June 22, 2020
In my daydreams, there is chili paneer — thick cubes of cheese crusted in a dry, fiery sauce that radiates with cumin, garlic, and ginger. It is one of those dishes that I think about often, but rarely get to eat. There are too many ingredients and steps for me to want to attempt it at home. There are no restaurants near my Brooklyn apartment that serve anything close to what I’m looking for. It is a singular dish, one that fully engulfs my taste buds. And the same can be said about most of the cuisine to which chili paneer belongs — Indo-Chinese.
In India, Chinese cuisine is ubiquitous. But the Chinese dishes served at restaurants in India look vastly different from the ones you’d find in China, or America for that matter. In India, the version of Chinese food that’s most popular is like taking the most electric, savory, and often spicy flavors from certain Chinese dishes and dialing them up tenfold. Deep-fried, batter-coated cauliflower doused in a deeply flavored chili-soy sauce, known as Gobi Manchurian. Tangles of noodles spiked with garlic, pepper, and fresh green chilis — hakka noodles. And yes, that chili paneer.
Like many hybrid cuisines, Indo-Chinese cuisine (which takes inspiration from Hakka cuisine) was the result of immigration. In the late 18th century, Chinese migrants arrived in Calcutta to work in sugar mills. More Chinese people — many of them from the Hakka ethnic group — began to settle in the city throughout the 19th century, working in various industries, including leather and carpentry. Eventually, some Chinese people set up eating houses — inexpensive restaurants for their communities to enjoy meals that reminded them of home. Not every ingredient was available, so substitutions were made. Paneer instead of tofu. Kashmiri red chilis instead of Tianjin chilis. Garlic, ginger, and Indian spices were used freely. Famously, the first of these was a place called Nanking, opened in 1924, which would go on to become famous for serving chili chicken to Bollywood stars.