China,

A Taste of Iran

Writer

Michele Penna

Photographer

James Wasserman

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Unable to return, his family went to England, where a young Mohebati went to school and fostered dreams of travelling the world. Pursuing those ambitions, he spent 15 years in the US before moving to Beijing and opening one of the city’s most successful Middle Eastern restaurants – Rumi.

With no background either as a chef or restaurant manager, Mohebati was sailing into unknown territory but with a degree in finance behind him and a natural love of his national cuisine, he was well equipped for the business project.

It was a friend who suggested China and so, following the path of ancient traders along the Silk Road, Mohebati packed his bags and arrived in Beijing in 2006. Taking inspiration from the great Persian poet of whom he and his wife, Bita, are big fans, they plumped for his name for their restaurant. ‘Besides, Rumi is roughly translated in Chinese as “to be fascinated with”, which made it a perfect name for a business activity,’ says Mohebati.

Situated on Gongti North Street for about six years, the place smoothly combines Middle Eastern tradition with modernity. Silvia Minciarelli, director of the design studio Spaces in Beijing, created the interior using light colours to dominate the space with white tables sitting on a grey, stone-like floor. The white walls also provide an atmosphere of clean comfort, while long mirrors expand the space inside. Outside, a large terrace is used for dining during Beijing’s long summer days.

Sitting in front of a steaming cup of tea on one of the two small mezzanines overlooking the hall, Mohebati does not hide his pride in telling us that business is going well.

‘Customers come back because,’ he says, ‘we have always kept the menu completely Iranian. We have tried to keep it authentic and have not changed anything to meet the taste of Chinese customers. This has worked well for us because it has encouraged Chinese customers to come here.’

Offering traditional Iranian food, ranging from appetisers to sweet pastries, Rumi’s menu is also characterised by the signature dishes of lamb and chicken kebab, served with fluffy white rice and a selection of breads and salads. Chefs follow the traditional way of cooking, but are open to experimentation. They use the same concept for the food as they do for the design – fusing classic Middle Eastern elements with contemporary ideas.

Although Mohebati has had success, he says that working in China has given him his fair share of problems. ‘Language is a barrier of course,’ he says, ‘and then there is the bureaucracy, that can cause a headache every four months.’ One of the main issues is finding the right people to do the job, he explains. ‘The most important thing is to have someone working for you whom you can rely on, whom you know has the business’s best interests at heart. To build something alone is impossible.’

On a personal level, he has had less trouble adapting. His wife loves the country and Nadia, their daughter, goes to a Chinese local school and Mandarin is her first language. ‘At the beginning, Chinese people are not as straightforward as you might expect them to be but once they get to know you, they open up and you find out they are really helpful,’ says Mohebati. ‘It takes time however, you have to work hard building that kind of relationship.’

Commenting on the growing Middle Eastern population, Mohebati says that there are plenty of people passing by, including businessmen, diplomats and tourists but few decide to stay for long. ‘I could not find a single example of a Middle Eastern person settling down in China,’ he tells us. ‘Most people from the region, come here on business or have been posted here by their company on a short contract. Then they become nostalgic and go home.’

But for Mohebati and his family, Beijing is the place they would like to build around their future. ‘We have no plan to move away. We have settled down for good,’ he concludes.