The Sauce Wars: Competing for the most-authentic tag
We turn to the customers. A middle-aged man keeps referring to a handwritten list. He is Surinder Jha, who works at a hotel in Hazaribagh. An elderly woman, Christine Lee, walks out of the shop with a bag full of condiments. It is for a cousin from Australia, she informs excitedly. “She is visiting Calcutta for the first time and wants to take these back with her.” She has bought the manchurian chilli, oyster, and red and green capsico sauce.
And how are the sauces here different from those on sale at the other famous sauce shop in the locality? The shop assistant parrots, “We are the best. Whoever comes to us will not venture into any other sauce shop.”
Pou Chong came up four years after Sing Cheung. In recent times, its owner Dominic Lee has been featured in Canadian chef David Rocco’s television show, Dolce India.
Rocco is a big guy. We are expecting razzmatazz and snootiness. This place, however, turns out to be more human, less busy — at that moment at least. The Chinese woman at the counter greets, “Namaste, Madam.”
There are no customers except for a man who is here to buy fruit crush; yes, they stock those too.
He finally settles for aam panna. Seeing our amused expressions, the woman from the counter asks us to taste their specialities. A few drops of pudina chutney, Thai chilli sauce and momo sauce on wooden ice cream spoons. She is not taking no for an answer. And, she is studying our expression intently. The pudina chutney is, well, like pudina chutney — just thicker. The momo sauce, just like momo sauce. But the Thai chilli is a deceptive thing, opens on a sweet note with the chilli kick coming in right at the end.
Unlike Sing Cheung, conversations have replaced brochures at this shop. A man in a red tee senses our confusion and starts to rattle off more options — garlic chilli, tomato chilli, no-onion no-garlic — yes, there is such a thing — and kasundi. We wait for him to catch his breath and then ask, “Isn’t there another shop around here that also sells sauces and is, in fact, more famous?” Without batting so much as an eyelid he says, “Famous toh humlog bhi hain.”
Lu Shun Sarani in central Calcutta is one saucy lane. On either side of it are two Chinese sauce shops — Pou Chong and Sing Cheung — and between them, an ongoing tussle for the tag of the most-authentic.
Sing Cheung is the older of the two, by four years.
It has been many months since the Chinese New Year, but time seems to have stopped here. There are Chinese lanterns and scarlet wall hangings all over the place. A tangy smell clings to the air and the place is bustling with customers, staff and barrels.
Yes, barrels. Plastic ones, almost 50 in all, inside the shop and outside it. White ones with orange or green caps — some empty, some full. It takes us a while to understand that these contain sauces — tomato chilli, garlic chilli, momo, capchico (red and green), coriander chilli, chilli vinegar, black bean, oyster, varieties of soyabean — No. 1 Dark, C Light, A Light and even an all-in-one sauce.
One of the staff says, “Here we sell sauces by the kilo.” Locals, apparently, come with their containers and buy the sauces off the barrels, instead of buying whole bottles. It works out cheaper.
At the centre of the room is a wooden counter and on it, a couple of brochures that mention the range of sauces and items sold. A bespectacled bald man is sitting behind the counter and barking orders — Ye karlo. Yahaan dhyaan do. Inka kitna bill hua? He doesn’t have a moment to spare. Time is sauce, sauce is money.
“We cater to restaurants and the locals. All the Chinese restaurants in and around the city use our sauces. We sell authentic Chinese condiments,” he says after much prodding. And what does he mean by authentic? Silence, and then: “That information you will get only at our factory in Topsia.” He turns away to make it clear that he is not going to entertain any more questions.