It is interesting to see how migrants can bring their cultures with them and then adapt them to local practices, creating a new often exciting fusion. In 1947, when Pakistan became independent, it consisted of a multi-ethnic pot-pourri of pocket communities – of Muslims certainly, but also of Hindus, Parsis, Christians and some Chinese. Is there anyone who still remembers celebrating the Hindu festivals of Diwali, the Parsi New Year, Christmas with its carols, and the unobtrusive Chinese whose dentists advertised their skills with their stark enlarged images of teeth or their discreet beauty salons?
Perhaps the most lasting contribution made by the Chinese was not footwear or coiffure but their cuisine. They realised that to survive, they had to adapt, and did so with a subtlety that made Chicken Manchurian a household name in Pakistani cities, a thousand miles from its place of origin.
One can date back the Chinese migrants to our area to when demand for Chinese silks and other goods made the Silk Road Road viable as early as the 18th century. Migrants came from the provinces of Hubei, Guangdong and Shandong and particularly around trading posts. Many of the immigrants were Hakka, a distinct ethnic and linguistic group that speaks their own dialect instead of Mandarin Chinese. They spread across the wider subcontinent of India as traders, artisans, shop keepers, and of course, restaurant owners.
I remember as a child walking down Karachi’s Elphinstone Street in the commercial areas of Saddar in Karachi and noticing signs in Chinese. They were not as numerous as New York’s or London’s Chinatown, but still recognisably different from the local shops. One of my earliest childhood memories was going to the ABC (American, British and Chinese) Restaurant. It was the first of the Chinese restaurants established pre-Independence. It was very popular in its time with every community. One forgets that until 1947, Karachi was a British RAF base as well as a fuelling stop for international flights. Founded by Li Dianxian in the 1930s, ABC was even visited by Zhou Enlai, then premier of the People’s Republic of China, during his visit to Karachi in 1964.
My grandfather would take us to ABC as a lunchtime treat during each of our trips to Karachi during our summer holidays. We would always receive five-star treatment because my grandfather knew the owner Mr Li. He would find us a nice corner booth, serve us prawn crackers and chicken corn soup, and we would be treated to the sizzling dishes as a main course. My grandmother would occupy herself with the Chinese embroidery stall at the front, next to the abacus.
The restaurant resembled a large noisy food hall and was always buzzing. Even almost four decades later, I can remember what we ordered and the wonderful crispy taste of the beef chilly dry and how Mr Li would engage with my grandfather on local politics, the situation in China and would be delighted when we ate everything on our plates in appreciation. Unfortunately, the ABC never modernised and lost out to more glitzy competitors. It closed in 1988 but its cultural imprint on the city still endures. Sadly, most of those earlier restaurants have now disappeared as the early round of Chinese migrants have left for better options – whether in Canada or the US.
When I moved to DC, there was a hole in the wall Chinese restaurant at Dupont Circle, where the owner was again delighted to see me, as he spoke fluent Urdu and had grown up in Pakistan. He would do special orders of desi Chinese catered for the spicy palate which included the beef chilly dry as well the saucy dishes which resemble curries – a take on Chicken Manchurian.
I was not surprised to see the Chicken Manchurian was a peculiarly subcontinental Chinese phenomenon – stir fried saucy chicken with vegetables – a far cry from its Chinese roots. Desi Chinese food is based on Cantonese cuisine with chicken stock-based sauces and seasoned with soy sauce, chili sauce, vinegar and oyster sauce. It is also a common practice in restaurants to serve these in sizzling platters which adds to the drama.
I learned that when a new restaurant opened in Lahore recently, a guest complained that the air conditioning was insufficient. The owner asked him to guess how many upright air conditioners there were. He did. “We have twice that number,” the Chinese owner replied. “But what can I do when every table orders Chicken Manchurian?” and pointed to the hot vapours rising from every table.
Culinary experiences are multi-faceted. One can take what is from one culture, adapt and modernize it. When I worked on China many years later, I was exposed to the authentic Chinese versions and over the years developed a joy for Chinese cooking fueled by a trip to Szechuan province and Fuchsia Dunlops’s amazing cookbooks.
My enduring memory of Chinese restaurants were golds and reds – traditionally festive Chinese colours. When many years later I had the chance to spend time in China, these hues were reminiscent of happy childhood memories – of steaming bowls of fresh noodles or the sizzling of beef dishes that would emerge from noisy kitchens. It was a treat to visit Chinese restaurants and be exposed to other tastes and smells and flavors. There is an old Chinese proverb that says anything that walks, swims, crawls or flies with its back to heaven is edible. Today, ‘desi’ Chinese is definitely a step cousin of authentic Chinese cuisine. Pakistanis prefer to eat hybrid versions of Chinese dishes, so long as the dishes contain chillies with sauces.
Modern-day Pakistan and the expanding Belt and Road initiative brought about a return of the Chinese migrant workers en masse to Pakistan, with a reputed 2 million work permits being issued a year (to put into perspective that is roughly the size of one village in China). As migrants change over time and ages, so do the flavours. The Belt and Road Initiative has brought a new round of people and culinary trends, such as the hot pot restaurants catering to the dinner party circuit. These are more like a buffet of fresh vegetables and it’s interesting to see how local organic farms can now produce Chinese broccoli and greens which were not around in the previous decades. Now it is not just in the cities. You can see signs of Chinese barbers and salonistas, Chinese dhabbas (hole in the wall restaurants) as well as little food carts in villages even in Southern Punjab hawking chicken corn soup. In my mind, the thick chicken corn soup and beef chilly dry bring back nostalgia of a time when it was a novelty to eat “foreign” food but with indigenous Chinese Pakistanis.