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October 25, 1999
Fare For The Desi Dragon
Shubada Deshpande in New Jersey
Leo Liao's restaurant, Szechuan Garden in New Jersey, has been around for 15 years. But last summer, patrons found it had brought something new into their culinary lexicon.
"Why is it called American Chopsuey, they ask me,'' he recalls laughing.
However the sweet and sour tomato-based chopsuey, with omelette strips as garnish delighted his Indian patrons who are all too familiar with this Indo-Chinese medley.
Born and brought up in Calcutta, Liao got his first rush as a young chef stirring up orders in the various Chinese restaurants in the city.
"Later I worked for the Great Eastern Hotel in Calcutta and the Oberoi's in New Delhi," he says. "Imagine my shock when I came to the US where I discovered for the first time that what I had been cooking all along is so different from the Chinese cuisine here.''
While he didn't forget the desi Chinese, Liao had to learn the tricks of the trade for the American market.
In fact, when he did start his own restaurant in Parlin, New Jersey his menu consisted of solely Chinese dishes. Some of his Indian patrons persuaded him to stir up some old favorites peculiar to the Indian palate.
Between bowls of steaming Chili Chicken and Veggie Manchurian, the Indian Chinese Menu was created and Liao had to put up a new board enticing Indian patrons and challenging the adventurous among the mainstream community.
While he still serves the usual Chinese staple, the buzz has gone around the desi community about the 'new and improved' menu.
"Indian Chinese cuisine involves a different cooking style. We use a lot of red and green chilies, coriander, pepper corn and garam masala. The end result has got to be spicier dish with a heavy flavor. American Chinese has milder flavors, bordering on the sweet," he says.
While his two assistants are well versed with the standard Chinese fare, they leave it to him to deal with orders of Veg Pakoras with sweet sour sauce.
How does he go about getting the ingredients.
"Earlier I had made regular trips to the Indian grocery stores in Iselin (about 20 minutes drive away), but now I have a Patel store in the same mall, so we are well-stocked,'' he says.
He says the response has been mixed. While the restaurant's new board declaring its Indian Chinese status has got the desis clamoring for more, American patrons enter with trepidation.
"I have to explain to them that only some dishes are spicy and that I am continuing to serve the regular fare, like before," he says.
"My Chinese clients find it very strange. We didn't know our food could be made this way also, they tell me.'' says Liao. "But my sensitive clients, they have probably run away thinking that the ownership has changed."
The Szechuan Garden is located at 499 Ernston Road, Parlin, NJ 08859 732-727-6620.
Two hot 'Indo-Chinese' recipes
1 lb boneless chicken
Cut the chicken into 3/4 inch pieces. Heat two tablespoons oil and stir-fry chicken for about five minutes and set aside. Next, stir fry onion, ginger and chili in a tablespoon of oil for about two minutes, then add water and soy sauce. Add chicken and cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes, stirring constantly, sprinkling some water if necessary. When ready, add pepper, salt and serve.
Stir-fry the garlic in two tablespoons of oil for a minute, then add vegetables and stir-fry for three minutes, stirring well. Add water and ketchup, followed by sugar and salt. Then add starch. Deep fry noodles in four cups of oil until they turn crisp. When ready to serve, pour the vegetables on top of noodles. Fry the egg in part of any remaining oil and serve on top. You may want to use several eggs.
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