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Community Kitchen: From the Himalayas to Ipswich, the Sharmas share their story

Ipswich’s Prianka Sharma grew up a stone’s throw away from the Dalai Lama in the city of Dharamshala, which is perched up on the hillside in the Himalayas in northern India.

“Where I’m from is a small town in the mountains, it’s very beautiful, life is no hassles and very calm,” Prianka said.

Prianka has very fond memories of family life. She was the eldest of three and grew up in a large family with her aunties and grandmother living in the same home.

Prianka was studing literature when she met Raj Sharma.

“We fell in love in our college days,” she said.

Raj was heading to Australia to study hospitality management.

When he completed his education in Australia he returned to India to marry Prianka.

“Arranged marriage is the normal custom and my parents talked with Raj but they were scared because they didn’t want to send me that far away,” she said.

“But I was in love and they decided that yes we could marry.”

Raj Sharma grew up in a very small farming village, Bathra, with only 52 homes.

Raj is the eldest of three and his childhood was a happy one spent farming and going to school.

He didn’t have any luxuries such as TV or even a light in his house in his early years.

However, Raj describes this time as some of the happiest of his life.

“After grade six I would have to walk five kilometres each way to school, but it was interesting and so much fun. I wish I could go back to those days, no pressure,” he said.

Raj was a keen cricketer but the pathways in India at that time were limited. If cricketers didn’t play for the country, there were no other levels of competition available.

“My dream was to play cricket. But I had a few injuries and my father’s strong advice to me was to go to Australia and study hotel management,” Raj said.

“In India your parents are in control of your life until you are married. I am a people person so he took out a loan so I could come here and study.”

Raj was studying hospitality in Brisbane when he received a phone call from his grandmother.

She asked him to explain to her what it was exactly he was studying and her reply has stuck with him.

“I explained to her it was about looking after people in their home or in a restaurant,” Raj said.

“She said, ‘why do you need to study that, did we not teach you that already at home?’

“For our culture, making people feel welcome and look after people is really ingrained.”

Prianka had never left her country before she touched down in Brisbane in 2005.

“I was quite excited to see a different part of the world,” she said.

“Life here was totally different to what I expected.”

From the lofty heights of the Himalayas to the comparatively flat South-East Queensland, it was not just the geography that was different.

No one in either of their families had ever been business owners before.

The newly married couple opened their first business, an Indian restaurant, on Ipswich Road at Woolloongabba.

Both of them are vegetarian so Prianka had to learn how to cut and cook meat.

Raj had done all that in his training but for Parianka, this was one of the hardest adjustments for her to make. 

India facts

India is located in southern Asia with the Indian Ocean to the south, Arabian Sea to the west and Bay of Bengal on the east. It also shares boarders with Pakistan to the west, China, Nepal and Bhutan to the north and Bangladesh and Myanmar to the east.

It is the second most populous country in the world after China and the largest democracy.

Prianka is from Dharamshala and Raj is from Bathra. Both belong to the Indian state of Himalchal Pradesh in northern India.

The state is part of the western Himalayas with Reo Purgyil the highest mountain peak at 6816 metres.

Agriculture, horticulture, hydropower and tourism are the main cornerstones of the state’s economy and it is said to be the fruit bowl of the country.

Like most other Indian states, it is multilingual state with the predominate religion being Hindi.

Dharamshala

“We never kill any animal so preparing meat was hard,” she said.

As they were finding their feet and building a loyal clientele, the couple were served a blow.

“After four months of trade we got a notice from the council that the restaurant would be resumed to make way for the Clem Jones Tunnel,” Raj said.

“We lived above the business so we not only lost our livelihood but also our home.

“Everything was gone from out beneath us.

“Any money we had was poured into our business. We were left with nothing.”

After the family’s car was repossessed Raj decided to drive a taxi.

“It was a shock but we supported each other,” Raj said.

With the money they received as compensation from the council they went into partnership in a business in the city.

Over time they had restaurants in New Farm, the Sunshine Coast and Upper Mount Gravatt.

They found success in serving home-style Indian food rather than the commercial, celebration style dishes commonly found in Indian restaurants in Western culture.

“At that time there were a lot of Indian restaurants opening so we decided to we would use the concept of serving homely food that we would cook at home,” Raj said.

“If you came to my home you won’t be served with the butter chicken or tika marsala.

“What is traditional is you have a small some small dishes, maybe three, one with lentils another with one style of vegetables and the third a different vegetable.”

Ten years ago the family opened Indian Mehfil in d’Arcy Doyle Place in the Ipswich CBD.

“At that time you used to hear Ipswich is not good and there are bad people everywhere, but it’s not true,” Raj said.

“The true Ipswich has such a beautiful community spirit and we are blessed that we have had their support.

“We bought our house here and our children go to school here. It is important to us to be part of the community and to embrace it however we can.”

During the floods their Ipswich restaurant was closed down.

“Our chef would come in at 3am and start preparing and we all worked night shifts preparing 700-800 meals to bring to Ipswich to the shelters here and for whoever needed it,” Raj said.

“It’s important we support the people because our business is what it is because of the people.”

“Some people only measure their success by the dollar.

“But I think success is how we are in empowering the people around us. How we are embracing them, how happy are our staff is.

“For me the criteria is not whether I am taking $10 home or I am taking one dollar home.

“If all my staff, they are like my extended family, if we all can grow together this is what makes me happy that’s my success and in that part I feel successful, the other (financial) part not as much.”

Despite business failures and various obstacles, the Sharmas have that special trait that most successful business people have.

No matter how many times they get knocked down, they will always get back up again. The Sharmas put this down to family and faith.

“The background that we come from taught us, even today if we lost everything, we still have the willpower to stand back up,” Raj said.

“Our parents instilled in us discipline. We tell our children, if you do not have discipline you will not achieve anything.

“If you are going to do something, do it properly. Stick with it and see it through.”

Recipe – Channa Madra

Channa Madra (Chickpea Madra) is a Himachali style dish used in Dham. A rich blend of chickpea and the full cream yogurt sauce along with different spices. It is served with steamed basmati rice. 

Ingredients

1 cup Chick peas

3 tbsp Ghee

1 tsp Cumin Seeds

3-4 Cloves Crushed

2 Black Cardamom powder

1 inch Cinnamon Powder

2-3 Dry Red Chillies

2 cups yogurt

2 tsp Coriander Powder

1/2 tsp Cumin Powder

1/2 tsp Turmeric Powder

2 tsp Kashmiri Red Chilli Powder

10-12 Cashew Nuts

10-12 Raisins

Salt to taste

1/2 tsp Sugar

1 tbsp Ghee

2 tbsp Fresh Coriander Chopped

Method

Wash the chick peas and soak in 3-4 cups water for 6-8 hours.

Drain the water and add the chick peas in a pressure cooker along with 2 cups of water and 2 tsp salt and turmeric.

Pressure cook until chickpeas are nicely cooked.

Heat ghee in a pan.

Add cumin seeds and crushed cloves, black cardamom, cinnamon and dry red chillies and fry for a few seconds.

Whisk curd with coriander powder, cumin powder, turmeric powder and red chilli powder and add it in the pan.

Cook for 3-4 minutes.

Add cooked chickpeas, cashew nuts and raisins and cook for 2-3 minutes.

Add salt to taste, sugar and ghee and cook for 5-6 minutes.

Garnish with fresh coriander.

Serve Madra with steamed basmati rice.

Prianka Sharma talks about a traditional style of eating she enjoyed growing up in Dharamshala called Dham:

Dham or Dhaam or is a meal served on special occasions.

I have not seen it anywhere else like this.

If you are having a special function like a wedding or birthday party you invite the whole town to your home. 

There are no tables and chairs and everyone sits on a mat.

The food is served on leaf plates called pattal. There is no cutlery used.

There are eight or nine dishes served in order from curries to sweet.

I really miss those flavours from my childhood. I have spent many hours but I cannot get the same flavour.

It’s not just about the food, it’s about everyone getting together.

When we visit India I always ask my parents ‘will there be a dham?’.

This year I planned our visit so both of my children’s, Sara and Sohaan, birthdays would be celebrated there.

Now they look forward to Dham too.

Ipswich First

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