Tangled in noodles

October 10, 2010

Passion in an undiluted form is rare. So when you come across a crusader in the true sense of the term, you sit up and take notice. Like my wife. Here she writes about the cuisine she would love to have for breakfast, lunch and dinner, day in and day out…

 

I can go on and on about Chinese food. Just like the long strand of noodle that is intrinsic to the cuisine.

The faintest memory that I have of first eating chowmein is when I was in standard two. My mother insisted that I eat plenty of fruits everyday. So, she stuffed my tiffin box with cubes of apples, guavas, cucumbers and grapes every single day. Not that I complained. I was an abiding child.

 

Sharmi making the most of her noodles in Agra's Gateway Hotel. (Pic: Dwaipayan Ghosh Dastidar)

But one day, when I opened the tiffin box during recess, a clump of chowmein garnished with succulent soya nuggets smiled back at me. Now, what I did in glee, I remember not. I just recall that I ate in slow motion (apart from hugging my mother tightly when I went home) so that the chowmein did not end soon. And yes, I did not share my food with friends that day!

 

Four of us, my father, mother, brother and I, loved frequenting a Chinese restaurant in Gariahat called Mahal. We had to take a narrow lane from the main footpath and climb up a winding staircase to the restaurant. And when the door opened, that characteristic whiff present in all Chinese eateries greeted us. I used to be terribly happy then.

I clutched my father’s shirtsleeve and made myself comfortable on a chair next to his, my legs dangling in midair as I waited for egg chowmein and chilli chicken to arrive at the table. That used to be quite a regular order. And yes, I loved it. Only a few years later, did my mother try chicken sweet corn soup. It was good, she said. But I’m sure it could never beat the regular order.

I don’t know whether that quaint restaurant still exists. Perhaps not, or else why would we suddenly desert it? Oh yes, I remember why? During one Durga Puja night, we had gone there for dinner. Since we were regulars, the waiters immediately cleared a table for us. We placed our order and waited. But the food never appeared. My father was livid and we stormed out. May be we could have waited a bit longer than the one and a half hour…

 

Panfried to perfection. (Flickr/bluewaikiki.com)

That shoddy treatment was enough reason to never go back there. We lost touch with the place. I missed Mahal a lot whenever we set foot on Gariahat. After all, that’s where I learnt how to handle the slippery soft noodles, courtesy my father. And got initiated into the wondrous world of Chinese food.

 

Now why do I like Chinese food? Difficult to formulate an answer. I just know that it tastes heavenly (for me), is light and is full of vegetables. Whenever my colleagues decide to order food from outside they pretend I’m not there in the room. For, they know full well, what would be my choice. But then there are those days when they relent and I get to have pan-fried chicken noodles from Flavours of China, a nondescript Chinese haunt in Connaught Place. It’s neutral in taste, doused in light soy sauce and garnished with plenty of carrots, broccoli and chicken cubes. I mix everything together on a plate and savour every spoon from the mound. There’s one colleague who says, “Can I have a tiny bite?” every minute of the meal. I fake a smile and say, “Sure”, passing on the plate grudgingly. Yes, I’m possessive about my noodles.

That plate keeps me nice and full for hours. And whets my appetite, too. For more Chinese of course. In August we went to Agra and stayed at the Gateway Hotel. Due to some miscommunication on the part of the hotel staff, we were forced to eat dinner out of the buffet spread. I was okay with it. But, my husband is not particularly fond of these spreads. He says they are a confusing mishmash.

 

Full of vegetables. (Flickr/Just Samson)

While he reluctantly browsed through what was on offer, I was smiling away to see that it was largely a Chinese meal. No, my husband does not like Chinese. He was upset, very upset, he told me later. I, on the other hand, dug into my Schezwan noodles and fish in garlic soy sauce with gusto. I enjoyed every morsel and thanked God inwardly for the hotel’s goof-up. Sorry for admitting it here…

 

Then there is the greasy ubiquitous chowmein you get at every corner of India, the taste varying according to the palate of the region where it is being concocted. While in college, we friends ate Michael’s chow almost everyday (now that won’t make my mother very happy!). He was this huge man who owned this makeshift food stall opposite Vardaan Market in Camac Street. Helped by his brother (also pretty huge) and two more lads, Michael served a killer greasy chow. While the chow was mundane, he topped it with ladles of chilly chicken gravy. The taste transformed instantly and we lapped it up like hungry retards. He also sold momo and fried rice. But why waste space when you have the good old chowmein, this time with a lip-smacking garnish.

Tung Fong at Park Street in Kolkata is one of my new favourites for their appetising Chinese lunch buffet. They have a crunchy corn spinach side-dish that pulls me without fail. Then there’s fish cubes in oyster sauce and of course, noodles. This time my husband promises that we will visit Tung Fong during Durga Puja. My fingers are crossed…

 

Close to grandma's 'chaimeen'. (Flickr/rachyyx)

What is this relation I have with chowmein? Whenever I see a Chinese buffet before me, I try to stick to the side dishes. But then strangely I tiptoe towards the noodles section. Before I can even say EAT, I eat quite a bit of what I’d decided to stay away from!

 

In Delhi, I think I’ve had a memorable chowmein in Bercos. They call it their special chicken chowmein. Thin glass noodles tossed in sauces and garnished with black mushroom, broccoli, chicken chunks, onion slivers and what not. Soft, slippery and absolutely delightful. The first time I ordered it, my family claimed that that was the best dish on the table. I said, “See, I never go wrong with Chinese.” For me, it’s tried and tested…

My paternal grandmother made a wonderful chowmein, too. She used lots of soy and tomato sauce but held back on the chilly sauce. For, according to her the sharp chilly taste would burn our mouth. It was almost dark brown in colour and quite spicy. I remember the taste most definitely, as I remember her wielding her khunti in the kadhai dexterously while preparing it. When it was done, she served it on two plates, for my brother and me, and called, “Aay kheyney. Aaj chaimeen baniyechi…”

Yes, you’ve read right. She called chowmein so. Made with her loving touch, that ‘chaimeen’ remains one of the best I’ve ever had of my favourite…

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9 Responses to “Tangled in noodles”

  1. Glad to know you are a Chinese food lover like me. I have also taken note of the fact that like a true Calcuttan Chowmein and Chilly Chicken tops the charts for you. As a kid eating out for me meant only Chinese much to the irritation of my family.

    • Sharmi said

      Yes Shilpi, my choice sometimes exasperates my friends and family but they relent when I persist. Such is my love for the cuisine 🙂

    • netdhaba said

      @Shilpi Bose: Well, starting from the 1970s, the three decades were about Chinese cuisine invading Calcutta and Bombay and aligning itself to suit the local tastes. The children, always the most vulnerable to be influenced by things new, were tantalised by the sight of unmanageably slippery worms that could only be tamed by brown gooey chili chicken gravy and fell for the combo. From there on, started the ‘Chowmein Generation’.
      I don’t know why am not sold on Chinese cuisine, but then i must be an exception.
      Thank you for your observation 🙂

  2. errormsg! said

    HI, its me Amrita … what a yum! post…i follow netdhaba and it never disappoints 🙂 tor hubby-key bolish 🙂

    i’m not as fanatical about chinese as you, though i do enjoy their little side dishes, sauces, the kimchee etc…and i am HUGE Murakami fan, so after reading almost every book of his, i get this insane craving for Japanese food (which i love, i could live the rest of my life on Sushi and wasabi and miso soup!) but since that is not always available/affordable, some chinese almost always manages to whet the appetite … 🙂

    • Sharmi said

      Hey, what a surprise to see you here. Ya, definitely bolbo. He will be very happy.
      You know I’ve recently started liking Japanese food too though i think I still have not acquired the taste for sushi and sashimi. I like the miso soup and sticky rice and wasabi is certainly sharp enough to remember well. Come to Delhi and I’ll take you to Ai, AD Singh’s Japanese restaurant. The restaurateur has taken quite a fascination to this ‘healthy’ cuisine. There’s Wasabi by Morimoto, too. But shekhaney I’ll celebrate with you all when a book on my film blog is published 🙂 Inshallah 🙂

    • netdhaba said

      @errormsg!: Welcome to the party, Amrita. This blog is for all those who ruthlessly dissect cuisines but love their food at the end of the day.
      I must confess am a late entrant to Japanese food scene, but what i love most with my beer are yakitoris and tempuras. As for sushi (salmon’s preferred), a neat sake (both goes, rice and potato) is perfect for me.
      If i can’t afford Japanese food, i reach out for Indonesian or Malaysian (nasi gorengs and lemaks), but seldom Chinese.
      Thanks for the comment and please read on 🙂

  3. NP said

    Hey, I share your love for spicy Chinese too. Your post reminded me of this time I was in Punjab on assignment. I think it was Ludhiana. At the hotel, I ordered noodles and chilly chicken for dinner. I don’t know what possessed me to order Chinese in the Punjabi heartland–perhaps the same madness that made me eat dodgy, insanely spicy roadside dhaba dal, and then suffer for days 🙂 Anyway, when the noodles arrived, I was so utterly disappointed! It had nothing…no sauce, no veggies. It was just a HUGE plateful of boiled yellow noodles. I ate what I could, which was less than half the plate, and sent the rest back. I’ve eaten Chinese in the U.S. too, but I think I prefer the Kolkata Chinese or the stuff we used to order from Flavors and of course Bercos!

    • Sharmi said

      Awesome meals those were hain na? Remember the Chicken chopsuey? How Shaitan used to make a plunge for it? And that awesome awesome spicy lamb sesame (now I do not have red meat. I’ve quit chicken too :)). Hey, suddenly I’m missing you. 😦

    • netdhaba said

      @NP: I do agree the greasy Kolkata Chinese stuff has a different pull. You know you are gobbling up trash, but kya kare?
      In Delhi, Bercos has surprised me by its quality — slightly encompassing the finer nuances of food expected at a finer dining place — something i don’t associate with restaurant chains.
      As for your Ludhiana disaster, well, it made you wiser, didn’t it?
      Thanks for the comment and please read on 🙂

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