A woman from Taiwan reminded me this morning that today marks the start of the Chinese New Year. She was eager to organize an outing to a local Chinese restaurant to celebrate and invited me to join her for dinner. We had an extra long day at school today because of a special video viewing after our normal classes finished at 6PM. The video was about Sri Krishnamacharya’s 100th birthday, his life in yoga, and his accomplishments, including his teaching the maharaja of Mysore, his famous pupil BKS Iyengar (but no mention of Pattabhi Jois), and his work with the mentally challenged, children, and also women (women didn’t always practice yoga in India). I went to the Mysore Palace just last week so seeing the professor’s photo at the palace with the maharaja Wodeyar jogged my memory of the wonderful visit I had. The images of Sri Krishnamacharya (photos and video)’s own asana and pranayama practice were very inspiring; you could sense a great presence and alertness from him even at the age of 100. By the time we finished, it was 7PM and I was feeling so dreadfully tired that I almost backed out of going to dinner. But the fact that this Chinese restaurant is only two blocks away from my apartment swayed me enough to go. Well, that and my curiosity for Indian style Chinese food. I had no idea what I was going to get!
I’ve yet to meet a single Chinese person during my 6weeks in India so far but I have seen more Chinese restaurants than Italian, French, Spanish, Japanese, Korean, and Mexican restaurants all put together. I’ve observed that at hotel restaurants where Indian food is served there is usually a small section of the menu dedicated to Chinese food. My driver from Kerala thought that it was for tourists but I’m not so sure. I went to a regular, stand-alone Indian vegetarian restaurant in Mysore where next to dosas and curries they had Chinese fried rice listed. Do Indian people generally like Chinese food?
In any case, I was off to my first Chinese restaurant in India called “The Wonton.” It had a bakery selling cakes and pastries up front, and another set of doors led us to a decent looking restaurant. When we first arrived around 7:30 there were no other diners. I thought since everyone seems to be up early in the morning the locals would all be eating dinner early. Was this a bad sign (that the food is terrible) or do Indians eat dinner late like New Yorkers? Based on my unscientific survey of this one restaurant, the citizens of Chennai eat dinner late. By the time we finished our meal around 9PM the restaurant was almost full with local Indians. I thought I read that everything closes by 11PM though… I guess I’ll find out more about the rhythm of this city in the next few weeks.
Although the restaurant was advertised as being Chinese they also had some Thai dishes on the menu. What I didn’t see were any Chinese people- I doubt that a Chinese person cooked my dinner. But as this is India, almost every item offered had a vegetarian counterpart and I had plenty of options to choose from. Four out of the seven in our party were vegetarians and we happened to sit on the same side of the table, which made it easy for us to share our veggie meal. While I love Indian food, I do feel that I am eating too much rice and Indian bread with my spicy curries. I am eating only vegetarian dishes but the sauces can be quite thick and heavy, so I was really hoping for a simple vegetable stir fry. I ended up ordering a vegetarian Tom Yum soup and an entree of stir fried vegetables, and hoped that there wasn’t any ketchup or masala spices involved.
I was very happy with my Tom Yum soup. It was light and had a nice mix of cabbage, cauliflower, green beans, and tomatoes. Since it was vegetarian, I didn’t taste the omnipresent fish sauce in this classic Thai dish but I enjoyed it nonetheless. Sadly the entrees were a bit disappointing. The vegetables in my stir fry were deep fried first before being tossed together and in the dish I detected something that didn’t register to me as a vegetable. I looked up at one of my dining companions and she had the same puzzled look on her face as well. We flagged down a waiter to confirm that we were indeed eating a vegetarian dish. He emphatically nodded yes and said “paneer, paneer.” Right. Yes. I realized then that the Chinese food in India includes Indian cheese! And just the way the Japanese Chinese food can be subtle and delicate, a reflection of the sensibilities of the Japanese diners, I found that Indian Chinese food was all quite spicy. I guess I should have expected that every dish would have a kick. Unlike the Chinese restaurant menus in the U.S. where you see three chillies next to a particular dish to indicate the spice level, there were no chilly indicators and absolutely no mention of any peppers at all in the description of the dishes. But the dishes were all prepared with a healthy amount of green and red chillies. There were some dishes specifically labeled as Szechuan (I think they spelled it Sechuwan). The regular Chinese dishes were hot enough, I wonder if those Szechuan dishes will set my mouth on fire…???
It was a fun night out and a nice change of pace from my normal dinner of porridge and fruit. Xin Nian Kuai Le from India!