This one is not as much a battle of preferences as it is a battle of childhoods. My wife was born and brought up in Kolkata, where the only commonly accepted pedestrian term for noodles is chowmein. On the other hand, I grew up in the streets of suburban Mumbai, where hakka reigned supreme.
I didn't grow up literally on the streets! That's just a 'cool' way of saying I came up in a modest middle-class family based out of the suburban regions of North Mumbai. Actually, scratch that. When I was a kid, there was no North Mumbai. There was only South Bombay and the rest of Bombay. 😝
Anyway, this would not have been such a deal except that both of us are avid Chinese lovers. To clarify, we love the bastardised Indian version of their cuisine, not their casual attempts at dabbling in dangerous virology. 🙄
And I say 'bastardised' because it is! Chinese ancestors and their descendants would probably roll over in their graves if they ever heard of Indo-Chinese delicacies such as the Gobi Manchurian, Chicken 65, or Triple Schezwan Fried Rice. In fact, our entire country cannot even agree on a single spelling of Szechuan, much less compete with the authentic cuisine from the Sichuan province in China.
That was me being extremely considerate, by the way. There are other interpretations of Shizwan that will send ripples of laughter down your torso. 😅
Nevertheless, both of us love eating noodles, and the reason chowmein v/s hakka is a constant battle in the household is that they are polar in the way both regions have interpreted the dish.
Chowmein from Kolkata, first and foremost, is never made in a wok, and I have this on good authority from some old-timers. The noodles are super-thin and usually tossed on a giant flat pan, similar to pav-bhaji in Mumbai. The extreme al-dente texture of the noodles and the resounding crunch of the abundant semi-cooked veggies give it a truly unique taste. The noodles are also low on sauces and get most of their flavour from dry spices and oil. Interestingly, there are some variations of this dish in Kolkata garnished with grated cucumber. To those iterations, I say only one thing - dafuq!
Hakka from Mumbai could not be further away from the Bengali street-staple. These are generally two to three times thicker than the chowmein and are almost always tossed in a thin bottomed wok by someone who has incredibly pumped forearms. 😛 The noodles are also lighter on the veggies and compensate by having a more soy and chilli induced flavour that gives it a much more juicy and soggy texture than the chowmein. Suffice to say that a person who loves hakka noodles will rarely love the other with equal passion.
Married couples may say that they love both variations in equal proportions, but that's as stupid as saying that you don't love your firstborn more than the bunch that follows. 😆 P.S. I do not have kids, and hence I can safely crack this joke. The day I decide to father one, you will see this post miraculously disappear from the site.
So, in the interest of marital compromise, if I had to choose chowmein over hakka, would it leave me unsatisfied? Not at all! Having tried both variations over multiple years, I can safely say that neither truly embody pan-Asian cuisine. 😛 I've moved on from Triple Szechwan Fried Rice or Dragon Chopsuey, ever since I got a taste of ramen, dan-dan mein, and thukpa. Mumbai and Kolkata can fight over their noodles all that they want, but there are better things out there.
And in the end, it is not about choosing hakka or chowmein, but about having alternatives in general. Street food is not defined by a single dish that you find all over the city but by the variety of food that you can browse through at a moment's notice. Also, don't both cities deserve a mid-sized meal replacement that is not just kachori-sabji or pav-bhaji? That replacement is noodles.
Both the noodle dishes are quite generous in their quantities and come at a very affordable price. They are way more suited to one-handed consumption than the gravy and bread options out there and are much more hygienic to share, at least in your head! What's more, some infinite combinations and variations are possible in both dishes by including and excluding a single ingredient. Case in point - you have primitive add-ons such as Szechwan, burnt garlic, hot garlic, Manchurian, chilli, chilli-garlic, egg, chicken, and then you can mix these ingredients in any combination and create something entirely new! Neat, huh?
The Mumbai noodle scene also has a very critical combination described by one word - Jain. While I won't joke about it due to the religious subtext, I often wonder, what sort of noodles can you eat that do not have onion, garlic, or shoots? - by my hypothesis, probably bad ones. Do you like your noodles chowmein or hakka?But hey! You don't know something that you've never tried, right!
I may have given up on my preference for either of these noodles, but that does not mean that I wouldn't gobble up a plate of EACH, this very instant, given the opportunity. But guess what, I am in Bangalore. And here, we get neither authentic Kolkata chowmein nor authentic Bombay hakka.
But Bangalore does have its Japanese abundance, and to tell you the truth - it has grown on me! 😉
So, sayonara for now. It's ramen time!