Manchuria is the region of northeastern China that today covers the provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning. But if you think this is where your favorite Manchurian chicken comes from, you couldn’t be more wrong. In fact, inhabitants of Manchuria probably don’t even know about the existence of such a dish! So where was the Chicken manchurian invented? Read on to find out.
The origin of chicken manchurian
In the year 1975, a young 25 year old Nelson Wang was working at the prestigious Cricket Club of India, catering Chinese food. He had moved to Bombay a year earlier from Calcutta, chasing dreams of becoming a chef. Indians’ love affair with Chinese food, at least the Chindian variety is well known, and a customer at CCI famously asked Mr. Wang to cook up something unique, a dish that went beyond the menu. Nelson took up the challenge, and in what may be described as a stroke of genius or sheer luck, created the now legendary Chicken Manchurian.
Wang’s invention was essentially chicken pakodas in gravy – corn flour coated seasoned boneless chicken chunks deep fried and dunked into a sauce made with aromatics like ginger, garlic and green chilly in a soy sauce base. The ingredients were essentially Indian and could have formed the base of any North Indian gravy, but Wang favored soya sauce and cornflour slurry over garam masala and thus was born a completely new dish. The dish was loved more than Nelson Wang could have imagined and the young chef shot to fame in no time at all. It encouraged him to start his own restaurant, China Garden, Bombay’s original Indian-Chinese restaurant. China Garden was frequented by the who’s who of the city, including Bollywood’s first family, the Kapoors.
A dish reinvented
In a long line of items on any Indo-Chinese restaurant menu, the popularity of the chicken manchurian remains unchallenged. In relatively recent years, Indians may have started ordering some of the newer entrants to Chinese restaurant menus; dishes such as Singapore chicken or Kung pao chicken. But chicken manchurian with a simple egg fried rice or hakka noodles still hits the spot in a way that nothing else does. It is Chindian comfort food at its best and is still one of the highest ordered items at Chinese restaurants.
Over time, chicken manchurian appeared in various avatars. While Nelson Wang’s original recipe was a gravy dish, ‘chicken manchurian dry’ soon showed up on the appetizer section of Chinese menus. It is the same deep fried chicken cubes, but gently tossed in soy, rather than dunked in the cornflour heavy gravy of the original. Prawn manchurian and fish manchurian were introduced on menus too, for variety. Chicken manchurian noodles, a one-plate budget dish made its way to college canteens as did Chicken manchurian soup and manchurian rolls, nothing but chicken manchurian bites stuffed into pillow-soft bread rolls.
The dish even inspired vegetarian variants to appeal to India’s primarily vegetarian population. From the legendary chef Sanjeev Kapoor to Nisha Madhulika, one of the big names in Indian vegetarian cooking, recipes for veg manchurian started appearing in cookbooks. The vegetarian version of the dish firmly established its presence in two forms – veg manchurian and gobi manchurian. Veg manchurian is made with mixed finely chopped vegetables like cabbage, carrot, capsicum bound together with cornflour and formed into tightly packed balls, ready to be fried in a cauldron of hot oil. After frying, the balls are then dunked into a sauce made with the same ‘tadka’ ingredients of garlic, ginger, green chilly, with soy sauce and a cornflour slurry. Coriander leaves or dhania patta garnish both the non veg and veg versions to give it the ultimate desi touch.
In hip bars and Chinese restaurants where clientele are looking for familiar flavors with a touch of new, manchurian baos have become a thing. So popular is the chicken manchurian that some small restaurants have been named after the legendary dish.
A dish can be considered to have truly ‘arrived’ though, when it makes it to the streets and chicken manchurian did not fail the test. Everyone has a favorite neighborhood Chinese street cart that serves up generous bowlfuls of steaming hot chicken manchurian with a mountain of strikingly red schezwan rice or noodles on the side. ‘Chinese Rasta’ as it’s popularly called is a whole different mood.
A generous amount of cheap cooking oil is poured into extra large steel woks sitting above a roaring flame. Veg manchurian is more commonly found on street carts and the manchurian balls are prepped in advance for convenience. As the oil reaches smoking point, everything is tossed together and served up in minutes. Greasy and soul satisfying.
Chicken or veg manchurian is best enjoyed on a thunderous monsoon evening, on the pavement, sharing a plate one-by-two under a street vendor’s single half broken umbrella. If you choose takeaway, you’ll hear the words ‘parcel’ shouted over the din of blaring car horns as a ‘chotu’ at the stall fills out cheap plastic bags to the brim with the MSG-laden gravy and heaped portions of regular or schezwan fried rice or noodles.
How to make the perfect chicken manchurian
While there are recipes galore on how to make the perfect chicken manchurian, there are a few secret tips to get that restaurant-style taste you’re after. First, make sure to do your prep in advance. Ensure your condiments are within easy reach, your vegetables cut and your chicken cubes seasoned. This is because Chinese cooking is quick. Next, make sure your oil is very hot – smoking in fact. Toasted sesame oil is highly fragrant and an excellent choice for Chinese cooking that can elevate your dish, without you having to do much else. Your extra hot oil will give your vegetables – the onion and capsicum cubes – those crisp, charred edges that you love. This is also not the time to skimp on oil. Save your diet for another day. Finally, remember to use super fresh cilantro and add it right at the end for that perfect desi touch.