13 May 2024

Kiama fish and chip takeaway serves up a tastebud tour of traditional Indian cuisine

| Karen Lateo
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Two people in front of By The Sea restaurant sign.

Mridul “Ridz” Anand Vij and her chef husband Deep Vij are taking Kiama food lovers on a tastebud tour of India, one state at a time. Photo: Karen Lateo.

Last August, Mridul Anand Vij took 35 strangers to the Indian state of Rajasthan.

In April, an eager crowd of 27 joined her to explore Bihar, near the Nepalese border.

Next week, it’s south to Tamil Nadu. And all without passports, vaccinations, airport queues … or leaving Kiama.

Mridul, or Ridz as she prefers, has a growing reputation in the southern Illawarra as an Indian food tour guide, coaxing diners through the exotic and exciting cuisines of each state of her homeland.

She and her husband, chef Deepanshu “Deep” Vij, host monthly gourmet Indian degustation nights in an unlikely venue: their burgers-and-chips takeaway cafe, by the Sea.

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Deep trained in Michelin-starred restaurants in Dubai and worked under Indian celebrity chef Sanjeev Kapoor. His passion for fine dining is every bit as strong as Ridz’s hunger for connection with their adopted Australian community.

“Not many of my family or friends here can travel to India,” Ridz explained.

“I want to take them to India through food. It’s on my list to do 28 dinners – one for each state of India. Our Tamil dinner next week is number eight – that’s just 20 to go.

“The India By Night dinners are part of my plan to introduce Indian food to the Illawarra. Each state has a rich history that’s told in its food, and food is the way we connect. It’s not just vindaloo or butter chicken and naan bread.

“Our Tamil dinner will challenge that perception more than most: we are offering a Tamil thali, with all the food served on banana leaf and eaten with the hand. Of course, we will provide cutlery too!” she laughed.

Food displayed on a banana leaf.

India by Night @ by the Sea’s traditional Tamil Nadu thali plate, served on banana leaves and eaten with the hands – though Ridz will provide cutlery on request. Photo: Ridz Anand Vij.

Like many immigrants to our shores, fate played a part in bringing the Vij family to Kiama. With her master’s degree in software engineering, Delhi-born Ridz worked for such high-powered companies as Google and global hotel groups Shangri-La and Oberoi, where her role included running the social media accounts of famous chefs. That gave her a connection point with Deep, but it wasn’t how they met.

“I had a student who was a matchmaker. I met Deep through her. She chose me for him,” Ridz said matter-of-factly.

“It was an arranged marriage. We met twice before our engagement ceremony. And after our wedding, I moved from Delhi to Dubai to start our life together.”

Deep’s hospitality path began in Delhi, scrubbing down the insides of tandoor ovens as an 18-year-old apprentice. His career progression in Dubai showed great promise, while his new bride Ridz was able to resume her digital marketing work there.

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But, with permanent residency a rarity in the UAE, in 2018 the young chef accepted a sponsored visa to work in an Indian restaurant in Australia: JJ’s Indian in Kiama.

“We didn’t know much about Australia, and nothing about Kiama – it was a surprise package,” Ridz recalled.

“I was on a dependent visa. I travelled from Kiama to Sydney for 13 interviews in roles like ones I’d held and was qualified to fill. The HR departments were very cautious in their wording, but one said to me, ‘You might not fit in here. You could face racism’.

“I had always worked back-to-back jobs. This was so different to the way my career had progressed. I was no stranger to racism – Indians do racism with other Indians as well. All we could do was take it as a challenge. We knew we had to make a place in this community.”

Ridz took a job as a kitchen hand at by the Sea, then an old-school fish and chip and burger joint owned by local family David and Lahiana Guevara and Aida Green, with an elderly Greek chef running the kitchen.

A colourful Indian wedding.

Ridz married Deep in a huge traditional, colourful Indian celebration (from left, her brother, Ankur, father Sanjeev, Deep and Ridz, and her mum, Madhu). Photo: Ridz Anand Vij.

She had absolutely no experience in food – or knowledge of it.

“In my first year, my old boss would say things like, ‘Get some steak from the kitchen’ and I would bring out the ham! I am a vegetarian. I had no idea what different proteins looked like. He was harsh with me but fair and helped me settle into the kitchen world.

“Deep was working up the road in the restaurant. I worked during the day, and he worked at night. He was frustrated; he’d say, ‘All I’m doing is cooking butter chicken’. He talked to me about his passion and his dreams – he missed the world of fine dining.”

When the cafe’s chef retired, Ridz’s boss suggested she and Deep could take over the business. It was nothing like the venue of the young chef’s dreams, but Ridz’s view was more pragmatic.

“I looked at this cafe and said to Deep, ‘This is your blank canvas’. He came to see it through my eyes.”

The couple took over the cafe in July 2022.

“For 40 years, this site has operated as a fish and chip shop. We were not going to change that concept. This is our bread-and-butter business.

“It took time to reassure people. Initially the community didn’t accept Indians doing fish and chips. Indians make butter chicken – that’s the stereotype.

“It wasn’t an issue with tourists – tourists just want food. But it took a while to get the support of locals. I’d worked in this cafe for four years before we took over, so it helped that they knew my face.”

Woman holding toddler.

Ridz may be crazy busy, but she always makes time for cuddles with her daughter Gracie, 16 months. Photo: Karen Lateo.

By the time their daughter Gracie arrived in December 2022, Deep was so committed to the new business that he hesitated over closing early and rushing to Wollongong Hospital for her birth. It’s a memory Ridz still teases him over – such is the warmth and humour of their relationship.

A new addition to the cafe’s menu – a butter chicken burger – is their cheeky nod to the stereotype, as is their recent acquisition of a tandoor oven to produce authentic smoky charred chicken, fish, kebabs and breads. And there’s more to come.

“The Tamil thali night will push people out of their comfort zone – including Deep,” Ridz said with a smile.

“It’s a tradition introduced to my family by my brother-in-law, Gulshan. I will explain how to eat the meal – how to use the bread and mix the curry and chutneys and rice. I will refill your leaf or bowls. It’s a food celebration that very few, even Indians, have experienced.”

The menu includes rasam lentil soup, steamed semolina cakes called idli, banana boondi, uttapam, spicy Chennai chicken curry, local fish and seafood.

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Ridz is coaching Deep in the vegetarian elements, sharing hints learned from her mother, Madhu, who is currently visiting the couple to help care for Gracie.

Without other family in Australia, and only a scant handful of local friends, Madhu’s support is crucial – the pair work long hours and Ridz is determined to push even harder to achieve their goals.

“When we complete the 28th India By Night dinner, I will run a survey on social media asking which dishes were the best, the most memorable. That way, we will create an Indian fine dining menu, by the community for the community. I will look for a 35-seater venue in Kiama and that will be our next project.

“From what I’ve observed, people in Kiama want to experience new things. They expect surprises. I’m ready – I have surprises! I have so much to offer. I have told my chef husband this is just the beginning.”

India By Night @ by the Sea dinners are held on the third Thursday of the month at 72 Terralong Street, Kiama. Follow the cafe on Instagram and Facebook for updates. Places are still available at the Tamil Thali dinner, which is next Thursday 16 May, from 6 to 9 pm. Tickets are $80 per person. To book, call 4232 1489 or click here.

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