Sometime last year, I and my husband accompanied a Japanese Couple for their shopping. The duo was working at Orissa in a NGO project with another friend of ours. Obiviously they were facing lots of trouble in getting the common ingredients of their usual Japanese food at that remote and poverty stricken district. So coming to Calcutta was their big chance to buy spices , vegetables and fish of their choice .
We took them to a Chinese Restaurant at Tangra for lunch . Tangra, the mini china town of Calcutta is reputed to serve authentic Chinese food painstakingly preserved by the 200 odd Chinese families living in the locality for past few generations. Our Japanese couple was ecstatic at the proposal. Once in the restaurant, the lady asked for the menu in Chinese script as she had studied it in China and thought she will be more familiar with the dishes with their original names. But then, there was no menu card in Chinese. After all , the eatery was serving mostly to Indians and felt no need to have a Chinese menu…even the waiters of Chinese origin(there were very few of them) could speak fluent bangla but very little Chinese. We suggested probably she can try a chopsuey. She said she has never heard of a dish with such a name in China . Her husband, educated in USA also confirmed that this so called “American Chopsuey” is unknown to Chinese in USA . So we concluded that perhaps it is a local invention and called by that name for some strange reason. Later I did some Googling and found that they were right!
Chopsuey( it means “mixed pieces” in Chinese) is part of American Chinese cuisine, Canadian Chinese cuisine, and, more recently, Indian Chinese cuisine. Filipinos also have their own version of chopsuey. Though it is popular dish in Chinese restaurants in USA to suit American taste, it is never eaten by local Chinese. It is alleged to have been invented by Chinese immigrant cooks working on the United States Transcontinental railway in the 19th century and has also been cited in New York City's Chinatown restaurants since the 1880s. Other sources say that the dish (and its name) was invented during Qing Dynasty premier Li Hongzhang's visit to the United States: when reporters asked what food the premier was eating, his cook found it difficult to explain the dishes, and replied "mixed pieces” and as per another version of this 'culinary mythology', traces it to a dish of Taishan, the homeland of many Chinese immigrants. Whatever may be the case, our Japanese friends liked the taste of the unknown 'Chinese' dishes served in India .
Yesterday I read an interesting article by Chef Shaun Kenworthy in The Telegraph, about the origin of various vegetables and recipes. If one go in search of origin of popular food items , many astonishing facts emerge. E.g. the roti, Kali daal, Rogan josh even the kebab – the so called Indian classic food preparations are not Indian at all. On the other hand Manchurian and chilli chikan – generally taken as Chinese , are very much Indian by birth and by naturalization. Its difficult to imagine that some of the most popular vegetables like potato , tomato, cauliflower and bell pepper arrived in India only around 300-400 years ago. So the Kashmiri Aloo dum or our favorite Aloo tikki are not that traditional as we would have thought.
The article made me think about the ever evolving world of recipes and food traditions. In many cases it will be just impossible to pinpoint the origin of a particular dish .The current recipe may be far from the original one in its form , method of preparation and even taste .There are just too many regional and religious influences on the food in India . I am sure Chinese would have been amazed to find a pure vegetarian Chinese restaurant at Gujarat (they even have a MacDonald outlet serving only veg- world’s only of its type) . Then these days in North India you find a lot of experimentation with south India food specially the Dosa and idly . So paneer dosa and fried idlies are as popular as the original ones in most north Indian cities. And mind you, these are not just some local variations of the recipes but an entirely new recipe clubbing itself with the original name and still going by the tag of south Indian food . These days you can find a paneer sandwitch dhokala and Machurian pizza also. But then in this age of remix music, fusion language and inspired fashion, even this choupsuey cooking is most welcome as long as it suits our taste buds. So should I try some sprouted mung dal and paneer on my pizza tonight? I know I know ...Italians will be shocked to hear that .