Food for thought


Ever since I picked up a packet of Indian-style noodles at Mustafa several years ago, I have developed an addiction to desi Chinese food.

Growing up in India meant eating Chinese in a restaurant at least once a month. Chicken chow mein and spring chicken were my favourites.

I had to wait for visits to Rome and Sydney as an adult to find the chow mein cooked to my Indian tastes, and it is only in a small town in Indonesia that I ate spring chicken which transported me back to my greedy years in Kolkata.

Chow mein, someone informed me solemnly, is an inauthentic Chinese dish meant to pander to ignorant foreign tastes. I was shattered culturally. But then I received news of chicken tikka masala. Its provenance is Indian, but many consider it to be the national dish of multicultural Britain.I recovered some of my cultural self-esteem. As a lover of both chow mein and tikka masala, I am a culinary globalist.

"Desi", an Indian word which means nativist, itself has gone global.

The desi in tikka masala originated in India but it was re-invented in Britain: The desi in chow mein reinvented Chinese food with Indian characteristics.

Desi Chinese might be faux cuisine where China is concerned, but it is authentically Indian, just as chicken tikka masala is authentically British.

No wonder that chow mein has travelled the popular mile from elite restaurants to everyday street corners. It feeds the passing hunger of Indians no matter how close they may be to China or how far from it.

Indeed, chow mein has become a subcontinental dish feted from Colombo to Chattagram and Karachi to Kathmandu. What is good as well is that the imaginative energy of South Asians has helped to spread desi Chinese from restaurants and street corners into homes globally.

One example is Ching's which, since 1996, has introduced a range of sauces, masalas, soups, noodles, snacks, instant meals and chutneys that blend Indian masalas and Chinese spices.

The brand claims that desi Chinese is India's second largest cuisine and "the soul food of the country".

Dosa is considered India's favourite breakfast dish, but China can be found there as well in the form of Sichuan dosas!

Ching's is absolutely right in arguing that Chinese food became desi in order to win Indian hearts.

Culinary internationalism can make a significant contribution to global peace. Johanna Mendelson Forman and Tara Sonenshine reveal in an important article in The Globalist magazine how food can become a "staple" of global diplomacy. They note that the "historic importance of food goes back to the time of the Greeks and Romans when adversaries used food to negotiate, settle disputes and divulge state secrets over long meals with ample wine to loosen tongues".

Indeed, the rich international history of food led the American University in Washington, DC, to offer courses in culinary diplomacy and conflict cuisines. The authors point out that larger American or European cities offer a gastronomic snapshot of the world through "the windows of ethnic restaurants from Ethiopian food to Nepali or Turkish delights".

That is wonderful, except that, sadly, the eateries often reflect "cuisines born of conflicts, recipes that migrated with refugees and those seeking freedom from closed societies". When immigrants turn restaurateurs, they not only introduce foreign cuisines to the local community but gain social "acceptance through the kitchen".

Thus, Cuban exiles and Vietnamese refugees kept cultural relations alive with the United States even during the darkest days of the Cold War. The popularity of Chinese takeaways in America, and McDonald's (among other iconic American brands) in China, attests to the permanence of conflict cuisines even at a time when a new Cold War could be underway.

Chinese food is making America great again while American food helps to sustain socialism with Chinese characteristics. It is so for desi Chinese as well. No one should or can make light of this year's Sino-Indian skirmishes that have produced fatalities. Yet, desi Chinese, which is prepared largely by Indians for Indians, should not fall in battle.

It embodies India's eternally versatile capacity to take what is best elsewhere and make it a part of its own heritage, handed down to the future of the world at large.

Two of the world's oldest and most resilient civilisations, both now nuclear armed, cannot possibly pursue each other to extinction.

An Indian-origin person like me, living in Chinese-majority Singapore, cannot but be a partisan of both sides. When they kill each other, they kill a little bit of me. Desi Chinese should not become a new conflict cuisine. Instead, it should alert both Indians and Chinese to a renewed sense of their historical relations.

Before the onset of colonialism, their interactions were cultural.

Buddhism travelled from India to China. Chinese scholars braved the elements to visit India, to anchor their national existence in the shared experience of an Asian life devoted to the peaceful excellence of the mind and not the violent attrition of economies and polities that would pass one day in any case.

The great university of Nalanda, resurrected today, stood as testimony to the impermanence of time checked by the intellectual reach of the mind.

True, no one ate chicken chow mein, spring chicken, chicken Manchurian or Sichuan dosa at Nalanda.

There were no mock-meat varieties for vegetarians. So much the pity.

But now that there is desi Chinese, there is one more relationship between the two Asian giants.

Conflict will pass. But the world must eat in peace.

Asad Latif is an editorial writer for The Straits Times.


அதற்குள்ளாகவா? இந்தச் செய்திகளையும் படிக்கலாமே!

இந்தச் செய்திகளையும் படிக்கலாமே!