Rama's turns 25 - celebrating Canberra's original Fijian Indian restaurant

Natasha Rudra
Parsu Ram, Daya Gounder and Mini Gaundar at Rama's Fijian Indian restaurant at the Pearce shops.
Parsu Ram, Daya Gounder and Mini Gaundar at Rama's Fijian Indian restaurant at the Pearce shops. Photo: Graham Tidy

Mini Gaundar just wanted to keep her sister safe - so she bought a restaurant in Pearce and turned it into one of the capital's best loved eateries.

It was 1991, a few years after a coup in Fiji, and Gaundar's big sister Daya and her family were at risk of losing her work visa after her employer, who owned Rama's Fijian Indian restaurant, decided to sell up. The family was worried about Daya's future if she was sent back to Fiji. Mini - a bright, go-getting 24-year-old - resolved to buy the restaurant to give her sister a chance to stay in the country and borrowed $18,000 from friends to make the purchase.

She hadn't planned to become a restaurateur. Mini already had a job or two of her own - she was working at the Commonwealth Bank, and spent her weekends working at a newsagency. "That was my dream, to buy a newsagency," she recalls with a laugh.

Mini Gaundar laughs a lot. She's vivacious, with a warm, confiding manner that draws people in, and a natural hospitality that she can't seem to turn off. Even though Rama's doesn't open for lunch, she just laughs when a couple of public servants mistakenly wander in looking for a feed, and tells them to come in - she can get Daya to whip up an impromptu curry. "Don't mind the cameras," she says, leading them to a table in the corner. "Want a beer?"

On June 1, Rama's celebrates 25 years under Mini and her sister's ownership - a busy, thriving Fijian Indian curry house that's always pumping with people and brightly lit at the Pearce shops.

The restaurant is actually about 32 - it's been called Rama's since 1984, and had two previous owners before Mini. But Mini, her sister Daya Gounder (she spells her surname differently to Mini's) and Daya's husband Parsu Ram built it into something long lasting.

Mini and Daya grew up on a farm in regional Fiji, in a two bedroom house with no electricity, crammed to the gills with seven kids ("usually there were about five kids in the house at any one time, we would sleep on the floor"). Their grandfather had come to the Pacific island from Madras to work in the sugar cane fields. Mini remembers her mum cooking them roti parcels after work, picking vegetables and raising chickens and ducks for the family to eat. For a special treat, on Sundays, they'd get to eat toast. There were no toasters or electricity, of course, so they pan fried the bread over the fire.

It was an "innocent lifestyle", she remembers. So to come to Canberra, as she did in the mid 1980s to study at university, was a bit of a shock. "My first memory is of Northbourne Avenue. I still have that picture in my head, all the lights," she says. "We didn't get electricity until two years before I came to Australia so it was just, 'Wow.'"

Mini studied at the Australian National University and Daya, Parsu and their two kids came over a little later. The sisters cleaned houses, wore second hand clothes, saved. When the chance came up to buy Rama's, the family didn't hesitate. But things weren't easy in those early days. "Rama's wasn't busy to start off with. It was dead," she says. "Some nights we would have all of two people."

Daya's cooking might have been the difference. Or the presence of Mini on the floor (in between her other jobs). Either way, word eventually started to spread and after a couple of difficult years, Rama's began to pick up.

Mini decided to quit her day job. "I was like, okay, we will do [Rama's] as a full time venture," she says.

Keeping the restaurant afloat meant Daya and Parsu would be able to work and stay in Australia.

"My brother-in-law only went to school until Year 10. He couldn't speak or write much English. He could just get by," Mini says. "We figured job security for them and for my sister."

They made Rama's "more authentic to us", drawing on dishes from their childhood. There was a Fijian pork curry, a mango chicken that was Mini's take on the 90s Aussie staple apricot chicken. Their kids grew up in the restaurant. What kept them going? "The people. My passion is food - food and people," Mini reckons. "Ninety five per cent of people that come here are the most beautiful lovely people."

There are regulars who come every single week, families who get takeaway twice a week. In the 25 years, they've had first dates, marriages, wedding receptions, wakes, proposals. One young woman was dumped in a booth in the front window (Mini refused to let her pay for her food). Mini has seen customers start dating, get married, have kids, split up, re-partner, have more kids - and still keep coming back to the restaurant. Or she has to make sure they're always seated at opposite corners of the restaurant when they come in.

"The other thing that's been really great is the staff. We can't do this without our staff. I've had one girl start here at 19 and she's 30 now, although she only does a couple of shifts now. I even had a Rama's wedding," she says. The couple met while working at Rama's, fell in love at a staff party, and eventually got married and had a baby. Mini, Daya and Parsu aren't planning on quitting any time soon. "A lot of happy stuff has happened," she says.