Photo by Michael A. Gardiner
Fried rice and Gobi Manchurian
It crept up on us some time around the early 2000s—a growing recognition that P.F. Changs has little to do with "Chinese" food. Watered down Chinese? Perhaps. Chinese stylings for American taste buds? Certainly. Embarrasing? Definitely. But we're hardly alone in this international exercise in culinary cynicism. Take, for example, India's play on the theme. You can taste it at Rasraj (9252 Miramar Road).
At its base, Indo-Chinese cuisine is just the adaptation of Chinese flavors and techniques to Indian tastes. Created when Chinese migrants settled in Calcutta and adapted their food to local ingredients, Indo-Chinese food has since become an important part of the Indian culinary culture. One of the reasons for this is the ready adaptability of Chinese cuisine to vegetarianism, an important factor in the largely Hindu country. Rasraj, for example, is a vegetarian restaurant.
Perhaps the most famous Indo-Chinese dish is called "Gobi Manchurian" despite the fact it has absolutely nothing to do with Manchuria. It is, however, delicious. Cauliflower florets are dipped in a spiced corn flour batter and then deep fried before being sautéed with onion, chilies, garlic and other spices as well as no small amount of soy sauce and, believe it or not, ketchup. It feels vaguely Chinese, yes, but features the unmistakably rich and spiced flavors of India. It is addictive.
A lot of Rasraj's dishes bear familiar names: spring rolls, fried rice, Hakka noodles. Not all of them represent exactly what youíd expect from the name. The spring rolls—more along the lines of fried egg rolls—were well rolled, featuring a cabbage and carrot based filling. Crisp on the outside, tasty on the inside, they were competent if not excellent.
The fried rice, on the other hand, was a poor take on one of my favorite classes of Chinese dishes. The vegetables themselves—peas, cabbage, carrot and green onions—were decent, and the rice was competently cooked. But the dish as a whole was dreadfully under-seasoned.
Hakka noodles is Indo-style chow mein : cooked noodles with stir fried, sliced vegetables (green beans, cabbage, carrots, peppers, chilies, etc.) seasoned with salt, soy sauce, vinegar and a mild chili sauce (a chili, garlic, sugar and vinegar concoction). Hardly the best Asian noodle dish I've tasted it was easily the most "Chinese" of Rasraj's Indo-Chinese offerings.
Rasraj has many straight Indian options from up and down the sub-continent. But I couldn't resist the dosa , thin and crispy rolled pancakes made from a fermented batter of rice and black lentils. A cylindrically rolled pancake is served with a selection of sauces including sambar (a lentil based stew) and a variety of chutneys. While the Manchurian-stuffed dosa sounded better than it turned out to be, the "plain" version was full of texture as well as flavor, and ripping and dipping the thing was child-like fun.
Is Indo-Chinese food "watered down," "bastardized," "cynical" and not "authentic?" It's all of that and none of it. It is its own thing and should be tasted as such. While Rasraj's Indo-Chinese flavors are neither quite Chinese nor quite Indian they are fascinating and enjoyable on their own terms.