There's no Chinese food like Kolkata Chinese? Eau Chew soldiers on. Kolkata Immigrant food love songs, part 3

Lunch at the 90 year old Eau Chew, Kolkata. June, 2019

There's no sauce like that of nostalgia

I would often lament about the absence of ‘real Chinese’ here when I first moved in to Mumbai from Kolkata.  As would my fellow Kolkata probashis (expats). We meant the Chinese food that we had grown up on in the city formerly known of as Calcutta. We were convinced that the chilli chicken, mixed fried rice and Hakka noodles of Kolkata, that we doted on, was more Chinese than the Little Red Book!

Twenty years on, I must admit that I have lost I a bit of my ‘moho’ (Bengali for fascination) for Kolkata Chinese. This happened a few years back actually. There are a number of reasons for this. Foremost was my rather late discovery of the Chinese immigrant family run Ling’s Pavilion in Colaba, Mumbai. I had eaten a bit of Chinese food across the world by then in Chinese family-run joints in places such as KL, Singapore, Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, London and I found that the old fashioned, home styled Cantonese fare at Ling’s to remind me of those. The quality of ingredients used at Ling’s was stellar. The food also reminded me of the frugality that I associated with the Chinese food of Kolkata in the late 80s and early 90s. By frugality,' I mean subtlety of flavours. Food which is not excessively fried or over-cooked, nor doused in sauce, nor is it red in colour and intent. NOT 'Schezwan'. Mumbai-speak for red, red and more red. No relation to Sichuan you could say.

Before you think that this is another ungrateful Bengali in Mumbai rant and say, ‘go back to where you came from,’ let me add that a bit of why I have been weaned off Kolkata Chinese is also because of what I had experienced in the city during my trips back to Kolkata. I had not eaten at Tangra or had the Tiretti Bazar breakfast when I lived in Kolkata. I tried out both after I began blogging. Was supremely disappointed by what I found. There was hardly anyone or anything left at Tiretti Bazar now. Tangra now is a drinking den and the salty, deep fried food on offer there (Kim Ling) was a reflection of this.

I went to a restaurant called Bar B Q at Park Street which was rather aspirational for us back in the day. It still runs packed to brim as I saw that Sunday afternoon. I waited to get a place. Ate. Left. Did not find anything which made me want to return. I went to Jimmy’s Kitchen a few times too. Chasing memories, as my father used to take me there when I was a kid and before he passed on. I must admit that while the nostalgia quotient was high, the food did not excite me as much. Like the curate's egg, it was good in parts. Interestingly, Jimmy’s (at Kala Mandir) was running to packed houses too the few times that we went there, the way Bar B Q was when I went there. Perhaps I had changed. Not my city.

I decided to skip going to its Chinese restaurants on my trips to Kolkata that followed. It made more sense to go to the Mughlai, the street food and the Bengali food (in that order as I have good Bengali options in Mumbai now) I felt, to make the most of my meals in the city.

This is also is why I did not include a section on Kolkata Chinese in my book, The Travelling Belly. The book is about food that excited me. Not an academic one.

Kolkata immigrant food love songs

Spot the Chinese restaurant signboard

As you probably know, I was in Kolkata few weeks back. It was a personal visit. I stayed with friends. I visited my grand mom every day. That is why I had gone after all. I ate good food of course.  Some at home, some at restaurants. 

I ate at the Royal Indian Restaurant and the Azad Hind Dhaba. Two of the oldest existing UP and Punjabi immigrant descendant run restaurants in the city. I then decided to check out one of the remaining heritage Chinese eateries of Kolkata as well. These are the three main immigrant communities that formed the foundation of Kolkata’s restaurant culture after all.

The place I decided to go to is Eau Chew in central Kolkata. A restaurant I had read about often in social media but had not heard of when I lived in the city in the pre SM era. 

Eau Chew is located at Chandni Chowk. Kolkata, not Delhi of course. It is fairly close to the ABP building, though Chung Wah (another old Chinese restaurant) is even closer to ABP. It is located on the first floor of a nondescript building on a busy bylane in central Kolkata. You walk up a staircase which reminds you a bit of that at the India Coffee House building at College Street.

The interiors looked like a State Bank or LIC office in Kolkata from the 80s. Except that it was empty (at 1.30 pm) barring a table of youngsters and is air-conditioned.

A large hall. Lit by artificial lights. Functional tables and chairs. Cemented floor. Neat and clean as your grandmother’s house would be. Unlikely to make it to the design section of Vogue or GQ.

Remains of the day

Eau Chew is around 90 years old from what I gathered. It is run by the 4th and 5th generation of the Huang family. We did see them at the counter a couple of times but did not really get to speak to them. I asked our waiter if we could say hi to them, after lunch was over and we had settled our bill, but was told that they had left for the afternoon. I would love to meet them some day. Rockstars that they are.

You will find a number of nice articles on the Internet that talks about the family. What you will learn if you read any of these, is that Eau Chew means ‘European.’ That it was so named as the place where Eau Chew stands was home to Europeans in Kolkata when the restaurant opened.

Passing on the baton

Giving me company were two well regarded food enthusiasts and friends from the city –Indrajit Lahiri AKA Foodka (who insisted that we go to Eau Chew at least once when I met him at Royal on the first day of the trip) and Kaniska Chakraborty (with whom I have had some of my most memorable food outings in life). Both are gentleman whom I love lunching with.

With my fellow food diaryists, Indrajit Lahiri in blue who has published a
rather endearing book called Food Kahini, and Kaniska Chakraborty

What some said when I shared pictures of our meal on social media, was that the food at Eau Chew can be inconsistent. Indrajit had warned me about this too.

Kaniska said that you can expect comfort food here and should not demand brilliance. What they both agreed upon is that the food is ‘home styled.’ The sort that guarantees comfort and a good siesta. Especially if you work at any of the office buildings nearby.

I have not eaten here before so cannot comment on the consistency levels at Eau Chew. I am just glad that we got to eat so well that afternoon. 

Let me now tell you about what we ate this afternoon. I believe that it would be rather precocious of me to attempt a ‘review’ of such an iconic place. Please look at this just as a personal diary entry and before you ask, no, we did not eat the chimney soup or the Josephine noodles which the place is famous for. This is because my lunch mates, who have eaten with me often, felt that there were other dishes that I would enjoy more. 

Fairy tales from Eau Chew

Chicken & prawn sui mai

Chicken and prawn sui mai

Indrajit told us that he had placed an order for a couple of dishes in advance as one does not always get these dishes at the restaurant. The sui mai was one of them. 

I was not too enthused when I heard this. I have had countless sui mais across the world. Small, cylindrical dumplings where the top is sliced open (think Hannibal Lecter in the second instalment of the series) and the filling is often too dry. I cannot say that I am a fan of sui mai. I did not want to fill precious stomach space with this that afternoon.

Turned out that Indrajit knew what he was doing.  No surprises there. The ‘sui mai’ at Eau Chew is very different from any sui mai that I know of. It consists of a very juicy and maddeningly delicious minced prawn and chicken filling which is placed on a sort of open, steamed flour wonton. Think ‘cheese mushroom canapes’ in Mumbai cocktail parties, but with a softer version of the fried canape. Soft, but not soggy, that is. This is steamed after all.

You take your first bite and then you do not want to stop because this is a food séance at its best. You have heard of trance music. Well, this was trance food!

Steamed bhetki

Steamed bhetki

This was another of Indrajit’s pre-orders. Once again, I bit my lip on hearing this. I have rarely had a good and simple steamed fish outside of Ling’s Pavilion in India. Pan Asian at the ITC Maratha at the most, where the genius chef Liang from Beijing runs the shop. I thought that it would be a mess at Eau Chew, I confess. Once again, I happily ate the humble pie.

The fish was steamed perfectly. It was easy to slice with a knife. Each piece was juicy, not dried out. Bhetki can have a strong flavour which is hard to mask when under spiced. No such problems here. The quality of the fish was very good. There was a small bed of sauce around it. Must have oozed out while the fish was being gingerly. Looked a bit greyish brown in colour. Had the most regal gingery flavour it to. Distinct, yet not in your face. Living in peaceful harmony with the sliced green chillies and scallions in it.

What amazed us all the most was how the entire bhetki had fitted in the fish shaped plate that it was brought out in. 

I must say that compared to the socialist era feel to our surroundings, the dinnerware at Eau Chew were rather Alipore or New Alipore bourgeoisie chic.

Roast chilli pork

Roast chilli pork

I ordered this from the menu. Kaniska felt that it lacked a bit of fat. Possibly because I had taken (not intentionally, God promise) all the fatty slices.

Excellent quality of pork. Way better than anything I have had in a standalone old school Chinese restaurant in Kolkata in recent memory. The seasoning was perfect. The slices of onions and the finely chopped green chillies in it gave a very Kolkata mutton roll feel to the dish. The red colour reminded me of the char siew (roast pork) that I have had in Singapore’s Chinatown. The meat was firm and yet tender.

Mixed meat pan fried noodles

Mixed meat pan fried noodles

We ordered pan friend noodles instead of the famous Josephine (named after 4th generation owner and matriarch who runs the place) noodles and I loved it. The noodles could have had a bit more of a crunch to it no doubt but the sauce made up for it. The fragrant and melodious meat bone stock broth which enrobed the noodles in true Cantonese style reminded me of my favourite pan fried noodles at Ling’s Pavilion, the special meat broth noodles at the much more expensive Hakkasan, Mumbai, and the one I had at Hong Kong in a restaurant near the massive Buddha statue there. The meat again was tender and the vegetables had that little bit of bite in them that I so love. Not overcooked at all.

Mixed meat fried rice

Mixed fried rice

You cannot be an Indian and have a Chinese meal without a plate of fried rice can you? I still remember how my mother had once said at the end of a ‘modern Chinese’ chef’s luxury hotel tasting which had none, “ektu fried rice hole bhalo hoto.” A bit of fried rice at the end would have been nice.

I ordered one at Eau Chew and it was quite competent. Well seasoned. A good 'bits and pieces' player as they say in cricket. An apt companion to the pork and the fish dishes.

It was made with basmati rice and not the thick short grained rice that the Chinese prefer. They use basmati for the fried rice at Ling’s too. I once asked the owners about why they do so and was told that in India, customers apparently feel that the restaurant is trying to save money if they do not serve basmati!

Talking of money, I think the meal cost us Rs 900 each along with the bottled water and soft drinks that we ordered. And, as Indrajit called and told us just as we were to set out for Eau Chew, they accept only cash. So, come prepared. The ‘cash’ required, if you are used to Mumbai prices, is not one to give you sleepless nights.

Authentic Chinese? Authentic Kolkata Chinese?

Don't ask us. We are just happy campers who love to eat

Is the food at Eau Chew ‘authentic Chinese’? 

That would be a bit silly to expect in India wouldn’t it?

The Huang family has run the restaurant for 90 years. The Ling family in Mumbai have run theirs for around 75. The Chinese immigrants in Kolkata have been around for a couple of centuries in any case. Their family memories of China would have got watered down over time. Memories that date back to a China before the great war and before Chairman Mao, Deng Xiao Ping and Xi Jinping. A very different China for sure.

In their many years spent in India, they would have got introduced to produce that is different from what they were used to. To cultures and cooking traditions and taste constructs that are different from their own. Surely all of this would have an impact on the food?

I had recently met a young Chinese journalist who is based in Mumbai at the moment. He told me that the food at Ling’s is closest to what he gets back home. He then added with a smile, “but rather old fashioned.” I think that is the sort of expectation to have when eating at places such as Eau Chew. I will not even get into the 'there are many types of Chinese' discussion here. That's like trying to educate someone in China on the finer nuances of the Indian food and the difference between Assamese, Maharashtrian, Mangalorean and what have you.

What I can tell you for sure though, is that the lunch at Eau Chew restored the faith of this prodigal son in Kolkata Chinese and that I will definitely try to go back there when I return and have the blessed Josephine noodles this time!

And one more thing, the restaurant does not deserve to be as empty as it was the day we went. Please go there and fill the seats. Encourage the folks that run it. No point crying later when such places shut down because of lack of business. The onus is on to make sure that they don't!

Update: Forgot to add this yesterday but I thought that I must tell you that Kolkata Chinese has travelled across the world. Nini Ling from Ling's Pavilion once told me that there are a number of Chinese restaurants in Toronto which are set up by Chinese immigrants from Kolkata. These call themselves Hakka Chinese. I once saw a 'Tangra Chinese' restaurant at Singapore or so the signboard said. Jime's Kitchen at Bandra's Bazar Road has had a 'Calcutta chilli chicken' (or something to that effect) for ages. I remember Asma khan serving tangra prawns in her Darjeeling Express pop up which I had been to in London in 2013. I think she still serves them in her restaurant and now with Chef's Table, I am sure they will get really famous!

The Prodigal Son returns

Here's a video that we shot when at Eau Chew. Please watch it and then subscribe to Finely Chopped TV by Kalyan Karmakar on YouTube if you have not already.


Where to buy The Travelling Belly

Posts of related interest from Finely Chopped.

The Kolkata immigrant series

Kolkata Chinese series

Indrajit & Kaniska on Eau Chew