For most Indians, their love affair with Chinese food started with some “vague improvisation” of Hakka Noodles. That “vague improvisation”, was probably at a roadside van, shack or a hole in the wall restaurant, run by someone with equally “vague oriental” features- usually a displaced Tibetan or a hard-working Nepali. Veg Chowmein became the official name for all varieties of refined flour noodles made with Ajinomoto. It was tossed with vegetables and served with red chilli sauce, tomato sauce, soya sauce, green chilli sauce and green chillies in vinegar. The popularity of Veg Chowmein started gaining speed in the early 1990s and its growth kind of mapped the Indian economy’s bull run which lasted for over twenty years. For Indian’s in many parts of India, Veg Chowmein became the first non traditional food they ever had.
Over a period of time, a section of Veg Chowmein lovers started discovering other Chinese dishes and a few Chinese Chefs from Singapore and Hong Kong started landing in India. Of course they were forced to sample Indian Chinese and “create something authentic’ which can work with Indian gourmets and their grandchildren. Veg Chowmein acquired its Chinese avatar and started showing up as Veg Hakka Noodles at 5x to 10x prices of Veg Chowmein. Veg Hakka Noodles, prepared well and presented well were still served with sauces. However, green chilli sauce and tomato sauce were replaced with hot garlic sauce, the other three sauces of course survived in fancier bowls.
The smarter amongst the shacks, the vans and the holes in the wall restaurants realized an opportunity to increase their prices and today many of them don’t serve Veg Chowmein any more and so you have to pay for Veg Hakka Noodles instead. I had the pleasure of dinning with a Chinese couple at a few upmarket Chinese Restaurants in Delhi and Mumbai and you would be surprised that they actually said WOW! They, of course didn’t consider it “authentic Chinese”, but they were impressed with the improvisation and loved the flavourful feel to them. Enjoy!