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Waiter, there's "dal" in my rösti

Jeffery Sandragesan came to Switzerland to see the snow and ended up opening a restaurant swissinfo.ch

A fusion of Swiss and Indian cooking could soon be on Swiss menus thanks to the vision of a restaurant owner in Basel.

This content was published on December 25, 2001 - 11:04

"I'm seriously thinking about it," said Jeffery Sandragesan, who opened Switzerland's first Indian restaurant 20 years ago. "You could have fondue with crushed coriander leaves and with cumin seeds. You can also dip some local vegetables in fondue and we can make a fondue chinois with Indian marinated meat."

"If they make rösti with potatoes, we can make rösti with dal and we have different lentils we can use. We can also combine Indian and Swiss cooking to make soup and sausages. The only things we can't use are beef and pork."

If the idea of curried fondue or dal rösti sounds half-baked, you'd do well to remember that Jeffery has frequently confounded the critics since he first arrived in Switzerland in the seventies.

The story unfolds

Chance - or fate - brought backpacker Jeffery Sandragesan to Basel. He had lent a Swiss student $20 in a youth hostel in Milan.

"I was actually coming to Switzerland to see the snow. I'd never seen snow in my country." In Basel he rang his friend and they arranged to meet in the Tivoli restaurant near the station.

The evening slipped away, Jeffery missed his train and his friend offered to put him up for the night. A day became a week, a week became a month and Jeffery, now aged 52, is still here.

He pursued a series of odd jobs including a spell as a physical education teacher at the university of Basel. Within three months he had met the woman who would become his wife. The couple now have a 19-year-old son and a 21-year-old daughter - both of whom are studying.

Adding spice

His next endeavour was to start selling Indian spices in the market. Since there were none to be had in Switzerland at the time, Jeffery caught the train to London on a Friday night, bought his spices in Southall, left Sunday evening and on Monday morning would be trading in the market square.

The 15 kilos he brought back would last three months. Then it was back on the train for another shopping run. "It became a hit. Suddenly the supermarkets asked me for the spices."

Another milestone on the road to opening a restaurant was his stand - Jeffery's steakhouse - at the autumn fair in Basel.

As luck would have it, the establishment, which came up for sale, was the Tivoli restaurant - the place where he had drunk his first cup of coffee on Swiss soil.

"I wasn't 100 per cent sure," he admitted. "Then I thought I should take a gamble. You always have to fight. If it doesn't work, I'll have to close it."

The restaurant opened in 1981. If Switzerland was unprepared for Jeffery Sandragesan, the reverse was equally true.

"On the first day, we had almost 300 people waiting outside. I only had two cooks, one waiter, myself and a guy down here for the buffet. I didn't know what to do. Capacity was only 190 and they all came at the same time.

"Some of the customers, who happened to be waiters and waitresses at other restaurants, said they'd help take the orders. We were serving until 1am."

Racist abuse

Jeffery begins every day with a prayer to the elephant-headed God, Ganesh, whose image decorates every nook and cranny.

"Lord Ganesh is my God," he said. "There are elephants all over the restaurant and house. I've got my altar up in my office. The first thing in the morning I go and do my prayers. I thank him for my survival yesterday and I know I have another day to survive."

From barrow boy to restaurant owner has not always been an easy ride. In his early years in Basel, Jeffery encountered racist abuse in the market and was sometimes told to stand when he was on the tram.

"I was stopped by the police every day, searching my pockets. They thought I was a drug dealer. Every time I walked into town and saw a police car, I panicked."

Jeffery is quick to point out that the situation today is very different, and that racism is a universal phenomenon. "It's the same in every part of the world. I remember when I used to go to India with my wife, people talked about us and threw stones at us because she is white."

Far from Malaysia

It's been a long journey from Malaysia where Jeffery was born, the son of a plantation worker from Madras and a Malaysian mother. Now he says his roots are firmly in Basel. "I've always said if I come to a country, I should integrate into the local scene."

Putting something back into the community is another component of his personal philosophy. He has donated an elephant to Basel zoo, sponsored local football teams and done charity work for children.

There was also a brief foray into local politics. "One day a friend said why don't you stand for election as a member of parliament. I agreed on the condition that I wouldn't pay for any advertising. I was elected on the first round so I spent three years in parliament then I realised this was not the place for me."

Politics was not Jeffery's cup of tea. Time will tell whether curried fondue and dal rösti will appeal to Swiss palates or whether other concoctions - perhaps Bündner chapattis and Walliser Naan - can set taste buds tingling.

Don't rule anything out. Stranger things have happened since Jeffery Sandragesan missed a train connection in Basel 30 years ago.

by Vincent Landon

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