Jack Canfield For The Desi Soul
It was tough going in India, back in the late eighties.
There was a three way tussle between Jeetendra, Govinda and Mithun Chakraborty for top spot in Bollywood. People genuinely thought Bappi Lahiri made good music. Sunil Gavaskar had retired, and Sachin Tendulkar hadn’t yet made his debut, so Ravi Shastri had a real chance at being called India’s best batsman. Eating out meant choosing between North Indian, Mughlai or Chinese food.
Now, for all you youngsters out there, there is a subtle difference between North Indian food and Mughlai food. North Indian food is oily, spicy and largely bad for your heart. Mughlai food, on the other hand, is oily, spicy and mostly bad for your heart. When you went out for lunch with your family, you could have your choice between the two, or, if you were in the mood for something very exotic, you could peruse the Chinese section of the menu.
And while you might have to tie me to the stake to get me to even consider eating ever again a plate of Veg Jalfrezi, there is one item from the Chinese menu that I’ll always partake of, no matter how often you force me to. I always have been, and always will be, a huge fan of the Chicken Hot and Sour Soup.
It’s a dish that unites India like no other. As Chicken Tikka Masala to the Brits, so a bowl of Hot and Sour to us. It doesn’t matter if you are in Coimbatore or Chandigarh, “One Chicken Hot and Sour, one by two” is a phrase that is always understood.
It’s a soup that is served by street vendors as well as the priciest restaurant in the most chic of localities. No Chinese restaurant in India, no matter how avant garde, can escape having to list Chicken Hot and Sour on their menu. Not including it is just not done. It’s like a modern Bollywood offering sans a Punjabi song – it just doesn’t feel right.
Not that it has remained the same old stodgy offering over the years, of course. What started out as a threesome between chicken, carrots and cabbage has since expanded to an orgy that includes mushrooms (different kinds of mushrooms, even – fancy that!), tofu, pokchoy, shrimps and the lord alone knows what else. And the variations are endless. Some restaurants will sprinkle coriander on top, so as to remind the customer that this is really an Indian spin on a may-well-be-originally-Chinese-but-what-do-we-care dish. Some will focus excessively on the Hot part of the nomenclature, ignoring the rest of it. Some will thread eggs through it – its all fair game, really.
And the reason the Chicken Hot and Sour has become such a mainstay of Indian eating out is because of it’s inherent simplicity. At the end of the day, it is simply a bowl of hot and spicy goodness. The phrase has become banal with overuse, but it really is comfort food.
The best Hot and Sour, in my opinion, isn’t to be had in an upmarket restaurant. It is best served in a cheap Chinese joint, or even better, in one of those North Indian | Moghlai | Chinese kind of restaurants. The kind where the captains wear a black tie in addition to the plain white shirt donned by the waiters, and where a steady cacophony is a requisite part of the ambience. The kind where said captain will jot down your order of a one-by-two on a small notepad, ask brusquely if you want “kuch-isstarter-type” with your soup, and walk away briskly when you shake your head in negation.
A waiter will soon come by and put a small tray on your table, that has on it three small containers.One will have soya sauce, one will have chili sauce (sickly green colour, of course) and the third will have chopped up chillies in vinegar. He will then refill your glass of water once, before finally bringing to your table two bowls, each filled to about three-fourths, with Chicken Hot and Sour Soup.
Into which, if you have been brought up in modern urban India, you will proceed to deposit at least one spoonful from each of the three bowls. Mix it all together, and check once to ensure that there is at least some chicken in your bowl. A disparaging remark about how they have reduced the quantity of chicken is optional, but recommended. Rituals completed, dig in. If prepared well, and this is the litmus test, droplets of sweat will make themselves felt on the tip of your nose.
Good old Chicken Hot and Sour.
Modern India at its very best, I tell you.