The Cheeni and Chicken Manchurian
Updated: Sep 10, 2022
Papa Cheeni started his Chinese restaurant in Lahore in September 1992. It was called Ming Hsing (眀兴) Chinese Restaurant. I still remember going to Model Town Bank Square Market on weekends and on holidays to just run around on the street with my little brother. I don't remember exactly when, but we started to help papa eventually. I still remember how papa held onto my first order to show mama what I had done.
Today, I won't talk about my memories of the place, that's for another time. Instead, I wanted to talk about Chicken Manchurian: that bright red colored dish that was number 31 on the menu. If it isn't already obvious, I'm going to make it very clear again. Despite it being on many supposed Chinese restaurants in the country, Manchurian in no way is a Chinese dish. Nobody in China knows about this dish.
In fact, this ketchup laden dish was actually a very recent invention created by a Chinese chef living in India when he wanted to create a dish that had Chinese style cooking, but Indian style taste. He concocted this dish out of what was available: garlic, ginger, chillies, and the pièce de résistance in Mumbai in 1975. He added soy sauce instead of reaching for typical Indian spices, but ketchup is used in most modern day recipes today. At least, that is the version that I learned to make from papa. This chef was 3rd Generation Chinese born Indian from Calcutta, Nelson Wang.
While he made history for the rest of the desi world to enjoy. I have special ties with this thick, red, spicy, and chickeny dish. As I mentioned, as a child, this was always the dish I was scared to serve because it was served on a hot plate, and I saw the gravy splattering all over the place. I used to think that I would splatter it on myself, so whenever I served a table with Chicken Manchurian, I would tell my dad to do it, while I pick all the other dishes. I was not scared of dropping soup, but the splattering Manchurian, I was scared of.
Number 31 was synonymous for me because as a child waitress, I remember to save time writing down the order, all I had to do was write the number corresponding to the dish and write whether the customer wanted 1 or 2 or 1/2 or however much they wanted to scarf down. In fact, this was on the first order that I took. This was the number that I pointed to the customer the first time I wanted to take the order. It went like this, "Can you please tell me the number of Chicken Manchurian?" Imagine a 10 year old me (I think I was 10 back then, I'm not sure, I could've been 9, but 10 sounds reasonable right now so I'll go with 10) hunched with a paper pad and a pen talking to a customer who knew us really well. Papa Cheeni saved that order to show Mama Cheeni how proud he was that their daughter had taken the first order.
Well, it was also one of those dishes that my dad would make for us, but never put on a hotplate. So I never knew as a child whether it would alter the taste of the dish or not. To be honest, still don't know. But Manchurian has a very special place in my heart. Not only do I feel that this dish represents me, because Me Chinese, Me Pakistani, but it's also one of those dishes that became my rite of passage in Papa's restaurant.
I used to spend a lot of time in the kitchen with Papa. In fact, I remember whenever there was an order for Manchurian, I would always ask him to make extra for me, which Mama was not happy about because I was not taking care of my weight. I still grin about that. And he would make extra for me, because he is my dad, and I'm the firstborn! But at the same time, I would watch him cook the food regularly.
I became good at making basic food as a child, but never food from the menu. I could make a mean sandwich, I could make some soup, I could bake a killer brownie and I could even make spaghetti. So one day, I think we had a conversation about how I couldn't cook from the restaurant, and on that very weekend, I took it as a challenge. Early in the morning, I got up, raided our fridge (we were living in the restaurant, so everything was MINE), and fished out the ingredients that I needed.
Out of memory, I prepared the ingredients: garlic, ginger, chilies, and chicken. Chicken breast, no thighs for this one. Papa would have all the meat pre-cut and pre-marinated for his restaurant, and I had access so I didn't bother with that part, though I knew what goes in what. We used to have a small stove outside the kitchen. That was the one that we would use. The kitchen stove, on the other hand, was not really off limits, but the fire actually roared, so I as a 13 or 14 year old would've stayed away for good measure of safety.
But that day, no more. I did it. Bang went the fire. Like the Big Bang, and then it began roaring to life. I put the big wok on top. Oil. Fried up the chicken until the color changed. Removed it. Dropped the ginger, garlic, and chillies. Made that oil fragrant. Added back the chicken. Stirred the way Papa did, maybe more vigorously than he did. Added vinegar. Added ketchup. Added stock. Waited for it to reduce. Added cornflour slurry, and then I was done. Clank, clank, clank went the wok as I nudged the dish into a plate to serve.
For good measure I also cooked Chicken Chowmein the way my dad did, to serve with the Manchurian, but I still prefer to eat Chicken Manchurian with egg fried rice. At 14, I just wanted to challenge myself and look at my Papa eat it. Oh, I remember how he said, "yep, that's my girl."
No, he didn't say that. He nodded with approval, like the Asian dad that he is, and said, "On par." (a translation of what he said in Cantonese: dou tak la)
And that was it. That was the beginning of me making Chicken Manchurian for myself, without needing to ask papa to make extra for me whenever he got an order. Mama Cheeni could rest about that (except that if I could make myself, I could make ANY quantity I wanted). Now, when I miss my dad, this is one of the dishes that I'd like to cook for myself. I don't order it for myself, because I don't want to tarnish that memory of this dish, but I do sometimes crave it so I can remember him.
This became my version of the dish. Mama and I gorged it. Like I said, I prefer it with egg fried rice. I made this only because I missed papa a lot.
So, this is how Manchurian became an important part of my life. It's nostalgia. It's representation. It was a rite of passage.