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Monday, October 29, 2007

India gets a taste for Chinese

MUMBAI - China and India might be elbowing each other in their growing global economic stakes, but an ancient food connection is growing deeper and stronger. Chinese cuisine ranks India's most favorite after local food, in the country's food and beverages (F&B) business bubbling at 9% annually.

A Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry study expects India's F&B business to be worth US$117 billion by the end of the year. Showcasing the Chinese food market segmentare breezy young upstarts like Yo! China that aims at being a $250 million food chain in the near future.

Young entrepreneurs Ashish Kapur, Ajay Saini, Joydeep Singh, Sampat Talwar, Arun Chadha and Mandhir Soni started Yo! China four years ago in New Delhi, with open kitchens sporting a comic-book type of red and yellow interior. Their tagline "Chinese food. Chinese prices" was to bridge street food prices and gourmet quality.

Yo! China is now India's largest Chinese retail chain, with 14 outlets, including contracts to serve Mumbai and Delhi airports.

"There are 350 million middle-class people who eat three meals a day," reckons Ashish Kapur, managing director of Yo! China. "That's approximately a 1,000 million meals a day, and we didn't see national restaurant brands for such an opportunity."

His colleague and chief of projects, Ajay Saini, estimates India could accommodate another 10,000 Chinese outlets. "A recent market study said Chinese food is the favorite option when young people go out to eat and the second favorite [after south Indian cuisine] when families dine out," Saini told Asia Times Online. He figures India's eating-out frequency is still a fraction compared to Taiwan, South Korea or Thailand.

In which case, the Chinese food market in India is set explode with one-third of the population below the age of 15, and incomes rising. "India is the only large country in the world where the size of the working age population will grow - and will exceed the number of dependent children and old persons - until 2025, the year up to which projections of population have been made, and perhaps even beyond till 2045," Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram told the Nobel Institute in Oslo on October 24.

Chinese food took root in India when Chinese immigrants settled in the sub-continent in the 18th century, mostly in eastern India, and gravitating towards Kolkata (Calcutta) that hosts the largest Chinese Indian population in the country.

Tangra, a leather-refining suburb in east Kolkata, became India's best-known "Chinatown" with its concentration of Chinese eateries, mostly in homes of local Chinese with the family disappearing when customers appeared through the living room curtains. Tangra also became India's best-known origin for Chinese sauces.

Since the 1980s, a spicy Indianized version of Chinese food took to the streets of metros, the cheap fusion cuisine becoming a great social leveler. In its pre-sanitized days, Marine Drive - Mumbai's famous seafront - had Chinese food street vendors with a clientele ranging from millionaire industrialists to hungry office-goers grabbing a chow mein plate for $2. (Though chow mein was originally a Chinese-American dish probably first created in the United States by Chinese cooks serving American railroad workers in the 1850s that bears little resemblance to true Chinese cuisine. The term comes from Mandarin Chinese, ch'ao mien', "fried noodles".)

Chinese street food costs even lesser in Kolkata, with a filling half-plate portion of vegetable chow mein selling for Rs6 (15 US cents).

Kolkata city centers such as Dalhousie Square and Park Street turn into humming street food bazaars during lunch hours, amid the clatter-bang of ancient trams lumbering through crowded traffic, and the sizzle of fried rice and noodles on woks, blending with sellers of popular pan-Indian fare.

Pioneering Chinese Indian restaurateurs, like Nelson Wang of Mumbai's China Garden, run their decades-old establishments in Indian metros - from Chungking in Chennai's Mount Road to Kamling off Marine Drive in Mumbai - but are losing top-end clientele to Chinese restaurants in five-star hotels such as the Taj and Marriot in Mumbai.

India's strong love for vegetarian food causes more headaches for Chinese chefs. Even street stalls sometimes use separate utensils for cooking vegetarian and non-vegetarian fare.

US-based Mark Pi Chinese food retail chain, with plans to open 300 restaurants across India and 400 more outlets in the Asia-Pacific region in the next five years, even promises a "Jain" Chinese menu for the predominantly vegetarian region of Gujarat: garlic, onions and potatoes forbidden.

"Any restaurateur who wants to serve Hong Kong-quality dimsum has to import everything from the flours to the fillings," sniffs Marryam H Reshii, a local food critic writing in the popular Indian portal Rediff.com. "It's only the rice, potato and wheat flours from south China that can turn out perfect dimsum."

UK-based food industry researchers and analysts IGD estimate that China's food market that was 35% the size of the US market in 2003, and will grow to be 82% in another 13 years. The US, China, Japan, India and Russia are expected to be the top five food retail markets by 2020.

India's love affair with Chinese food can only strengthen with increasing tourist traffic between the two Asian giants. The year 2007 had been declared "China-India Year of Friendship through Tourism" and the Chinese government said it hoped to double the number of Indian tourists to China each year to about 1 million by 2011, out of a total of 7 million Indians visiting foreign nations.

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