In Chinese Restaurants: Song of the Exile, which screened at the SF International Asian American Film Festival in March, Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Cheuk Kwan traveled around the world with his digital camera to eat in Chinese restaurants. In Haifa, he trailed a Chinese-Vietnamese cook who learned his trade from Israelis, then turned his restaurant over to his daughter so he could pursue his vocation as an evangelical Christian minister. In Cape Town, a South Africa-born chef told Kwan about the "no kaffirs, no Chinese, no dogs" signs of her youth and the growing unwelcome she felt from native Africans in the post-apartheid era. In Istanbul, Kwan ate alongside four generations of a Chinese Muslim family who escaped to Turkey on foot after the Maoist revolution. The filmmaker began and ended his quest with the same question: What does it mean to be Chinese?
I thought a lot about the film this week while eating at a restaurant that tweaked the cultural mishmash portrayed by Kwan even further. Masala Grill, a colorful, squeaky-clean fast-food restaurant next door to Fremont's Bollywood multiplex Naz 8, doesn't just do post-movie curries and kebabs for NRIs (nonresident Indians). The nine-month-old restaurant indulges their nostalgia for Chinese food. Indian Chinese food.
On a Friday night, the line for Indian Chinese food stretched out the door. Families of eight stalked tables to combine, twentysomethings conferred with each other and their cell phones, and small kids did origami with chopstick wrappers. I kept watching couples make it to the counter only to be greeted with "one-hour wait." A quick conference, a disgruntled departure; only the hardiest stayed. (The manager says he is taking steps to reduce the max wait to thirty minutes.) Through the bustle snaked Latino busboys, delivering trays of fried rice and Hyderabadi biryanis, chaat and stuffed chicken wings. Was Indian Chinese food that memorable? I wondered.
Well, no, not really. But Masala Grill's Indian Indian food is worth the wait.
I first learned of the existence of Indian Chinese food through Newark's Udupi Palace, which used to offer a couple of Indian Chinese dishes. At some point Udupi's fried rice and noodles disappeared. Then I heard they were turning up at Masala Grill.
So I, too, turned up at Masala Grill with my friends Denise and Kisha, who ate a lot of Chinese food when they lived in Bangalore. "How is Chinese food different in India than it is here?" I asked them as they pointed out dishes they recognized on the whiteboard menu above the counter. Spicier, Denise said. Sweeter, Kisha said.
Based on what we ordered, Masala Grill's Indian Chinese, cooked by a Hong Kong-born chef whom the owners specially trained "in the Indian taste," was neither. A sweet corn and chicken "soup" -- the egg-drop soup of India -- had the texture of industrial sludge but not as much flavor. The fashion in India is to reach for the condiment stand, dosing the soup heavily with soy sauce, chile paste, and chile-infused vinegar. It might just help.
Chile chicken, small chunks of dark meat in a brown cornstarch-thickened sauce, was perked up with a little ginger and cilantro, but not enough to make it interesting. In fact, there were more chiles in the Manchurian chicken, India's moo goo gai pan. The Manchu touch was to stir-fry the chicken with red onions, strips of green chile, and red and green bell pepper. Kisha commented that Bangalorean Chinese cooks would have added fennel seeds, giving the ginger and chiles in the dish a fragrant, cooling counterpart.
Another entrée, crispy baby corn and mushrooms, contained baby corn and cremini mushrooms dusted in rice flour and deep-fried in oil that should have been twenty degrees hotter, then tossed in a wok with chopped red onions, garlic, and scallions. That extra heat would have transformed the vegetables from oil sponges into something light and crisp. And Masala Grill's lackluster fried rice was just sautéed with a handful of peas, green onion, and a few pink shrimp. No garlic, ginger, or soy meant no taste.
The rice worked best, however, as a sop for the marvelous sauce on the gosht rara, from the Indian side of the menu. Chef Raju, the Indian cook, hails from the Punjab region, and he turns out dishes like this Punjabi curried goat that you won't find elsewhere in the Bay Area. Though we found the gosht a little bony, the meat was braised in a gravy made with finely ground meat, a brick-red masala of spices heavy on the cloves, and a flash of chopped fresh cilantro and scallion, which sparkled on the tongue above the thrum of the other seasonings.
If the combination of fried rice and curry weren't perplexing enough, the Miss Manners in me worried over how to actually eat it. Chopsticks couldn't scoop up the gravy. Kisha and Denise used fingerfuls of naan to pick up bites of chile chicken, but they had to switch to forks once the bread was gone. Eating Thai style -- using a fork to push food onto a soup spoon -- seemed to fit the bill.
The curry, as well as the crowd -- who I figured had to find some pleasure in eating the food -- brought me back to Fremont for a second visit. That's when I discovered the honey-chilli gobi: cauliflower florets, battered like sweet-and-sour pork, in a syrup the color of cherry Kool-Aid. But along with the sugar came generous jolts of garlic and ginger, a complex mix of Indian spices, and heat enough to fire up a sweat. Finally, the fusion of two bastardized cuisines produced something marvelous. Likewise, Masala Grill's vegetarian hakka noodles were actually a good rendition of chow mein. Something about them -- whether it was the oil, a pinch of curry powder, or simply the seasoning on the pan -- added a subtle, attractively Indian note.
Once again, on my second visit Masala Grill's Indian Indian food didn't disappoint: The large cubes of chicken breast on the aatish kabob had been rubbed with ginger and herbs, then roasted in a tandoor oven. We dipped the meat into a mint-chile-vinegar sauce that had the force of an electric shock. Much milder was the mushroom taka tak, slices of mushroom, peppers, and sweet corn in a creamy, nut-enriched yellow gravy that hid its heat so well I kept blaming my burning mouth on the other dishes. And the kadai paneer -- so-called because the paneer (pressed cheese) is quickly cooked in a kadai, the Indian wok -- had been fried up Punjabi style in a fragrant masala started with ginger, garlic, onions, and tomatoes, and finished with scallions and cilantro. Like the gosht rara, the kadai paneer's flavors sparked and pulsed throughout the mouth.
I asked Lageswar Karri, Masala Grill's manager, why the restaurant decided to specialize in Indian Chinese food. "There are so many Indian restaurants in the area, and they all have the same menu," he said. "We wanted to do something different." Masala Grill's Chinese food might not thrill anyone but homesick NRIs. Its Indian Indian, however, owes its appeal to gastronomy, not just anthropology.