By Howard E. Daniel
For a place like Honolulu, which justifiably prides itself on the cosmopolitan range of the cuisines it offers, there is a conspicuous culinary gap. While one of Asia’s two richest culinary traditions – China’s – is amply represented in restaurants all across Oahu, it takes perseverance and determination to find an eatery that offers the delectable flavors of India, whose cuisine is comparable in complexity, sophistication and variety to that of China, or, for that matter, France.
It took a computer whiz from Madras to help bridge this gustatory gap. Ravi Shivaraman has done more than open the only Indian restaurant on the Windward side – Mango’s Indian Curries, on Hahani Street in Kailua. He has wedged an entire subcontinent into a modest storefront between Mike’s Barbershop and the Post Office.
The world’s second most populous country, India spans nearly 2,000 miles from Kashmir, nestled in the Himalayas in the north, to the tropical state of Tamil Nadu at its southern tip. In between lies a patchwork of states, ethnic groups, religious traditions, cultures, languages – and cuisines – as rich and varied as those of Europe.
The magic of Mango’s is that Shivaraman, a Tamil from South India, presents a range of food as diverse as that of a theoretical “pan-European restaurant” whose offerings might run the gamut from Italian to Swedish. He does it with the assistance of Rohit Prasad, hometown: Bombay (known today as Mumbai). Together, the two have a firm handle on the subcontinent’s major culinary traditions.
The charm of Mango’s is that, unlike the fare in the fabled Indian restaurants of London, this is home cooking at its best, unpretentious but memorably delicious. (I say this on the basis of personal experience, having spent two years in the Peace Corps in rural India, where I lived on a diet of tasty, mostly vegetarian, home-cooked food.) In village India, the women begin each day kneeling over their grinding stones, slowly creating a paste of spices, garam masala, from fresh ingredients – typically a mixture of turmeric, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander seed, cumin, black pepper, red or green chilies, and a variety of other exotic flavors, depending on the region – and the individual cook. This is a world apart from the powder-in-a-can that most Americans know as “curry.” (The term actually derives from the Tamil word kari, meaning “sauce.”)
And it is this world of authentic Indian country cooking (deshi khanna) that Shivaraman has in store for any diners willing to transport their taste buds a few steps beyond the well-worn path. This is the real deal. Shivaraman, however, doesn’t begin his day kneeling over a grinding stone – he uses a Cuisinart to create an authentic garam masala.
At first glance, the handsome, lithe, 30-something Shivaraman is an unlikely restaurateur. A 10-year resident of Hawaii, he originally came here to study at Hawaii Pacific University for his second graduate degree – an M.A. in human resource management. At the time, he had already earned his bachelor’s degree and his first master’s – in psychology – from the University of Madras. Acquiring his first parchment at HPU inspired him to stick around for two more – an M.S. in Information Systems (IS) and an MBA.
Thus fully equipped, Shivaraman went to Maui and entered the world of high-tech business. By the time he returned to Honolulu and purchased Mango’s in 1998, he was serving as assistant managing director for Armimo Hawaii, a Japanese-owned technology firm. There, among much else, he picked up “a good listening knowledge” of Japanese and, he acknowledges after some prompting, a modest speaking ability as well. This makes him, no doubt, one of the few people on Oahu who has the same number of multiple master’s degrees (four) as he does languages: his native Tamil, Hindi (India’s national language), English and Japanese.
What prompted Shivaraman to leave the world of high-tech and enter the restaurant business? “Actually, I was thinking of going back to school to get a law degree,” he begins to explain. In order to do that, he thought it would be helpful to acquire a small business to provide a stream of income. The business he chose was Mango’s – at the time, a small health-food shop, which, in addition to the usual packaged products, also served smoothies and curry-and-rice lunches as a sideline. “As it turned out,” he continues, “the retail side of the business didn’t go very well, but people were always asking for the curries,” whose quality and authenticity took a quantum leap once Shivaraman donned his chef’s hat. So in late 1999 he took the plunge, sold off the retail stock, replaced shelving units with tables and chairs, hung some Indian tapestries on the wall – and brought forth an Indian restaurant.
It is a calling for which he requires no master’s degree. “I learned to cook from my mother,” says this youngest of six children (four boys and two girls) with a smile. As a Brahman (Hinduism’s hereditary priestly caste), Shivaraman abides by the traditional strictures against eating meat, so it is hardly surprising that Mango’s food is mostly vegetarian – typical Indian curries like alu mattar (potatoes and peas), lauki (pumpkin), baingan (eggplant), mattar gobi (peas and cauliflower). All the usual Indian side dishes are served – dal (a soup-like preparation of lentils or other beans, essential in vegetarian diets), piping hot Indian flat bread (chapati), several imaginative preparations of India’s finest basmati rice (mixed with cashews, coconut, lemon, saffron, etc.), an array of chutneys (including a delightfully refreshing homemade mint-cilantro), and mouth-cooling raita (yogurt with diced cucumber and onion, flavored with cumin seed). “Every house has its own secret ingredient,” observes Shivaraman, who clearly has quite a few of his own.
While vegetarians will love Mango’s, carnivores will not be disappointed either. Shivaraman’s assistant Prasad, who comes from the meat-eating kshatriya (warrior) caste, works tasty magic on chicken as well as vegetarian dishes, producing succulent chicken kurma (stew) and other traditional poultry preparations.
A visit to Mango’s is not, incidentally, the ordeal by fire that Americans often expect from Indian cuisine. The dishes here, while richly flavored and delightfully spicy (some more than others), do not require an asbestos tongue – and there is always some cooling raita in case of emergency!
In addition to its regular ala carte offerings (modestly priced from $6.75 to $12.50), Mango’s presents special festive menus on Thursdays and Fridays and all-you-can-eat buffets on Saturdays and Sundays.
Every Thursday night is “South Indian Night,” featuring bonda and utappan. Bonda is a chickpea dumpling filled with a tasty mixture of seasoned potatoes and peas. Utappan is a delicious rice and lentil “pancake” topped with a fresh-chopped sweet pepper, onion and cilantro “salsa,” South Indian style. The two specialties are complemented by portions of chicken or vegetarian kurma, a vegetarian rice mixture, a selection of chutneys, raita, coconut barfi (no, not what it sounds like, but a sort of flaky fudge) and chai, Indian tea, as sweet and creamy as in any village tea stall – and authentically flavored with cardamom.
Friday nights feature dosas – thin, crispy Madrasi “crepes” made from a rice-flour-and-ground-lentil batter and wrapped around a filling of seasoned potatoes. To make sure no one leaves hungry, the dosas are accompanied by a traditional South Indian sambhar (lentil stew with eggplant), vada (lentil dumplings), upma (Indian-style couscous), a sampling of chutneys, raita and, of course, chai. Both Thursday and Friday night feasts will set a venturesome diner back just $10.95. (A more limited dosa platter costs just $5.)
At $12.95, the weekend buffet won’t break the bank either. Served at both lunch- and dinnertime on Saturdays and Sundays – on a traditional, gleaming metal thali (round, compartmented tray) – it includes six vegetarian curries (a different selection every time), a chicken curry, two basmati rice preparations, steaming hot chapatis, papadum (a pancake-sized but paper-thin spiced lentil cracker, flavored with cumin), upma, vada, raita and an array of chutneys. It also includes a salad bar.
While the décor at Mango’s is nearly as modest as its prices, one touch really stands out. Each of the restaurant’s 11 tables (total seating: 40) features a large, fresh banana leaf pressed beneath its glass top. In South India, fresh banana leaves are the traditional “plates” on which meals are served.
It is a gesture of hospitality befitting the proprietor. A seven-day-a-week workaholic, Shivaraman takes a short pause as he buses tables and observes that “this is not where the money is, it’s in high-tech.” “Then why do you work so hard at this?” he is asked. He points to a couple of well-cleaned platters on the table he is clearing, smiles broadly, and responds, “Where else can you get satisfaction like this?”
Writer Howard E. Daniel lives in Kailua. Copyright © Howard E. Daniel, 2000. May not be reproduced without the author’s express written permission. Click here to contact him.