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A long time ago, when Park Street was the food hub of Kolkata and night life was at its best, Park Street had some of the best Chinese restaurants in the city starting from Peiping at the beginning of the Lane to Waldorf. Mainland China had not opened, neither the other fancy Chinese restaurants. The place which was a preferred destination for the most authentic Chinese dishes in Kolkata, was Tangra or popularly known as the 'China Town of Kolkata'.
The settlers who had come to India first started with China town in the city near Tiretti Bazaar in central Kolkata, which has made their Chinese breakfast legendary and a major attraction for tourists. Later on, a part moved towards Tangra, which formed the hub of the Kolkata-Chinese delicacies. With their presence in India since the 5th century, a majority of the Chinese population came down to work at the busy Kolkata ports and also into manufacturing activities in tanneries which were outbound for the locals due to religious taboo. The food business and restaurants started as a minor step and more of a secondary profession with Nanking being the first Chinese restaurant in the city. What began as a small side business was an instant hit with the locals and for visitors too, and soon it became the hub for great Indo-Chinese food (as they had to tweak the taste for locals).
With most of the restaurants being family run and ingredients homemade or imported through the relatives and cheap booze for non-implication of taxes made this place an instant hit. The food is such that today there is a cuisine called ‘the Tangra cuisine’, which is an essential part of Kolkata’s foodscape.
There are numerous joints within Tangra, from big to very small. Some of the restaurants have gained immense popularity over the years. Restaurants like Beijing, Big Boss and Hot Wok are like industries, dishing out Chinese dishes by the hour in huge quantities. Customers literally swarm them. Big Boss is perhaps one of the oldest and the largest here. The prawn wafers are a hot favourite with the regulars along with affordable alcohol. Crispy chilli baby corn, chilli garlic pepper fish, kung pao chicken with the mixed fried rice or egg fried mei foon are some of the favourite dishes here. With large portions and quick service, this is a go-to place for most people when they come to China Town.
Beijing, a family restaurant accommodating large groups and families is another popular joint. Their loyalists vouch for the food which may be a bit greasy and spiced. With huge portion size, the seafood starters are a must here, especially the fried crabmeat balls and the golden fried prawns. May be a little smaller than the previous ones, Golden Joy still has about 400 to 500 covers, although a bit cramped up, one may say. Their biggest plus point is that they offer handmade noodles, which are delicious. The food is flavoursome, and some of their specialities are chicken hunan, Golden Joy special Fried Rice, dragon’s eye and golden fried prawns.
Hot Wok Village, well as the name suggests, it is like a mini village. From one room to another, it has hundreds of covers. The food is extremely affordable along with the drinks, which makes it a popular place with bachelors and office goers in large groups. The menu is vast and covers almost all regions of China. Their biggest plus point is that they have a separate family, smoking and non-smoking room.
Kim Ling has its set loyalists, is very popular and has a legendary status in Tangra. Lemon chicken, chilli garlic prawns, hot garlic chicken and spring chicken are a few of their highly recommended dishes. At one point in time, this was one of the most popular joints. They have not upgraded themselves to recent times; however, the food does justice to the worn down ambience. Other than these five, there are numerous smaller joints, and some of them are truly exquisite and worth exploring.
With only 2000 to 3000 Chinese now present in the city, let us not forget that Kolkata is the only city to have an official China town and the Chinese eateries here have been entertaining the taste buds for decades. The younger generations have settled abroad and did not join the family food business. While some of the old restaurants like Nanking (often considered as the oldest), Hou Hua on free school street and Song Hay at central Kolkata have closed down, and the future may not be as bright and shiny as the Chinese lanterns, which often adorn these streets; Tangra restaurants continue. So till such time one meal is always owed to the place which invented Kolkata-Chinese.