| Paper dosa at Taj Pavilion. (PTI)
If Atal Bihari Vajpayee wants a bite of paper dosa on his visit to Beijing next week, he can turn to Mehernosh Hoshang Pastakia.
At Taj Pavilion, the restaurant Indian-origin Pastakia owns in downtown Beijing, idlis, dosas and uttappams have appeared on the menu.
Speaking on the phone from Beijing, 36-year-old Pastakia, from Mumbai, said the initial push to introducing south Indian dishes came from information technology professionals working in or visiting China.
China has a growing population of Indian infotech professionals with more than seven companies working in that country. They employ around 1,000 Indians who spend about a week to a few years in China. Needless to say, about 60 per cent of these Indians are from the south, the traditional software powerhouse.
Kiran Karnik, president of Nasscom, the organisation of software firms, said: “Most of the companies are situated in the Shanghai region, and a dosa is not just a delicacy for south Indians but also for people from the north. It is now an all-India dish.”
More like a universal dish, really. With its vast circular white expanse it has covered most of the world. Only in Beijing, it’s come in reverse, following in the footsteps of IT professionals.
Pastakia’s real target, though, are the Chinese, who, he hopes, will drop their chopsticks to slurp idli and sambar with their hands. With Indians in thousands — or is it lakhs — daily feasting on chutneyed chow mein, it is time to get the Chinese hooked on to the coconut chutney that is to the dosa what soya sauce is to noodles. Or, at least tell them that there’s more to Indian cuisine than tandoori chicken, which dominates menus of Indian restaurants abroad.
So it is at Taj Pavilion where north Indian food is by far the most popular, but south Indian snacks and non-vegetarian Mangalorean and Malabari delicacies are slowly catching on.
“The Chinese too have tried this food. They are wary at first. They are introduced to them by either a foreigner or another Chinese who has been abroad. The Chinese also try south Indian food but they are happier with meat,” Pastakia said.
Taj Pavilion is located in the heart of the city at the China World Trade Centre within a stone’s throw from Tiananmen Square. Because of its position most of its clients are office-goers. Pastakia started a branch at the Lido Hotel a year ago with his Hong Kong-based partner, M.K. Assudani, four years after Taj Pavilion opened its doors.
So popular is Taj Pavilion that City Weekend — recognised as the English speaker’s guide to life in today’s China published every two weeks — wrote after a survey where readers had chosen their favourite restaurants that Pastakia’s place had adjudged the Best Restaurant Beijing Winner for 2003.
“During Western festivals such as Christmas, New Year and Valentine’s Day, Taj Pavilion is 90 per cent full of Chinese,” he said.
Pastakia, who has married a local Chinese and speaks the language after a fashion (“At times I have to repeat myself”), has travelled a long way and it doesn’t mean just distance. He wasn’t quite born with the recipe for success. His first brush with the business wasn’t pleasant when the restaurant he had taken up on an offer to run closed, though it led to his decision to take the plunge on his own.
After his hotel management course, he had come over as “things were not really happening in Mumbai”.
Pastakia confesses to the difficulties of cooking south Indian dishes in Beijing because the ingredients are not locally available — “it is a challenge”. He has to import the whole lot and import in huge quantities: 100 kilos of dal and spices at a time.
He might need to make a large dip into his stocks next week when Vajpayee arrives with his delegation on the first trip by an Indian Prime Minister in nearly a decade. If Vajpayee can’t make it to Taj Pavilion — Pastakia would love to feed the Prime Minister, the gourmet that he is, but can’t for security reasons — those accompanying him can, for a taste of home food away from home.
If they do and it’s a weekday, they can try the delicate stuff to the strains of the sitar spiced by bols from the tabla. On a weekend, bhangra music will greet them — the tandoori getting the better of the masala dosa.