No coriander please

 

I love eating Chinese food. So, do many people in India, where this cuisine is served everywhere from simple, unsophisticated street stalls to dedicated, smart Chinese restaurants.

Indian Chinese food is prepared to suit Indian peoples’ tastes. To people used to eating Chinese food in London or elsewhere in the UK, the Chinese food in India may seem somewhat different, especially its taste. Although I much prefer eating Chinese food in London, where the restaurants serve food to many people of Chinese origin, I also enjoy eating Indian Chinese food, which is prepared mostly for Indian diners. On the whole, the Chinese food in India is less ‘authentic’ than that served in London, where there is a large population of Chinese from Hong Kong and mainland China. 

Once when we were visiting Mangalore on the coast of the Indian State of Karnataka, we entered a Chinese restaurant. Its main entrance was almost hidden in a dingy yard that would have made an excellent setting for a performance of West Side Story. This establishment was staffed mainly by a Chinese  family, rather than people with slanting eyes who had originated in the north eastern states of India. I was delighted to find steamed pork dumplings on the menu amongst the starters. I ordered these, and was told that I would have to wait atleast 45 minutes. I said that was alright, and we ate other dishes whilst we awaited the dumplings. 

When the dumplings arrived, we found them to be as delicious as the best we had eaten in London. They were made without making compromises to satisfy Indian tastebuds. The reason that they had taken so long to arrive was, I believe, that they had been made fresh, from scratch. Of all the Chinese food I have eaten in over 25 years of visiting India, these dumplings are the best Chinese food I have been served in the country. I have eaten other enjoyable Chinese meals in India, but none matched those dumplings in Mangalore.

There is one feature of Indian Chinese food that particularly displeases me: the over use of fresh coriander. I like this herb in some Gujarati vegetarian dishes and some Mexican food, but I do not think it enhances Chinese food. Almost every Chinese dish served in India is tainted with fresh coriander. 

I am fond of Hot and Sour Soup, both in London and in India. However, in India my enjoyment of it is marred by the obligatory addition of fresh coriander. Recently, a friend of mine in Bangalore made the very sensible suggestion that I should ask for this soup to be made without coriander added. So, the next time I ordered the soup I followed his advice. The waiter noted my request and the soup arrived without coriander. I tasted it. To my great surprise, the soup was tinged with a taste I associate with Polish food. The chef had replaced coriander with freshly chopped dill leaves!

Claim your steak

STEAK

When I was much younger, my parents often took my sister and me to eat dinner in restaurants.

Before we looked at the menu, my late mother used to examine the plates and cutlery on our table. If there was a blemish on the cutlery or a crack or chip in the porcelain, the waiter would be summoned to replace the defective item(s). Often this delayed the arrival of any food. If we looked reproachfully at my mother, she would say:

“You can eat off cracked plates if you like, but I am not paying good money to eat off bad plates.”

She said this in such a way that meant that really there was no way that any of us could eat off damaged crockery, even if we wanted to.

As the years went by, I used to look at my plate and cutlery carefully as soon as we sat down. If I spotted a defect, I used to casually lay my hand on it so that my mother would not see it. I was always hungry before a meal and wanted to get on with it rather than having to wait for perfect eating utensils to be fetched. Once any defective cutlery/crockery was replaced, the meal could be ordered.

My mother was fond of beef steak. Rather unfashionably for London in the 1960s, she preferred her steak rare, almost what the French call ‘bleu’. This simple request was the real test for a restaurant. Frequently, the rare steak would arrive cold. My mother would then summon the waiter or maitre d’hote.

“My steak is cold.”

“Madame, I will ask the kitchen to heat it for you.”

The steak would then be returned, and my mother would begin cutting it. Soon the waiter would be called again.

“My steak is no longer rare; it is overcooked. Take it away and bring me another one cooked rare and warm.”

Any restaurant that could get this right without fuss, won my mother’s custom. She would then return there frequently.

Today, rare steak is the ‘in thing’. Most good chefs and discerning diners prefer the insides of steaks to be red, if not bloody.

Writing of steaks reminded me of Monty Modlyn (1921-94), a radio presenter and journalist. Occasionally he would speak on the early morning Today programme on the BBC Home Service (now ‘Radio 4’). He would report on steaks and other meat he had eaten. He had a metal ball that he would drop onto pieces of meat. The depth of the indentation made by the ball’s impact was his measure of the meat’s quality. It all sounded a bit mad to me when I listened to him when I was a young boy. Apparently, what he was doing was quite sound. The quality of raw meat can be judged by indenting it with a finger tip and then watching how quickly the indentation disappears. If the meat recovers quickly, then the quality is likely to be lower than if it recovers slowly.