One Chineej, many Chinas

In his monthly Times of India column "Tasting economics," Abhijit Banerjee, co-founder and co-director of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), discusses Chinese politics, the influence of its diaspora around the world and his own fondness for Chinese food. He shares a recipe for steamed bhetki with ginger and scallions.


I was six when I first tasted Chinese food.

Pigeon Roast in a restaurant called Eros, at the edge of Kolkata’s crumbling ‘New’ Market, a plump little bird rich with what I now know to be the flavours of soy and ginger. It was love at first bite. I lobbied to go back, but the inflationary explosion of the 1960s quickly ate into my parents’ fixed salaries, and we ate out much less. The restaurant closed, and I never got to verify whether the miracle I remembered was genuine.

Chinese food stayed with me. On the rare occasion when we went out, it was often Chinese. Hakka chowmein was my favourite — best when rich in chopped cabbage, carrots, French beans, and bits of chicken or pork. I loved steamed bhetki dressed with generous amounts of chopped ginger and scallions in soy-flavoured sauce. And the marvellous chimney soup, (pork?) broth simmering at your table with different vegetables, meats and many types of seafood.

However, by then, the 200-year-old Kolkata Chinese community was shrinking. From more than 20,000 in the 1950s, it is now a mere couple of thousand. Economic opportunity had brought them to Kolkata when it was party central for Britain’s grand Bengali bonanza. By the 1960s, that party was well over: years of silting left the river too shallow for large modern ships — Kolkata port was mostly dead. Time was also running out on the city’s 19th-century smoke-stack industries. Like Manchester or Mumbai, Kolkata needed to reinvent itself, but bad policy and industrial strife got in the way. For the local Chinese community, it was time to move on, as they had many times before. Hakka, the name of the community that gave us the noodles, actually means guests (or migrants) — they had a long history of moving south from the very north of China.

The Times of India