Should Chinese food be hot (as in teekha)? For decades, the answer to this question was ‘no’. And in much of the Western world, it still is. But the truth is that China is a little like India in that it has many different regions each with its own curries. When the first Chinese restaurants opened in the West, they offered variations on the cuisines of Canton and Peking, both essentially bland. Americanised Cantonese became the template for Chinese restaurants all over the world, including Indian.
Till the late 70s, Chairman Mao’s legacy ensured that in the People’s Republic, most chefs were re-educated and sent off to work in the villages. So Chinese food advanced in such cities as Hong Kong, New York and San Francisco. The cooking of the regions of Sichuan and Hunan, which can be very spicy, first came to global attention in New York and then Hong Kong in the late 60s.
In the early 70s, the Taj Group hired the manager and two chefs from a Sichuan restaurant called The Red Pepper in Hong Kong and first opened The Golden Dragon in Bombay in 1974 and then The House of Ming in Delhi in 1998. Both restaurants came as a revelation to Indians who had not realised till then that Chinese food could be teekha.
The influence of The House of Ming led to the growth of Sino-Ludhianvi or Punjabi-Chinese, a school of cooking where the food looked vaguely Chinese but the flavours were largely Indian. Since then, Indians have gotten used to teekha red-sauce Chinese cuisine of the kind unknown in China.
But there is genuinely hot food in China – much hotter than most Indian cuisines, for instance. You can find it at expensive restaurants in Delhi. At the Gurgaon Oberoi, 361 used to have a Sichuan chef whose food was nuclear-reactor hot and China Kitchen at the Hyatt does great Hunan food.
But authentic Hunan and Sichuan is hard to find outside of the hotels. The Chinese in Connaught Place has sadly closed down and China Doll in South Extension II has suffered when the chef left. Ano Tai at the Vasant Continental is a hotel restaurant but prices are lower than Hyatt/Oberoi levels and the Hunan food is both hot and authentic.
Vir Sanghvi is India's best-known food writer and TV host. His book, Rude Food won the Cointreau Award for Best Food Literature book in the world and his food and travel shows on channels such as TLC and NDTV Good Times have won numerous awards and continue to be watched by millions.