Philip Mathew stands over my table, his anxiousness palpable despite the practiced graciousness of his manner. “All right, who put you onto this?” he asks.
Mathew, the owner of Bombay Masala in Greenbelt, is understandably perplexed by my order: a plate of Chicken Manchuria, another of Chili Cauliflower, a bowl of Chinese corn soup, and a side of basmati rice.
I’m neither an Indian nor one of his many regulars. So what am I doing ordering off of the special Indian-Chinese menu—a menu that at one time was handed out as a matter of course to his Indian customers whenever they sat down to lunch or dinner but which now even they have to know to ask for? And maybe more to the point: Not having grown up on this often bracing blend of flavors, what appeal could such a highly localized cuisine have for me?
As it turns out, a lot. But that’s later. For now, I am stuck trying to allay Mathew’s many worries.
“People will raise doubt,” he says. “Why are you cooking Indian-Chinese? I don’t want to confuse people, you know? ‘Oh, what is he doing next? Subs?’”
I can understand a restaurateur’s fear about keeping his still-growing business on-message, but you’d have a hard time accusing Mathew of gimmickry. Bombay Masala is among the most traditional and solid of Indian kitchens in the area. Mathew, who came from Chicago 10 years ago to launch and manage the all-vegetarian Udupi Palace and then its meat-friendly sister, Tiffin, in Langley Park, has built a steady following since opening Bombay Masala a little more than a year ago in the Cipriano Square shopping center. Even during the week, the 43-seat restaurant is jammed with Indian families and NASA employees. The samosas and pakoras are good and virtually greaseless, the meats that emerge from the tandoor are well-seasoned if not always as juicy as you might like, and the curries are fiery and reliable.
But it’s not for the curries and samosas that some of his customers regularly make the pilgrimmage to Greenbelt from as far away as Arlington and Alexandria; it’s for the special menu from which I’ve ordered.
“[Indians] miss the Chinese food they know,” Mathew explains, “with the strong flavors of garlic and ginger and the hot finger peppers. They really love it; they miss it; they’re dying for it. They can’t tolerate the Chinese food they get here, which is totally mild, not many spices, and most of the dishes are also very sweet.”
Indian-Chinese can be traced back as far as a few hundred years ago, the product of the second- and third-generation Indian-Chinese who settled primarily in the cities of Calcutta and Bombay. The Indian-Chinese are descendants of the Hakka, who were driven from northern China by the Mongols, settling in southern China in the Guangdong and Canton provinces; many of the Hakka, or “guest people,” eventually migrated south, to India. Accustomed to adapting themselves to their surroundings, the Tangra, as they came to be called, further hybridized their already eclectic cuisine, pairing their cooking techniques with the local ingredients and dishes. The resulting cuisine is a true synthesis, being neither fully Indian nor fully Chinese in character.
Mathew is not exaggerating, by the way, when he says that Indians are “dying for” this subcontinental subgenre. Sure enough, at the mere mention that I’d come across a place in the area that served Indian-Chinese, the faces of the Indians I know would light up instantly. Only later would they think to ask me about how good it was.
And so it is that, on this night, I find myself sitting next to a table of Indian businessmen who are down from Boston. They’ve heard about the special menu and made it a priority to squeeze in a visit to Bombay Masala while they’re in town.
“You can get Northern Indian cooking anywhere,” one of them sniffs, helping himself to a serving of vegetable fried rice.
The food hits the table, looking, and tasting, every bit the hybrid it is. The corn soup is much eggier than most of the versions I’m accustomed to, a rich, slippery concoction brightened by green onion and diced carrots and finished with a generous drizzle of soy. Chicken Manchuria appears to resemble any number of chicken preparations from the Chinese repertoire—hunks of dark meat, battered, fried, and submerged in a sauce with veggies—but it’s shot through with so much ginger and garlic and chili that it takes all of a bite to appreciate the difference. Looks like a stir-fry; tastes like a curry.
The same could also be said of the Chili Cauliflower, which I like even more, the sweet sponginess of the pakora-battered florets an intriguing contrast to all that fire and spice in the sauce. To come across a dish like this, with its unfolding of sensation and for about the cost of a fast-food lunch, is thrilling. Eating it, I am reminded of nothing so much as eating Indian food for the very first time.
I mumble my approval to Mathew in between bites of cauliflower, and he relaxes instantly. He looks surprised that I actually like it.
The idea to offer up Indian-Chinese food came to him, Mathew tells me, during his days as a manager at Udupi and Tiffin. “People were coming up to me all the time, asking, ‘Would you put these dishes on the menu?’ Or, ‘Do you know where I can get them?’”
His answer was always the same: nowhere.
He was eager to see if, when he got a place of his own, he couldn’t satisfy the demand by creating a separate menu. He found a willing partner in his chef and co-owner, Ivan Castelino, who’d already done some Indian-Chinese cooking in Bombay.
Though he wasn’t then and isn’t now prepared to devote his entire menu to such a select taste, Mathew has, nonetheless, invested a considerable amount of money, time, and energy into making the experiment work. Ideal as the existing kitchen might have been for Indian cooking—another Indian restaurant had occupied the space before him—it wouldn’t do if he was going to try Indian-Chinese. For one thing, there were no jet burners. An Indian kitchen has little need for them, usually turning out slow-cooked meats and vegetables, but Chinese cooking, with its preponderance of stir-frys, requires intense, high heat. So Mathew set about reconfiguring the kitchen he inherited to meet his new, specialized needs.
Reconciling two diametrically opposed cuisines hasn’t always been easy—though the challenge in teaching these dishes to his kitchen staff, says Mathew, has been less philosophical than practical.
“Everything you cook with—vegetables, sauces, seasonings—has to be close to the wok. And the wok—you have to be very careful to control the flames. The main thing, of course, is flipping the wok. It had been a while since [Castelino] had used one. And so naturally it took some time for him to get the hang of that again. But it’s like cycling. It comes back.”
The businessmen are halfway through their meal, which, they agree, after a round of quick, efficient consultation, is not quite the equal of the Indian-Chinese they’ve had either in Bombay or in Queens, where the estimable Tangra Masala produces a version of the cuisine that is all but indistinguishable from that served back home.
“I’d say it’s 80 percent close,” one of the businessmen pronounces.
In other words, plenty good enough. They’ve got a consulting job in town at the end of the month. And, it’s also decided, a standing date for some Indian-Chinese in Greenbelt.
Bombay Masala, 8825 Greenbelt Road, Greenbelt, Md. (301) 552-1600. —Todd Kliman
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