#6: The origins of Indo-Chinese food, Punjabi-Mexicans, and an Indian spy who fought the Nazis

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In this episode

We look at the origin of Indo-Chinese food and how it is so different from native Chinese cuisines. We talk about the Punjabi-Mexican community of California. And we discover the amazing story of Noor Inayat Khan, an Indian spy who fought the Nazis in Paris.

Indo-Chinese food

If you polled a 100 desis and asked them what their favorite non-Indian food is, most of them would probably say Chinese!

However, Chicken Manchurian (along with its vegetarian counterpart Gobi Manchurian), a quintessential Indian-Chinese dish found on nearly every roadside joint in India, is not found in China. It was invented in 1975 by Nelson Wang, a chef and restaurateur who was the son of Chinese immigrants from Kolkata. This dish went the equivalent of viral at that time and spurred Wang to establish his own restaurant, China Garden, in Bombay.

Indian-Chinese cuisine is both unique and incredibly popular. Its history and flavors can be traced to the immigration of Chinese workers and traders to Kolkata in the 18th century, especially from the southern parts of China.

Here is another CNN article that talks about this uniquely South Asian fusion cuisine.

— Veda

“Dusky peril”

For decades in the early 1900s, young Punjabi men came to California’s Central and Imperial Valley to earn money and make a better life for themselves. This was one of the first mass migrations from India to the US.

Xenophobic laws such as the California Alien Land Act of 1917 prevented these men from bringing wives from India, creating a unique problem for this community. Because of California’s racist miscegenation laws, which dictated that people could not marry outside of their “race”, many Punjabi men married Mexican women, creating a new, unique community.

Though they were called “Hindus”, very few of them were actually Hindu — a majority of them were Sikh and some were Muslim. Unsurprisingly, they faced a lot of racism.

We explore these “Hindu-Mexican” union, their culture and their food.

South Asian American Digital Archive also has a cool video interview of Amelia Singh Netervala, the daughter of one such Punjabi-Mexican marriage.

And here is the headline we mention in the episode.

— Geetika

The Indian woman who fought the Nazis

Ever heard of Noor Inayat Khan? She was a British spy of Indian origin — a descendant of Tipu Sultan - who became the first female wireless operator sent from the UK to aid the French resistance in Paris.

She bravely transmitted messages back to London and helped the Resistance from within even after her whole team was exposed.

In those days, the average lifespan (yes, that’s right) of a wireless operator was about six weeks, but Noor served in the role for three months. She was eventually betrayed by someone she knew and captured by the Gestapo, who sent her to the Dachau concentration camp to be executed.

I read about her in Indian journalist Shrabani Basu’s book Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan. Basu is instrumental in getting Noor the recognition she deserved. We also recommend watching the PBS documentary Enemy of the Reich.

We explore her incredible story and the motivations that kept her going under extremely difficult circumstances in this week’s episode!

Here are some other references:

— Saurabh