Vantage point

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Recreating Indian Chinese Street Food

In response to my recent post on recreating Marzorin chicken sandwiches, a few of my friends pinged me on chat and started talking about recreating other idiosyncratic fast food from back home. Two of them separately asked me the same question - do I have any insights on recreating Indian Chinese or Indo-Chinese street food?

Ah yes! The good old "laal gaaDi" or "laal tapri", the red shacks or stalls by the street-side selling India's take on Chinese food. For most of us middle class Indians, street Chinese was the first taste of "foreign" cuisine, before we grew up, got jobs, and experimented with real foreign cuisine. Street Chinese was cheap, so affordable to us students on our meager allowances, yet at that time seemed "exotic" enough to seem more unconventional than the purely desi affordable fare of vadapav and bhelpuri.

Having grown up, traveled abroad, and tasted all sorts of authentic East Asian cuisines, from curry-based Thai to barbecue-based Korean to different varieties of real Chinese cuisine like Guangdong, Lu and (my favorite) Sichuan, it is tempting to dismiss street Indo-Chinese food as some low brow faux-fusion. After all, those authentic cuisines have varying diverse components, sophisticated and subtle flavors, delightfully balances textures, and complexity built over centuries of experimentation. In contrast, street Indo-Chinese is, let's face it, basically an overpowering blast of ginger, garlic, chilies, soy sauce, and usually a whole lot of MSG.

But honestly, I relish good ole Indo-Chinese as much as any of those complex cuisines developed over centuries. Maybe it's the memories from my teen years, all those one-by-two or two-by-three Manchow soups that my friends Aniruddha, Chinmay, and I shared after somehow coming up with 15 rupees between us. Those chicken schezwan rice and chicken lollipops we sneaked out of our houses to share when our moms made something we really hated for dinner (usually, over-cooked cabbage). And the countless hours of conversations and leg-pulling.

So every few weeks, I get a strong craving for Indo-Chinese. On trips to New York, I have found the Indo-Chinese joints in Journal Square (NJ) to be more "authentic" (whatever that means in the context of the cuisine) than the more fancied Chinese Mirch on Lexington Ave in Manhattan. But still, it just doesn't feel the same. So I have found that my attempts at recreating desi Chinese street food at home are more successful. Especially in terms of texture.

So here are some tips on recreating Indo-Chinese street food, based on my experiments over the last 5 years in the US. I'll focus on the most basic stuff - fried rice and hakka noodles.

The Importance of Un-Fresh Rice

During my initial attempts at making fried rice, I always boiled the rice right before it. The rice turned out more like mushy pulao or masalebhaat. Then I read this superb post on making perfect fried rice by my friend Madhu. I learned the importance of using un-fresh rice. So, to recreate the desi-Chinese fried rice, you need to boil the rice a day before and put it in the fridge.

Another tip is, boil the rice as you would when making by-the-book biryani. You boil it in lots and LOTS of water (I use 5 cups of water for every cup of rice), and turn the stove off when the rice is about 75% cooked, not all the way through. Then you drain it using a colander, and wash it under cold water to stop it from continuing to cook from residual heat. Toss it gently when doing this. Don't turn the faucet on at full strength, or it will break the grains of rice. This technique gets rid of a lot of excess starch that might make your rice sticky or mushy.

Once the 75% cooked rice is washed, drained, and tossed under cold water, drain it a bit more by shaking the colander, flipping the rice, gently pressing it against the holes. Basically, get rid of as much water as you can. Then, toss it around gently a little more, and make sure the grains aren't sticking together. Now put it in the fridge. For at least 24 hours for best results, although 8-10 hours will also give you decent fried rice.

Noddles also Un-Fresh!

I usually make noodles fresh before cooking with them. I make sure they are a little al dente, washed under cold water, and tossed in some oil. It works well for making authentic East Asian noddle dishes. They are moist, juicy, and tasty.

BUT! But this is a post about recreating street Indo-Chinese. Those noddles are texturally different from what you get in authentic East Asian cuisine. They are drier, and a bit more al dente, even slightly crunchy. So I decided to apply the un-fresh concept to noodles as well.

I followed pretty much the same process that I have mentioned above for the rice. The only difference being, after the noddles were washed in cold water, I drained them, then tossed them in a bit of oil. Tossed with a gentle hand for a good ten minutes or so, disentagling them all, making sure that if I pulled at one strand of the noodle, no others came with it. Then, into the fridge for 24 hours. And it worked! Just like with rice, this technique of storing them in the fridge gets rid of extra moisture. The noodles turned out just the way they did on the streets of Pune or Bombay.

Looking back, this insight seems fairly duh! Indo-Chinese on the streets is usually cooked in front of our eyes. Have we ever seen them boiling noodles in front of us? They have huge pots full of pre-cooked noodles, obviously prepped hours before.


An unmistakable characteristic of street Chinese food is that smoky almost-burnt flavor that the rice and noodles are infused with. Few people focus on this aspect when trying to cook it at home. I know I didn't. I used the good ole kadhai or even more stupidly, non-stick pans on a couple of occasion.

In street Indo-Chinese, the fried rice or noodles have the sauces and flavoring you add. But the sauces aren't making the rice grains or noodles stick together. The way i used to cook it, I would get greasy, even stewed-like rice or noodles. I was trying to make fried rice, and instead, it seemed more like an Asian-flavored risotto.

I don't know what it is about the kadhai, but you can see why the non-stick wouldn't work. Non-stick, by definition, umm, doesn't stick. It's not like we want food to stick or burn when we're making fried rice or noodles, but surely, the temperature should be pretty darn close to it. So the cooking surface should not have teflon. Why does the kadhai not work? No idea! All I know is that when I eventually decided to buy a proper wok, it worked a lot better.

Of course, the first couple of times I used the wok, I didn't see too much improvement. I didn't get that smoky-burnt-ish flavor. The food was either undercooked or mushy. And the fried rice was still a tad greasy, the noodles still saucy. So what was I doing wrong? Once again, Madhu Menon to the rescue! As he notes here, the temperature of the wok should be quite hot before you pour oil.

Also, when making fried rice, like Madhu suggests, make sure you add the rice and coat it in the oil BEFORE you add the sauces. The same principle works for noodles.

So firstly, get a wok. Secondly, make sure it is hot enough before adding the oil. Thirdly, add the rice or noodles BEFORE you add the sauces, and make sure the wok is hot enough throughout.

The right way of sauteing vegetables

Another problem I used to have with my rice or noodles - the veggies would either get too mushy or stay raw. The problem here arises from our Indian instincts to often overcook the vegetables. The carrots, bell pepper, onions etc in fried rice and noodles is not overcooked like in subji. It isn't raw either. It took me a while to get the level of al dente-ness right.

I have found that the best way of cooking veggies is in a hot wok, after the oil has heated. Make sure you veggies are sliced thin. They don't have to be diced really tiny. I usually julienne them. And then, keep stirring them as you saute them. The idea is to sear the veggies, not cook them through. Also remember that they will continue to cook even after you add the rice and noodles. So leaving them a bit more al dente than you like works well.

These are some basic tips. There are more tips about the combinations of sauces, flavoring, and making the soups that I will cover in the very near future. But for now, try these tips and tell me if your attempts at recreating Indo-Chinese street food don't give better results.

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Recreating the Marzorin Sandwich: The Non-Resident Puneri's Holy Grail

If you're a Puneri settled abroad, or even in some other Indian city, you will crave many foods associated with Pune that even outsiders readily appreciate. Be it the bakarvadi or amba barfi from Chitale, the misal from Bedekar, the sambhar from Vaishali, the thali from Shreyas, the mastani from Sujata, khichadi from Appa's canteen, or the vadapav from numerous stalls dotting the city, all these delicacies are easy to link with Pune's cultural history and culinary identity.

But there is one item that baffles outsiders, and that only those who have lived in Pune can appreciate - chicken sandwich from Marzorin (or as the signboard says Marz-O-Rin) in Camp, called Marzo for convenience. What's so great about a chicken sandwich, they wonder. You can get chicken sandwiches anywhere in the world. How different can it be?

When I was reminiscing about those sandwiches in the presence of a non-Indian friend he assumed, understandably or erroneously, that the sandwiches had some "Indian" touch. He asked me if it has shredded tandoori chicken or chicken tikka, if the sauce had some Indian spices, if some chutney was used as spread. As "Marzo" lovers know, the place does sell some kick-ass chutney sandwiches too, but the chicken sandwich does not have the chutney or any spices or components that are uniquely Indian.

So what is the Marzorin chicken sandwich like, he asked. And I described it. Shredded chicken in a mayo-like sauce, with salt and pepper, between two slices of white bread, cut into triangles along the diagonal. He was confused. That sounds very mundane, he said. You could probably get a sandwich like that at thousands of joints in the US.

Only a Puneri who has grown up eating those sandwiches at "Marzo" will understand the unique appeal of those sandwiches. That specific taste. The moistness of the chicken with the sauce. The hint of pepper. Ah, those triangular pieces of heaven!

As an amateur cook, I have made several attempts at re-creating the sandwich. After all, it is "just" a sandwich, right? Way easier that trying to recreate the complex bakarvadi. But after a dozen or so attempts, THAT combination still eludes me. The sandwiches I make are still pretty good. But they haven't come close to that Marzo taste.

A few weeks back, I was talking to a friend's friend who was also from Pune, and the conversation turned towards Marzo. She said she had been trying in vain to recreate those chicken sandwiches, as had been many of her non-resident Puneri friends. So there were others after this holy grail! I don't know why that surprised me. A targeted online search had already taken me to a blog that had discussed similar attempts. There must be hundreds, even thousands of people trying to do the same.

So I decided to write this post chronicling my efforts to recreate that sandwich. It wasn't all random trial and error. I tried my best to remember the taste (I last ate at Marzo 3 years ago), tried to break down the flavors, the textures, the physical construction. And occasionally, I had epiphanies about the sandwich when I was making something totally different.

The Bread

In my first couple of attempts, I used the regular store-bought sliced white bread. The bread, I realized, was nothing like Marzo which is also a bakery, so they bake their bread in-house. Packaged breads such as Sara Lee or Nickles are a little too moist. Marzo bread isn't dry by any means. It is soft but with only a hint of moistness, and the texture is dry enough to compliment the filling.

Now I have made bread at home a few times. But I am not accomplished enough a baker to get it perfectly right. So I experimented with freshly baked breads from grocery stores nearby. I found the "farmstyle" fresh bread from Wegmans to be the closest to the Marzo bread in terms of the balance of moisture and dryness. I am sure freshly baked bread from grocery stores in your area - Trader Joe's, Giant etc, will also work.

In keeping with the Marzo technique, you slice the crust off. Make sure you keep two slices on top of each other while doing this, so the sandwich is shaped just right.

The Chicken

My first couple of attempts were lazy. I used canned chicken. Which wasn't too bad, but had that peculiar aftertaste any canned meat has. So I decided to use fresh chicken. Following the suggestion from this blog, I tried grilling the chicken. Specifically, I used chicken breasts. Did not taste too good. But then chicken breasts are almost completely fat-free. I tried thighs. Still not the same effect.

Then I read on the Marzo website that their chicken is "thoroughly pressure cooked". Tried that with some drumsticks. That worked like a charm. At least in terms of texture, shredded meat from pressure cooked chicken drumsticks was the closest to Marzo. Even pressure-cooked thighs will do - anything except for the fat-free breasts.

The Sauce

Obviously, the toughest part. That damn sauce, which to my then-inexperienced palate, just seemed like mayo with salt and pepper. So I first tried store-bought mayo. Not even close. Did some trial-and-error with different brands of mayo, mixed butter in it, even margarine. Tried cream cheese once. The sandwiches tasted good, but nothing like Marzo.

Then I wondered if there was an "utterly butterly delicious" factor at play. If as an Indian abroad, you think that there is something uniquely tasty about Amul butter that no American brands can replicate, you are right. As Vikram Doctor explains, that flavor is the legacy of Polson butter, and was the result of using stale cream. Amul substituted that flavor by adding diacetyl and extra salt. I wondered if the margarine used by Marzorin had something similar. So I used Amul butter. It took me a few feet closer to the Marzo taste, but there were still miles to go.

The latest "breakthrough" in my quest of the Marzo chicken sandwich holy grail came about serendipitously. The wife loves Eggs Benedict, so recently, I tried to make it from scratch. Which of course, involved making Hollandaise sauce from scratch. I messed up in some way. It was not creamy the way it is supposed to be, but runny. However, the taste rang a bunch of bells. That mixture of egg yolk, lemon juice, and melted (non-Amul) butter tasted a lot like the Marzorin chicken sandwich sauce! That specific tartness combined with the egg yolk taste. So the next step is using my Hollandaise-sauce-gone-wrong with the shredded chicken.

And so the experiments continue. if any of you have been lucky enough to replicate the sandwich, let me know.