Sunday, February 10, 2013

Time For A Start

Sunday, Feb 10, 2013, page 2

The Best Chinatown In the World, right here in City of Joy


This column coincides with the start of the Chinese New Year. And what makes the occasion special for us in Kolkata is our unrivalled love for Chinese food. In fact, in the 30 or so countries across the world where I have tasted Chinese food, nowhere is the love for these delicacies as vibrant as in Kolkata. Yes there are some excellent Chinese restaurants spread across in North America, Europe and Australia, but our good old Tangra and the experiments with Chinese food at eateries like Mainland China and Chinoiserie surely take the cake.

 First things first- there’s nothing called Chinese cuisine as such. In China itself there are many different varieties of food ranging from the spicy Hunan and Sichuan to the more provincial varieties. What we understand as Chinese food in Kolkata is a more indigenized version of Hunan or Sichuan cuisine, which is a mesh of Chinese with spicy Indian to suit our taste buds. Melbourne, in fact, has gone a step further and set up a chain of Indian-Chinese restaurants across Lygon Street in the Central Business District of the city. In most of these restaurants you get what they call the “Indian Chilli Chicken”!

Among my favourite Chinese restaurants across the world, the four that rank the highest are Kai in Vienna, La Cite Du Dragon in Brussels, Shark Finn Inn in Melbourne and Min Yang at the Taj Landsend in Mumbai. Others that are also worth a mention are Xian in Summertown in Oxford, Sea Palace in Amsterdam, le Sichuan in Paris and also le Sichuan in Chicago. It is perhaps of interest to state here that Kai and Koi are common Chinese restaurant names in Austria, with Vienna alone having more than a dozen of these spread all over the city. My favourite is the one located just next to the Burgasse station on subway line 6, because the owner speaks and comprehends English perfectly. Of all these, Xian in Oxford has a good wine collection to go with the food.

As I mention my favourite Chinese restaurants across the world, it would be sacrilegious to not dwell on Tangra, which continues to be an alltime favourite and which played a part in nurturing my taste for Chinese food while growing up in Kolkata. Despite not having half the décor in comparison to other China towns of the world, Tangra has survived just because of the quality of food it continues to serve. In my 25 years of visiting Tangra the smell emanating from a combination of the city’s waste and burnt leather, a residue from the 350 or so tanneries that once had their base in Tangra, has remained the same. But the stench recedes as you get closer to the chain of restaurants with their bright red facades and unostentatious exteriors. Most restaurants have dangling red Chinese lanterns hanging from the entrance. Tangra also has its own Chinese newspaper and a Chinese Kali temple among other things making it unique.

 Two stand-out Tangra features that have stood the test of time are the portions served and the minimal time taken for service. Even the most elaborate order won’t take more than thirty minutes to serve and a ‘small’ soup is enough for two people. A plate of chowmein will easily feed two adult males and a full plate of chicken can serve a family of four. For providing a sumptuous meal at a very reasonable price, Tangra is still the preferred Chinese food destination for the middle class Kolkatan and visitors who wish to experience one of the true attractions of the city.

 And it is here that we can do a lot more. It doesn’t take much to promote Tangra as part of the city’s heritage, spruce it up with new gates and other Chinese decorations, do a Chinese food festival from time to time and put it into the tourist map of the city. If the 13th arrondissement in Paris (which houses the city’s main Chinatown) can attract the number of visitors it does, Tangra has the potential to attract double the number of people if not more. If the Dim Sum lunches in Melbourne’s Chinatown can find a mention in the tourist literature distributed at the Melbourne airport one wonders what stops us from not doing the same in the newly built Kolkata international terminal. Heritage walks in Tangra ending with a lunch at one of the restaurants will sure have many takers among tourists. To put it bluntly, we have the best Chinatown in the world but we refuse to promote it. Time perhaps for a start- better late than never.

                                                           Boria Majumdar

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