Ex-IAF pilot takes Indian flavours to Lithuania

June 29th, 2008 - 4:06 pm ICT by IANS  

By Azera Rahman
Vilnius (Lithuania), June 29 (IANS) When he was flying aircrafts, Wing Commander Rajinder Kumar Chaudhary, a retired Indian Air Force (IAF) pilot, had probably never imagined he would someday open the first and only Indian restaurant in the heart of Lithuania and introduce the Baltic states, including Latvia and Estonia, to the world of Indian cuisine. Sue’s Indian Raja, as his restaurant is called, was however started 15 years later in 1998 - despite many challenges - and is now a roaring success among the Lithuanians in the country’s capital Vilnius.

“The numbers tell what the people feel. My restaurant remains packed through the day,” Chaudhary, who is now the Honorary Consul of India to Lithuania, told a visiting IANS correspondent over a cup of masala chai (tea) in his restaurant.

The eatery mainly serves north Indian fare - complete with biryani, tandoori chicken, aloo tikki, chaat and kebabs. And although the Indian population there is miniscule - hardly 20 according to Chaudhary - the restaurant is nevertheless always full.

Keeping in mind the European palate, care is taken that the spices are toned down.

“The Lithuanians, like most other Europeans, can’t eat very spicy food. Keeping that in mind, we spice down the food. Otherwise they just won’t enjoy it,” said Baham Mahapatra, the barman in the restaurant.

Chaudhary has introduced some rather interesting names in the menu card, in honour of some of his loyal and regular customers.

“Harry’s Lamb Kebab is named after our first client, Randy Major’s Chicken Tikka is named after one of our regular customers from the US and Kevin’s Pork Ribs is named after an Irish customer,” he said.

Mahapatra, one of the five people working in the restaurant, hails from Orissa and was “discovered” by Chaudhary when he was working as a barman in one of the air force stations in India.

“When I was given the job offer I instantly took it up. It has been a decade since I have been working here and I love my job. I go home once a year… take a Finnair flight to Helsinki (Finland) and thereon to India. I just wish we had direct flights from here as well,” the soft-spoken Mahapatra said.

Chaudhary’s journey to this part of northern Europe, however, was not a very smooth one. Having taken an early retirement from the defence forces in 1983, he took up a job in a private company in Moscow, Russia.

“My wife, Suvarna, and I stayed in Moscow for five years. After my tenure we decided to stay on in this part of the world because we really liked the Baltics. Since my wife had worked with the Oberoi group and I wanted to start my own business, we decided to get into the hospitality industry and open our own restaurant.

“Things however weren’t very easy. I got cheated twice while trying to rent a place to open my restaurant and lost a lot of money. I wanted to go back to India but my wife insisted that we stay on. Unfortunately, she fell ill at that time and soon passed away,” 70-year-old Chaudhary said.

His wife’s last wish was what kept Chaudhary going. He stayed put with a renewed determination and, getting together with a local partner - his landlady in Vilnius who he later got married to - set up Sue’s Indian Raja, the only Indian restaurant in Lithuania, in his late wife Suvarna’s name.

Although his investment on the restaurant was $125,000, the monthly rental is very high at $11,500 since it is located in a prime location.

The immense success of his restaurant in Vilnius led him to open a chain of restaurants, seven of them, in the other Baltic states - Latvia and Estonia - as well.

“I have, however, now sold them off to some of my relatives and former cooks. I just want to take things easy and stay in Vilnius,” Chaudhary said.

“I have seen many an Indian restaurant open in this area but none had been able to survive for long,” he added.

Chaudhary also organises trips to India now. Since October last year, he has organised four such tours.

(Azera Rahman can be contacted at azera.p@ians.in)

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