Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Chinese Cottage and Chinese in India

“The specialty of Chinese food lies in its blandness. If you put too much spice it kills the authenticity. Any Chinese restaurant you visit in Bangalore the food is spicier than Chinese food is supposed to be.”

I was sitting at a Chinese restaurant which promises to serve Chinese food Tangra style, a Chinese food hub in Calcutta which is host to many small to medium size Chinese restaurants owned by Chinese people most of whom originally owned tanneries until a few years ago (foot wear and other leather products made by Chinese people are very popular in Calcutta) which had to be closed down following a state government edict forcing the Chinese owners into different occupations, food being one of them.

However, there are other Chinese food hubs in Calcutta and, according to Anthony, the one on Poddar Court Lane is the best and the oldest. Poddar Court lane is where Anthony grew up in and in later years, after doing a hotel management and failing to find any satisfactory job in Calcutta, he moved to Bangalore. His initial years in Bangalore were tough. He worked in various small to medium size Chinese hotels with Indian owners. Being a Chinese food puritan, Anthony was unhappy with the general approach towards making Chinese food in Bangalore.

Opening his own hotel was nowhere in sight in early years as Anthony was mostly busy with his day to day existence. His marriage changed that. Anthony got married to his childhood sweetheart from Calcutta and a few months after marriage his wife joined him in Bangalore and started to work. After a few years, they felt together if they saved money from their income they would be able to open a restaurant of their own. About seven to eight years of hard work, saving and a bit of loan from friends and bank led to Chinese Cottage.

Antony said the focus of Chinese Cottage is authenticity. (He told this when I was chewing my way through Chinese Chopsuey. Chinese Chopsuey was not the correct dish to check the verity of Anthony’s claim as all Chinese restaurants make it bland and have its spicier versions separately on menu card. I am a conservative food enthusiast who tries out different joints but sticks to familiar dishes. ) Blaming the Bangalore Chinese taste orientation, Anthony said, “You have to eat chilly chicken to understand what I am saying. Chilly chicken is supposed to be so bland as to be perfect for a 16 year old kid. Here it’s opposite.”

Chinese Cottage (located opposite Koramangla Club) is quite sparse with very few people on its staff and Anthony is involved in everything in a hands-on way, expect cooking. He makes sure to explain an unfamiliar dish to you, so you make an informed choice.

What brought Anthony to Bangalore? “Calcutta has become inhospitable to its Chinese population. They are approached by local bullies for huge donations for Durga and other pujas. Not having access to any power base, Chinese people don’t have anybody to turn to. Despite being into its third or fourth generation, they are treated like foreigners. Some of them don’t have any legal documents to establish their citizenship. When they try for passport, papers establishing their ancestry are asked for which are very difficult to furnish now, almost a 100 years after their ancestors came to India.

Their ancestors had been taken captive by British forces during the First World War and sent to Rajasthan whence they came to Calcutta. But why Calcutta of all places which is anyway quite far from Rajasthan? Anthony said maybe their group leader went to Calcutta first and the rest followed. In later years, the descendants of the Chinese group which came to Calcutta went on to make Calcutta the city with the highest Chinese population in India. However, this population is gradually shrinking because over the years many have moved to the US, Singapore and some to China.

While Anthony was talking to me, a bespectacled kid was running up and down the restaurant, the restaurant being quite empty at this hour, early evening. Anthony said he was his son. He was born in Bangalore and has never been to Calcutta.

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