I only wish my writing skills could adequately describe the delicious curries, dramatic Roots-like story of Indo-Fijian food and the admirable Saras Rao, owner of this restaurant described by the East Bay Express as the perfect hole in the wall.
First the food.
If the food tastes like something your Indian mother would make, thats because this mother of three is doing the cooking. There are usually two meat/seafood curries, two veggie/vegan curries, dal and those marvelous hot off the griddle smoky house made roti. Even cold, the roti were good.
Rao says that cooking doesnt need to be complicated. Her curries are based primarily on five spices. Every morning Rao roasts and grinds the spices for that day. There is certainly no sameness when she uses those spices.
Nothing goes to waste except the onion skins which she hasnt found a use for yet. She also talks about how healthy the food is and the benefits of turmeric. Healthy and delicious are usually mutually exclusive, but not in Raos kitchen. They add that special flavor that lifts these curries out of the ordinary.
Shellfish is in shell. Meat and fish have bones attached. It gives the curries extra depth.
Im going to repeat this from another post. If the crab curry is available, get it. Pieces of claws, leg and body are in a rich red sauce. Think crab and melted butter. Cook the crab in the melted butter (but I suspect it is ghee), add curry spices and other ingredients. Pick out crab pieces, break open with your fingers to get at the meat.
Rao kept talking about how everyone loved her fried fish. She told me the story of a mother who brought some home to two teen aged sons who hated fish. People in Fiji dont have plastic containers for lunch. Sometimes food is carried in pockets. So the son, a former fish hater, liked this fish so much, he brought some to school in his pant pocket, dying his clothes, down to his underwear, turmeric yellow. I have happily sacrificed a blouse to some curry stains.
To order the fish, call in the morning. You can order by the pound either with bones or boned (American style, so to speak). Indo-Fijian cooking primarily uses spices such as garlic, ginger, turmeric, coriander, fenugreek, cumin, and chilies. I bit into the fried fish. It is not a crispy exterior. I thought This is nice, but I dont see what the big deal WOW!! I am still new to these spices, but after a beat, it seems every one of the five spices Rao uses exploded in my mouth in a good way in a very good way.
Nice balance of spice. Not so fiery to turn people off yet not dumbed down for the American palate. The spices enhance the food rather than overpowering it.
The chicken curry is also in a red sauce with small bone attached pieces. I had my second goat meat experience here. The first, I dont think really counts as it was disguised in a goat sausage. At Curry Corner, tiny bone attached pieces of goat with a little fat for flavor is also in a spicy red sauce. If I didnt know it was goat, I would have thought it was a lamb curry.
Rao told me of a Chinese man who was a first time customer. He returned the next day bowing to her a number of times and thanking her for the wonderful food. Im with him.
Vegetable curries Ive tried so far seem to be turmeric based and included Potatoes and cauliflower, egg and potato, and fresh pea/potato with bits of red pepper pods. There was a wonderful green zucchini based curry that has a sweet taste to it but was fired up with pieces of seeded fresh, hot green peppers.
Rich tasty dals with bits of various veggies that strike Raos fancy dont have lentils because she is not fond of them. One day the dal had three types of beans, including pinto. There is usually some interesting appetizer or condiment. A sweetish/hot eggplant and unidentified veggie condiment reminded me, in texture, of a caramelized onion relish I had recently at Gregoire in Berkeley. Rao did tell me the name of the veggie which was new to me and was going to take me next door to the market to see it when she got a big order for roti
Last week, she was closing up when someone came in late. She told them, that she would not heat anything up, but to leave a quarter and they could have all the leftovers. They did. She said this week they came back and placed a huge order for a party. One taste of Raos food will compel you to return.
I sat around the restaurant one afternoon, chatting with Rao while she fed me wonderful little Samoan cumin/coriander fritters hot from the fryer. I learned about this amazing woman and spellbinding story of how Indian food came to Fiji. When it is not busy, it is like sitting around a friends kitchen, while customers drop in to pick up orders and chat.
She had some hilarious stories. I was laughing out loud at Raos reaction when a customer brought her a live chicken to cook. She told him she wouldnt kill the chicken and found a good home for it, making the new owner promise the chicken would only be used to lay eggs.
If the only thing I learned from my four years at Chowhound was about Curry Corner, it would be time well spent. However, I have learned so much more. I have virtually attended all sorts of ethnic holidays, births, weddings, and even funerals, all presented within the context of food. Perhaps if history had been presented in terms of food, as it is on Chowhound, I would have paid more attention.
So within the context of Chowhounds parameters, the following is about food. However it doesnt even begin to cover the drama of the Fijian story. Nor does it cover the warmth, humanity, or generosity of Saras Rao.
When I said I was surprised that there was Indian food on Fiji, Rao told me heart breaking and tragic stories of how Indian food and Indians came to the Fijian Islands.
After the British arrived in India, they spread Indian cooking throughout the world.
In 1879 the first shipment of Indians arrived in Fiji as indentured laborers to work the sugar cane fields. Between 1879 and 1919 there were 87 shiploads of Indians brought to Fiji. Raos 12 year old grandmother and 14 year old grandfather were on one of those ships where more than half of the Indians died before even reaching the Islands. Her grandparents, like many children, were married before the voyage so that the young girls would be protected from abuse. Like many Indians, they were given a supply of Indian spice seeds so they could comfort themselves with the cooking and tastes of their homeland in the strange new land.
When you talk to Rao you find that cooking to her means family, togetherness and love.
She also IS like a mom to the local Island community. There were two Samoan kids in the place who had asked for those fritters. She had me sit down with them and share the food. She talked about how food can bring a family together. She felt bad that many of these kids never get a good meal at home because parents are out working to pay the bills. Sometimes if they dont have enough money, she lets it slide. She even tries to pass along easy cooking tips, so the teens can make some good food in their own homes.
She decided she wants to move the restaurant to Oakland because she has so many people who drive to Hayward from there, and, more important to her, she wants a restaurant where she can hold cooking classes. She feels if people understand how easy it is too cook good food, it will lead to families eating together more often and uniting those families through delicious food. Rao says that people always talk longingly about old fashioned food because they miss the days when they gathered in kitchens and shared meals.
I said with the wonderful food she makes and her knowledge she would be a hit with the San Francisco / Berkeley crowd. She said no. She didnt want that. She didnt want to be the next Martha Stewart. She wanted to work one on one with the community and, through cooking, maybe bring some families together again.
Originally Rao was a nutritional nurse in the Bay Area and to encourage patients who would not eat, she started too cook food at home for them. Many started eating when given the choice of Raos cooking instead of a bland institutional meal. For that, she was fired. Showing the resolve that kept her family alive during bleak days in Fiji, she fought the decision and won.
To this day, the restaurant is closed on Tuesday afternoon because there is a BBQ at a near by trailer park for Senior Citizens and she spends the afternoon with these folks helping them out. If a few seniors need extra cash or companionship, she has them help her grind spices or do some little thing at the restaurant No homeless person goes away hungry when they drop by Raos restaurant.
Raos curries are simple yet complex. I get the same satisfaction and pleasure from her food that I do from my favorite top Bay Area restaurants. I cant tell you why many years ago the breakfast I had at Campton Place still remains in my memory. It was just scrambled eggs and bacon. Nothing fancy or special. At that time there was a new chef in the kitchen called Bradley Ogden. Six tiny sardines with a poached egg left me satisfied and full at lunch at Loretta Kellers Bizou. I get the same feeling of well being from the simple yet well done preparations at Desiree or Chez Panise
You wont get the fancy top of the line designer meats, fish and produce at Curry Corner. The ingredients are from the Islands market next door. I am not in anyway implying that the food at Curry House is in he same category as the restaurants I just mentioned. It is just a tiny hole in the wall with a mother of three manning the stove and serving up 4 curries and soup every day.
I cant really say what it is about Saras Raos curry and roti that makes it so special. I am no expert on Indian food. However I do know to me it is delicious and when I finish I am full and my soul is satisfied in the same way it is at my other favorite restaurants.
If you have any questions about Indo-Fijian food, I will do my best to answer. A few weeks ago I never heard of Indo-Fijian food. Yesterday I found a market carrying Fijian groceries two blocks from my house. I would appreciate it if anyone has any more info about this food in the area.
26657 Mission Blvd. (near Harder Road), Hayward.
Hours: 12:00-6:00 p.m. Tues.-Sun.
It is just south of the Super Kmart that is located across from the cemetery.