Naans, rotis and tandoori fare are beginning to find acceptance in the land of exotic dishes and Peking duck. But restaurants say it will be a long time before Indian cuisine really tickles the Chinese taste bud.
Most of the Chinese clientele in the growing number of restaurants serving Indian food here are in the 20s and 30s, and dominantly male. A majority of the customers are Indians or Western expatriates who relish Indian cooking.
In a country that boasts of a mind-boggling variety of exotic, primarily non-vegetarian cuisine whipped out of every organ of a living creature that is fit to be cooked, there are today more than 100 restaurants in the country that cater either exclusively to or also to Indian cuisine.
“Indian food is popular but I would have liked its appeal to progress much faster,” said Mehernosh Pastakia, whose The Taj Pavilion served the choicest dishes to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his delegation when he visited here in January.
“The Chinese are still wary of any new cuisine which is totally different,” Pastakia said.
Pastakia moved to China 17 years ago from Mumbai and has been running The Taj for the past decade. The restaurant's chefs are Indian. But the waitresses are young Chinese women dressed in salwar kameez.
“Our Indian food, with all its spices and curries, is quite strong,” said Pastakia, who is married to a Chinese. “The Chinese are quite particular as far as their diet is concerned.”
According to Pastakia, the Indian food items the Chinese adore are tandoori and rice preparations as well as naan and roti. “The curry items move slowly.”
The Taj's Chinese clientele are mainly under 40. “They do visit us more often. But their spending power at this age is not very high. The Chinese who have been abroad are, however, willing to adopt Indian food.”
Beijing now has nearly 20 restaurants serving Indian cuisine wholly or partly, double of what it was 10 years ago. When Pastakia moved to Beijing 17 years ago, there were just four. Shanghai also boasts of over 20 Indian restaurants.
Besides The Taj, there is also the Ganges restaurant, which serves south Indian favourites like dosa, idli and rice dishes. Then there is Tandoor, with a branch each in Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu.
Chen Dai, 31, a Beijing resident, likes tandoori breads and surprisingly even spicy Indian food. “But the desserts are too sweet, especially the gulab jamun.”
What made him embrace Indian cuisine?
“Like Indian movies and Bollywood dances, one lately hears a lot about India. So I wanted to try the food also,” came the response.
Jiang Hui, 37, who is also from Beijing, took to Indian dishes during a visit to Hong Kong. He has a fascination for lamb leg cooked in tandoor. "But your curries have too many spices and have too strong a flavour for my liking."
Jiang gave a guarded answer when asked if Indian food had a future in China.
"With so many different restaurants and cuisines — Italian, Thai and Middle Eastern — in Beijing, Indian food should be able to make a good effect. After all, the Olympics will bring in more guests."
Pastakia said Indians and Western nationals living in Beijing were his main customers.
"We get a lot of diplomats, businessmen. There are Britons who come, Japanese, Americans...A lot of Indians nowadays visit the country on short- and long-term contracts. We are the best choice for them."