Ever since I can remember, Kolkata has always had two Chinatowns. One at Bentinck Street, or, what can be called the very heart of the city, right beside Lalbazaar police station, and the other would be in Tangra, a region that till about 15 years or so ago was considered to be in the suburbs, despite the fact that it really was not.
The Chinese migration to Kolkata can be traced back to one Tong Atchew, who was bestowed a piece of land for creating a sugar mill back in 1770s. Though the exact date of his appearance remains a mystery, it is said that he created a settlement in what is now called Achipur, named after the man, and was allegedly married to a local woman, "Teli Bibi." The late 1800s and early 1900s saw an increasing number of Chinese immigrants slowly settling down, at first, in Bentinck Street. The primary entrants were the Cantonese, since, technically, the sea voyage was a rather short one for them. As carpenters, they formed a community of their own. Then came the Hakka, who were chiefly leather workers, the dentists from Hubei, and during the beginning of the 1900s came groups of Shanghainese, who set up Chinese laundries, that were heavily in demand back then. As each of these groups migrated from their motherland, they created small guilds within the larger community, and built temples and churches in accordance with their faith.
The tanneries were another ballgame altogether. As tanneries can produce horrific fumes while leather is processed, members of the leather industry were given space in the Eastern Metropolitan Marshland, where they proceeded to set up tanneries and factories which would make great quality leather. Shoes, bags and belts would be made with them and sold in the posh shops of Bentinck Street and Hogg Market. As Chinese goods became increasingly popular, so did the curiosity of the locals about the food, and around 1920s, a lot of the taboos around the food habits of the Chinese started to reduce. Interest in Chinese food grew slowly but surely, partially because many Chinese restaurants like Chung Wah and Nanking were frequented by the British, and subsequently, the Bengali Babus who would find them rather fashionable. Slowly, the reputation of Chinese food grew, and the Hakka people put it in good use.
In Tangra, the 1980s saw the rise of numerous eateries that would open up for lunch and dinner. Soon, the lure of cheap alcohol and greasy food would lure most Kolkatans to the dingy alleys of Tangra, where names like Kimling, Lily's Kitchen, Kafulok, Flora, Kim Fa, Shun Li would be uttered with deep reverence. Dishes of soy-braised crab claws would be demolished with bottles of beer, and the Dry Chilli Chicken would emerge, ubiquitously, as a "universal people pleaser", laughed Monica Liu, partner at Kim Li restaurant in Tangra. Of course, with lunch and dinner came breakfast. In Bentinck street, mornings would begin with piping hot meatball soups, peddlers selling Chung, tiny triangles of rice, beans and pork cooked together inside lotus leaf would be carefully unwrapped and duly consumed, or steamed buns filled with finely minced chicken, egg, or pork. Wontons, and later, momos, would enter the scene, and they would be served with freshly made red chilli sauce that would be spooned into the plates just before they are handed over. On the side of the road, piles of lap cheung sausages, ready to be tossed with a handful of greens or cooked together with rice, languishes idly, while packets of pickled and salted mustard greens, "ham choy" and "su choy" are sold by the kilo, to be put in braises or stir fries.
In Tangra, mornings begin quite late, possibly because most restaurants, unlike Bentinck Street, do not shut down at 9.30 pm, but rather, patrons can be seen exiting as late as 12 am on some occasions. Naturally, the common breakfast is something that is simple and easy to digest. In nameless eateries there, late risers would be seen hunching over individual portions of what is known as Shingara Chow. Served with a bowl of clear broth topped with a few slices of spring onion, the Shingara Chow is essentially a bowl of freshly made noodles, tossed in lard or chicken fat, and served with some greens, finely chopped cooked chicken or pork, and a handful of pork or chicken wontons. The term "shingara" is the Bengali word for Samosa, and the name was thrust upon this dish because the shape of the wontons, somehow, reminded people of the tiny Bengali shingara, not to mention the thin skin of the wonton, which, unlike its Samosa counterpart, is one of the crucial features of a Bengali shingara. "We love how it has become really uniquely Bengali, and we are seeing a rise in the number of people ordering it," noted Prithvish Chakravarti, owner of the Chinese eatery Tak Heng.
Unlike a Hakka chow, which would be stir-fried over high heat, the Shingara Chow is far more similar to the Cantonese Wonton Mien, the Hakka Yam Kyao Mein, or the Malay Wanton Mee. Here, the hand-pulled noodles and the wontons are cooked and served in a plate with a bowl of broth on the side. You may eat the noodles and wontons together, and have the broth on the side, or place your noodles carefully in a soup spoon, then give it a quick dip in the piping hot broth, then pour a dash of Chilli sauce, and then consume them, as seen on some instances. Some restaurants, of course, ignore the broth altogether, and rather, serve it with a side of dry chilli chicken. Monica Liu, for example, traced it back to childhood. "As far as I can remember, Tangra would always wake up late, and so, breakfasts are more laid back and less fancy. These noodles are literally the easiest thing one can put together, and the best part is, you can customize them like the way you want. People would wrap portions of shingara chow in banana leaf and go home. The banana leaf would impart a little of its unique scent, and when you unwrap it, there aroma is really tempting."
The wonton mee can be easily traced back to its Chinese origin as well, and this dish is a fabulous deconstruction of the same. The noodles are made fresh, the wontons prepared, and when ordered, the cook immediately puts the wontons in hot, salted water to boil, chops up a small amount of boiled pork or chicken and some spring onion, cooks up a small handful of pak choy or gai lan, and right when the wontons are done, throws a generous handful of the noodles in hot, salted water, to be cooked for a scant minute or two.
As soon as the noodles are cooked, they are unceremoniously fished out with a slotted spoon, then tossed in the serving bowl with a dash of lard or rendered chicken fat, then topped with the wontons, the pak choy, chopped up chicken and finished with spring onions and a sprinkle of freshly crushed black pepper. Since the water in which these are cooked is fairly salty, no salt is added to the finished dish. Then, stock is ladled into a small bowl, a few sprinkles of white pepper is added to it, and the dish is done.
"My grandfather, Lee Shi Chuan, used to be an errand boy for the once-famous Nanking restaurant. They were very poor and had to resort to what was leftover in the restaurant. So a few wontons here, some noodles there, and you would have a simple bowl of Yam Kyao Mien ready", said Janice Lee, head of Marketing and Communications, Pou Chong Sauces.
In order to make this recipe at home, a bit of work is needed. First off, rendering fat - whether its from meat or chicken, is slightly tricky, but the tougher part is probably finding fresh noodles, which is key to this recipe. I would strongly suggest getting dry egg noodles of medium thickness, and wonton sheets, which would make it easier, but it is a treat to watch a master noodle maker stand and pull the noodles by hand and make the strands stretch out.
Shingara Chow Recipe
- 500 gm. fresh egg noodles, or 350 gm. dry egg noodles
- 40 wonton skin (square or round)
- 300 gm. minced chicken/pork
- 100 ml. lard or 250 gm. thinly chopped chicken skin.
- 200 gm. baby pak choy
- 50 gm. finely chopped spring onion
- 100 gm. finely chopped cooked chicken/pork
- 3 tablespoon light soy sauce
2 litres chicken stock
- Salt to taste
- White pepper powder to taste
- Black pepper powder to taste
1. To make the wontons, first take the minced meat and add the light soy sauce, a few dashes of white pepper and a pinch of salt. Then, using chopsticks or a fork, stir the minced meat in one direction till the sauce is absorbed, about 3-4 minutes. This helps lighten up the mince, apparently. Moisten the edges of the wonton wrappers by brushing them with some water, then put a scant teaspoon of the filling in the centre and then bring all four corners in and pinch them together, like a small purse. Repeat with the rest of the wontons.
2. If one is using chicken skin to make chicken fat, put the skin, chopped fine, in a small skillet, add a couple of tablespoons of water, a pinch of salt, then cover and simmer for approximately 15 minutes. The chicken skin will release a considerable amount of fat by then. Continue cooking, uncovered and simmered, stirring occasionally, till the chicken skin is dark golden and really crisp. Remove the skin with a slotted spoon and reserve the fat.
3. Heat 6 litres of water in a big pan and salt it generously. Let it come to a boil. Then, start by blanching the pakchoy for 1 minute, immediately remove and put them in cold water to ensure the colour of the pakchoy doesn't become yellow. Then, remove and squeeze out the water from the greens. Set aside.
4. Add the wontons, and cook till they float to the surface, about 4-6 minutes. Remove them with a slotted spoon, and immediately add the noodles, cooking for about 1-2 minutes, depending on their thickness and freshness. Remove with a slotted spoon and toss with 3-4 tablespoons of lard or chicken fat immediately.
5. As soon as the noodles are done, it is time to assemble. Divide the noodles into 4-5 portions (you will have 8-10 wontons per portion). Add the wontons and greens and toss lightly. Top with some the cooked meat, a sprinkle of black pepper, and spring onions and serve immediately.
About Poorna BanerjeePoorna Banerjee is a food writer, restaurant critic and social media strategist and runs a blog Presented by P for the last ten years where she writes about the food she eats and cooks, the places she visits, and the things she finds of interest. She is deeply interested in culinary anthropology, and food history and loves books, music, travelling, and a glass of wine, in that order.