I’d like to introduce a subgenre of Bengali cuisine known as Indian-Chinese cuisine.
Kolkata once had a large and flourishing Chinatown, which was established in the late eighteenth century. Chinese scholars and traders have traveled throughout India for thousands of years, and a few hundred years ago, Chinese merchants settled in what is today central and southeastern Kolkata. The district thrived, giving rise to a burgeoning leather industry. The Chinese community established a variety of businesses, built shops and restaurants, and produced Chinese newspapers and books. Today, Kolkata’s Chinatown is smaller and more dispersed than it was fifty years ago, and most of its residents are Indian citizens of Chinese descent who have lived in India for generations.
Food evolves and is continuously adaptable to cultures, tastes, and availability of ingredients. Just as Chop Suey was created for the American-Chinese menu, Chili Chicken emerged in Bengal and caused a small sensation. It is a favorite on the restaurant menu in Kolkata and is always on someone’s carry-out request list, and part of a contemporary home cook’s repertiore. It’s cousin, Chili-Fish, is equally good and nearly as famous in Kolkata.
Indian-Chinese cuisine is by no means specific to Kolkata even though it may have originated there. It seems to be wildly popular throughout India, and for years, I overheard parents and friend of parents remark that Chinese food tasted better in India, that they missed their Indian-Chinese cuisine.
First-generation foodies and international chefs seemed to agree. Restaurants that feature Chinese-Indian fusion cooking are starting to appear in the United States. Although we didn’t go inside, I saw one in Mountain View, California, and was tickled to see Indian-Chinese make a splash in the news. Visit http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=122497091 to read an NPR piece titled “Indian-Chinese Cuisine: Of Spice And Zen.”
Every family seems to have its own favorite recipe for chili chicken. Some detective work, i.e. Web surfing, has revealed that recipes for Indian-Chinese Chili Chicken are mighty popular. Some include bell pepper, others omit cumin. Some add a dollop of tamarind paste or garam masala and some garnish with cilantro at the very end. All are good options. I prefer using cumin, have not yet tried a version with tamarind (although I am intrigued), and think sesame oil in the marinade improves it, adding a deeper, slightly smoky undertone.
2-2 ½ lbs boneless skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1-2 inch pieces
8 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp lemon/lime juice or seasoned rice vinegar
1 tbsp cornstarch
1 tbsp sesame oil
4 cloves fresh garlic, grated or mashed through a press
¼ cup pureed tomato (fresh or canned) or 2 tbsp tomato paste (this amount can be adjusted to taste)
1-teaspoon ground cumin
4-5 long stems, fresh scallions, white and green parts thinly sliced and separated
¼ cup thinly sliced red onion
1 inch of ginger root, grated
Oil for high-heat cooking, such as canola or peanut
4-8 green chilies, depending on heat preference. Peppers tend to vary a great deal in the amount of heat they generate as does individual heat tolerance. Most of the time, this dish is very, very hot, hence its name.
Note: The fiery, piquant smell of the fresh green chili is key to this dish as are the scallions – but green bell pepper and a touch of cayenne can be substituted for those who are disinclined toward hot and spicy foods.
Chicken and Marinade
Use boneless, skinless thighs if possible – they tend to hold the strong flavors more effectively than the chicken breast and are more forgiving. Clean the chicken, remove skins and fat and create 2-inch or bite-size pieces.
In a large bowl, combine garlic, 6 tbsp soy sauce, cornstarch, lemon juice, sesame oil and egg. Beat slightly so that the egg is properly combined with the other ingredients. Add the chicken and mix very thoroughly, making sure the marinade completely coats the chicken. If fresh lemons are not available, use 2 tbsp of seasoned rice vinegar as a substitute. Marinate in the refrigerator for at least one hour but not more than four.
Stir-Fry and Finish
In a large wok or skillet, heat 3-4 tablespoons of oil. Add the sliced green chilies, the white part of the scallion, red onion, and fry over medium-high heat until the onion begins to brown. Add the tomato paste, cumin, remaining 2 tbsp soy sauce and saute another 3-5 minutes.
Turn heat to high and add chicken with marinade and grated ginger to the wok. Stir-fry over high heat, stirring constantly, about 12-15 minutes, or until chicken is cooked through. Check seasoning, adding salt, tomato, or chilis as needed.
Add green part of scallions. Stir thoroughly and turn off the flame. I secretly add 1 tbsp of Maggi Garlic-Chili sauce at the end.
Done. It’s ridiculously, lip-smacking delicious. You and your guests will eat far more of this dish than anyone ever thought they could. Make lots of rice in anticipation. Serve cold beverages too.