Costa Rica has seen noticeable changes in its culinary scene in the last seven to eight years, nowhere more so than in its Indian cuisine. Indian food has historically been viewed abroad as "too spicy"-creating the assumption that Costa Rican palates, accustomed to a mix of Central American and Caribbean foods would reject the infusion of exotic spice and heat. But the success of Indian restaurants "Naans & Curries" and subsequently of "Taj Mahal"-which have both since expanded to multiple locations around the country-proved instead that Costa Ricans were ready for a broader range of foreign cuisine.
When founder Kapil Gulati left his role as head of Havells Sylvania Americas to open the first "Naans & Curries" in 2013, he continued to use many of the marketing and business development skills that ensured success in the corporate world. He made frequent appearances on TV shows, published informational articles in print media, and leveraged his Spanish-language skills to connect with the community in San Jose. Soon locals began calling to ask about the health benefits of Indian cuisine, and "Naans & Curries" saw ever-longer lines of customers. Costa Ricans started to admire the flavours from India's ancient culture in a way they hadn't before.
Kapil's bet on Costa Rica's openness to Indian cuisine and his sustained outreach was a success. By educating others about the broad variety of South Asian foods, including vegan and vegetarian dishes, he created new interest in classic dishes that lacked a large overseas presence. The menu, initially limited to mainstream dishes like Butter Chicken, Lamb Rogan Josh and Daal Makhani, soon included regional varieties of Biryani, dosas, jalebis, pao bhajis and more. All found ready and willing customers.
But Kapil's success also depended on authenticity. Unlike many "Westernized" restaurants offering watered-down versions of Indian, Thai, or Chinese food, Kapil kept Naans & Curries true to the high standards that he knew in India. "As a result, many of the Indian travellers and tourists who visit Costa Rica are pleasantly surprised with the quality and variety of Indian cuisine available in a small country with an even smaller South Asian community. When Vice President Venkaiah Naidu visited Costa Rica and met with Indian diaspora and trade leaders, one of his highlights was an Indian dinner, which saw attendance from various parts of society," he tells Financial Express Online.
The truth is that Costa Rica's rapidly improving Indian food scene is powered by Costa Ricans. With only 200 Indian diaspora in the country, the vast majority of customers are locals, and plenty of them become return customers. When Kapil sets up Indian street food festivals, he finds long lines of people waiting to try some of the delicacies of olden days.
According to him, "Costa Rica's annual Holi event has also become a craze in the last few years, a wonderful blend of cuisine and culture that wins local acclaim. Every Holi brings out not only various cultural programs, each showcasing various traditional and modern dance forms from India, but also features live cooking of Indian delicacies like Dhaaba style cooking, Choley bhaturey, paani puri and many more."
By expanding local understanding about Indian food and staying true to its roots, Naans & Curries and its fellow Indian restaurants adjusted expectations about what Indian dining means. Costa Rica has always been a great destination for weddings, especially from North Americans. Over the last few years, Indian cuisine and culture have also become a part of these high-profile celebrations. From Indian theme events to lavish Indian weddings in Costa Rica, a cuisine that many foreigners considered "untouchable" is now a staple feature in dining-out for locals. Even regular Indian cuisine cooking classes are also now featured.
From the president of Costa Rica to its ministers, bureaucrats and ambassadors, it seems everyone is not only aware of Indian cuisine but also a regular at Kapil's restaurants. In Costa Rica-which does not even have an Indian embassy-this soft diplomacy has been a success for Indians in far off places, thanks to passionate entrepreneurs who are real champions of India's culture and image overseas. Indeed, Kapil is somewhat of an informal ambassador of Indian cuisine in Costa Rica.
Instead of relaxing, Kapil kept expanding. He is now working on his fifth project.
"It was just a matter of creating availability and awareness for our rich heritage and cuisine to Costa Ricans," says Kapil. After being introduced to India's variety of foods, he continued, "they now have more respect and admiration for us."