When I walked into Asharq al-Awsat on a morning in early July, a man named Anas was praising Abdullah, the restaurant’s head chef, for helping him feel like he was back in his native Syria. Anas’s praise was prompted by Abdullah’s kibbeh labaniyeh—a yoghurt-based meat dish that is a staple of Arab cooking.
Like many of the guests who frequent Asharq al-Awsat, Anas was receiving treatment at a medical centre nearby. Over the past several years, Sarita Vihar has become a hub for medical tourists from all over the world, especially West Asia, who come to receive affordable medical treatment at private hospitals in the neighbourhood. While here, many patients from West Asia yearn for a taste of home, particularly because the food they are accustomed to is much less spicy than Indian food. Responding to this need, Asharq al-Awsat—which translates to “the Middle East” in Arabic—serves up Arab food in a setting that almost makes you forget that you are in India.
Asharq al-Awsat is on the fourth floor of Om Palace, a guest house in an area of Sarita Vihar dotted with lodging for medical tourists. The restaurant’s wallpaper bears images of Beit Jabri—a large, iconic restaurant in Damascus. An Arabic news channel plays on a small television. The restaurant’s patrons are typically Arabs wearing off-white thawbs and joking loudly in Arabic. But these jolly surroundings belie the difficulties faced by many of the restaurant’s patrons and staff.