Chinese delegations are descending upon Pakistan in droves and then being taken to Chinese restaurants here. Makes sense right? Make them feel right at home. Share in their cuisine, break the ice. Start talks about China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) on a positive note. The most positive note being a Yuan.
Only, the Chinese have never seen Chinese food like this before.
What we call Chinese food is basically just a slightly tangy way of making the same things we have always been making. Chicken in rice, chicken draped in sauce, chicken in soup, chicken in noodles, chicken in chicken itself. Because why not.
We like fried things in Lahore. We fry everything, we fry our oil too. The Chinese prefer boiled and steamed food, so tensions will escalate quickly.
Growing up I thought the Chinese ate drumsticks and spring rolls all day. Like if one family in Beijing visited another they would be served spring rolls and kept being asked to have more. “You haven’t even eaten anything. Please try the egg fried rice, I made it myself.”
But, disappointingly, this never happens.
Because of these misnomers, my knowledge of Chinese soup was just hot and sour. Other than when I ordered it over Foodpanda; then it was usually cold and sour.
Occasionally, when my father couldn’t handle spices, we had chicken corn soup. But none of us particularly liked it. Too bland — we kept wondering how the Chinese had this at all. It was something you should give as broth to a sick person. Not serve at a restaurant.
Chicken drumsticks then made their way to local bakeries. Gigantic balls of meat laced with bread, fried and stuffed around a bone. Delicious to me because it was like spicy chargha. But the Chinese have never seen them before and probably don’t want to see them again.
And maybe Manchurian is from Manchester as well? Because it isn’t from China. Egg fried rice and Chicken Manchurian are the staples of our version of Chinese cuisine. Whenever someone says let us have Chinese it almost always involves rice and Manchurian. I wonder how many times Chinese officials say no to it before caving in and saying yes.
This culinary confusion could spoil all our economic plans. Nobody can change the fate of a people on an empty stomach. They need their food. And we are about to make it for them.
Chinese street food has already landed here. There was a man in Islamabad selling dumplings from a cart, like you would Afghani fries or bun kebabs. He made quite a splash on social media.
Bubble tea, dim sum, Kung Pao, hot pots, noodle soup are all finding their way to restaurants, groceries stores and takeaways. They are going mainstream. Just as Mandarin classes are starting all over Pakistan.
Authentic Chinese food places also sell alcohol on their premises.
Stories are breaking out about new liquor shops being licensed in Lahore. One potentially at the Lahore airport itself where the Chinese need alcohol most, to survive the first few days of Lahore. They are not used to breathing smog.
Duty free alcohol would make sure they don’t have to travel to the hotels on The Mall to pick up booze. Or pay exorbitant money to bootleggers.
Having said all that, in the long run, I think the Chinese should let us colonise their platter rather than the other way around. I have had authentic Chinese food and it tastes bland. One day the Chinese are going to realise that they have been doing their own food wrong for years.
But appropriating someone’s cuisine is a two-way street. I really want to see what the Chinese can do with nihari.
The writer was previously a staffer at the Herald.
The article was published in the Herald's April 2019 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.