Neighborhood Favorite: Manchurian Indian Cuisine

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The original name of Manchurian Indian Cuisine
in West Sacramento was Manchurian Hakka Cuisine. The change was
to avoid confusion, but both versions require some
explanation. 

Manchuria covers the northeastern corner of China, pressed
against Russia; the Hakka live mostly in southern China. No dish
from either region appears on the menu. This restaurant serves
Indo-Chinese food, a cuisine that
germinated in Kolkata’s Chinatown
in the early 20th century
and is now popular across the subcontinent. On Indo-Chinese
menus, Chinese regional terms are not markers of origin but
linguistic garnish. The dishes are Indian inventions, calibrated
to local tastes and dietary practices. 

Chicken Manchurian is what General Tso’s would be if developed
for a population that didn’t need to be led by the hand to
chili, garlic and ginger.

Take the restaurant’s namesake. Chicken (or gobi, aka
cauliflower) Manchurian is as ubiquitous at Indo-Chinese
restaurants as General Tso’s is at their American equivalents,
and the two dishes are close cousins. Both involve craggy knobs
of fried chicken, glossed in a sauce that grades from brick to
lipstick red depending on how much tomato puree (or ketchup) is
involved. The seasonings are similar, too — garlic, ginger, soy
sauce — and yet the differences between the two are clear and
ineluctable. 

Chicken Manchurian is what General Tso’s would be if developed
for a population that didn’t need to be led by the hand to chili,
garlic and ginger. (Both dishes have roots in southern Chinese
cooking, but the version of General Tso’s most Americans are
familiar with was developed to appeal to a mostly white clientele
at
New York’s Shun Lee Palace
in the 1970s, while
multiple

sources

credit
Kolkata-born chef Nelson Wang with inventing chicken
Manchurian in Mumbai around 1975.)

At the West Sacramento restaurant, the sauce is red and rich as
marinara, lilting with acid and heat. The menu recommends
spooning any that remains over Hakka noodles, a relative of chow
mein named for the Hakka owners of some of
India’s oldest Chinese restaurants
. The noodles, too, are
more heavily seasoned than their American Chinese counterparts,
freckled with pepper, and the combination is riotous.

Hakka noodles and chicken Manchurian are two of the Indo-Chinese
dishes available at Manchurian Indian Cuisine.

One dish on Manchurian’s Indo-Chinese menu sounds
straightforwardly Indian: chilli paneer. There is nothing Chinese
about the name and little about the ingredients — just a dash of
soy sauce and rice vinegar — but the combination begets a
transmogrification. Like a trick of the light, the sweet-sour
sauce brings out paneer’s resemblance to firm tofu. The dish is
Hunan by way of Kolkata, transported to West Sacramento, and it
can be a kind of revelation. 

Husband-and-wife co-owners Aditya and Simran Vaidya and their
business partners Jimmy Saetern and Michael Park saw a business
opportunity in the Capital Region’s lack of Indo-Chinese food, a
ubiquitous restaurant genre in India. The idea was to attract
South Asians familiar with chicken Manchurian and chilli paneer,
but they hoped the dishes’ family relationship to American
Chinese food would give them broader appeal. The owners opened
Manchurian Hakka Cuisine in April 2019 and harbored plans of
franchising the concept. 

Manchurian Indian Cuisine’s logo features a tiger head with
perfect plane symmetry.

Park, an architect, designed the interior to
have the sleek, minimalist appeal of successful fast-casual
chains, like Chipotle, Shake Shack or Curry Up Now. Atmospheric
street scenes of Indian cities sweep along the walls, black and
white except for pops of saturated yellow — a rickshaw cover
here, a banana cart there. Backless stools in yellow and other
warm colors echo the photographs. The illustrations on the wall
menu look slickly corporate, as does the logo, a line-drawn tiger
head with perfect plane symmetry. One could imagine dozens of
these tigers plastered across the plate glass of strip malls and
downtowns around the country. 

But local diners were slow to warm up to Manchurian. Hoping to
appeal both to veterans and neophytes of Indo-Chinese cuisine,
the chefs tuned the flavors more toward sweetness than spice and
added familiar American Chinese dishes like kung pao and orange
chicken. Early reviews make frequent mention of Panda Express:
Some say the food is more like the American Chinese chain than
real Indo-Chinese, others say the Panda does a better job. 

Last year, Manchurian Indian Cuisine introduced a new menu with
Indian and Nepalese dishes such as momo.

In response to the lukewarm reception, the owners decided to move
away from Indo-Chinese food in early 2020. They brought in a new
chef and introduced a standard pan-Indian menu — chicken tikka
masala, biryani, palak paneer — plus a few Nepalese options like
momo (steamed dumplings). They struck Hakka from the name but
left Manchurian, despite the geographic dissonance. As it turned
out, replacing a menu unique in the region with one
interchangeable with dozens of others did not turn their fortunes
around. Then the COVID-19 pandemic reached California. 

Many of the restaurants that closed due to the pandemic were like
Manchurian Indian Cuisine — young, independent businesses without
much of a legacy to stand on, struggling even before they were
ordered to close their dining rooms. Manchurian could easily have
joined them. Instead, after a one-month closure from mid-March to
April, it took advantage of the shifts in eating habits that
followed the shutdowns. 

“Right now, I just want people to have good, quality food, and
I want them to enjoy it, and I want them to come back.” 

Ken Saepon, Manager, Manchurian Indian Cuisine

When diners began depending on delivery to get their restaurant
fix, Manchurian joined virtually all of the main third-party
delivery services. It now attracts customers who have never made
the drive to the shopping plaza outside IKEA. During its open
hours, Manchurian Indian Cuisine appears near the top of the
Indian page for Sacramento on Postmates, DoorDash, Grubhub, Uber
Eats and Caviar. (Adding “Indian” to the name helped with that.)
It also shows up on the Chinese pages. The menu still focuses on
Indian food, but several Indo-Chinese standards, including
Manchurian, Hakka noodles and chilli paneer, are now available
alongside the chicken tikka masala and momo. 

On a recent visit, the yellow stools and sleek wooden tables were
mostly empty, but the counter was piled with paper bags ready to
be relayed to an ant trail of delivery drivers. The owners still
have hopes of franchising, but for now they are satisfied with
the performance of the solitary branch. “We’re taking the baby
steps right now,” says Manager Ken Saepon, who says he might
consider running a franchise himself in the future if
circumstances allow. “Right now, I just want people to have good,
quality food, and I want them to enjoy it, and I want them to
come back.” 

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