the Hakkas in Calcutta are identified thus not because of their origins, but because of their own perception of themselves as the guest community among the host population. This sense of difference, in spite of being around for four generations, is perhaps the reason why they have not tried to impose their cuisine on the host population, modifying it instead to suit the local palate.
article by INSIYA POONAWALA
Source: The Telegraph