I spent half my childhood in rural India and the other half in rural Ohio. My dad was a pastor and brought Indian staples back when he went into bigger towns to visit sick parishioners so I grew up liking the same things he did—the garam masalas, curries, and traditional snack foods that he grew up with: salty and crunchy murukku spirals made from chickpea flour, Chana Jor Garam (smashed and fried black chickpeas, perfumed with sweet, sour, savory, funky chaat masala) and spicy pork vindaloo made from the leftover roast pork and sauerkraut—a dish my father started cooking while living in Germany.
India’s fusion cuisine included heavy Persian influence in the north and Spanish and Portuguese influences in the west and south. As Western business and money arrived in the late 1990s, so did Western food trends. Bhaji Pav sandwiches—lentils and traditional fried snacks inside a fluffy hamburger bun—became popular street foods. Packaged snacks—already a huge part of Indian culture—expanded to include corn and potato chips with spicy Indian flavors.
I didn’t grow up with other Indian kids, and our only return visit to India was in 1996, so I missed some of those newer trends. As a food and fashion photographer, I worked with some great chefs in the U.S. and ate at fantastic restaurants, but my experience of Indian food remained frozen in my childhood. As I began to transition into cooking, I limited myself to Western foods. The idea that the foods we ate at home are less important than those we experience in fine-dining settings is a trap many ethnic cooks fall into.
When I started a family, I spent more time thinking about my childhood and I realized how valuable the food and culture of India had been to me. The richness of flavor and experience was something I wanted to pass on. My exploration began in earnest a few years back, when I entered an Indian grocery store in Columbus and walked the aisles. The number of ingredients was enough to make my head spin. It wasn’t just the basic spices (cumin, coriander, fenugreek, chili, and turmeric) that make up the base for most Northern Indian food. This wasn’t chicken curry and lamb or pork vindaloo, nor the traditional Gujarati dishes my grandmother made with chickpeas and buttermilk. The aisles were packed with thousands of ingredients, many of which already came in various preparations. I knew that India was regionally diverse, but had no idea of the sheer volume of foodstuffs that that diversity created.
Heading from spices to prepared snacks, I came upon the noodle aisle. I grew up with ramen noodles, but I had not seen Hakka noodles—until now.
Once home, I pulled on the seam of the cellophane package. It spilled little broken crumbs on the side of the stove before the brick of noodles and foil seasoning packet landed in boiling water. After fishing out the seasoning and adding it back, sans foil, the aroma hit me. I knew this would be different. The taste and texture were everything packaged ramen is supposed to be. Only alkalized dough could get this gooey and stretchy. That familiar umami was still there, but it was reinforced with a kick of Indian spices. Cumin, coriander, chilis, and turmeric added an element that was instantly addicting. My wife and kids already enjoyed the Northern Indian food that we cook in my family, but these noodles provided a new bridge to get them excited and involved in Indian cooking.
The combination of Chinese and Indian foods still seemed odd to me, so I did some digging. The Hakka people were originally northern Chinese, but they migrated to the south beginning in 400 AD to flee war, poverty, and chaos. By the 1800s, they fled the mainland and settled in Taiwan, Southeast Asia, North and South America, and elsewhere. They fused their cooking traditions with local flavors and ingredients wherever they went and are a big part of the reason for the Chinese influences in Southeast Asian cuisines. In India, they settled in Tangra, Kolkata, where they established tanneries and noodle shops. Their fusion has become very popular in India, even though the cooking techniques are decidedly different from most of Indian food. Chicken and vegetables are marinated in traditional Indian spice blends, but instead of being stewed, as is common in India, they are cooked quickly in woks and finished with soy and sugar.
On a trip to New York earlier this year, I visited one of the few Hakka Indian restaurants in the U.S. The chef ’s dishes fell into two categories. He added garam masala, the most ubiquitous blend of spices, to Chinese dishes or added sweet soy to Indian dishes. So simple. So effective.
After that trip I became obsessed with the combination of Indian and Chinese foods. I wanted a homemade version of those ramen. I tried all kinds of complicated recipes from a pre-Colonial garam masala with impossible-to-find spices to making my own alkalized noodles with lye from wood ash. Some of the attempts were good, but none got me to that comfort snack place.
This dish needed to be different enough from the packaged stuff to be worthwhile, but still simple and comforting. The first step was the noodles. I used dried noodles, but they were too similar to the packaged noodles. Although making my own was fun and they came out nicely, the ultimate solution was to use fresh noodles from Ohio City Pasta.
Next, I tackled the flavor. Packaged noodles are par-cooked before drying. In order to preserve texture, they are usually made with palm oil, giving them a silkiness that mimics fresh. Fresh noodles have a leaner taste, and I wanted some of the junk-food richness of the dry. I remembered seeing a video in which David Chang made Italian caccio e peppe with a bag of ramen. Butter was the key to richness, but I still needed an East Asian element to bring that fusion home. Soy sauce is commanding and I really wanted the masala to shine. I remembered how much I love the combination of white miso with butter. They are so complementary and pull so much flavor and texture from each other. I knew this had to be it.
My final trial was a success. The noodles were gooey, but still perfectly chewy. They were different from anything I have had, but still everything that ramen are supposed to be. It was smile food. The sort of dish that brings to mind the buttery packaged mac and cheese from childhood here in the States, but also the simple rice and lentils with nutty clarified ghee butter that my grandmother would make daily in India. Simple and comforting enough that my kids love it, but refined and sophisticated enough that I would be proud to serve it to any visiting chef.