There’s a Vedic-era (c. 1,000 BC) quote that underlies much of contemporary Indian hospitality: “Atithi Devo Bhava.” This roughly translates to “the guest is equivalent to God,” which is exactly the sense we get when we sit down for dinner at one of the curbside tables at Fusion Indian Restaurant, perched on the edge of Kumkapı Meydanı.
Located a short walk downhill from Beyazit and just around the corner from the well-lit, tourist-trawling meyhanes crowding around the square, here we are greeted by servers with smiles on their faces and a menu boasting options to be found in few other places in Istanbul. The sky above shifts from blue to pink as the sun begins to set. The conversations of our fellow diners mingle with the sounds of the city, a convivial polyglot hubbub.
Tarlochan Singh, the restaurant’s owner, makes the rounds, cordially exchanging a few words with each guest, as piquant, enticing scents begin to drift out of the small kitchen, where his wife, Sradhya Das, works her magic. A tall, sociable man who studied theater and worked as a policeman in India before entering the restaurant business, Tarlochan is from Patiala, a city in the Punjab region of northern India. The city is famous for the extravagant hospitality of one of its most famous rulers, Maharaja Bhupinder Singh, as well as for the reputation of its inhabitants as formidable drinkers. The latter is immortalized in the “Patiala Peg,” the term for a punishingly generous glug of whisky commonly poured in the area.
While many of the dishes at Fusion reflect Tarlochan’s origins, Sradhya, who hails from Calcutta, is able to alter them to suit palates from all over India – and the world. The couple boasts four languages between them (Punjabi, Hindi, Bengali and English), not uncommon in polyglot India, and this is their secret weapon when catering to their customers.
“We talk to each customer and, after a bit of gossip, figure out where they are from,” Tarlochan says. “This way we’re able to better cook to their taste. There are so many different cuisines and diets in India. There are vegans, vegetarians, Buddhists, Jains. If a customer is from southern India, we add a touch of sour to their food. And if they’re from Calcutta, we add a bit of sweetness.”
When the food arrives, it’s clear there’s more than generous hospitality at play. Rich, colorful biryani, a rice dish cooked with meat or vegetables, flavorful curries like mutton vindaloo or punjabi chicken, and bean- or veggie-based options such as chana masala or palak paneer come in individual dishes, perfect for spooning over rice or scooping up with flatbread. As the meal progresses, the different sauces mix to create a firework display of spice rarely found in Turkish dishes. The menu is broad and accommodating, offering a plethora of vegan and vegetarian options alongside crowd favorites like butter chicken. Desserts include traditional Indian sweets such as the syrup-soaked, fried jalebi, not too different from Turkish lokma, or spiced halwa to be enjoyed with a cup of masala chai. The menu even offers an interesting selection of thali specifically for lunch service – we make a mental note to return during the lunch hour to sample the available options.
“We talk to each customer and, after a bit of gossip, figure out where they are from,” Tarlochan says. “This way we’re able to better cook to their taste.”
The couple moved to Istanbul four years ago, after Tarlochan finished studying hospitality and restaurant management in Singapore. “We chose Istanbul because of the relatively low level of competition here. In Singapore there are south Indian restaurants on practically every corner, but here there are barely any Indian restaurants at all,” Tarlochan explains. It is far easier to come across Pakistani restaurants in Istanbul, given the historical ties between Turkey and Pakistan as predominately Muslim countries and the relatively large population of Pakistani students and expats in the city. Originally the couple planned to corner the market on Indian tourists visiting the sights of nearby Sultanahmet, but they soon had students, expats and Turks flocking to their restaurant as well.
“Turkish food is completely different from Indian food,” Sradhya tells us. “It doesn’t use spices like many other cuisines do, so we have customers from as far away as South America come to us and tell us that our food reminds them of home.” (Still, after a week of cooking and eating Indian, Sradhya confesses, she’s glad to enjoy some Turkish food. Their son, she adds, especially loves döner.)
As a rare Indian restaurant in Turkey, Fusion gets orders from unexpected places. Last year, the restaurant received a request to cater an Indian cultural event in Çorlu, a small city almost 100 km west of Istanbul. Instead of turning down the order, the couple woke up before dawn to cook the food, took a taxi to Çorlu to deliver it and then took a bus back. When they returned to Istanbul at noon, they opened the restaurant and continued business as usual.
Before the spread of Covid-19 brought the Turkish tourism industry to a screeching halt in March, the restaurant was doing well enough for the couple to start thinking about expanding. “The city, as an ancient imperial capital, has always been a sort of little world. We even had a little world here some meals, with customers from India, Europe, Central Asia, Arab countries and Turkey all eating together here,” Tarlochan recalls. While Turkey has since reopened to foreign tourists, conspicuous in a world of closed borders, visitor numbers are naturally far below pre-Covid levels. The relative emptiness of the city’s historic district has meant that business is less dependable than it used to be for the couple.
Tarlochan mentions that they’ve even reached out to the Indian government for funds, but to no avail. “We figure that we’re kind of cultural ambassadors here, representing India positively here through our food,” says Sradhya, referencing the tension between the two countries stemming from Turkey’s ties to Pakistan, India’s regional rival, and Turkish opposition to India’s occupation of Kashmir. Still, Bollywood star Amir Khan is scheduled to film scenes for his next movie in Istanbul this month, which the couple is hopeful about.
“Who knows,” jokes Tarlochan, “maybe the next time you see us we’ll be Bollywood stars.”
“He did study theater for a while,” Sradhya adds.
Although they regularly travel to India to buy spices and visit family, the pandemic has made these trips practically impossible. The rest of their ingredients they source locally, visiting the neighborhood market on Thursdays for meat and vegetables. As we sit chatting with the couple over cups of sweet, milky masala chai, it’s clear how their restaurant has woven itself into the fabric of the neighborhood. A guard wanders over from the immigration office across the street and chats with the couple. “We’re best friends,” he smiles through his mask. (An older man renovating a nearby storefront wanders over to say hello as well.)
“Probably our greatest challenge in moving here was not being able to speak Turkish,” Sradhya says. “But still everyone has been so helpful to us. Our neighbors, our landlord, they’ve all helped us so much.” And the couple does what they can to return that hospitality in kind, hosting iftar dinners during Ramadan, even though they themselves are not Muslim, and organizing small get-togethers for their neighbors on New Year’s Eve and during Diwali, an important festival in India for Hindus, Jains and Sikhs alike. It’s that same hospitality that they channel into their food, whether their rich, spicy biryani, one of their thick and flavorful curries, or their refreshingly sweet mango lassis. It’s a taste – and a feeling – that keeps you coming back again and again.