Helsinki: With over 30 South Asian restaurants, the aroma of curries and tandoori fare has become commonplace in this Finnish capital with eateries like Gandhi, Namaskaar and Samrat tickling the taste buds of locals and visitors alike to this land of the midnight sun.
"Indian food is very popular here; people like the rich taste of our cuisines, spices, curries, naans, dal," said Sukhvinder Singh who claims to have started the first Indian restaurant in Finland, named Namaskaar, 23 years ago.
According to him, the popularity of Indian food has led to a boom in the industry with Helsinki alone - which celebrates its 200 years as Finnish capital next year - accounting for 30 Indian restaurants alone serving its one million residents. "We also serve a wide variety of South Asian delicacies from Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh," Singh told reporters.
Just a walk around the famous Hämeentie street in the central Kallio area of Helsinki provides glimpses of nearly a dozen restaurants with distinctly familiar Indian names. The clientele is cosmopolitan, though the flow of Indians has helped.
"We get many Indian software engineers, designers and tourists. As trade with India has grown, more Indians are coming to this small Nordic nation of 5.5 million people that is known for its lakes and islands. We expect this trend to continue," said Riyaz Shahid, manager of Samrat restraurant, which has been in the business for the past 16 years.
Shahid said the main customer base of his business still remains the local population, which throngs to his ravintola -- Finnish for restaurant -- on weekends. "People over here are crazy about India and read a lot about India. That`s why they come here."
According to him, the dishes are prepared to suit the local palate. "The food we serve is a bit distinct from what you find in India. People here like a bit of less spices. So we offer hot, medium and mild," Shahid said.
Even Finnair has an Indian kitchen and its chefs admit the popularity of Indian food is growing. "Indian food on our flights is so popular that we have even started it on our Japan-bound flights," said Juha Stenholm, production chef with the carrier.
"We have not only tikkas and naans but also a choice of Hindu vegetarian."
Established hospitality industry veteran Ari Arvonen, general manager at Hilton Vantaa, told IANS that the number of Indian tourists and businessmen is growing, and India`s rich culture was driving people to savour its food.
Indian tourist inflow to Helsinki grew 7.8 percent in 2010, with 30,250 bed-nights.
"I have seen that Indians who come here visit one or more Indian restaurants during their stay. But the regular fan base are Finns and the international expat community based in Helsinki," said Arvonen.
Richard Strohm, who works with the city`s tourist promotion board, agreed: "I`ve worked with six Indian groups this summer -- four of them had food pre-ordered from the Indian restaurants to take away or have it in the restaurant itself."