Indo-Chinese Food Is Hard to Find, Except in New Jersey
A four-mile stretch of New Jersey’s Oak Tree Road is known as a destination for Indian restaurants, groceries and sweets shops. But amid the 70-odd Indian restaurants in the area, there are a handful specializing in the hard-to-find fusion of Indian and Chinese food native to the Indian city Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) and, to a lesser extent, Mumbai. Though not widely celebrated in America, Indo-Chinese food is familiar to in-the-know locals and venturesome food travelers like myself.
Having been an expat in Mumbai, I’m always looking for food that transports me back to the three years I spent there, and was intrigued when a friend told me about the inordinate amount of Indo-Chinese food in the neighboring suburban towns of Edison and Iselin, N.J., a vibrant Little India renowned for having excellent Indo-Chinese food, a cuisine that is proof that Indians can make any culture’s food uniquely their own.
The Indo-Chinese food in Edison and Iselin is quick and decadent: made to share, intrinsically spicy and as suitable for takeout as it is for eating in. On Oak Tree Road, which is home to more than 200 Indian-owned businesses, including sari shops and jewelers, I ate at a half-dozen places. They are more than the sum of their parts, best experienced as part of an Indo-Chinese food crawl, which can be as much a feat of gastronomic endurance as a culinary field trip.
I made my trip with Abhishek Honawar, a co-founder of the ardently healthy Inday, a New York City restaurant at odds with the often heavy and oily Indian restaurants found in the Oak Tree Road area. Mr. Honawar is an expert in Indian food but, unlike me, not a man prone to gluttony. On the 45-minute drive from New York, Mr. Honawar explained to me that Indians consider most other cuisines bland, so they’ve created their own “amped up” version of Chinese food with added chile and garlic and prepared in thick gravies that give the dishes the consistency of Indian curries. “Indo-Chinese is a relatively new cuisine, but now everyone in Bombay is familiar with these flavors,” said Mr. Honowar, a Mumbai native, referring to his hometown’s former name.
We thought it fitting to start our crawl with the most popular Indo-Chinese dish, Manchurian chicken, which we found at Calcutta Chinese Food, a restaurant tucked in one of Oak Tree Road’s countless strip malls. It is the kind of Chinese takeout joint where you order at the counter by pointing at photos of food on the wall. Posters of the Taj Mahal hung in the tiny dining space, next to red banners featuring the Cantonese symbol for wealth. Chinese customers mixed with Indians. Manchurian chicken employs Chinese techniques, but its red gravy, heavy on ginger, chilies and garlic, has the consistency of an Indian curry. A vegetarian version is made with cauliflower.
Calcutta Chinese Food’s proprietress, who would only identify herself as Mrs. Liu, said that dishes like Hakka lo mein noodles, curry chicken and a Chinese take on vegetable pakoras (a common Indian fried vegetable fritter) are similar to what Chinese people from Kolkata eat in their homes. Mrs. Liu said her grandparents, who spoke the Hakka dialect, emigrated in the 1920s from Canton to Kolkata, the only Indian city with a sizable Chinese population.
It would be an oversimplification to say that Indian-Chinese food is solely an export of Kolkata, however. Camellia Panjabi, the author of “50 Great Curries of India,” claims to have instigated what continues to be India’s most successful food fad when she opened Golden Dragon in Mumbai in the early 1970s, the country’s first Sichuan restaurant.
I found the most distinctive — and delicious — Indo-Chinese dish to be Chinese idli at Dimple’s Bombay Talk, a casual restaurant in Iselin at the other end of Oak Tree Road, about three miles away, with a show kitchen and a mostly Indian clientele. Idli is a common South Indian breakfast dish made of discs of fermented rice batter, steamed and served with a piquant soup called sambar (it is also, as Mr. Honawar preferred, gluten free). This Chinese version was fashioned into cubes and prepared in a similar fashion to Manchurian chicken, only spicier, since hot green chilies were featured prominently.
After a digestive pause for buying Indian groceries at the incomparable and huge Patel Brothers Food Market in Iselin, we ordered garlic chicken, a vegetable stir-fry and vegetable noodles with a spicy bright red Sichuan sauce from the Indo Chinese menu at Moghul Express in Edison, which also has full north and south Indian menus and a display case crammed with dozens of varieties of multicolored, super-sugary Indian sweets. The spaghetti-like noodles were the standout, reminding me of the peppery roadside preparation I’d sometimes eat in Mumbai.
Much of this feast ended up in takeout containers because, before heading back to the city, I wanted to try an Indo-Chinese pizza, which I found at Papa Pancho, next door to Moghul Express. Papa Pancho had all sorts of Indian and Italian combinations, but I ordered a “Schezwan Paneer Chilly” pie, topped with bricks of Indian cottage cheese, red onions, bell peppers and Sichuan sauce. I was ready to dismiss this seemingly random concoction, but have to admit it was quite good — the crust was legit and the Indo-Chinese spices balanced nicely with the mozzarella and paneer cheeses. I ate two slices and tossed the remainder in the car with the rest of my leftovers, which, like much Chinese takeout, was arguably better a day later.