Grandmother's curry recipes inspire chain of NZ Little India restaurants

Mani Rai, owner operator of Little India in Nelson, one of 18 restaurants in the New Zealand chain which began in ...
Martin De Ruyter/Stuff

Mani Rai, owner operator of Little India in Nelson, one of 18 restaurants in the New Zealand chain which began in Dunedin in 1991.

In the UK, Indian takeaway food is so popular people joke about curry being the national dish.

In the Nelson region we only have a handful of Indian restaurants and for me Little India is a shining light.|

The Little India group of restaurants are individually owned by members of the same family, a family with deep roots in Northern India, and their heritage is expressed in the wonderful flavours delivered in every dish they serve.

The Nelson Little India opened in December 2004 and is owned by Mani and Sonia Rai; Mani's cousin, Sukhi Gill, opened the first Little India in Dunedin in 1991 and the group has expanded to 18 restaurants in nine cities and towns from Auckland to Dunedin.

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Sukhi owned a dairy in St Andrews St in the heart of Dunedin and when his mother, a professional cook, visited in the early 90s she insisted he made some curry and put it in the shop.

Mani says "he purchased 5kgs of lamb on the first day, made a curry and it sold in minutes, not hours but literally minutes, and that gave Sukhi the idea to convert the dairy to a restaurant." 

I remember visiting some friends in Dunedin not long after it opened and they insisted we have takeaways from there because the food was so good, a few years later we discovered another Little India in Christchurch and it became one of our favourite places to eat whenever we were in the Garden City.

Family members working together is always fraught with tension and pitfalls so what makes this family group of businesses work so well?

All the dishes made by chefs Chintamani Nautiyal, left, Mukesh Rawat and Gambhir Bagiyal come from family recipes.
Martin De Ruyter/Stuff

All the dishes made by chefs Chintamani Nautiyal, left, Mukesh Rawat and Gambhir Bagiyal come from family recipes.

"Every restaurant is owned by brothers and cousins and of course we disagree," says Mani. "But we also respect one another, especially our elders, when it comes to the food all the recipes came from our grandmother's kitchen at home in the Punjab province of Northern India

"Her name is Premjit Kaur and as well as providing all of the traditional recipes she trains all the chefs for the whole chain before they come to New Zealand.

"If they don't meet her standards, not just of cooking but also how they work in the kitchen and act towards other staff members, then they don't move here."

The whole point of this is consistency, no matter which Little India you dine in or buy takeaways from the food will be the same, you can rely on it being consistently very good traditional Northern Indian food.

People often think Indian food is hot and of course some of it is, but Northern Indian food has a focus on layers of flavour with some searingly hot on the Kiwi palate. The majority, however, are just richly flavoured with a gentle heat.

All of the food is all made on site. 

"It is all freshly made from scratch following recipes of our grandmother," Mani says. "We buy spices in bulk from importers and then blend spice mixes for each dish on site.

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"Then, because Sukhi set up the first restaurant in New Zealand, he has passed his experience to everyone else, helping his family succeed ... so of course we have a lot of respect for him."

But while this respect for elders is an Indian tradition and they have to do as they are told. "We would never try and change one of grandmother's recipes, what she says goes and no one argues with her but they also listen to us when we tell them things."

The next generation are also having a positive impact on the whole chain, "our nephew Arjun is looking after all of the advertising, branding, the website, Twitter, Facebook and his latest development is an app so people can use their mobile phones to find the nearest Little India or to order food.

"This change has had a big impact on the business, especially for takeaways, people can order from any store around the country when you are travelling and it includes a delivery option. You can find all 18 restaurants on the app and in Nelson we deliver anywhere from Hira to Brightwater, it can be very busy," says Mani.

While their grandmother is responsible for all the recipes and chef training, Mani and Sonia bring their own skills to the business. Both were born in Amritsar, in Northern India, and is where they met. 

Mani has a Masters degree in food technology and worked as a laboratory chemist before migrating to New Zealand while Sonia completed a three year clothing design course after she finished high school.

"Our grandmother had to give her stamp of approval before we migrated to New Zealand in June 2000," Mani says. When he first arrived, Mani worked in his brother's Little India restaurant in Hamilton, learning about the business side of running a restaurant to add to his food knowledge.

The couple got married in Hamilton in 2001 and have two children who take up a lot of time.

"Before the kids were born I worked in the restaurant but now I am busy with them at this stage," Mani said. "All the activities they do takes up a lot of time as any parent will know."

Sonia told me that they had a little bit of fun when they opened the restaurant.

"I was pregnant with our first child and Mani told people I was just his good friend, we were just having a little fun and everyone thought he was a bachelor, it was really funny sometimes."

The couple have two children, 12-year-old daughter Malika  and son Armaan, who is eight.

While Mani runs the restaurant and greets every diner with his trademark big smile, Sonia still takes an active role behind the scenes.

The Nelson Little India restaurant has four chefs, all trained by grandmother and four front house staff who work with Mani on making sure every diner leaves happy.

"We have, from day one, been very well supported by locals and the business has been continuing to grow every year," says Mani. "We have wonderful support from the community for our business.

"We lived in Hamilton and Christchurch before moving here but there is something special about Nelson.

"We have found it to be a very loving, caring and supportive community, it is very good for bringing up the kids and they have great support in the community, from the school, their friends and for everything they do."

So the Little India group of restaurants is a very strong family owned business. 

"We all get on well, have the usual family dramas, we have an argument but then get on with making and serving the wonderful foods of our homeland," says Mani .

For me, that is what makes the food and dining experience at every Little India Restaurant top class. 

 - Stuff

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