The Manchurian (Cauliflower) Candidate

Michael Nagrant / 11.15.17

I’m guessing you’ve figured out that General Tso’s chicken isn’t quite an authentic Chinese dish. On the other hand, if I’ve blown your mind and ruined your childhood with this declaration, I apologize. The dish was thought to have been invented in America in New York at Peng’s on E.44th by the Chinese-born chef Peng Chang-kuei in 1973. According the excellent book “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles” by Jennifer Lee, Peng moved back to China and opened a restaurant in Hunan province in the 1990s that served General Tso’s, but the restaurant closed because native Chinese found it too sweet.

It turns out a lot of the stuff you eat at many American Chinese restaurants, like almond chicken or chop suey, is a hybrid, usually inspired by authentic regional Cantonese cooking, but generally augmented by a ton of sugar, salt, and American ingredients. This is sort of emblematic of the history of cuisine, which is to say cooking has generally evolved as immigrants nostalgic for the flavors of their homeland, but unable to procure native ingredients, and possessing of new local influences of their adopted country, create something new.

The same thing happened in India in the late 1800s and early 1900s when Chinese moved to Calcutta. But, as you can imagine, Indian Chinese didn’t serve up General Tso’s chicken. They substituted native spices like cumin, coriander, turmeric, and blends like garam masala to come up with their own unique Indian version of Chinese cuisine. Common Chinese Indian dishes include Manchow soup, a riff on hot & sour soup, and ginger and chili-spiced wok fried hakka fish.

The Panda Express Orange chicken of Indian cuisine might be Gobi Manchurian or Manchurian cauliflower, which like General Tso’s chicken, is not found anywhere in the modern provinces of Liaoning, Jilin or Heilongjiang which comprise historical Chinese Manchuria.

While not authentic to China, like orange chicken, Manchurian cauliflower is delicious. But, it’s tough to find a good example of it in Chicago, because there aren’t many Indian Chinese restaurants located in the city proper (Usmania Zabiha serves Indian Chinese, but they don’t serve Gobi Manchurian). If you really want to dig deep on Indian Chinese, skip the Swedish meatballs while procuring Billy bookshelves at Ikea, and check out Bombay Chopsticks in Schaumburg.

While I’m sure you’ll love combining an Ikea run with culinary explanation, the good news is if you’re lazy, Curry on Fire, a new UIC-area spot, which mostly serves standard Indian fare like chana masala and butter chicken, also make a mean Manchurian cauliflower. Curry on Fire’s cauliflower is a nuclear orange and crimson hue, the result of slather of turmeric and chili paste. Crispy, breaded, and tossed with searing green chili and scallion, it’s so good I can’t stop tossing the salty and spicy florets in my mouth, with the kind of speed I usually reserve for a bag of stellar potato chips, until they’re all gone.

Worth the trip: Manchurian Cauliflower from Curry on Fire ($9)

1030 W. Taylor St.; 312.624.888

This article first appeared in Redeye Chicago in a different form.