For over a year now, 41-year-old Tashi Thondup Bhutia has been selling Indian food at the night market in Taipei’s Shida district. In her street stall called “Namaste Taiwan”, covered with pipli Indian lanterns and the Indian national flag hanging from a string, Bhutia sells plates of freshly made chana masala, chicken curry and masala chai, among other foods.
A stone’s throw from the National Taiwan Normal University (NTNU), it is not just the institute’s many Indian students who support Bhutia’s work. âIndian cuisine is a steal here in Taiwan. 10 years ago, this was not the case. Now there is more awareness about the different spices and how they are good for you. So now they say, âoh Indian food; very good, âsays Bhutia.
When Mayur Srivastava first arrived in Taipei in 2007, there were only two Indian restaurants run by Indian nationals. The Indian community itself was significantly smaller than it is today and was mostly made up of a handful of Indian traders and businessmen. âAt the time, Taiwanese didn’t know much about Indian cuisine. There were a few restaurants run by Pakistanis and Bangladeshis that sold what they claimed to be Indian food, but in reality this was not the case. “
Much has changed in the 15 years since Srivastava first arrived in Taiwan on vacation and began working as a chef at the Westin Hotel. In Taipei alone, he estimates that there are currently around 40 Indian restaurants, eight of which he owns. That number, he said, excludes food stalls in the city’s night markets, for which no specific numbers were immediately available.
About two years after Aamir Khan’s “3 Idiots” star found popularity in Taiwan for its story and themes, Srivastava started working for a small Japanese curry restaurant called “Curry Empire” in Zhongli District. in Taoyuan, about an hour’s drive from Taipei. Soon after joining the establishment, the owners began to transform the space entirely into an Indian restaurant, specializing in what they called Indian ‘curry’.
âThere was no demand for it, but we introduced it. We used to stay outside and give samples of naan and curry to try for free. They didn’t know what it was, but they ate it and asked “wow, where is this available?” Â»Â», Srivastava remembers.
Sana Hashmi, visiting scholar at the Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation, which conducts research on Taiwan-India relations, told indianexpress.com that the popularity of Bollywood films, especially those starring Aamir Khan, may have be helped to increase curiosity and awareness of Indian Cuisine in Taiwan.
This was important because it helped create a space for a kitchen that until then had been reserved for the South Asian community in Taipei and had not been on the minds of Taiwanese customers before. Khan’s obsession with the film was such that an Indian restaurant opened in Taipei, calling itself â3 Idiots,â according to the film, and remains in business, Hashmi says.
While working at the Westin, after his shift ended, Srivastava began selling dosa and naan at the Shilin Night Market. Helped by his wife, a Taiwanese national, he set up a tandoor in his stall, preparing fresh naan for customers. The dramatic movements of cooking the naan, especially when it is prepared by his wife, were unfamiliar to his Taiwanese audience and resulted in crowds gathering to take photos and videos. Word-of-mouth and social media recommendations after 2011 helped publicize Indian cuisine, especially the stalls that Indians opened in Taipei’s night markets, Srivastava said.
Although growing in number, the Indian community in Taiwan is relatively small. “There are only 4,500 Indians on resident visas and I’m still puzzled as to how we have so many Indian restaurants. In downtown Taipei I see two Indian restaurants within a mile radius.” Most Indian restaurants cater to Taiwanese, and the larger Indian or South Asian community in Taiwan is not at the center of these restaurants, she explains.
Running an Indian restaurant is an expensive but profitable business in Taiwan, says Bhutia. âIt is not an easy task to open Indian restaurants because Taiwanese customs are very strict when importing Indian spices. It’s also expensive to rent spaces, âsays Hashmi. Still, returns appear to be high, which has led to this surge in the number of Indian restaurants not only in Taipei, but in other cities as well.
Directors of the Taipei Curry Council don’t know when the group was formed, but it is over 15 years old and possibly the only one of its kind. Quite simply, this is a group of mostly immigrants from Taipei who meet once a month for a “curry” dinner in an Indian restaurant in Taipei.
âWe don’t even know who the original founders were, but it originally started when some expatriate men were hungry for curry and Taiwanese brides didn’t want it to the same extent. They were going to find it themselves and it became a regular thing. It was more by circumstance than by design that there were only men, and it was like that for many years â, explains Anthony van Dyck, one of the directors of the group.
The group tour 12 different Indian restaurants each year, rarely making a repeat visit. The fact that the group is even able to do this in Taipei is indicative of the growth in the number of Indian restaurants over the years.
While most of the Taipei Curry Council members are immigrants from Western countries, there are also a handful of Taiwanese and Indian members, who participate for food and conversation. âThis is a group of people who keep coming back for Indian food or making Indian food a part of their monthly meals,â says Jim Klar, another director of the Taipei Curry Council.
âWe also have Taiwanese who love to join us and they love to be introduced to these dishes that they may not have had the courage to order themselves. We never order food from these restaurants. We always put ourselves in the hands of the chef and let the restaurants decide for us, âexplains van Dyck.
About two weeks ago, Hashmi shared a photo on social media of a Taiwanese restaurant near National Chengchi University in Taipei. The restaurant had butter chicken on the menu and it was full. It is not uncommon to find foods like these on the menus of cafeterias inside campuses or in restaurants in and around these spaces and it has little to do with South Asian students who are studying there. âIt’s because Taiwanese and foreigners love Indian food,â Hashmi explains.
It is a combination of factors that has contributed to the growth of Indian food in Taiwan, Srivastava says. Awareness of Indian cuisine has grown as the number of Indians in Taiwan has grown over the past decade, a development for which he credits the India Taipei Association, an organization under the Indian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is responsible for India-Taipei relations and facilitates service and business, tourism, culture, science and technology, and people-to-people consultations. Although Covid-19 had an impact on sales, it was not as bad in Taiwan as Bhutia had feared. For now, people still eat out quite often, which helps keep establishments going, especially small business owners like him. âThe most important factor was that the Taiwanese were curious about Indian food and culture. It’s really thanks to the Taiwanese customers that these restaurants are successful, âsays Srivastava.