Last summer, while travelling through Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro and Albania, my wife and I saw the changing face of the Balkans and Indian migration in an unlikely place: the Indian restaurant. Well-patronised and Indian-owned, this establishment has sprouted in the farther-flung places of the region. We did not expect this.

Until the early 1990s, this wasn’t a region that endeared itself to potential immigrants. Albania, one of the poorest countries in Europe, was a virtual hermit. And across the border, Slovenia, Croatia and Montenegro were employing repugnant forms of ethnic chauvinism to rip apart the Yugoslav federation.

Even before this, though Yugoslavia had enjoyed warm relations with Nehru’s India, the bond was founded more on non-alignment than on food. Indeed, when Marshal Tito visited India circa 1954, the Yugoslav leader did not hide his intense dislike of the Indian cuisine. Before he was scheduled to attend a state banquet in Delhi, Tito ordered an aide to cook him “Croatian peasant food”, according to a biographer.

Fortunately, many of his former subjects and their descendants have a more adventurous taste palette. In places like Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, or Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, Indian restaurants are a hit with locals.

Visiting some of these establishments, my wife and I saw how the relatively new Indian diaspora has integrated with the host societies and the role Indian restaurants play in the assimilation. These restaurants don’t just introduce locals to the Indian culinary universe – they also serve as confluences where NRIs can meet one another and interact with locals.

In this, the restaurants are emblematic of the wider changes in the Balkans, a region recovering from the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and civil war 25 years ago. They indicate the many ways that Balkan societies are opening up to the rest of the world.

Slovenia, a tiny Alpine nation with a population about the same size as Coimbatore’s, boasts just 46 non-resident Indians and persons of Indian origin. Yet stroll down the riverfront promenade in the capital Ljubljana and you are likely to find a few of them at an establishment with the words “INDIJSKA RESTAVRACIJA” (Indian restaurant) blazoned outside.

It was at this restaurant that we met Arvind. The native of a town near Delhi had moved to Ljubljana years ago for university studies and discovered several fellow Indians on campus. “We Indians go wherever we can find a scholarship,” he said.

There was a hitch: he was a strict vegetarian, and, as he wearily noted, “All that people eat here is meat.” So he struck up a bargain with the Indijska Restavracija owner, who is the daughter of a Gujarati couple that shifted to Ljubljana decades ago. He would wait on tables and in return he would get food from the kitchen.

In his own way, Arvind was helping put two different peoples and cultures in closer contact. At work, he helped source ingredients that were hard to find in the Balkans. The restaurant, Arvind noted, had convinced a local Slovenian farmer to provide them with fresh paneer. At the university, he was part of a Slovenian team working on the Clean Ganga initiative – in fact, he was off on an assignment to Delhi the day after we met him.

'No tasty food'

In the parts of the Balkans that were once under the Ottoman rule, the cuisine is delicious and varied. However, where the writ of the Ottoman sultan ran out, so did the spice.

While in Dubrovnik, a Croatian port city that steadfastly held back Constantinople’s westward ambitions, my wife and I searched for non-local eating options. According to the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, 38 NRIs call Croatia home. One of them, a Croat-speaking native of Chandigarh, recently opened an Indian restaurant in Dubrovnik, on a narrow lane crowded with seventeenth-century houses. Unlike in Ljubljana, there were few expatriate Indians to patronise the restaurant (most NRIs in Croatia live in Zagreb). So, instead, the eatery took on a different function, bringing together the native Dubrovnikites who are drawn to Indian cuisine and culture. One restaurant employee told us about her numerous trips to the subcontinent.

“I think that I was an Indian in a past life and I am condemned in this life to be Croatian,” she said. “No tasty food here.”

We struck up a conversation with Tomislav, a customer waiting for a food parcel who recounted his visits to Lakshadweep and a winery in Karnataka. Tomislav grew up close to the site of the Indian restaurant, just beyond the city walls overrun today by British and Chinese tour groups. The tour groups, like the restaurants, are another sign of the changing times.

Starting in the early 2000s, mass tourism began dramatically hiking up rents in Dubrovnik’s old quarters. Provisions stores and markets gave way to tacky tourist malls. Long-time residents, like Tomislav’s family, were pushed to Dubrovnik’s suburban fringes. The prospect of an Indian meal was now among the few reasons for Tomislav to return to his ancestral neighbourhood.

Albania isn’t tormented by mass tourism like Dubrovnik. This was the last country on our itinerary. A place where one would least expect to find a thriving ethnic food scene, leave alone an Indian restaurant. The 20th century hadn’t been kind to the Balkan nation. A bloody conflict marked the transfer of power from the Ottomans, followed by more bloodshed under Mussolini’s fascist state and the paranoid regime of Albania’s postwar dictator Enver Hoxha.

Today, however, Albania’s capital Tirana is booming and attracting a small, steady trickle of visitors. Its helter-skelter pattern of urbanisation makes Tirana resemble many Indian cities. In a neighbourhood that looks like a Mumbai suburb on a quiet day, Indian and Albanian business partners have opened an Indian restaurant that sells aloo chaat.

I asked one employee if he knew how many Indians lived in Albania. He didn’t, but he gruffly replied in Hindi that he’d just arrived from Delhi. A young Albanian waiter, dressed in a maroon kurta, said there were 20 or 30 Indians in the country (the Indian government’s count is 20), and that they were all frequent customers here.

We returned to our hotel in a taxi that the Albanian kurta-clad waiter called for us. The taxi driver, animatedly speaking in broken English, mentioned that one of his good friends in Tirana was an Indian, a Dipesh from Bangalore. Strange, I thought: an employee at our hotel also mentioned an acquaintance from Bangalore whose name – pronounced with a thick Albanian accent – sounded something like Dipesh. How many Dipeshes could there be in Albania?

I quickly forgot about the matter, until on our last night in Tirana, we hailed a taxi and found a takeout menu for the Indian restaurant in the car’s backseat pocket. We began chatting with the man behind the wheel, mentioning that we were off to Mumbai soon. “Ah,” he told us, “I have a friend from India.” As we barrelled down a Mussolini-era boulevard, the driver dialled a number on his phone and handed it to me. It was Dipesh, from Bangalore.

Dipesh, who did operations management work in Albania, hoped to meet us. We were equally keen to meet this well-known expatriate, but I explained to him that we were flying out early the next morning. “Next time,” he said.

I imagine that, if we do return to Albania, it will not be difficult to track him down. And, supposing that we were in the mood for aloo chaat, I now know a place in Tirana where we could meet.