He slices vegetables meticulously and then places it on slices of margarine-slathered bread; potato first – to hold the base. Three slices of onion go in next – followed by four of cucumber and four paper thin slices of tomato right on top of it – the most expensive product in this particular lot. He then fishes out a bit of julienned carrots from within his transparent vegetable carrier, ensuring with a quick glance that he’s not running out, and then tops the mass of vegetables with some seasoning and a sprinkle of cilantro. An egg is expertly peeled, sliced, placed on top of this rather alarming heap that threatens to topple and slide at any moment, and then, a cloud of shredded processed cheese covers everything. He then places the second slice of greased bread, and expertly puts it inside the hot grill, compressing the vegetables into a rather normal-looking sandwich, and fishes out the one he had placed before. He cuts this into four slices before putting it on a paper plate, removes one slice to make space for ketchup and chilli sauce and hands it to me. Ignoring the ketchup, the sandwich is dipped into the green chilli sauce, and the result is deeply satisfying – the hot, sour, salty kick of the green chillies followed swiftly by the crunch from the vegetables and the bread and the cheese-laden egg.
Like many other things unique to Kolkata’s Chinatown, the Green Chilli Sauce is something many people from the 80s had grown up eating, but they never paused to think why out-of-town friends would beg them to courier them bottles of the hot stuff, or why, when someone would try to find it in a Chinese market, they would be pointed towards bottles or chilli bean paste, chilli oil, or told that it is decidedly something they do not know about! In my numerous visits to South East Asia, no condiment came close to the Kolkata Chilli sauce – the closest was perhaps Ssamjang, a Korean dipping sauce with black beans in it, and the garlic chilli sauce that is served with a Hainanese chicken rice. You’re probably thinking that Sriracha might be a good competitor here, and you might have been right, except the fact that there’s way too much sweetness in it that really plays up the garlic quotient, whereas in the Kolkata-style chilli sauce, its more about the hot chilli, and the people who made it really knew how to make a version that would be perched precariously, a finely balanced condiment perfectly suited to the Bengali palate.
Brewing the Perfect Chilli Sauce
In the 1950s, when Janice Lee’s grandfather, Lee Shih Chuan, was struggling to grapple with the Kolkata’s food market and stay on top of his sauce-making game, he was unable to find many takers for the Chinese black bean and chilli oil sauce. After getting chiefly negative reviews from the Kolkata clientele, who neither liked the oiliness nor the strange taste, he decided to create something that would be more easily acceptable to the local taste buds, and, after numerous hits and misses, a greenish condiment made its appearance, a forerunner of the Kolkata-style chilli sauce. The texture – which was chiefly chilli-based at first, slowly switched its profile from being too runny, or too thick, to a pourable, ketchup-like consistency, to suit the palate of those who didn’t like the sweetness of tomatoes, and weren’t too fond of the pungency of the mustard, but was a rather interesting accompaniment to deep fried goods. The fact was – overly sweet or salty sauces, with strange texture and colour, were rarely accepted with open arms, and that led to the then-owner of Pou Chong sauces to make a hot and sour sauce that would be perfect for heat seekers. Thus was born a unique Bengali condiment that broke the confines of Chinatown and went places.
Janice, the spokesperson for Pou Chong Sauces, noted that when the sauce was first introduced, it would be available for sale by the spoonful. One large spoon would cost an anna or so at that point. Janice’s grandfather would ask cucumber sellers to spread it on top of freshly quartered cucumbers and serve it to their customers as an alternate option to rock salt (beetnoon in Bengali). But the sauce didn’t really make a huge mark until the middle of the 1980s, and that is for a rather strange and interesting reason.
The Rise of Fast Food
The 1980s saw Kolkata becoming one of most populous cities of India, and the rise of real estate resulted in the expansion of the city towards different directions, where cooperative houses, flats and multi-storied apartment buildings started cropping up with an alarming frequency. With the government’s efforts to reduce population and the rise of nuclear families, where both parents were working to make ends meet, people started to go out more, spending more time outside their houses. This resulted in the growth of purchasers of street food. The sudden requirement was noticed by many, and soon enough, small roadside eateries started to pop up, chiefly consisting of a movable kiosk (often with wheels attached at the bottom that would facilitate mobility). Despite various choices available, the two typical dishes that exploded into the scene were chicken or egg rolls and chow mien. Now, this was chiefly because both these items could be made on a flat tawa that could be lit easily with the aid of a kerosene burner, didn’t need as much inventory investment as its deep fried counterparts like the cutlets and chops, and were then considered to be nouvelle cuisine by the average Kolkatan. It was a quick fix that would ideally not give them heartburn, and would come with a ‘salad’, a healthy addition to an otherwise unhealthy plate of chow mien or jazz up an eggy paratha by making it into a roll. To flavor the otherwise bland combination of chopped cucumber and onions, ketchup and chilli sauce would be drizzled on generously in these smaller kiosks, and soon enough, there were consumers who were asking for this addition in more obdurate establishments that had so far maintained a strict adherence to seasoning the roll only with a sprinkle of lime juice.
The other reason that was perhaps very pertinent was the introduction of Maggi, an instant ramen-style noodle that claimed to be ready within two minutes, and would be thus considered as “fast” food, and perhaps was the first point of introduction for many to the world of Chinese cuisine. Maggi experimented with flavors at first, with interesting combinations like Capsicum, Curry, and Sweet and Sour, before settling down to dole out chiefly two flavors: Chicken and Masala. This was the time when Maggi was not only cooked on its own, but was also mixed with vegetables and condiments to increase and diversify its flavor quotient. Chilli sauce was a major contributor in upping the ante here.
As channels started to get added to Indian television (DD 2, and later, DD Metro), it slowly grew into becoming a source of entertainment that homemakers were reluctant to miss out on. With the introduction of cable television, a whole new world of entertainment was unleashed. This further intensified the need to quickly finish kitchen duties to finish their work before sitting to see the next episode of a television serial, generally only broadcasted once. An expert homemaker would invest in blenders to quicken the chopping and grinding process, armed with recipes for healthy tiffin, and add bottled sauces to mask the otherwise bland taste and multiple errors in quickly prepared meals.
The rising popularity of the egg as a cheap and filling protein source may also be seen as a major reason for the growth of Chilli sauce. Along with ketchup, chilli sauce would be added to customize the final product according to the customer who purchased an egg roll or chow mien and wanted an extra hit of heat. Pou Chong’s sauce was, by then, copied by generic brands, who would add their own twist to it to play with its density and flavor quotient. It would be often served alongside another popular Bengali breakfast or snack, also called a jolkhabar, the savory French toast, where eggs spiked with onion and chillies would coat slices of bread before being fried in hot oil.
In time, Pou Chong came up with a number of variations of the Kolkata Chilli sauce – the red chilli sauce came in late but was embraced by the restaurants of Tangra, the new Chinatown, where it was served on tables and in takeaway packets. However, failed to match up to the popularity of the Kolkata Green Chilli sauce, which still rules the roost and graces countless counters across the globe today.
Chilli Sauce can be used in many forms, but a perennial favorite is a version that goes into an old-school fried chicken recipe that has been a Kolkata Chinese staple. This is often tossed into a sweet and sour sauce, but I prefer the version I grew up eating in Chinatown, served with a half of lime on the side and a small bowl of green chilli sauce.
Drums of Heaven Recipe
- 16 chicken drumsticks (generally, we
- 2 tablespoon chilli sauce
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon garlic paste
- 1 teaspoon ginger paste
- 1 tablespoon corn flour
- 2 tablespoon rice flour
- 1/8th teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon white pepper powder
- 1 egg
- A pinch of MSG (optional)
- Salt to taste
- Oil to fry
- 1 lime, cut in half
- Chilli sauce (to serve with)
1. Mix together the chilli sauce, lemon juice, dark soy sauce, ginger garlic paste, rice flour, corn flour, MSG, white pepper powder, baking soda, salt and the egg. Mix this thoroughly with the chicken pieces and let it rest for 30-40 minutes.
2. In a pan, heat enough oil to deep fry the chicken. Carefully, put the chicken pieces in, one piece at a time, so that the pieces don’t end up sticking together. Cook over medium-low heat till the chicken pieces are cooked through, about 8-9 minutes. Remove and repeat with the remaining chicken drumsticks.
3. Once all of the chicken is fried, crank up the heat to a high and deep fry the chicken once more till the chicken is crispy and brown, about 1-2 minutes. Serve with wedges of lime or some chilli sauce.
About Poorna BanerjeePoorna Banerjee is a food writer, restaurant critic and social media strategist and runs a blog Presented by P for the last ten years where she writes about the food she eats and cooks, the places she visits, and the things she finds of interest. She is deeply interested in culinary anthropology, and food history and loves books, music, travelling, and a glass of wine, in that order.