Desi-Chinese food (also known as Indo-Chinese or Hakka-Chinese) lies at a knotty intersection of authenticity, unique among Chinese diaspora cuisines. Not as canon as laksa or ramen, nor as derided as the neon gloop of the British and American Chinese takeaways, this 100 year old assimilation food challenges the ‘authentic’. Desi-Chinese is the style of food invented by Hakka immigrants in Kolkata, who incorporated the ingredients and aggressive spicing of Indian food into their own cooking to create something both familiar and new. It unashamedly hits all the pleasure points: salt, sugar, and fat; heat and acid from chilli; the umami of soy sauce and the char of wok hei. Reading the language of London’s Desi-Chinese menus, it quickly becomes clear that this is a cuisine of nostalgia and of belonging. Restaurants tend to be in zones 3-5, where expats fondly recall the sizzlers, Hakka noodles and Manchow soups from childhoods spent at Chinese restaurants, in Indian cities, pining for the taste of home. Most Desi-Chinese dishes are hidden in larger menus dedicated to more “acceptable” regional cuisines: next time, try them, rather than glossing over. This is some of the most purely pleasurable Chinese or Indian food available in the capital.Read More
Where to Eat Desi-Chinese Food in London
Crispy, caramelised chilli paneer, hulking, charred sizzlers, sweet and spicy chicken lollipops — and more
The flagship restaurant of Steven Lee, probably the single person who has shaped London’s Indo-Chinese scene more than anyone else. Originally from Kolkata, Lee learnt how to cook Indo-Chinese at the legendary China Garden in Mumbai, another restaurant with split menu loyalties (one half Cantonese and the other being Indo-Chinese). China Garden is also the birthplace of the chicken manchurian, an iconic dish based on the staple flavours of the Bengali larder — green chilli, ginger and garlic — with soy sauce, vinegar and cornstarch replacing garam masala. Manchurian is on Hakkaland’s menu along with a litany of Desi-Chinese prefixes: sapo, soya wine, Tai Pai, Szechuan (always with a ‘z’), and Hunan — a sauce made from a huge amount of pickled ginger that has absolutely nothing to do with Hunan. Hakkaland has a large following outside the UK: customers can watch Lee’s appearances on Indian TV which are played on the wall while they eat flawless versions of Kolkata chilli chicken and Tai Pai (Taipei) paneer.
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Rose Vegetarian Restaurant
A Kingsbury institution, Rose is known for its vast, vegetarian, pan-Indian menu stretching from Punjabi fried snacks to Bombay chaats and south-Indian dosa. It also has extensive Desi-Chinese options to go with the bottled condiments on the table (sriracha and that ketchup). Chilli paneer is enough to convince anyone that paneer only reaches its final form when aggressively stir fried until the edges crisp and caramelise, heaped high with onions and peppers. Hong Kong noodles — a spicier version of the ubiquitous Hakka noodles — comes with burnt chillis, crunchy vegetables and the kiss of the wok. Browse the entire menu for the carb-on-carb easter egg hidden in the south Indian section: a dosa needlessly and brilliantly stuffed with Hakka noodles.
Mumbai Junction Restaurant
Off a roundabout, in the no-man’s land between North Wembley and Sudbury, everything about Mumbai Junction is unexpected. Its cavernous interior, cheap beer and patterned carpet would suggest Wetherspoons, if not for the sports TVs, and an unusual menu straddling Indian and Indo-Chinese. During the day there is an empty bar with a skeleton menu of fried snacks: spring rolls, chilli mogo, (fried cassava Desi-Chinese style) and samosas; come in the evening and the place is rammed with locals. Ignore the serviceable, purebred Indian food and go straight for the specials: an excellent version of chilli paneer heavy on chillis, Szechuan noodles, and crisp fried okra. Supplement the order with some masala chips, fried and tossed in spices, and at least three pints to cut through the grease,
On the stretch of King’s Street between Hammersmith and Stamford Brook strangely blessed with good restaurants, Bombay Chow sets itself apart with two key distinguishers. One, the specials board, on which it’s sometimes possible to find a platonic ideal of salt and pepper lamb, as well as all the alternative colas — Thumbs Up, Double Seven — which flooded the market when Coca Cola withdrew from India in 1977. The other draw is the sizzler section, vivid with nostalgia, the menu promising “an old steam engine, sizzling and steaming and spluttering to a halt in front of you.” Order the triple Szechuan, a vast mound of fried rice, crispy noodles, sauce, gravy and a necessarily unnecessary fried egg.
Momo and Roti
This small cafe in Hounslow specialises in Nepalese and Tibetan food. Look closer, and yet again Indo-Chinese is on the menu. Owner Binod Baral noted Himalayan cuisine’s affinity with Indian/Chinese cooking, and decided to add Indo-Chinese to his repertoire to appeal to the tastes of Hounslow’s Indian community. It works. Chilli stir fries (lamb, chicken, paneer or tofu) can be ordered as they come; wrap up in roti to create cigar-shaped Desi-Chinese rolls. Manchow soup — the cornmeal thickened, spiced broth — is listed alongside Tibetan thukpa, and Hakka noodles cosy up to chow mein: the menu calls attention to intersection. Chicken lollipops with ‘nostalgic garlic, chilli sauce’ are meat flavoured pillows. The Nepalese and Tibetan cooking is also genuinely excellent: lesser-spotted festival dish khasi ko bhutan showcases the slippery, crunchy funk of goat intestine.
Hotpot sits on an empty expanse of Bath Road in west Hounslow, over which planes loom large. Unlike all the other places on this list, Hotpot does not try to dress up its food as anything other than takeaway fare, with prices around half of what could be expected at a sit down restaurant. Still, the cuisine is treated with respect, with comforting and generous versions of Szechuan fried rice — red with spices and prawns — chilli fish, and a Chinese take on the classic Chicken 65. The rest of the menu is a mix of the familiar Indo-British names (jalfrezi, madras, tikka masala) and genuinely good Hyderabadi dishes: a huge family pack of biryani is £15.95, value even beyond the reach of The Colonel.
Another Hounslow restaurant, Bombay Wok’s Twin Peaks-ish black and red colour palette looks and feels like a worn down version of Hakkaland. Still, the food is just as good, with the almost identical menu revealing the influence of Steven Lee’s expert hand. Manchow soup is generous with nuggets of prawns and crispy noodles, while kung pao potato with chilli and cashews is aloo gobi’s evil twin. Better still are the chicken lollipops, perfect to suck on before ordering a truly outrageous dessert of crispy noodles soaked in honey and served with ice cream.
Dalchini, a pan-Indian word for ‘cinnamon’, literally means ‘Chinese bark’ and it’s likely this was the first purely Indo-Chinese restaurant in London. Originally set up in the early 2000s by Udit Sarkhel and his wife Veronica Sarkhel to reflect their love of Indo-Chinese food, the restaurant remains in verdant Wimbledon Park but is now under new ownership. Udit was one of London’s foremost experts on Bengali cuisine until his death in 2012, and Veronica is herself Hakka Chinese, so it’s not a surprise that the food is still excellent despite the pair’s departure. Manchurian chicken is a textbook example, balanced between its Indian and Chinese ingredient palettes and not overly sweet. Instead of getting the egg fried rice to soak things up, try the burnt ginger rice — aromatic with all the charred, sticky pieces normally eaten by lazy chefs straight from the pan.
Spice n Ice Restaurant
One of the most unlikely hotel restaurants in the country, Spice ‘n’ Ice is attached to the South Park Hotel in Croydon and doubles up as a neon function room for large groups. Hakka fried chicken takes the Desi-Chinese flavour profile of spicy, sweet and salty and applies it to battered chicken: a deadly combination. Fish and seafood are also done particularly well: chow chu calamari showcases good frying technique, with a dusting of salt and chilli while Hakka chong yee is Bengali pomfret served with Cantonese style options of black bean sauce, garlic and chilli or ginger and wine. The other half of the menu is Indian with decent curries and biryanis: diners are recommended to try Just Eat’s novel advice and mix them to create something new.