In a corner of the China World Trade Centre, known as the place where ‘China meets the world’ to strike business deals by the side of Prada and Louis Vuitton stores, Chai Li Na has learnt to balance trays laden with tandoori chicken on arms jingling with bangles.
Chai is Chinese. Her uniform is an electric blue ghagra choli made in Mumbai’s Gandhi Market and shipped twice a year to the Taj Pavilion in Beijing. Half sleeves for summer, full sleeves for winter. Sometimes, she sports a Delhi Commonwealth Games 2010 badge distributed by a recent delegation led by Suresh Kalmadi.
Chai serves food cooked by three men who hail from Garhwal, Uttaranchal, and she communicates orders and preferences (like no oil, low spice) from customers to the kitchen’s touchscreens through a palmtop that has a wireless menu software. The cooks speak neither Chinese (except ‘duoshao qian’ for ‘what’s the cost?’) nor English, and the local staff is still learning English.
“Ten years ago, I had sleepless nights while starting this business,’’ says Mehernosh Pastakia, co-owner of Taj Pavilion, that turns 10 this year and will open its third branch in expat hub Shunyi in June. Pastakia started the restaurant in Beijing’s central business district with a partner based in Hong Kong in 1998, after moving from Mumbai to Beijing in 1991. That was the time when the first Indian restaurants were opening in China.
“I faced the same challenge Chinese food first faced in India,’’ he says. “It’s still not easy to win over Chinese customers to authentic Indian cuisine.’’ The palmtops are a two-year-old innovation since a shan-e-murg can be lost in translation as shahi-murg.
In January, the restaurant served Indian meals to delegations led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. But in a land where less than 500 Indian families are registered with the Association of Indian Community in Beijing, the gravy train, literally depends on Chinese passengers to keep moving.
“A new Indian restaurant opens every three or four months since last year, especially because of the Olympics,’’ says Sanjeev Verma, counsellor (economic and commercial) at the Indian Embassy. “Not all restaurants are registered with us, but from hardly six restaurants two-and-half years ago, there are at least 17-18 today in Beijing and about 50 in China.” Restaurateurs estimate the number to be slightly higher.
The Chinese became the world’s largest population of Internet users this year. As well-read and adventurous 20 to 35-year-old Chinese professionals look for ways to spend in the world’s fastest growing economy, the Indian curry — associated here with dragon fire — is hotly competing for clients from Beijing and Shanghai to the manufacturing hubs of Guangzhou, Nanjing, Sichuan and China’s smallest province Zhejiang. In 2007, more than 4,62,450 visitors from India travelled to China, and only 68,000 Chinese visited India. Indians hold business meetings with Chinese partners over butter chicken and the Chinese return later with their family and friends, thus expanding the clientele.
"Everyone wants to start an Indian restaurant in China these days. We also have a list of Indian candidates who want jobs," says GS Chowdhury, director, Punjabi Beijing Restaurant, which opened last year on Beijing’s Lucky Street, competing with Korean and Japanese food. It’s the chain’s seventh China restaurant but not as easy to manage as its three branches in Shanghai, where more and richer Chinese have acquired a taste for tandoori.
Real estate professional Xiong Dong believed Indian food was just spicy, until he ate at the Taj with Australian colleagues. “Now my fiancée and I eat tandoori meat, naan and palak paneer here. But desserts are too sweet and my fiancée prefers Chinese rice.”
Marketing the menu
In 2005, Pune native Hetal Hemnani opened a modest eatery called Ganges, inspired by the hungry Indian software professionals she met. In 2006, she opened her third Ganges in Beijing’s The Place, a posh mall with Asia’s largest LED screen on its courtyard roof. “From less than 30 staff when I started, I now have about 100 Indian and Chinese staff in three branches,’’ says Hetal. The recipe for success includes omelettes and chicken noodles in the lunch buffet, and mulligatawny soup with a dash of khichdi. Ten kilos of curry leaves, lady’s fingers, green chillies and drumsticks are couriered by an Indian trader in Hong Kong every week. Kareena Kapoor and Hrithik Roshan posters accompanied by Bollywood hits playing on the flat screens certainly helps.
Hara bhara kebab is ‘packed with vitamins’ says the Taj Pavilion menu. After the line was added, it became popular among the Chinese. The Punjabi Beijing Restaurant has hired a couple from Jalandhar to break into bhangra after every new customer has placed an order. But as the dollar sinks and food prices rise, Indian businessmen are struggling to profit without hiking prices. Most buffets cost about 38-42 Renminbi (RMB), to tempt first-timers. Some restaurants also run home deliveries of Manikchand gutkha and desi ghee.
Mix your own curry
If you are a vegetarian businessman from India browsing Haidian’s IT and electronics market, you may end up walking into Kamat’s Mumbai Palace that opened in April — only to find an array of dry chicken, fish and lamb in the Indian buffet with a Mandarin makeover. “We are a vegetarian restaurant chain in India since 1946, but in China we serve halal meat to attract the Chinese and foreigners,’’ says co-owner Sudhakar Kamat, who moved from Mumbai to Beijing two years ago.
Kamat’s two cooks from Garhwal use raw materials shipped from Shenzhen in south China, to cook a buffet of eight dry dishes and four curries and leave it to the customers to toss the mushrooms, vegetables or meat into a spicy or sweet curry. Two South Indian cooks are on their way to work beside the waitresses who knot ready-to-wear saris from Mumbai. Haidian is also a student district, and the younger Chinese will be among the first to try Chindia curry.