When Cajetan Mendonca opened his Rainier Valley restaurant Saffron Spice nearly a dozen years ago, he knew he wanted to offer Seattle something a little different. He grew up in the southwestern coastal state of Goa in India, a place once ruled by the Portuguese with a cuisine centered on fish, coconut and rice.
While he loves that cuisine, he also loves the spicy, greasy, fried subsection of Indian food called Indochinese.
It originated from the northeastern city of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta). Mendonca says the cuisine was developed after Chinese people of Hakka descent started migrating to the area over 100 years ago and began adapting their traditional Chinese recipes to Indian ingredients.
“The Indian version added a lot of vegetables to Chinese food, and a lot of ginger, garlic, green chili, bell peppers and onions,” he says.
There are rice-based and noodle-based Indochinese dishes. Almost all use a combination of hot chilies, soy, garlic and ginger to produce spicy-sour sauces bursting with the kind of flavor that keeps your fork returning for another bite. Mendonca has a separate menu for his Indochinese dishes, but many Indian restaurants have Indochinese dishes. If it doesn’t specifically call them out, look for the words “Hakka,” “Manchurian,” “chilli” (with two l’s) or “schezwan” (not Sichuan or Szechuan) as they are commonly used to describe classic Indochinese dishes.
There are a few Indian restaurants around the Seattle area that have these dishes on the menu — there’s even a national chain called Inchin’s Bamboo Garden that specializes in the cuisine and has locations in Bothell, Redmond and Bellevue. But overall, Indochinese dishes (while incredibly popular in India), are rare in Seattle-area restaurants.
I went to two restaurants in search of Indochinese food and days later am still thinking about Mendonca’s chicken Manchurian and the Gobi Manchurian I had from Kirkland’s Cafe Bahar.
The chicken Manchurian at Mendonca’s Saffron Spice consists of irregular cubes of deep-fried chicken that have been drenched in a mouth-numbing, tangy sauce with ginger, soy, garlic and hot peppers ($15.99).
Mendonca says he makes it with three different kinds of chilies and cooks the sauce for hours to achieve a deep level of spice and flavor.
The vegetable Hakka noodles ($12.99) are a tangle of thin wok-fried wheat noodles with slivers of carrot and cabbage plus sweet white onion and slices of green beans, slick with oil and a spicy soy sauce. The portion was huge, generous even for two adults.
Cafe Bahar in Kirkland has a small section of the menu identified as Indochinese with Hakka noodles and chilli garlic fried rice, but there are also Indochinese dishes sprinkled throughout the rest of the menu: Manchurian and chilli vegetarian, chicken and fish dishes.
The Hakka noodles here can be made mild, medium or hot and come with vegetables, egg or chicken. I ordered the chicken ($11.99) and asked for it mild. The noodles weren’t as seared as the ones from Saffron Spice. They had an almost creamy quality with plenty of cabbage and green onion strewn throughout. The chicken was crispy and coated in a soy, garlic and ginger sauce. It was wonderfully greasy in an incredibly comforting way.
On the recommendation of the woman who took my order when I called in, I also ordered the chilli baby corn ($10.99) and the Gobi Manchurian ($9.99). Both the baby corn and the cauliflower were lightly battered, deep fried and tossed in an incredible sour, spicy sauce of vinegar, chili, tomato and soy. Both dishes were still piping hot after the drive home from Kirkland, and while the unintentional steam bath caused by the takeout containers wasn’t kind to what I am assuming was a crisp cornstarch-fueled coating, there was still a little crunch. The chilli corn was slightly spicier than the cauliflower, but each had this X-factor of sour heat. It’s what sauces like Frank’s and Tabasco have staked their claim on and it keeps you going back for more until you’ve finished the entire portion.
Saffron Spice: open for takeout only; 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 4-8:30 p.m. Sunday; 1901 Rainier Ave. S., Seattle; 206-325-5332, saffronspiceseattle.com
Cafe Bahar: open for dining in and takeout; lunch 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m., dinner 5:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Thursday; lunch 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m., dinner 5:30 p.m.- 10 p.m. Friday-Sunday; 11701 124th Ave. N.E., Kirkland; 425-823-8223, cafebaharseattle.com