Chicken Tikka Masala, the Foreign Press Corps and ‘Chinese’ Food

by Reno Ong

HONG KONG—One of the supposed perks of being a journalist in Hong Kong is membership at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC), an establishment equipped with two bars and a couple of restaurants specializing in Chinese and Western cuisine — all housed in a red-brick building with the equally old-school interior.

There, members of the city’s press corps do what they love and do best after work — that is, talk about work. I say supposed perks because, by and large, people seem to be torn about the place. Sure, it’s a bit of a tradition — barely a journo comes through town without making the rounds both in the physical and inebriated sense. Every now and then you come across legends in the field: the woman who broke the news of World War II (yes, that would be the German invasion of Poland), or the guy who suddenly drops a line like “during the Tet Offensive” in the middle of a casual conversation. And with the newspaper and magazine covers of yore up on the walls, it really is a veritable wonderland for journalists. (Oh, and the booze is cheap.)

But all the journo talk can be tiring; you do get sucked into that world fairly quickly if you’re not careful. I know people who profess to suffer fatigue from all the talking about how journalism is dying and the layoffs and the coverage people are doing around Southeast Asia and, dude, did you hear so-and-so is heading to Burma? That place is so happening right now. My friends complain about Western myopia in foreign coverage, and the FCC is where that myopia is given voice, with foreign correspondents coming to surround themselves with other people from the outside looking in.

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The FCC, the journalist’s home away from home.

The second issue with the FCC is the food. (There are indeed bigger issues, but as the discussion will show later on, this is a key aspect to bring up.) The drinks are bang for your buck, sure, but the food isn’t what you would call stellar. I would, for instance, caution guests from anything that has the risk of overcooking. Telling the waitstaff you want something bloody rare still means the end product will resemble some sort of jerky.

I’m told the culinary offerings used to be better. The establishment was an embassy of sorts, where the expatriate can avail of food like steak and seafood done the white-linen way. The black-and-white photos hung up on the walls give the impression that it used to be a place where members could escape to a sense of “Occidental civility” — or at least what’s comfortable to the homesick correspondent.

Today’s FCC menu, fittingly enough, includes a dependable “Indian” food section. Foremost among the dishes listed is the chicken tikka masala, which the kitchen admittedly does fairly well. To the unacquainted, chicken tikka masala isn’t exactly Indian food. A mild curry commonly mixed with tomato and cream elements, its actual origins remain disputed. While components are definitely of South Asian extraction — you can get tikka and masala separately — the dish itself doesn’t in fact exist in the region’s culinary tradition.

Today, it is most widely eaten in Britain, whose colonial imperium of past was largely the force behind the tikka masala’s formulation. U.K.’s late foreign secretary Robin Cook once declared it “a true British national dish” that illustrates how Britain absorbs and changes outside influences: “Chicken tikka is an Indian dish. The masala sauce was added to satisfy the desire of British people to have their meat served in gravy.”

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Chicken tikka masala — not quite Indian food, but close enough?

Chicken tikka masala, like the FCC, has a whiff of empire. The invention of the dish was predicated on adapting “ethnic foods” for the mainstream consumer — in this case, the general British palate. It epitomizes how cuisine brought in by immigrants gets molded to suit foreign sensibilities. The British say they “go for an Indian” (satirized so well here) and the Americans “go for Chinese.” There’s a Western desire for the exotic, but nothing too out of bounds of everyday fare.

In the U.S., this targeting in Chinese cuisine is all too common. For instance, kung pao chicken, mapo tofu and fried-rice dishes are a far cry from their original forms in the regions from which they hail. They are often more punctuated in dull primary tastes like sweetness and saltiness and tinged with starch in an attempt to replicate dishes’ consistency. For the most part they’re also devoid of secondary flavors brought on by ingredients not easily found in the States. Then there are offerings like orange, cashew and General Tso’s chicken (for some reason, chicken lends itself to invention) that don’t actually exist in the home country, and are aimed specifically at a foreign audience.

Those used to consuming this sort of “Chinese” food are likely to be in for a shock, should they come across the real deal. The Sichuan menu isn’t merely limited to blunt spice, but often includes hints of ma la, a numbing sensation that comes from peppers native to the region. In Xiamen, a dish of sand worms suspended in gelatin, often served with large hunks of flavorless octopus tentacles, remains everyday fare, but it’s highly improbable that you would come across this at a Chinatown in the U.S., let alone an establishment like P.F. Chang’s.

By and large, then, Chinatown isn’t an area where you should expect to have an authentic experience with Chinese cuisine, nor is the FCC a place where you should expect strictly authentic Indian food. Both serve as a bastion of comfort: the expatriate’s home away from home, a collective of those viewing local culture through foreign eyes. They are valued because of social context: islands of difference in seas of homogeneity. These places, after all, exist to indulge nostalgia both real and concocted — which suggests a negatory to the ever present question of whether something needs to be authentic to be worthwhile.

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