A mouthful of history

For the love of food
Last Updated 16 July 2010, 14:55 IST

It’s the sort of building that seems to be crying out for an immediate facelift. Tucked away behind a petrol station on a particularly busy street in central Kolkata, fed on angry fumes from a never-ending stream of traffic all day long, it is like any other unsightly edifice in the neighbourhood, but for the non-fussy signboard that announces the presence of ‘Eau Chew Restaurant’ in its recesses lined mostly with offices.

But there’s nothing to advertise the fact that this joint is one of cosmopolitan Kolkata’s oldest and most doughty totems: It is the city’s oldest surviving Chinese restaurant. And among the country’s oldest too.

Reiterating Darwin’s Theory about the survival of the fittest, however, Eau Chew has outlived other erstwhile worthies in the city such as How Hua and Nanking, on the strength of the largely unaltered quality of the food that it serves. No one who has partaken of a pot of chimney soup at this eatery would have ever forgotten its goodness and wonderful flavour. It never disappoints. With burning coal placed underneath the pot to keep the soup piping hot as the steam is allowed to escape from a chimney that gives this famed dish its name, it is a delicacy to savour and return to every now and then. And gourmet Kolkata has always gone back to the clear soup that has chunks of meat and seafood among vegetables and noodles swimming in it with a great deal of appetite, which is a given when you are going for this particular order. 

The consistency in quality of food at Eau Chew is easily explained. The same deft hands prepare the food every day.  “My son, Joel, and I man the kitchen. We’ve never let a hired cook into it in the history of the restaurant,” says Josephine Huang, the owner of the eatery since the untimely death of her husband, Joseph, in February this year.

For someone who started her life as a hairdresser, Josephine learnt the tricks of her husband’s family trade fast enough. “I’ve been cooking for our clients ever since I got married 34 years back,” says Josephine. She began by helping her husband in the kitchen. She got so good at her job that one of her innovations, a gem named after her, remains one of the stars on the menu. Josephine’s Noodles, a meal in itself, is a delicious affair that combines vegetables, meats and prawns in a light gravy poured onto the noodles and served hot. There is also a traditional steamed-rice-with-vegetables-and-meat dish (“It is much like what is eaten at Chinese homes,” volunteers Jennifer, Josephine’s daughter who handles the counter and is often seen emerging from the kitchen laden with plates and pots which she places on the tables for clients to dig into) that is filling, wholesome and flavourful, all at the same time.

The menu at Eau Chew is simple. “The Chinese eat light. Grease and spices are never a part of the cuisine,” says Josephine who is as good as her word when it comes to the food that comes out of her kitchen.  “And ajinomoto is never used,” she says with the air of someone who compares the popular ‘Chinese food seasoning’ with a deadly poison and finds the latter less destructive.

And so, whether it is the fish in black bean sauce, or the roast chilli pork, cooking and seasoning are kept to a bare minimum, letting the ingredients retain their original flavours and tastes. “Indian food is often overcooked while the Chinese like their vegetables crunchy and meats chewy,” says Josephine. She ought to know, for the rotund, efficient, ever-smiling restaurateur prefers to serve rice, dal and curries made the Indian way at home.

It is obviously not of any significance to the family that they have never had a first-hand experience of China. It was Achumpa Huang, Joel and Jennifer’s great-great grandfather who arrived from China and set up the restaurant in the early part of the 20th century, discerning an emerging taste for a cuisine that would, with appropriate tweaks, reign Indian palates for a century and more. None of his progeny ever visited the land of his birth again. 

And of course it is no matter that the authenticity of the Chinese cuisine served here, as indeed, in other similar joints elsewhere in the country, is a somewhat watered down version of the real thing. Several brushes with the curry-loving Indian palate have made it necessary to add cornstarch and deep fry stuff as per clients’ tastes rather than the dictates of the mother recipes.

“But our food is as close as you can get to the original Chinese food,” maintains Josephine. And all innovations stick to its basic rules, she adds. Food it is, no doubt, that keeps Eau Chew ticking. Décor is too fancy a word for its non-fussy first-floor interior with sunmica-topped tables, straight-backed chairs and Chinese lanterns and a few paintings for embellishment. Renovated last in 1992 when it was cleared of the partition walls that had divided the space into cabins, it has pretty much remained the same over the past three decades. 
If food is the only way into a man’s heart, Eau Chew sure has built an enormous expressway into Kolkata’s.

It could well be celebrated as one of the last symbols of the city’s celebrated cosmopolitanism.

(Published 16 July 2010, 14:55 IST)

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