[Crossing Cultures: Indians in China ] Laxman Hemnani: A Taste of India
“I once met a consultant whose research says that in a lifetime, a person can switch between six different careers if they want to,” says Laxman Hemnani over a steaming bowl of rice, “and I’m already on number four!”
By those standards, Laxman could still have two more careers up his sleeve – but for the time being, his current venture is keeping him occupied. Along with his wife, Hetal, he runs Ganges, Beijing’s best-known chain of Indian restaurants. With five branches dotted across the city, the chain is a byword for quality Indian food among Beijing residents of all nationalities. They’ve been so successful that there is now even a Ganges outlet in Xi’an, capital of Shaanxi Province.
The Ganges journey began when the couple had already been living and working in Beijing for several years. After a period of teaching English at an international school, Hetal wanted to return to her background in the catering and service industry. Spotting a gap in the market for authentic Indian cuisine, she set up a small, 30-seater restaurant in the city’s Haidian District in 2005, and Ganges was born. “Right from day one, we hired a manager and professional chefs,” Laxman recalls, “and my wife made sure that things were going well on the kitchen side.” It didn’t take long for their efforts to pay off. “About six months after we first opened, we received an ‘Editor’s Pick’ award from The Beijinger,” he laughs, “and we didn’t even know about it until they turned up with the award!”
As the chain has gone from strength to strength, one thing has remained constant – the ‘Ganges’ name and logo, now a familiar sight around Beijing. “The name ‘Ganges’ is very sacred in India,” Laxman explains. “The most sacred thing you can do is taking a holy dip in the River Ganges – all your sins will be washed away. Plus, most Chinese people very easily connect the word with India.” A name that had spiritual connotations and was easily recognizable spelled a winning combination.
When the conversation turns to Ganges’ food, Laxman’s passion is infectious. “We hire chefs from all over India,” he says, “because Indian cuisine tastes different in different places, just like in China – and even a professional chef has to live in a place to really understand the local food.” He shows us the steps involved in cooking meat using the restaurant’s tandoor, a charcoal-fired oven. “The taste is unique,” he enthuses. “It’s different to Korean or American barbecue, anything like that.” It quickly becomes clear that a lot more goes into the seemingly simple dish than you might expect. “We marinate the chicken in yoghurt sauce and spices for twenty-four hours before cooking it,” he explains. “That way, when you eat the meat, it has the spices already in it, not coated from the outside. The flavor has sunk into the meat, and many Chinese people love that flavor.”
Laxman estimates that more than half of their customers are Chinese, mostly local office workers. “More and more Chinese people now have an international view,” he explains. “They don’t mind eating a pizza, having French food, trying something different. They are very open-minded.” Judging by Ganges’ success, the market for Indian food in Beijing seems to be growing.
Of course, success in Beijing hinges on catering to Chinese tastes, but the restaurants are certainly popular with Indian visitors too. “Indian people who live in Beijing, or are here on business, long for Indian food,” Laxman explains. “Business delegates will have some meals with their Chinese hosts, of course, but after a day or two, they will definitely show up here for dinner.” This sentiment is echoed by the many Indian patrons we chat to during their lunch. They are unanimous about the food’s authenticity, and confess to being regular customers. One young woman even said that Ganges was the main thing preventing her from feeling homesick for India!
Laxman and Hetal show no signs of slowing down when it comes to their business, and the crowds flocking to the Ganges restaurants certainly have a taste for their food. This little slice of authentic India is in China to stay.