The Chinese have to be the most successful culinary colonisers the world has ever known. In Calcutta, we have been fortunate enough to have enjoyed an embarrassment of riches from that country for many decades. Once undoubtedly the capital of India for Chinese food, people began to think otherwise when families from here moved to (then) Bombay, Bangalore and Delhi and opened restaurants. The closure of places like NanKing off Central Avenue and Waldorf on Park Street suggested a passing of the 'good ol' Calcutta style of Cantonese Chinese cuisine'.
However, other cities never had a 'Chinatown', such as in Bowbazar or Tangra, so to my mind there was never any question of a shift of capital. A slight decline in our own scenario, yes, and a rush of new Chinese eateries in other cities, yes, but if you knew where to look and go, Calcutta could always offer you a wealth of good Chinese cuisine, old and new. Eau Chew, on Ganesh Chandra Avenue, for example, has existed since the 1930s, serves up the very best Chimney Soup and if you order in advance and have a chat about the menu, they can still do themselves and everyone else proud.
Tangra restaurants since the 80s and a favourite haunt, New Cathay, next to The Oberoi Grand, where the Chinese Mixed Soup is worth walking miles for, not to mention many other temptations.
And then, of course, the minor revolution that has brought in the New Calcutta Oriental Cuisine in the wake of the boom in the food industry over the last eight or 10 years.
Szechwanese and Hunan styles appearing, Thai food growing in popularity and a growing awareness has led to Lung Fung Soup, Lat Me Kai, Dim Sum of several kinds, Kongee Crispy Lamb, Tom Yam Soup and dishes involving black bean sauce, oyster sauce and hoi sin sauce becoming certainties on every Chinese or Oriental menu from Salt Lake to Dhakuria to New Alipore. Chefs who worked with large establishments where they got a pedigreed training and experience, have joined many of the smaller restaurants, raising benchmarks across the city.
Just such a place is Spices and Sauces, at 28/1D, Gariahat Road (actually a stone's throw from the Dhakuria flyover), where they serve Chinese and Indian food. Perhaps 3 pm on a hot Sunday is not the best time to visit a place, because some of the items were not available, but there was no choice in the matter.
Lunchtime guests had left; I was the only customer. Indian or Chinese' Considering the getting into bed in the wee small hours after two separate performances the previous night and the heat and the humidity outside, I decided Chinese.
Unfortunately there was no crab or pomfret available because I wanted to try the Crab Sweet Corn Soup and, for the main course, Whole Pomfret Tsing-Tu Style. So for the soup it was Seafood Coriander Soup, for starters there was Pan Fried Chilli Fish, and for the main course I chose Shredded Lamb Hong Kong Style accompanied by Singapore Rice Noodles (vegetarian).
The Pan Fried Chilli Fish is a good starter. They serve it with a hot garlic sauce if you want, and although the fish is marinated in an egg-cornflour-oil and refined flour mixture and then again coated in another batter, the coating is very light, and does not smother the fish, which is tossed with chopped onions, carrots, celery, ginger and chilli. If you have this with the garlic sauce, it works as a main course dish as well.
The Seafood Coriander Soup did not quite hit the spot, though it was palatable enough. I thought that the stock was a little weak and watery; the prawns (the only seafood used) were chopped too fine and there weren't enough of them. The soup has egg-drop in it, and is finished with a dash of rice wine.
There was a mix-up in the kitchen and my Hong Kong Style Lamb appeared as Shredded Lamb Chilli Garlic, which is a more elaborate preparation. They made up for it later, though, so I got to try both items, in which the lamb is tenderised (just right) with raw papaya juice and marinated in egg, cornflour, oil, white pepper and salt. It is cooked in oil on a slow fire, and in the Hong Kong version it is tossed with bamboo shoots, sliced ginger, garlic and red chilli and finished with wine and sesame oil.
The Chilli Garlic version involves a hot garlic sauce in which ketchup, malt vinegar, light and dark soya, chilli paste and, of course, garlic, are used. The dish is served with stir-fried shredded onions, capsicum, bean sprouts and shredded ginger, chilli and celery.
Both these lamb preparations deserve good marks. The papaya juice has not been overused to the point of breaking down the tissue; the meat is soft but something to chew on and though they lean a bit strongly on condiments overall, perhaps to please the Bengali ' or Indian ' palate, the raw materials and ingredients are fresh and the food has quality.
I liked the Singapore Rice Noodles as well. They use curry powder and a dash of turmeric, which is completely authentic. Perhaps this is a manifestation of the fact that people from our subcontinent have lived there for generations, but this popular dish has worked its way up the Malay peninsula to become an integral part of Chinese cuisine. I have it on the highest authority that there are street food places in Shanghai where they also use curry powder, made in Calcutta!
Two interesting things about S and S. For some items, the cooking medium itself is a flavoured one. Oil is heated with ingredients in it, then strained, cooled and then used for cooking.
Also, you can ask for chilli oil, which they make, and which adds a kick to just about any dish. They put a combination of chopped onions, ginger, garlic and celery and chilli paste and cook this very slowly, for one to two hours, in oil. When cooled, just a few drops will add a warm glow to whatever item you choose.
Being greedy, I had to have a taste of some of their Indian preparations so I asked for a few to be packed. Fish Tikka Masala, Gosht Hyderabadi and Dal Makhni made for a robust and tasty dinner, along with tandoori rotis and salad.
At this compact, 58-seater eatery, they have chosen an apt name for themselves.