Of chillies, chow and beans

Priyadarshini Chatterjee | Updated on January 16, 2018 Published on October 28, 2016
Proudmantle bearer: Janice Lee (28), who joined the family business after finishing a course in business administration in Toronto, at the Pou Chong Brothers showroom in central Kolkata. Photo: Ashoke Chakrabarty

Proudmantle bearer: Janice Lee (28), who joined the family business after finishing a course in business administration in Toronto, at the Pou Chong Brothers showroom in central Kolkata. Photo: Ashoke Chakrabarty

Taste maker: Chong Hsin Wong, proprietor of Sing Cheung Company, works closely with a recipe developer at his Tangra factory. Photo: Ashoke Chakrabarty

Taste maker: Chong Hsin Wong, proprietor of Sing Cheung Company, works closely with a recipe developer at his Tangra factory. Photo: Ashoke Chakrabarty

Adding flavour to Kolkata’s appetite for Hakka-style food is a handful of fiery sauces and condiments, manufactured by families with roots in Canton

I am familiar with Tiretta Bazaar in central Kolkata thanks to cockcrow breakfasts — steaming bowls of fish ball soups and pork-stuffed sweet, steamed buns, on weekend mornings, hawked on the streets here by the local Chinese.

The much-hyped Chinese breakfast now survives on conjecture. These days, I come here for the wonton soup and pork in Hamei sauce at the Tung Nam Eating House close by. This afternoon, however, I am here to meet Janice Lee and her father Dominic, who own the 58-year-old Pou Chong Brothers that manufacture home-style Chinese sauces, crucial to Kolkata’s trademark Hakka-style food.

The building (originally the wholesale unit of the sauce company), on the Chhatawallah gully, is easy to spot. Janice, a sprightly 28-year-old, greets me in her cosy, immaculately clean, third-floor cabin (a sharp contrast with the rest of the office floor strewn with tall stacks of dusty files that remind you of government offices) with some chilled mango juice.

I start by extolling the fiery virtues of Pou Chong’s illustrious green chilli sauce. I use it extensively, indiscriminately, and often curiously. And I know many who swear by it. “It’s a constant bestseller,” says Janice, visibly pleased. “My grandfather started Pou Chong with two sauces — the soya bean and the green chilli,” she adds.

Today, the Pou Chong catalogue boasts a mind-boggling assortment of sauces and condiments. There’s the piquant Capsiko made with hand-picked slender red peppers; the earthy pudina sauce trumped up with fresh spearmint soaked in house-made white vinegar; the sweet and sticky barbeque sauce made with fermented soya bean and loaded with honey and molasses; and the spicy chilli garlic sauce, a top seller. “The sauces have no artificial colour or flavour,” says Janice. Besides, there’s a range of springy noodles, prawn chips, spice blends, teas and herbs, and a tempura batter mix.

Janice credits her father for the expansion of the Pou Chong repertoire. “He is the one who experiments with flavours and develops recipes,” she says, “like the delightfully sweet and tart sauce made with fresh plums we introduced recently.”

Dominic — a handsome man who looks too young to be in his 50s — joins us soon after. And while his Chinese lineage is unmistakable, Dominic is a pucca Kolkata-wallah. A passionate raconteur of his community’s history, he is also part of the Cha Project team, an initiative to revive the city’s old and new Chinatowns.

Dominic refuses to take questions until I’ve had something to eat and sends his daughter off. Janice returns with a plate of steaming hot dumplings stuffed with minced fish and bits of bamboo shoot and spring onions, and a bottle of Pou Chong’s Thai sweet chilli sauce. “No, no. Bring her the momo sauce,” Dominic insists. Janice cheerfully obeys, while I stir in my seat, a tad embarrassed. “Our neighbour makes these sui mai at home,” he says with child-like enthusiasm, while pouring a generous splash of brick-red sauce on my plate. The sauce is familiar. My favourite momo joint in town, Denzong Kitchen, sources theirs from Pou Chong.

The Lees — explains Dominic as he watches me dunk a sui mai in the sauce — are from Guangdong (formerly Canton) province in southeast China. Incidentally, a majority of Chinese settlers who arrived in Calcutta on ships in the 1800s, were from Guangdong and its neighbouring provinces. “Many of these people migrated to escape the civil unrest and natural calamities that ravaged China at the time, lured by the jobs at the city’s thriving dockyards or other mills and factories” says Dominic, a fourth-generation immigrant. “My great-grandfather was no exception. He came to Calcutta in the 1850s and set shop as an herbal doctor, here in the city’s original Chinatown.”

The family got into the business of making sauces only in the 1950s, when Dominic’s father Lee Shih Chuan, acquired a small factory called Tin Yat Koon. Very soon, the entrepreneur started making sauces spiked with Indian flavours. “Many of the Chinese settled here married local women, who, in turn, introduced a range of Indian spices to traditional Chinese recipes,” says Dominic. “My father tapped into the changing palate of the community.”

“It wasn’t an easy start,” Janice adds. During his early years, Lee Shih Chuan straddled several odd jobs to make ends meet, which included working at the dockyards, apprenticing for a local goldsmith and waiting tables at the legendary Nanking restaurant that once occupied the ground floor of the decaying red-brick building of the Toong Oon Church nearby. “It was perhaps here that he picked up the basics of sauce-making,” says Janice, who divides her time between supervising the brand’s marketing campaigns, and helping with customers at the retail store on Lu Shun Sarani.

Diagonally opposite the Pou Chong store, is an outlet of Sing Cheung Company, the other big name among the city’s Chinese sauce-makers. I meet Chong Hsin Wong, the second-generation proprietor, at the bustling store. We chat over cups of lebu cha (lemon tea), surrounded by tall shelves laden with handy bottles and hefty jerrycans of sauces and condiments, herbs, spice blends and sesame oil, packets of egg and rice noodles, and imported cans of mushrooms and baby corn.

I also spot bottles of pizza and pasta sauce, the Bengali kasundi (mustard sauce) and aam panna, “Ours is the oldest sauce factory in the city,” Wong says, with a hint of pride, before introducing me to a customer who has been stocking her pantry with Sing Cheung sauces for 26 years now. “About 75 per cent of our clientèle comprises restaurants, including a few at five-star hotels,” he adds.

Wong’s family, originally from the Mai Zhou village of Guangdong, migrated to Calcutta only after the World War II. They started off by making the essential soya bean sauce, painstakingly brewed using traditional techniques, to cater to the local Chinese community, and eventually established the Sing Cheung Sauce Factory in 1954. “My family was laughed at for getting into a business that seemed untenable,” says Wong. Over six decades later, Sing Cheung continues to do brisk business on the strength of a loyal clientèle.

Keeping current trends in mind, Wong works closely with his master recipe developer at his Tangra factory (its red iron gates are a veritable Tangra landmark) to create new products. So there’s everything from tomato ketchup and Schezwan (Sichuan) sauce to oyster, hoisin and hot bean sauces, “Our sauces are not mass-produced industrial goods. We turn out a limited quantity (an average of five tonnes a day), but never compromise on quality. Our soya bean sauce, for instance, is fermented over 10-12 months to ensure maximum flavours,” says Wong.

The range of sauces at Pou Chong and Sing Cheung is more or less identical, but each brand has its unmistakable signature tastes and is backed by corresponding blocs of staunch loyalists. In fact, both Wong and Dominic are unperturbed by the deluge of international brands selling exotic sauces. Dominic believes his sauces are inimitable. “Many of our fans, who are now settled abroad, return after years looking for their favourite Pou Chong sauces. They tell me they haven’t tasted anything like this anywhere else,” Dominic says. “Besides, we are far better at adapting to local tastes, our sauces hew to local preferences,” says Wong. But the businesses might be faced with a challenge of another kind.

Wong joined the family business in his 20s, and continues to run the show. “But the next generation is not keen on joining sauce business,” says Wong, “They want to settle abroad,” he rues. It’s true that the Chinese community in the city is shrinking every day. The new generation is moving out in hordes to pursue careers in the West. And Canada is the most popular destination among them.

“Toronto is studded with little eateries serving the signature Calcutta-style Hakka spread, which travelled there with the Chinese immigrants from here. They are quite popular there,” says Janice, who read business administration at the University of Toronto in order to be able to help her family business.

The likes of Janice perhaps give some hope not only to these vintages of Chinese entrepreneurship in the city, but also to the dwindling numbers struggling to cling on to their 200-year-old legacy. “It’s my bequest and responsibility” Janice says, before promising to invite me for home-style chilli chicken. Her mother, she claims, turns out some of the best in town.

Priyadarshini Chatterjee is a Kolkata-based food writer and blogger

Published on October 28, 2016
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