Growing up in Calcutta, India, whenever my family went out to eat we would go to a Chinese restaurant. Now, things have changed a lot, but for anyone who was growing up there in the '70s or '80s, eating out meant getting Chinese. Anytime my family went out to eat it was a special occasion—whether it was for a birthday or something else to celebrate—and it was always for Chinese which was accessible and inexpensive. I have such a strong emotional connection to the cuisine because of this.
Chinese food in Calcutta is really unique. Calcutta has the only Chinatown in all of India. This is because it is so close to the Chinese border; there has always been a very strong connection between China and Calcutta and this comes through in the food that served at restaurants. Chinese food in Calcutta is spicy and sweet. It has red sauce, soy sauce, and garlic. It's the combination of all of this that has long made it my favorite food.
When I moved to London as an adult, I was shocked not to find any Chinese food I liked. There was none of the Indo-Chinese fusion that I knew and loved. London has fantastic Indian food, but it does not have great Indo-Chinese food. One night, the craving for Gobi Manchurian—a cauliflower-based dish that I always loved eating in Calcutta—was so strong that I decided to make it myself. I didn't have a recipe; I just thought about the aromas I remembered smelling from the sizzling wok and the taste of the warm, crispy cauliflower on my tongue and figured out how to make it.
"Chinese food in Calcutta is spicy and sweet. It has red sauce, soy sauce, and garlic. It's the combination of all of this that has long made it my favorite food."
The soy sauce in England is different than what I was used to; I had to add sugar to it to get it to taste right. But the items in my pantry and fridge—garlic, ginger, red onions, ketchup, rice vinegar, and chili powder, were reliable just as they were in my kitchen in India. The cauliflower is coated thinly in a mixture of flour, cornmeal, garlic paste, and ginger before being dipped in the thick, red sauce. From the first forkful, I was transported back to Calcutta; back to those special dinners out with my family.
My husband and kids don't quite get my love for Gobi Manchurian. This is part of what it means to be an immigrant; your kids won't share some of the food memories that mean so much to you. My sons think it's too spicy. They like burgers and fried fish, and when they go out for Chinese food it isn't spicy like it is in Calcutta. "Why don't you use chicken instead of cauliflower?" they ask me. "Don't you think sweet and sour chicken is good?" But to me, this dish is perfect the way it is.
I have to admit, as much as I love my homemade Gobi Manchurian, it's been quite a while since I made it for myself. When you have a family, you tend to cook meals you know they will like. I also cook so much at the restaurant that I just haven't been willing to come home and cook something that only I would like to eat. But even though I don't make it very often, Gobi Manchurian is the dish I think of most when I think of my childhood and I know it's there for me whenever a craving—or nostalgia—hits.
Asma Khan's Gobi Manchurian recipe
For the Gobi:
4 cups cauliflower cut into medium size florets
5 Tbsp flour
4 Tbsp cornflour
1 tsp garlic paste
1/2 tsp ginger paste
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
Water to make a thin batter with flour
For the sauce:
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
2 Tbsp crushed garlic
1 Tbsp grated ginger
4 shallots or small red onions chopped into chunks
2 Tbsp dark soy sauce
2 Tbsp tomato ketchup
1 Tablespoon rice vinegar
4 dried red chilies
1 tsp chili powder
1/2 tsp white pepper
1 tsp sugar
1/2 cup water
1. Blanch the cauliflower florets in hot salted water for 10 minutes. Drain and cool in cold water. Remove and dry on kitchen paper. Put two inches of oil in a wok on low heat while you prepare the cauliflower.
2. Mix all the cauliflower ingredients together. Add water to make a thin batter. Raise the heat to medium heat and fry the cauliflower florets in batches of four or five so they cook evenly and are crisp.
3. Drain the fried florets on kitchen paper once the florets are fried. In the same oil, add the dried red chilies. (If you like the dish to be spicy, break the chilies.) Add red onions and stir fry.
4. If you are adding any additional vegetables you should add them now. Add the garlic, ginger, soy sauce, tomato sauce, vinegar, sugar, and white pepper. Add a half cup water and let the sauce reduce till the top looks shiny.
5. Add the cauliflower and coat evenly with the sauce.
As told to Emily Laurence.
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