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My first night in India was spent playing cards with beggars under the arches of the famed Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay. The capital was hosting a conference and not a room was to be found, not in the dingiest of digs and not even for an arm and a leg at the Taj.
"If only I had known, I would have put you up. I have a house in Bombay, you know," lamented Reena Pushkarna, the owner of the Tandoori restaurant chain and the woman credited with introducing Indian cuisine to Israel.
Ever the consummate host, Pushkarna, a.k.a. the Curry Queen, dressed in her trademark sari, buzzes between tables at her Herzliya branch, finding time to talk to everyone.
Within minutes she has come up with a dozen mutual acquaintances with our party of four. In between courses, she tells us her life story.
Pushkarna arrived in Israel in 1983 with her husband, Vinod, a captain in the Indian merchant navy. After nine years at sea they decided it was time to settle down and find somewhere for their two children to go to school. She had a sister in Israel - who has since left - they liked the place and decided to open a restaurant in Tel Aviv.
Things however did not go smoothly at first. "It was very, very difficult to introduce Indian food to this country," recalls Pushkarna. "It's an ongoing battle, but slowly, slowly I'm winning. I won't give up."
The Pushkarnas' first restaurant was called Ichikidana - the name was taken from the sound track of Raj Kapoor's 1955 Bollywood classic Shree 420 - in the London Ministore complex on Rehov Ibn Gvirol.
"At Ichikidana, I did only vegetarian food," says Pushkarna. "But at that time Israelis were only interested in meat, so it was only after a year when we were nearly going bankrupt that we decided to say: okay, let's give it one more chance with meat this time. That's how the concept of Tandoori evolved."
As an array of bhajis, pakoras, samosas, and sumptuous Indian breads - rotis, naans and kulchas - accompanied by Raita arrive at our table, Pushkarna reveals how she acquired her vast culinary knowledge.
Born in New Delhi to a Jewish mother from the Iraqi community, and a Punjabi Sikh father who was a high-ranking army officer, Pushkarna didn't learn her trade at home. On the contrary. "My mother never cooked," she confesses. "We had a battalion of cooks and we were utterly pampered growing up all over India."
It was on the high seas that Pushkarna discovered the magic of cooking. "Every year we had a crew from a different part of the world and that was my university, that was how I gained a knowledge of food basics from chefs from all over the world. Indian food I learned more from my mother-in-law, who was an excellent, excellent cook who taught me all the finer points of Indian cuisine."
On that point our main courses arrive. Tandoori Chicken Tikka - chunks of melt-in-the-mouth boneless chicken marinated in a combination of freshly ground spices and barbecued in a clay oven (NIS 64); Palak Paneer, a traditional dish of spinach and cottage cheese sauteed with ginger and chili (NIS 49); Dhal Makhani, whole black lentils simmered overnight on a slow fire and tempered with onions, fresh ginger and garlic (NIS 40); Safed Chawal, fluffy white long-grain basmati rice (NIS 29); Vegetable Biryani, vegetables cooked with saffron-flavored basmati rice (NIS 44); Lamb Shai Korma, lamb cooked in a delicious creamy sauce of roasted cashew paste finished with saffron (NIS 74); Beef Vindaloo, a fiery Goan curry that gets steam coming out of your ears (NIS 69) quashed by a cold beer; and to top it all, Roghan Josh, a Kashmiri lamb curry (NIS 74), known in India as the prince of curries.
After struggling with Ichikidana, Pushkarna opened her first branch of Tandoori on Tel Aviv's Rehov Dizengoff in November 1984, and has never looked back.
At its peak the Tandoori chain had seven restaurants and the Pushkarnas also opened a seven-strong fast-food chain, New Delhi. On top of that they also bought out a food processing factory and launched a line of frozen Indian meals. That venture failed because they didn't have deep enough pockets, says Pushkarna, although they still own the factory, which supplies food to the army and co-produces for all the big chains in Israel. Today there are three restaurants in the Tandoori chain, including the kosher Kohinoor at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Jerusalem - the world's first kosher Indian - and a restaurant under renovation in Eilat.
How has Pushkarna managed to stay afloat for a quarter of a century when most gastronomic establishments in Israel fail to make it past three years?
Tasty food, a personal touch and value for money are the ingredients in Pushkarna's recipe for success.
"In the restaurant business in Israel you have to build up a lot of trust," says Pushkarna. "You can't just come along and open a restaurant. That's why a lot of foreign chains have failed in Israel, because first of all people here have to trust you one-to-one. Apart from the food, that's where I have succeeded. I succeeded in touching the hearts of people. With my way of service, with my family around me. The whole family is concerned about every aspect of the business, from cleanliness, to the food, the bottom line, and continuing to see people enjoy themselves."
"Suiting every pocket and giving value for money" is another. "I'm always open to compliments and criticism and if someone is not happy, I make sure to send them out happy."
She surmises, "If I've reached 25 years in this business, I really deserve a gold medal.
"I'm glad and I'm proud that we did it. Because we really hold two flags, Indian and Israeli. When you are born in India you die an Indian, India is in your soul."n
The writer was a guest of the restaurant.
Tandoori, Rehov Maskit 32, Herzliya Pituah. (09) 954-6702. Open Sunday to Friday noon to 3:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 12:30 a.m.; Saturday 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. Not kosher.