From rags to rasam in China

Updated: Nov 20 2005, 05:30am hrs
When 25-year-old Munuswamy Gnanavelu landed on the shores of the Portuguese colony of Macao in 1978, he had little save HK$50 in his pocket, a yen for Bruce Lee movies and a hearty appetite for adventure. In the years that followed, his multiple avatars included being an English teacher, sweater knitter and manual labourer.

Today, twenty-seven years after he first left the aromatic environs of his parents wholesale spice shop in Chennai, Antony Munuswamy (as he is now known), rules over a sprawling empire of 22 Indian restaurants in 10 different Chinese provinces. Indian Kitchen, as the restaurant chain is called, is possibly the most recognisable Indian brand in China. Munuswamy started the first Indian Kitchen in 1990, in Macao.

At the time he was running a moderately successful construction company that specialised in metal fabrication and waterproofing. By then, he firmly regarded Macao as home, having married a Chinese lady in 1984 and found prosperity after weathering several bouts of near starvation and bankruptcy. However, while his appetite for adventure had certainly been sated, his longing for good, home-style Indian food remained unappeased.

I was born to eat, smiles Munuswamy, and while for years I had enjoyed Chinese and Portuguese cuisine, I really missed my own food. For a boy raised surrounded by the heady scents of cardamom and pepper, the absence of Indian food in Macao needed urgent remedy.

The first Indian Kitchen was an instant success, with people queuing up for a table within weeks of its opening. Within a year Munuswamy had opened two more Indian Kitchens in Macao. The only other Indian restaurant on the island, run by a Portuguese, was unable to withstand the competition and quietly closed its doors. Munuswamys first foray into the Chinese Mainland was in 1992 when he established a restaurant in Zhuhai city in the southern province of Guangdong. I realised that Macao would soon be handed back to the Chinese in 1999 and that the mainland was where the future lay, he recalls.

After setting up yet another restaurant, this time in Zhongshan city, also in Guangdong, Munuswamy decided in 1995 to start a management company that would run future restaurants on a franchise model.

Under this model anyone who wants to open an Indian Kitchen restaurant approaches the management company with a proposal. If accepted, the company provides the franchisee with design, training, engineering and marketing services. Each restaurant must adhere to a strict overall design from the menu to the kitchen. The Indian Kitchen Management Company then supplies the franchisee with four cooks and a manager. All additional employees directly hired by the franchisee are given intensive training. Today the company directly employs 250 Indians and 1,500 Chinese. Cooks and managers from India are paid around RMB 6,000 ($750) a month and provided with shared accommodation. Munuswamy engenders fierce loyalty amongst his employees.

Bimrao Sathish has worked for Indian Kitchen restaurants in China since 1998. He is currently the manager of the Beijing branch. When talking about his boss Sathish is almost reverential. My boss (Antony Munuswamy) is a man of great vision, he says, and we all trust him blindly. Perhaps what is most remarkable about the Indian Kitchen restaurants is that the majority of these are located in provincial cities far away from the expatriate centres of Beijing and Shanghai. This means that the majority of their clientele are local Chinese.

This is noteworthy because although in India, Chinese food has long been a favourite, available even at roadside dhabas, Chinese have been more cautious in embracing Indian cuisine.

The half a dozen Indian eateries in Beijing, for example, are usually thronged by either desi businessmen fleeing from Chinese offerings like chicken feet or by nostalgic British professionals in search of a curry.

Indian Kitchens success has thus lain in breaking down the barriers that usually divide the locals from foreign food and in making samosas and pakoras familiar words in second tiers cities like Changchun and Changzhou.

According to Sathish who worked in Indian Kitchen restaurants in Zhongshan and Shenzhen cities before moving to Beijing, this has been achieved by tailoring both menu and flavours to the Chinese palate. Dishes are made creamier and less spicy. Popular main courses include beef curry and fish head korma. Success has not stilled Munuswamys ambitions. Having started up a spice factory that manufactures curry powder and paste in 2001, he now wants to concentrate on becoming the dominant player in the Chinese commercial spice market. Plans to open Indian Kitchen restaurants in Japan, Korea and Taiwan are also afoot.

In the meantime a new generation of Munuswamys is gearing up to strengthen the bridge across the Himalayas that Antony Munuswamy has forged. Antonys second in command, his sisters son recently married a Chinese lady in Shanghai.

Fortunately for Chinese stomachs, Indian Kitchen looks set to sweeten the Middle Kingdom with gulab jamuns well into the twenty-first century.