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Noodling the Commies

Restaurant Malaya’s Red Chilly chicken, one can say, brought about the chilly chicken revolution in Kerala.

The first Chinese restaurant in Kerala known as the Malaya Restaurant was downtown Kochi. Now shut down. I still remember as a college kid the Mixed Fried Noodles @ fifteen bucks was a tummy filling mouth-watering dream. We were fed with a hostel fare of Curry and Rice and for a change Rice and Curry, and twice a week we were treated to the irresistible meat curry floating with cubed tapiocas (making tapioca pieces pretend to be potato was the most devious hostel trick to be ever employed). The fare, needless to say, suffused us with perpetual gastronomic dreams. So once in a hungry while, we used to walk all the way to Malaya and order one plate each of Mixed Fried Noodles and devour it with pourings of tomato sauce. The sauce was free so it was with an extra helping of relish that we set about finishing the bottle on the table. One plate is a little too much for even a very greedy person but we stuffed ourselves right down to the last noodle. (My mouth waters at the memory.)

“Two Minutes” History of the Noodle in Kerala.

Forty- five years ago, the general public in this strip of land was tuned into Communist China: From the intellectuals right down to the workers and peasants knew exactly what Mao Tse Tung and the other Chinese Comrades pontificated. Their liturgy was the chant of the Communists here. What is really interesting is that, in such a time, as when Chinese Communist following was at its pinnacle here, many in Kerala were pretty much out of the loop as to what the Chinese were Putting into their mouths. The first Chinese restaurant in Kerala nearly packed up even before it started for the people here said In the China Restaurant they serve white worms called Noodles.” (Last line told by Mary Lee)

The man named H.J.Lee and the China Restaurant

H.J.Lee left China during the Second World War and came down to Madras where he started out as a cloth vendor selling Chinese Silk to English Ladies. Lee, who was good with the wok, then journeyed to Kochi in search of greener pastures. (Maybe he knew about the Communist Kerala’s leanings.) And Lee got married to Mary Lee. In the Year of The Rat (1960), Lee started the China Restaurant in Kochi. He encountered a couple of big hurdles because the people here were quite clueless about Chinese food. The other was during the Indo-China War- the China Restaurant was pelted with patriotic stones. H.J Lee was quick to react; he just renamed his restaurant as Malaya and slowly won the masses over. He used no propaganda or pamphlets and but with the bewitching smells emanating from his great kitchen he made the rice and fish curry loving people long to eat Chopsuey and Chilly chicken. Soon people came in droves, and the stars of yesteryears Prem Nazir, Umer, Sharada, Madhu and the evergreen Mammooty frequented the restaurant. And Lee was known to spoil his customers- the quantity was large and the food delicious. (My mouth still waters.)

Lee’s Red Chilly Chicken was a variation that infused the local flavour and it was a Clucking success. The chilly chicken became the rage in Kerala- kind of a chilly chicken revolution that took the exotic flavours to the masses. (A lot of bird blood was spilt of course!) By the way today if you go near Padma Junction, Kochi at night, the street food served there is great Chinese stuff- noodles and all. Now you know what I mean.

In 1996 Malaya closed down and in 2001 H.J.Lee passed away.


Ravi John said…
It was at Malaya that I first learnt that beer could be served in a tea pot and drunk from tea cups ! I remember going to Malaya with my folks and some of their friends and Mr. Lee serving them beer in tea pots.

Aaah....Indian ingenuity is an amazing thing...but Indo-Chinese ingenuity is still better..

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