Fifth Season, Race Course Road
I had a random conversation the other night with some Indians who had proudly boasted that Indian Chinese food was better than Chinese food itself. All the same, I'd also heard of mainland Chinese folks who had gone to India and screamed bloody murder upon seeing their culture's dishes being morphed into something unrecognizable. With something so controversial (not to mention an interesting discussion that ensued recently about localization), I knew that I had to come here to see for myself. Tonight, I made my way down to Fifth Season in Little India (28 Race Course Road, 6293-4842), a rather small yet decently-decorated place carrying the tagline: "A Dedicated Indian Chinese Cuisine."
Reading the first page of the menu was a bit educational too, as it explained how a big Chinese population developed in the Tangra section of Calcutta, and had localized some of their "bland Cantonese sauces" for the local Bengalis. Then a second phase started when Tibetans migrated to India and found jobs as Chinese cooks. The last words of the narrative were exactly what I wanted to see: "Just order and explore...Your quest for [the] best Chinese cuisine ends here." I had already planned to do the first part, but the verdict on the second part was yet to come.
I started with a couple things that were apparently more Tibetan than Chinese: the momos and the thukpa. The former was actually a set of dumplings that were quite tender and tasty, and yet were paired with a hot sauce that was far from the usual Chinese garlicky stuff...in a good way. I gobbled those up pretty quickly. The thukpa soup noodles were interesting too as they technically weren't even on the menu, and yet the staff was happy to make some for me, with a warning that it was "spicy." When I got this bowl, it turned out not spicy at all, but the taste was very clean and savory, and in fact reminded me a bit of Burmese food. OK those worked for me. What's next?
The dishes then moved to the Chinese side of the spectrum, starting with the "Chilly Chicken" (and that's chili - as in peppers - rather than chilly - as in cold). They gave an option of a dry or gravy version. I really wanted to push this food to see how far it could go, so I intentionally ordered what sounded less appetizing to me: the gravy version. Fortunately, this turned out better than I thought it would. The dark brown colored gravy wasn't too bad and was still decently spicy and savory enough to be pretty tasty. But it wasn't anything that I would want to order again, as it actually reminded me a bit of American Chinese food. I guess I was hoping to see what Chinese food would taste like with a heavy dose of Indian spices (or something like that), but this tasted more American than anything.
I was still a bit hungry, so I grabbed a couple more items, such as a chicken sweet corn soup, and a white gravy chow mein. They didn't sound like anything interesting enough that I would order on my own, but my co-worker from Calcutta told me that those are things that he ordered all the time back home (I asked him to recommend dishes that "Indians consider to be Chinese food, not what Chinese people consider to be Chinese food"). The corn soup was light, and I didn't mind it at all, but the corn-starchy egg-drop-laden stuff did remind me again of some Chinese food that I could get back in the US (nor did it seem very localized to India from what I could see). And the chow mein in the end was definitely different. The noodles that sat underneath this clear gooey topping were hardly even scorched by the pan (i.e., there was no chow in the mein!). This was my least favorite, and now I can see why I had heard about mainland Chinese screaming about this stuff.
In the end, I liked the more Tibetan-inclined dishes than Chinese. The "Chinese" dishes really seemed frighteningly like American Chinese food (which I guess makes sense to some degree if they were both Cantonese in origin), especially with the way that they loaded up common veggies across several of the dishes (American Chinese food oftentimes has senseless amounts of sliced carrots across the dishes, more so for the sake of giving the dish some color and mass than anything else). In fact, they also listed "American Chop Suey" as well as "Chinese Chop Suey" on the menu here (and no, I don't know what the difference is). Still, I found these Indian Chinese dishes to be a step up from those American atrocities like Panda Express and Mr. Chau's...at least these guys took a little more care in preparing the ingredients than those crudely cut veggie chunks at those fast-food American places. Well, if I come back, it will be more for the Tibetan stuff, and it won't be anytime soon. Maybe I'll go next door to their sister restaurant Mustard, which specializes in Bengali food.