New Delhi, India
November 2, 2009
The Chinese first arrived in West Bengal in the 18th century. By the mid 1900’s—when my mother was growing up in Kolkata (then Calcutta), Chinatown was a hip and happening place, just around the corner from my grandfather’s house in the Tangra neighbourhood. Chinatown was the home of some of Calcutta’s best shoemakers; and the most delicious sausages I have ever eaten—dried meat and fat, steeped in red wine—were available only in Chinatown.
Today, over 50 years later, Calcutta is officially known as Kolkata. Many of the current generation of Kolkata Chinese have migrated to the US, Australia, Hong Kong or Taiwan. According to some estimates, the number of Chinese in Chinatown has dwindled to about 5,000, perhaps less. Those who remain, says Amit, work mainly in the tanneries or as shoemakers; are dry cleaners; or—and this is where we came in—have opened Chinese restaurants.
Guided by Amit, our driver pulls the car into a very busy street in Chinatown. This is Christopher Road, a stretch so crowded with restaurants that when we alight at 77/1, a restaurant called Beijing, we can see the neon-lit signs of at least three other Chinese restaurants in close proximity. Amit tells us there are more than a dozen restaurants along the road.
Beijing, as far as decor goes, believes firmly in excess. What do you associate with China? Beautiful ladies in flowing robes, standing in a garden with a lotus pond? Paper lanterns? Red fireworks? Polished wooden trellises? Dragons? Pandas? You name it, Beijing has it. The façade has a row of red paper lanterns; in the centre of the main door is a large oval inlay of glass, with said lady in garden painted on it. Inside, the decor is heavy in dragons and pandas. A large garland of faux crackers, all red and gold, hangs from a wall, and there is more painted glass. The wall is pale pink, with a textured finish. The curtains are printed, pale grey-blue, white and a lemony yellow; above these are heavy swags of deep blue fabric. The effect is startling, especially when combined with the bright lime-green shirts of the waiters (the advantage of which, of course, is that they’re easy to spot).
Awful decor notwithstanding, Beijing seems to be extremely popular. It’s a very large restaurant, but every table is crowded to capacity. The only table they’re able to find for us is a small three-seater in a corner so cramped Amit has trouble squeezing in. A place so popular must have food to die for, I think, and delve happily into the menu, trying to ignore a vast and horrid painting of pandas, positioned just above our table.
Beijing’s menu is large, dominated by seafood (though it steers clear of the more unusual Chinese delicacies like abalone and sea cucumber). There’s an array of noodle, rice and rice noodle dishes, plus plenty of chicken, lamb, and vegetables. No beef or pork, keeping in mind the largely Indian-Hindu clientele, I suppose.
We finally decide on our order: mixed non-vegetarian Hakka noodles, prawn fried rice, chicken with baby corn and mushrooms, and Thai garlic prawns. Along with that, Anurima and I order a fresh lime soda each, while Amit settles for a Coke. The drinks arrive very soon after, and the food too is served up quickly enough. It’s middling to fair to good, depending upon what dish you’re eating. The prawn fried rice, for instance, is excellent: the prawns very fresh and delicious, the rice fluffy and light, and the whole of it so flavourful it’s best eaten on its own. The Thai garlic prawns, spicy and rich in both garlic as well as soya sauce, are also good, but could have done with a little less of what seems suspiciously like red chilli. The noodles—in accordance with Anurima’s instructions ("We don’t want vegetables in them; just meat or chicken or whatever!")—are full of tiny shrimp, strips of roast chicken and lamb, but there’s also a hint of something burnt that’s not very appetising. The chicken with baby corn and mushrooms falls definitely in the `avoidable’ category: though the chicken is succulent, the baby corn is more toddler than baby, and the mushrooms are canned (and this in an age when fresh button mushrooms are freely available in just about every large city in India). What’s worse, the sauce uses too much cornflour, which congeals in an unhappy fashion as soon as the dish begins to cool.
All in all, a so-so meal. We even end up waiting quite a while for our bill: repeated (and increasingly desperate) gesturing to the waiters doesn’t have any effect for almost 10 minutes.
The pluses? The portion sizes are huge—we didn’t even come close to finishing our meal, despite all three of us having big appetites and shovelling in more than we’d normally eat. And yes, it’s cheap—less than Rs 1,000 for the three of us.
From journal India on the Fly: On Book Tour