RIGA - At long last, the taste and smell of an increasing number of foreign lands can be experienced amid the cobblestone streets and art nouveau facades of Riga.
Restaurant-goers in the Latvian capital now have the chance to sample the delectable cuisine of India, Malaysia, Korea and Thailand - an impressive feat for a town that not long ago knew little beyond only pork, potatoes and peas.
Better still, the chefs at these exotic establishments have traveled across the globe to ply their trade in Latvia, and all are more than happy to usher diners through the menus of foreign foods.
Dhan Singh, a chef at Sue's Indian Raja, arrived from New Delhi after applying to an advertisement published in a local newspaper that said a chef was wanted in the Latvian capital. Motivated to find a new job abroad and support his family, Singh lunged at the opportunity.
"I came to Latvia to get acquainted with Latvian cuisine, gain new impressions and see other cultures," says Singh, who has been a cook and chef for 18 years, adding that the salary was not an insignificant factor in making his choice.
The chef has made conscious changes to the way he prepares meals as he has tried to adapt the exotic Indian cuisine to local taste buds.
"I cook with a slight reduction of seasoning," Singh says, who quickly learned a valuable lesson: Indian food is too spicy for many Balts. "I allow people to savor just such spices in the delicacies of Mughlai [north Indian] cuisine: tikka, tandoori, traditional curries and Madras dishes."
Paenkky Grewal, owner of Sue's Indian Raja, maintains that inviting professionals from distant India is the best guarantee of quality.
"Our restaurant has gained a very good reputation in Indian cuisine, and we wish to preserve it in future. That's why the chef as well as the cooks are from India," said.
Simoi Binti Ausin, a chef in the Malaysian restaurant Seven Wise Men in a Bamboo Grove, and her coworker Ang Kon Nuyk came from Kota Kinabalu in eastern Malaysia in October 2003. Thanks to collaborative efforts, their Malaysian restaurant is now up and running.
Ausin's reasons for moving here represent a mix of curiosity and practicality.
"I had an offer to resettle to Latvia, which opened up new opportunities to earn more money. I have never in my life seen such architecture as in Riga," Ausin said. "This was the first time in my life that I have left my country, children and family. My family encouraged me to leave, to provide for my children. I am the only breadwinner in the family."
Kim Young Ok, a chef in the Korean restaurant Soraksans on Miesnieku Street, traveled a bit further West before landing in Riga.
"I changed everything and was even mentally on my way to Germany when a job was offered to me in Riga," said Ok, adding she has no regrets about her decision.
Ok cooks Korean foods in a traditional way, without holding back on seasonings and sauces found in her homeland.