To an Indian visitor to Beijing, the symbols of the growth of China -- wide roads, underground rail network, glittering skyscrapers, fantastically shaped Olympics venues -- provide adequate food for thought. Food for the body, on the other hand, though abundant, is a bit tricky. There are around 40,000 restaurants in Beijing, but the average Indian traveller is a bit wary about trying the Chinese eateries. Especially the vegetarians, for there are enough horror stories of accidentally sampling or even sighting some of the more graphic food. Those who live on curd rice or tamarind rice blanch visibly when they are confronted with, say, grilled lizard legs or a skewered snake.
Among Indian travellers to the Beijing Olympics, some had contingency supplies of dry rice, daal and subzi that only had to be mixed with water and heated to be made eatable. Some adventurous souls ventured to the Chinese restaurants and emerged hale and hearty. Some of us, still unconvinced, searched far and wide for Indian restaurants.
The official city guide says that the Taj Pavilion is Beijing's best Indian restaurant, and I have no reason to challenge that, though the other six-seven premier Indian restaurants in the city may do that. The Taj, which has two branches in Beijing, is run by M.S. Pastakia, a Mumbaikar who's been in Beijing for over 15 years. His wife is Chinese and they say that in the initial part of their matrimony, they had problems over each other's eating habits. "I tease my Chinese friends that they eat everything that walks, and they tease me that we (Indians) eat anything that grows," laughs Pastakia now. Ironically, his wife, Zheng Xiao Wen, has taken to vegetarianism. Their restaurants, though, have no injunction against food of any nation - omnivores are most welcome. "We've tried to make sure that we serve authentic food," says Pastakia. "Some other restaurants, to suit the Chinese palate, have made the food somewhat bland… That's something we'll not do." It's evident from what they serve -- the taste is authentic Indian, a pleasant change after faux-Indian cuisine at the Main Press Centre at the Olympic Green. They also have official sanction -- at the party thrown by the Indian Embassy in Beijing for the Indian athletes and journalists, the Taj supplied the food.
The Ganges is another restaurant that's doing rather well; it was launched to cater to the Indian software engineers on short-term deputation to Beijing. Now it has three branches and several awards for being the readers' choice among Indian restaurants in the city. When I went to the Ganges at The Place, a fashionable Mall, there was a large party of dignitaries from the Bahamas consuming food in appreciative silence. Ms. Elma Campbell, the Bahamas ambassador to China, a couple of ministers and judges were among them. Ms. Campbell assured us that the food was terrific and that they had a great time there. They didn't skip happily on their way out, but that was probably only because of their diplomatic reserve. The Ganges at The Place is in the neighbourhood of several embassies and Hetal Hemnani, the general manager, names many diplomats among its clients.
The Beijing Punjabi Restaurant is a relatively new entrant into the scene -- it's the biggest chain of Indian restaurants in China, with the largest seating capacity. "We are in five cities of China -- Shanghai, Shenzhen, Nanjing, Shaoxing and now Beijing," says Gireesh S. Chowdhury, director of Beijing Punjabi Restaurant Co. The restaurant had an unlimited buffet during the last month or so -- nine curries and vegetable dishes, rice, biryani, and unlimited beer, for RMB 88 (1 RMB=Rs 6.4). All this accompanied by live bhangra!
There's live entertainment at the Chingari too, but with a twist -- Chinese singer Hou Wei performs here, singing Hindi songs and often dancing as well. "I fell in love with Hindi music after listening to Indian music when growing up," says the petite Hou, who now sings Hindi and Punjabi songs with surprising skill. The food's good too, though the Chingari can do with a facelift.
It was here that I heard of the Tandoor -- which, they assured me at the Chingari, is the "best Indian restaurant" in Beijing. Apparently, great food is served there "amongst mirror covered walls and Indian dancers". I could not make it to the Tandoor, maybe the next time. Ditto for Mirch Masala, which provides "reasonably-priced cuisine in a cheerful and modern setting".
The prices vary, but in most Indian joints here, a good meal for two would cost you around RMB 150, excluding drinks. There are less expensive set menus as well. Earlier this year, in Melbourne, I had chanced upon an Indian restaurant owned and run by a Chinese man. In Beijing, though, no Chinese seem to have ventured into Indian food.
The Indian restaurants in Beijing are in a state of flux -- apart from the regulars mentioned in this article, there are those that come up and disappear on a regular basis. All the Indian restaurants in the city had one thing in common -- expatriates constitute the majority of their clientele. "The locals fear that the Indian food is too hot, so we have extensive menus explaining our dishes," says Hemnani.
"During the last year or so, the Chinese too have started coming, trying and then enjoying Indian cuisine," says Chowdhury. "Beijing attracting the most Chinese clientele, and they also enjoy wheat/breads/noodles and spice more than their rice- and soup-eating southern counterparts."
From the Ganges, I had carried off curd rice for a south Indian friend -- the sight of his beloved victuals nearly brought tears to his eyes. This, I thought, was the biggest reason to be thankful to the Indian restaurateurs in Beijing.