| Chinese try Indian fare at an outlet of Indian Kitchen in Beijing. Picture by Vidura Jang Bahadur
Beijing, Feb. 12: The greatest power imbalance between China and India is in the domain of cuisine.
Indian cities, and even villages, teem with hundreds of thousands of Chinese restaurants serving up hakka noodles and ‘Szechwan’ chicken of varying authenticity.
But most of China’s 1.3 billion people have never delighted in the joys of a piquant pork vindaloo or tasted a humble paratha.
“I’ve heard so much of Indian food but not made it (to a restaurant) yet,” said Li Xiaojia, 27, an office worker in Beijing. “Maybe after waiting so much it will taste better!”
But gratification won’t come cheap for Li as an Indian meal for two at one of the dozen or so Indian restaurants in Beijing costs about RMB 160 ($20), double what a comparable local meal would cost.
Part of the reason is that most of the aromatic spices, condiments and other ingredients Indian chefs need to stir up globally popular dishes, such as saag paneer and rogan josh, have to come directly from India, said Mehernosh Pastakia, owner of the Taj Pavilion in Beijing, one of China’s first Indian restaurants that was recently voted Beijing’s best restaurant by a city magazine.
But part of the reason is simply that unlike in the US or the UK, where family-run restaurants with names such as Spice Palace have made Indian food ubiquitous and cheap, its rarity in China allows restaurateurs such as Pastakia to position nans and curries as exotic delicacies.
Most nights the palace-style interiors of the Tandoor restaurant in Beijing’s Jiaolong Hotel are packed with well-heeled locals, visiting Indian businessmen grown weary of the local fare, and expatriates.
Since chicken tikka masala was recently voted the national dish of Great Britain, there are plenty of British, Americans and other foreigners in Beijing willing to pay top dollar for authentic versions of the Indian dishes they’ve come to love from back home.
The contrasting status of Chinese cuisine in India is hard to ignore. True, way back in the early 1970s, there were only a few Chinese eateries in most Indian cities. Most were run by Chinese immigrants who came to India as a result of the tea and opium trade British India ran with southern Chinese cities, such as Canton (now Guangdong).
But over the last two decades, Chinese food diffused rapidly throughout India ' at least in name. The overcooked, chilli-soaked noodles dished out from food carts with names such as Hungry Eyes in Mumbai for Rs 10 bear little resemblance to anything cooked anywhere in China.
“It is Chinese in spirit, only Indian in taste,” said T. Mahesh, a cook at one such food cart, as he thunked a stir-fry around a flaming wok. “We have to adjust to what people want.”
Even the once quintessentially ‘Chinese’ fortune cookie (which actually originated in California) “is now used by all different kinds of Indian restaurants”, said Zyros Z. Zend, founder of Fortune Cookie Ltd, Mumbai’s first fortune cookie company.
Still, there are indications that China may reciprocate this culinary compliment, and the fortune of Indian food is among the many things changing. Scores of yoga classes, dance classes and Bollywood movie groups have mushroomed across Beijing. The discovery of Indian food is also following, said Aniket Raut, Taj Pavilion’s manager.
“There’s no doubt people are going for Indian food more now. Earlier, about 15 per cent of our clientele was Chinese, now it’s about 30 per cent,” he said.
We can see the increase every month.”
Working in favour of Indian cuisine is that it’s quite close in flavour and style to some Chinese cuisines, especially those from southern and western provinces, such as Sichuan, Yunnan and Xinjiang. A yangrou chuar, or lamb skewer, from Xinjiang is quite like a seekh kebab from northern India, “except that is costs about one-fourth the price”, said Shi Quan, 19, a student at the Beijing Normal University.
But with improving political and trade ties between New Delhi and Beijing leading more Indians to move to China, there could soon be several more affordable Indian restaurants here. One Indian immigrant, Munuswamy “Antony” Gnanavelu, originally from Chennai, has already set up a franchise network of 22 restaurants named Indian Kitchen in a handful of second-tier Chinese cities, such as Changchun in northeastern Jilin Province.
That’s not a bad start in a country where even McDonald’s has just over 500 outlets.
In China and India it’s the promise of the future that beckons and entrepreneurs such as Pastakia and Gnanavelu are dreaming big.