Portfolio of Kimberly Johans

A collection of articles created during my stint as a journalist at The Macau Daily Times

Spicing up Macau’s culture

Posted by Kimberly on September 23, 2007

By Kimberly Johans
Published in The Macau Daily Times
September 23, 2007, page 2 (1,111 words)

Macau is widely known as being somewhat of a melting pot; a mixture of Portuguese, Chinese, Indian and African, among others. And for the past 26 years, the Indian aspect has come predominantly from Aruna Jha, whose restaurant is now the only Indian free-standing one in Macau.
It and she, have become as much an institution in Macau as the ruins of St Paul’s, whose cuisine can take you back to that former British colony and whose hospitality reminds you of sit-down family meals.
Aruna arrived in Macau in 1983 at the behest of the government’s cultural institute who requested she set up a program to teach students the Indian way of dance.
“I was told Macau was a place where no one knew about the Indian culture and that I needed to come here,” she says.
“My expectations [of Macau] was that I was here for three months, to teach my culture and go back,” she adds.
Her father was “a great dancer” so since the age of four, Aruna had been studying the art.
In fact all six sisters are dancers, with Aruna the fifth of nine siblings.
She recalls entering a room and seeing what looked like 250 people waiting. Assuming they were all there waiting to see her performance, she was astounded to discover they would be her students.
One of her more famous students, she says, was Angela Leong, the fourth wife of Stanley Ho, whose “was a very good dancer” and who became one of her best pupils.
“She used to show the expressions like she knew the feeling of the dance,” says Aruna.
She used to teach them about Lord Krishna and snakes and how to do the specialised hand movements.
Despite no true English understanding between them all, Aruna recalls that it was difficult, because “music doesn’t need a language.”
“My girls performed for the [1997 Hong Kong] handover show. And they were all Chinese,” she recalls.
This was at the time when the last Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten was replaced by Mr Tung Chee-hwa, the first elected Chief Executive of the new Hong Kong government.
She’d never heard anything about Macau prior to arriving her, but fear was certainly not in her vocabulary.
Yet it didn’t take her long to realise that, while her heart and education was in dance, her soul was in cooking.
She grasped the opportunity that came her way via the Hyatt, who, at the time, offered the chance for Aruna to provide an Indian buffet during certain times of the week.
“They called me saying they would like to invite me to cook something for promotion,” she says.
It was such a success that the Hyatt chose to use her name to promote her food, called ‘Aruna Indian Curry’.
“This was a very big honour for me,” she says, adding that she was not a trained chef, “God-gifted.”
She adds that people used to queue up, “200 people, so they had to make a booking,” she says.
With such a busy lifestyle, she realised she needed to settle down and Macau was a place she liked.
Soon after, life and marriage took over, before the eventual opening of her current restaurant, ten years ago.
With such popularity, the next step of setting up her own restaurant seemed like a natural one to take.
“There was no Indian curry. And [with Chinese cuisine] the food never used to go down. I used to feel that here, you needed proper Indian food and culture,” she says.
“For me to survive here, was very difficult,” she adds.
Her only regret at the moment appears to be what she describes as an inability to create the kind of service she feels capable of providing, due to the lack of an extra hand.
“People are standing outside and I feel very sad.
“I cannot serve them because of shortness of workers,” she adds, saying she is unable to take a vacation because her presence is constantly needed.
“Those kind of difficulties make my heart break” she says.
The government has told her to hire people from Macau. In fact, she has trained chefs on how to cook her style.
“They are learning from me, but I can’t find my own chef,” says Aruna, who also provides Halal and Jain food to other establishments in Macau.
She realises it’s not solely her problem though.
“It’s not just me. Even Chinese people are not getting the workers,” she says.
Not that this seems to stop her customers from having the patience to wait up to an hour for her cooking.
“My customers have given their order and they are waiting, but they say they don’t want to miss my food. ‘If it’s an hour I will wait’, they’ve told me” she says.
Despite the small size of her restaurant, seating about 27 people, it’s always busy, with large groups often having to be divided up into separate sessions.
She even admits to having had Pansy Ho as a customer, as well as “top delegations” but she says no more, other than to say, “ I have invited Mr [Sheldon] Adelson” who she met at the Venetian opening.
She has also been taking part in the annual food festival in November and has won in the past.
“It’s very difficult because we have to close the restaurant and take the chefs there,” she says.
A north Indian by origin, the 48-year-old mother of two, Macau resident has no plans on returning to India permanently, saying she can definitely see herself living her life out here.
What she misses most about those by- gone days is the closeness, the feeling of community.
“I miss my old Macau,” she says, adding that in those times, the feeling of the people was “different and very touchy.”
For her, it only seems to be about money these days, although she does see the advantage to this.
“Yes, lots of casinos are coming, bringing good business to Macau, but small business people are not having proper support,” she says.
She adds though, that as Macau grows, more Indians are likely to invest money here in the future.
There have been offers to buy her restaurant and to use her name, but as Aruna says, “I prefer to use my own name and my own business,” she says, adding that “if the quality is bad, then it’s my name that is spoilt.”
And considering how widely known that name is, not only as the first but currently, the only free-standing Indian restaurant in Macau, one can hardly expect Aruna to want to give it all up so easily.


2 Responses to “Spicing up Macau’s culture”

  1. siri rama said

    Hi i am am former friend of Aruna’s from Hong Kong. Now in singapore. Can i have her email address. thanks

  2. nikhat said

    I had food at aruna’s and i am a big fan of her enterprising skills.Cn i have her email address

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