One of the most surprising things about eating around India is how easy it would be to dine on nothing but Chinese food. Pop into any sort of restaurant — from a beach shack in Goa to a halal joint in Karnataka to a French-influenced restaurant in Pondicherry — and you’ll frequently find an entire section of the menu dedicated to Chinese specialties. And that doesn’t even factor in the countless actual Indian-Chinese restaurants readily found around the country.
Indians love Chinese food in such a profound way, though this isn’t exactly the stuff you and I would recognize from our local takeout joint. Much like our own Americanized orange chicken and sesame beef, these are Indianized versions of Chinese dishes with a few totally new things thrown in. Like most bastard cuisines, it’s damn tasty.
Things reportedly all started in Kolkata in the late 19th century, when some Hakka Chinese emigrated to work in the tanneries and ports, establishing the country’s only Chinatown. Their food gradually caught on, gaining popularity as it was amped up with Indian spices. Preparations can vary wildly depending on the restaurant or part of the country, and many of the dishes have multiple variations like “with gravy” or “dry.” But below are some of the basics you’ll find on most Indian-Chinese menus.
1. Chicken lollipops
Since beef and pork are widely eschewed throughout the country, an Indian-Chinese meal is apt to feature a lot of chicken. This popular appetizer is essentially a chicken wing that’s been split in half so the bone forms a convenient handle. The meat is marinated in a mixture of chilies, ginger, garlic, and soy sauce (and sometimes, red food coloring to give it a proper neon hue), then deep-fried. The result is just as irresistible as it sounds.
2. Gobi Manchurian
Since a sizable portion of India is vegetarian, your meal will likely also star some veggies, like this cauliflower dish. Manchurian is probably the most signature Indo-Chinese preparation, beloved all over the country but pretty much unknown elsewhere. Basically it’s florets of cauliflower (or paneer or chicken) deep-fried then simmered in a “gravy” of onions, green chilies, garlic, ginger, soy sauce, and other delicious things, served with rice or noodles. There’s also a “dry” version of spiced fried cauliflower or meat served with dipping sauce instead of gravy.
3. Fried wontons
Wontons are another popular appetizer, usually stuffed with vegetables or chicken, served with a ketchup-based dipping sauce which I enjoyed at the Mumbai location of China Garden, an upscale, award-winning chain with locations in Delhi, Mumbai and Goa.
4. Manchow soup
A sort of hot-and-sour riff that’s available on most Indian-Chinese menus (you’ll also frequently have the option to order actual hot-and-sour), manchow is usually made with a thickened chicken or vegetable broth flavored with soy sauce, garlic and ginger, teeming with scallions, carrots and celery and garnished with fried noodles. Depending on whether you’ve ordered the soup veg or non-veg, there might also be chicken.
5. Chili chicken
This signature Indian-Chinese dish consists of white meat chicken coated in a paste of chili, garlic, ginger and spices, then sautéed with onions and green chilis. There’s also a “dry” version that’s deep-fried. Plenty of other proteins also get the chili treatment, like paneer, seafood and even beef, depending on where you are. Some upscale places serve beef, though you’ll typically be hard-pressed to find it.
6. Hakka noodles
Noodles are a popular side for an Indian chinese meal, often called chow mein or chop suey. You might even find “American chop suey” on the menu — basically just crispy noodles and veggies. They’re used much the way we’d employ sticky white rice stateside: for soaking up all those delicious sauces.
Hungry for a gobi Manchurian or chili chicken fix? It’s possible to find Indian-Chinese restaurants in some of the bigger U.S. cities. Check out Spice Symphony or Tangra Masala in New York and Red Hot Chili Pepper in the Bay Area.
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