September 3, 2001
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Chinese food, Indian-style

Sonia Chopra

It's hot, it's cheap, it's quick, it's satisfying and it's available at almost every street corner.

That explains both the appeal and the success of Chinese restaurants everywhere. Add to that their convenience, variety, availability and you have a winning formula.

But one ambitious chef and owner wanted to serve more than the standard Chinese fare to his patrons.

So Sidney Chang used his skills and his unique background to whip up an original menu. A menu that has clients lining up for more.

A two-year-old restaurant in downtown Atlanta, Georgia, Hot Wok serves exotic Chinese cuisine infused with a hot and spicy flavour that captures the essence of India.

Chang accomplished this feat effortlessly because he was born in Calcutta and raised in Bombay, where he honed his skills by working at China Garden and Gazebo International.

A decade ago, Chang migrated to the US and worked in Chinese restaurants in New York and Philadelphia, which were American-owned.

But during a visit to Atlanta, he was convinced that he could carve a niche and start something on his own in the city.

"People like to eat Chinese food because it is nutritious and it has a menu of rice, chicken, fish, meat and vegetables, cooked in pungent, spicy sauces. It has a lot of variety," he explains.

And as for the Indian community, he can tell you what they crave: Fried prawns, chilli chicken or shrimp, hakka noodles, the Bombay-style Manchurian soup, chicken pakoras, vegetable hot garlic wonton and vegetable bazzie in Manchurian sauce and beef with zucchini and onions.

If rave reviews from the media and satisfied customers are to be believed, Chang has fulfilled his quest. Hot Wok was voted Best of Atlanta 2000 in Atlanta Magazine, a local newsmagazine.

"It's my favourite place to do lunch. It's also the place I use for takeout after a long day. And on weekends, I come back for the buffet," says Ramesh Sreenivasan, 36, a software consultant who walks three blocks from his office to the restaurant at least three times a week.

"The smell and the taste of the food reminds me of Chinese food in India, which I miss very much here," continues Sreenivasan, who migrated from New Delhi to Atlanta a decade ago.

Shalini Sharma agrees. "It's close to 'Indian Chinese'. In fact, I think it's even tastier because in America, the prawns are so big and the vegetables so fresh. I crave their chilli shrimps. And chilli chicken and hakka noodles," says Sharma, an English literature student at Emory University, who lives on Chinese cuisine and craved shrimps back home in Bangalore.

Rena, Chang's wife, who migrated from Vietnam and married him a decade ago, says they fill a need in the community: "I think the restaurant is successful because most South Asian communities are vegetarian either for religious reasons or because they choose to be. Our menu has vegetables with paneer and it's hot and spicy."

Chang explains the unique fusion of Chinese and Indian cuisine. In the early 1900s the Hakka Chinese migrated to India from Canton to escape the opium warfare and political issues. When they were exposed to Indian cuisine, they borrowed many spices and concepts to incorporate in their own food. And finally perfected the technique.

But though Chang, banking on his success, has opened another restaurant, Hot Wok Village in Illinois, Chicago, he offers no advice to other entrepreneurs. "I am very bad at giving advice. For me personally, I try to do things the best I can. I believe in giving my customers what they want and then they will keep coming back."

Chang lives in Atlanta with his wife and their daughters Monique, 9, and Valerie, 5.

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