When I moved to Chicago in the fall of 2014 with a pocketful of dreams and a tummy full of appetite, the last thing I thought I would miss was Chinese food. I wanted to try all the different food from all over the place. I spent my first quarter at school eating something new everyday, Turkish begendi, Polish peirogies, Mexican fajitas and of course American pancakes. There was SO much to try. I did not crave for Indian food till the first set of exams arrived! There are many Indian restaurants in and around Evanston and Chicago and I planned to try all of them. On my way to a nice little place called Mumbai Indian Grill, I mentally planned my dinner, Veg Manchurian for starter followed by Paneer Biryani. Or maybe I’ll just have a Triple Schezwan Rice. How greatly was fate going to crash my hopes!! On the menu there was no Manchurian, no Schezwan and there was an odd thing called Vindaloo that sounded like black magic. What on earth was Vindaloo and why the hell was there no Chinese food? I just ate really American bland Chicken Makhani “entree” and left hoping I would find real restaurant Indian food someplace else. Now, I know I was being unreasonable. Back in India the restaurants don’t say “Indian Food” because, well, for us it’s just food. And one restaurant usually has both desi and Chinese food because that’s the way it is! I was foolish to expect there to be chilly Paneer or Machurian on the menu.
So my next attempt was to try and find that food in the Chinese restaurants. People who’ve been living outside India for a while are now laughing in their heads at my naive expectations. Evanston has ton of lovely Chinese, Korean and Thai restaurants. Racist people like me think its all the same food. Well, it is not. And it definitely doesn’t include Veg Manchurian. I did eat some Schezwan food though. Nothing like the garlicky, red and salty version we eat in India. Was it better? I couldn’t say. Did it had to be sweetish? I wish not.
Just as I was adjusting my palate to the Chinese and Indian food here, calling Schezwan sauce as ‘hot sauce’ and Naan as ‘Naan bread’, my roommate found the perfect place to go for her birthday celebrations. An Indo-Chinese restaurant, Bombay Chopsticks, in a suburb, Schaumburg, thirty miles away. We did not have a car, there is no direct public transport, but off we went there in two Uber XLs. A giant group of nine people. When we saw the place and the menu we absolutely went berserk. We ordered everything our hearts desired. My roommate was paying so we ordered to our hearts’ content. My roommate, in her birthday euphoria combined with the bliss of seeing ‘real’ Chinese food went overboard and said “Let there be food!” Of course the bill was humungous and it hurt our eyes to look at it. My poor roommate was shocked and we all helped her with the bill. But was that a price too high to pay for the great food that we had? Maybe yes, because at the end of the day, we were all poor graduate students. We went home that day hoping our souls would be satisfied for at least a year.
But knowing that there was Desi-Chinese (I soon found out it was called this West of Quetta) thirty miles away from me made me even more restless. Exams were taxing and research wasn’t easy. If Dumbledore plonked the Mirror of Erised in front of me, I would see myself eating a plate of chilly chicken. Dark times. Then one day Susheel and I decided to go to Schaumburg and eat there as a gift to one another. We took the public transport for an hour and a half, trudged over the deserts for 7 days and waded across the frigid river for a week to reach the golden mountain. Not entirely true, but you get my point. We ate again at the restaurants. Turns out it wasn’t that great. Maybe our hopes were too high, maybe the euphoria of discovering a new place had worn off, whatever, the food wasn’t great. Heavy heart, lighter pockets, we came back home swearing we’ll never go chasing the golden deer again.
But hope is indefatigable. While planning my BFF vacation to Atlanta, GA with my childhood friend, I came across a bunch of Desi Chinese restaurants there. Hope blossomed in my heart again. We skipped going to Georgia Tech (another place that broke my heart by rejecting me) and went to this quaint restaurant called Chinese Dhaba. The name was perfect, the food not so much. I mean it wasn’t all bad, as you can see for yourself, we did enjoy there. But again my heart sought the food of my country (or my country’s neighbor)!
Finally, I had given up on finding good Desi Chinese food in the US. I used to follow instagram posts of people in India eating all the good stuff. I cried myself to sleep dreaming about Paneer 65 for several nights. I had sold my soul for a visa. This was my punishment. Then the answer came to me in my dream from an angel, it was actually my mom who taunted me over Skype one day, ” All these years you made me cook Chinese at home. And here you are spending millions trying to get to eat a plate of Manchurian.” Viola! I had the solution. The only way to enjoy Desi Chinese in the US is to make it yourself. I tried an failed several times before I could perfect that Schezwan fried rice. Weekends were mainly just chopping and julienning vegetables for the Hakka noodles. Even Susheel was hooked on to cooking Chinese at home. On Valentine’s day, we stayed at home and cooked a whole elaborate meal.
We had found happiness at last, and that too at the last place people would look for it, in our own homes. Our quest for the best Desi Chinese was finally over. Amen.
All images are my own