Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Sino The Times

A few years ago, relatives of mine visited a family-owned Chinese restaurant in north Jersey. They arrived before the dinner rush and happened to be the only customers in the joint. As they perused the menu, the waiter tepidly asked if they were Indian and, when they said they were, he asked if they might be interested in seeing “their Indian menu.” Turns out the proprietors were Indian Chinese.

With a large number of ethnic Chinese living in India, the fabulous, spicy fusion cuisine known as Indian-Chinese has caught on, blending typical Indian staples such as ginger, garlic, and spicy chilis with Chinese ingredients such as soy sauce, scallions, and cornstarch, along with a variety of sweet and tangy sauces. Hakka noodles and Chicken Manchurian are two of this cuisine’s popular signature dishes. (Click on the links to see sample recipes.) It used to be hard to find Indian-Chinese food outside big metro areas in India, but nowadays, such restaurants are cropping up all over the world, with at least a few dozen in New Jersey alone. Traditional Indian restaurants are now adding these popular dishes to their regular menus. (Ever seen Chicken 65 on an Indian menu? That’s supposedly a Chinese dish.)

How did this fusion take place? After the Jews, the Chinese and Indians are the next two largest diasporas. Naturally, as they hail from two of the world’s largest nations. But as neighboring countries, one democratic, the other communist, they also share a long, uneasy border. In some areas, near Tibet for instance, they have long-standing disputes over contested territory. In 1962, they fought a war against each other (the Sino-Indian War). Like the Japanese in the States during the world wars, the Chinese in North India were interred in prison camps for a time during the 1960s. It took many years before either country allowed immigrants from the other to be eligible for citizenship in their new homelands.

But today, that’s changing. A good number of ethnic Chinese live in India, and from what I can tell on my visits, they straddle all walks of life. Many run beauty parlors or work at restaurants. Calcutta boasts the country’s only real Chinatown, with many ethnic Chinese working as carpenters and shoe-shop owners. What’s more, Indian Chinese occupy nearly every profession and are visible in politics and the entertainment industry.

In East Asia, particularly Malaysia, and to a lesser extent Singapore and Hong Kong, intermarriage between overseas Chinese and Indians is fairly common – in some areas, roughly one in 10 of all marriages. Their Chinese-Indian offspring are commonly known as Chindian; according to the stats, they typically have Indian fathers and Chinese mothers.

I have a fascinating book, Sons of the Yellow Emperor, which traces the Chinese diaspora throughout history and to most parts of the world. Oddly, this exhaustive tome leaves out its Indian connections. Not sure why, but someday, when they eventually update this exciting, colorful history, food will have to be a major footnote.


  1. What a fascinating introduction to a culture I didn't even know existed, Supriya! Although, now that I see those recipes, I think I have eaten Indian-Chinese dishes before and didn't know it. I have a weakness for noodles of all kinds, so I will try out that recipe for Hakka Noodles.

  2. I didn’t know that culture existed either, although now that I learned about it, it makes sense. Now I know to look out for Indian Chinese food – after all New Jersey is just across the river. Chinese mothers and Indian fathers, huh? But not the other way around. I wonder what dictates that trend…

  3. Lina, Indian men get around. Simple answer to your question. Just kidding. Or maybe not. ;)

    Supriya, really interesting post. My theory is that there are so many of Indians and Chinese, that it's inevitable that they are spread everywhere. When I was traveling in Italy, as much as I loved the pizza there, I craved Indian food. And guess what, I found a restaurant not too far from the city center serving delicious desi food. I was shocked and pleased. :)

  4. Thanks, ladies. Lavanya, I think you're right about the inevitability of the cross-connections. About the other trend though, I'll let you speculate for us. :)