Two for the price of one

Zac O?Yeah | Updated on January 20, 2018
The right tools: A good Chinese meal needs just the right sauces, like the ones made at Kolkata’s Sing Cheung sauce factory

The right tools: A good Chinese meal needs just the right sauces, like the ones made at Kolkata’s Sing Cheung sauce factory   -  Zac O'Yeah

Meat of the matter: Wontons at Sunshine, a Chinese joint at Tangra, Kolkata.

Meat of the matter: Wontons at Sunshine, a Chinese joint at Tangra, Kolkata.   -  Zac O'Yeah

Happy feet: A Chinese shoe shop at Bentinck Street

Happy feet: A Chinese shoe shop at Bentinck Street   -  Zac O'Yeah

Breakfast menu at Sunshine

Breakfast menu at Sunshine   -  Zac O'Yeah

Zac O'Yeah

Zac O'Yeah

The search for a hearty Chinese breakfast in Kolkata leads to the discovery of a second, not-so-famous Chinatown

Working my way through the shopping list, I’ve already been to New Market to buy vanilla fudge from Nahoum’s Jewish bakery. At Johnson’s cheese shop I procured a bagful of Bandel cheeses — these traditional Portuguese-type smoked cheese balls are still made in a village of the same name on the outskirts of town. Preparing to leave the next morning, I already miss the cosmopolitan Kolkata.

Then I get a brainwave: Kolkata supposedly has the only Chinatown in India and I vaguely know where it is. I haven’t really breakfasted yet, so why not go Chinese? Maybe pick up a pair of handmade boots, too, because rumour has it that there are excellent shoemakers in Chinatown. I hop into a cab.

Half an hour later, I get off in Christopher Road, the main street in Tangra. Not much of a street, more of a meandering lane lined with tanneries and Chinese eating-houses. Many are shut this early and it turns out — a bunch of students I run into tell me so — that they are primarily known as dirt cheap bars, only open at night (6-10pm). Some showcase crooners, but don’t expect Shanghai-style jazz here: the musical fare is more Tollywood. Until about 1950, the area was infamous for its opium dens. These dens were all shut down post-independence.

As I walk around, I discover a Chinese cemetery dating back to 1900, a Formosa Inn for those who wish to stay overnight, and a Chinese Kalimandir, which is getting its gates painted red ahead of some Chinese festival. Next to the temple, I chance upon one of the few early-riser eateries — aptly named Sunshine — where the breakfast menu consists of singara chow (Chinese samosas?) and wonton. I pick the latter and get a huge plate of meaty dumplings, fiery sauce and a bowl of steaming egg drop broth.

Totally stuffed, I continue my exploration and find a seller of Chinese paper lanterns — a young Bengali lad — and a soy sauce factory founded in 1954, apparently the oldest in India and still using traditional slow fermentation methods. According to my GPS, there’s a Lao-tzu temple in one of the winding alleys, but I don’t find it. One can buy economy-size bags of MSG — that essential ingredient in Chinese food — in every corner store, but there’s unfortunately not a single shoe shop in sight.

Apparently Kolkata once had a Chinese population large enough to merit a locally printed Chinese newspaper. One chap I chat with estimates that today there are only 200 families left. Many of the youth have migrated to Canada and I spot about a dozen elderly Chinese during my walk. Two aunties, who look like they might be a hundred years old, are delightfully clad in flowery silk pyjamas of a kind that must have been very fashionable in mainland China before the 1949 communist revolution.

As I get ready for lunch, I pass a mom-and-pop-style eatery simply called Chung (47 South Tangra), where Chinese ladies sit stuffing crab claws. I order some, but am informed that the crabs are being cooked specially for a get-together. Instead, I’m given a generous plate of prawn chow at ₹130. A radio plays distorted Chinese pop. Soon the Chinese clan arrives to feast, filling two round banquet tables loaded with off-menu specials. Some are visiting from Canada, bringing fancy gifts like iPhones; the Canadian kids horse about doing cartwheels while updating their Facebook pages. Their Indian cousins are silent in big-eyed wonderment.

Two of the 40 or so restaurants in Tangra worth trying are Kimfa (9 South Tangra), a joint popular with locals for hearty Chinese fare, and Beijing (77/1 Christopher Road), whose fine dining is all the rage with Bengalis (even the author Amitav Ghosh has been spotted here). Apart from an unusually extensive vegetarian selection, Beijing offers a highly Indianised version of Peking duck for ₹655: “Pieces, medium spicy in gravy,” the waiter informs me. Matheswartala Road, an unpaved tannery lane, is lined with other well-known eateries such as Shun Li and Sin Fa.

After a few beers, Tangra with its oozing black gutters looks decidedly less grimy, so I summon the courage to knock on the gates of a fortress-like tannery, where hides are still tanned in the old way — in soaking pits. A polite lady informs me that they make no shoes. “You must go to Pen Ching Street. All shoe shops are there.”

It sounds like she’s telling me to cross the border to China itself, so I get her to spell it out: “Bentinck.” Aha! That’s the street east of Dalhousie Square (BBD Bagh) where the Chinese originally set up shop in the mid-1800s, when they arrived in the wake of the British sea trade with the port-city of Canton. The area even has an Old China Bazaar, said to date back to 1757, where Chinaware was sold. This connection is also reflected in the fact that much of the food one gets here is ostensibly Cantonese (sometimes abbreviated on menus as ‘Can’) or Hakka (the name of a Chinese ethnic group from the Canton-area).

Worried that I’ll find no shoes there either, I stop the taxi outside Chung Wah on 13A, CR Avenue, around the corner from Bentinck Street. Foodies tipped me off about it. The all-red interiors with many private booths are popular with secret lovers having tiffs over tumblers of Old Monk, and it retains an effortlessly retro feel. Started by Mr Wah himself some 140 years ago, I’m told by the bartender (who is probably just making this up to make me happy), it is no longer Chinese-run. Furthermore it has turned into a somewhat shady drinking den. The man at the next table doesn’t even remove his motorcycle helmet while downing seven pegs.

The menu, DTP printouts in plastic pockets, in case one’s Daredevil beer spills, offers Indo-Chinese hybrid items such as fried chilli paneer, chicken tandoori chilli, Chung special fish masala and fish Manchurian.

The chilli-garlicky Manchurian style of cooking is said to have been invented in Kolkata itself to please Indian palates and is sometimes attributed to Nelson Wang, the celebrity chef born from Chinese parents here in 1950.

Fortified, I walk upstreet from KC Das’s rosogolla shop and find that Bentinck Street indeed has about a dozen Chinese shoe shops. Some are run by dignified old Chinese gentlemen and after shopping around I find nice boots — they’re a real steal at ₹1,200. Many shoe shops later, I reach Tiretta Bazaar and take a right turn into Sun Yat Sen Street, named in honour of the father of the modern Chinese nation, and find more Chinese food.

To begin with, Tangra’s Sing Cheung sauce factory turns out to have an outlet on the parallel P-12 New CIT Road, also known as Lu Shun Sarani after China’s celebrated novelist. The secret of cooking Chinese grub is the right sauce. Here the selection is magnificent, ranging from stir-fry and momo sauces to Szechuan hot sauce in anything from 210 ml bottles (₹100) to 2.5 kg jerry cans. I go slightly berserk and fill my jhola with oyster sauce, wasabi and dried shitake mushrooms at affordable rates.

Around the corner is an old Chinese church, the Sea Ip, which dates from 1905 and is quite picturesque. I end the day in Tung Nam eating house (24 Chatawala Gully), a canteen with eight tables where Chinese-looking people are dining and the menu feels totally authentic. It’s like the simple eateries for local folks in China today, with low stools so that many can squeeze in at a table. It even has the mandatory screen to ward off evil at the entrance. Pork in hamei sauce sets me back by ₹150.

Other similar eating-houses include D’Lay, Pou Hing, and Eau Chew — the latter opened in the 1920s and is thereby the oldest Chinese family-run eatery in India. This area is also famous for its early morning Chinese breakfasts and one can apparently eat for less than ₹30 from makeshift food stalls that wrap up business after the sun rises.

Next time, I think to myself as I board the metro at Central to go back to my hotel to look for antacids, happy to have discovered that Kolkata has not one but two Chinatowns!

Zac O’Yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist based in Bengaluru. His latest novel is Hari: A Hero for Hire

Published on May 20, 2016

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