The hardest thing about running an Indian restaurant in Fremantle is getting the word out that there is more to India than just curry. Dan Wilkie reports.
FOR 17 years, Fremantle residents have been able to get themselves an authentic taste of India, right on the cappuccino strip.
But those expecting the usual Indian fare – a beef vindaloo or a butter chicken – may be pleasantly surprised by the unique cuisine on offer at Maya Indian Restaurant and Lounge Bar.
“To me, India has always been more than just the Taj Mahal and a handful of dishes,” Maya owner and proprietor Gurpreet Bagga said.
Mr Bagga has watched Fremantle grow over the past 17 years at the helm of Maya, which he started in 1993 under the guidance of his father, Rajpal.
The early days were tough in a town dominated by Italian restaurants, but Mr Bagga said the biggest challenge was dealing with misconceptions about Indian food.
“There were a lot of little things that I had to make people aware of,” Mr Bagga told Gusto.
“You can’t just give them something new, especially with Indian cuisine, you have to educate them as well, and explain what spicing is all about.
“When I started, Indian food in Australia was all about chilli, which was very hard for me because we never ate it really hot at home when I was in India; I started eating more chilli with my friends when I came to Australia.
“People used to be scared because of the chilli so we had to educate them and tell them about Indian food.”
Over time, the menu has evolved, from traditional northern Indian dishes, where the Bagga family calls home, to regional Indian dishes.
Today, Maya’s menu offers traditional Indian cuisine, with a crucial difference.
“Currently we are doing dishes that are unique to us, in that we use Indian techniques and Indian recipes, but we use local produce and we substitute local ingredients,” Mr Bagga said.
“Yes we have some classic dishes, but these are the recipes that we have that we can create something unique, which is truly showcasing modern Indian cuisine, but still using local produce.
According to Mr Bagga, his chilli King George whiting fillet and tandoori-style free-range Mount Barker chicken are fine examples of modern Indian cookery that have been popular with Maya’s loyal customers.
As Fremantle has grown as a culinary destination, Maya has expanded in kind, while industry accolades have flowed thick and fast.
“We were the only Indian restaurant in Gourmet Traveller this year, and The Good Food Guide has given us a star, which is equal to a hat in Melbourne or Sydney,” Mr Bagga said.
“Winning an award I think sometimes is easier than maintaining expectations.
“It’s a little stamp of approval, when people look at it they say, ‘Oh Maya has won those awards, I think they should be good’, but to keep up with the expectations you have to keep working harder to maintain that.”
Working hard to improve the restaurant has seemed to come naturally to Mr Bagga.
In 2004, Mr Bagga oversaw renovations to the restaurant and went about instituting a theme of fun, food and fashion.
His wife Rashmi – who set up Rushme Boutique, which operated out of Maya’s main dining room during the day – supplied the fashion part.
Further renovations in 2009 saw the boutique move across the street, with a new cocktail bar taking pride of place on the restaurant’s third floor.
But moving the boutique hasn’t meant an end to Maya’s art and fashion-based styling.
“We let local and upcoming artists use our walls as a display space, and I’ve sponsored three photographers in the annual FotoFreo exhibition,” Mr Bagga said.
“I want people in Fremantle to say, ‘That’s our Fremantle restaurant, that’s Maya’, and that’s the beauty of it.
“Over these years I have made many friends and there are a lot of regulars and local people who love us, and I think that’s the strength of Maya – people have seen us grow over the years, and seen that we’re constantly aiming to do better and improve things.”