January 28, 2020
Over the years, I have learned how it goes when we take my dad, a Taiwanese immigrant who has now rooted himself in central New Jersey, to an Indian restaurant. The waitstaff approaches, and I choose quickly for myself — saag paneer with, of course, a mango lassi. For my dad, I offer the staff an apologetic smile and a sigh.
“Sorry, my dad won’t eat Indian food.”
Sometimes, the waitstaff will nod knowingly — their dads (and moms) won’t eat Chinese food, either. Their parents view Indian and Chinese food as two very distinct cuisines. Though not all share this belief, it’s because of this that many East Asians and South Asians opt out of trying each other’s cuisines; they view the other’s food as a bridge too far.
Yet, both regions have been influencing each other for millennia. From India, China learned to use sugar cane as well as black pepper. In Kolkata, India, a new style of Chinese food, cooked with Indian spices and flavors, became popular as pockets of Chinese communities made their homes in West Bengal. Chili, now a staple of both Chinese and Indian cuisine, was a late 15th-century addition through the Silk Road as Spanish and Portuguese traders brought the spice over from the New World. Given the geographical proximity of the two cultures, it’s not surprising that there are more gastronomic similarities across the India-China border than are immediately apparent.