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Manjit’s Tandoor of Secrets: The Manjit story

The brand behind Manjit's, an iconic Sydney food enterprise, is the theme of writer Michael Cain’s new book

Reading Time: 4 minutes

 

‘Secrets of the Tandoor’ sounds like a perfect name for an Indian cookbook. But Michael Cain’s book is about a tandoor of secrets, more precisely Manjit’s Tandoor of Secrets. Much more than a cookbook, it is the story of a charismatic family’s food-based enterprise.

The family of course, is Manjit’s. Not the restaurant in this case, but the restaurateur. Because that’s how they are known in Sydney’s Indian community – not, as you would expect, as ‘the Gujrals’ which is their family name.

The book presents the secrets behind some of the fine offerings you might have enjoyed at the iconic restaurant brand. It also chronicles the life and experiences of the family behind the brand – Manjit, Kanwal and the boys Deep and Varun.

That the family is not backward in coming forward we’ve already seen in a previous presentation (the SBS documentary Turban Legends). This book by Michael Cain builds further on the life experiences and business adventures of Manjit’s family.

copies of Michael Cain's book
Source: Supplied

As migrants in a new land, the challenges faced by Kanwal and Manjit are well documented through stories of their early struggles. Neither came from a food background, we learn, but followed Manjit’s brothers Amar and Surjit who were already in the industry here.

It wasn’t easy work, and it nearly prompted them to pack up and leave. But they persevered, with that stubborn determination that makes up the ‘migrant mentality’. Early discrimination also taught some valuable lessons, especially to a young Deep who was bullied on the first day of school because he wore a patka (Sikh head covering).

Cain describes poignantly how the five-year-old would resolve this trauma years later by developing a sense of humour.

These are but some of the stories that will resonate with migrant Australians as they settle their children in a new country.

As Cain takes us through the evolution of the Manjit brand, from the first restaurant to another, to two more outside of Sydney, from a popular catering business to a fully fledged events management company, and finally to an exclusive restaurant in the glitzy end of town at King Street Wharf, we learn more about the family.

Manjit's at the wharf
Writer Michael Cain with the Manjit family (Photo: Balzinder Balz)

Deep, the extroverted, people’s person type of professional, is perfectly suited to the events management role as he custom-designs celebration experiences for clients. Varun the chef is the happiest when he is experimenting in the kitchen. Manjit, good at both PR and the essential craft, keeps an eagle eye on his boys. Clashes are bound to happen, and it is up to the matriarch Kanwal to play peacemaker. In the end, it is she who is the ultimate secret in Manjit’s tandoor of secrets, anchoring the family as well as the entire enterprise in her trademark gentle fashion.

Was she responsible for the pivot that Manjit’s took as it struggled with COVID-caused downturn? Probably. The new venture in heat-and-eat meals not only kept the wheels turning and the staff retained and occupied, but has now gone on to become a resounding commercial success. “It’s something that other businesses must emulate,” Cain observes.

Another thing that could be emulated, is the manner in which Manjit describes his staff as “my extended family.” Sometimes of course, members of his team become real family, such as manager Varun Kaur who Varun married recently, and Ash Reynolds (PR and design consultant) who might as well change his name to ‘Ashdeep Gujral’ because Manjit likes to introduce him as “my third son”.

steve waugh at manjit's
Steve Waugh is a special guest at the book launch (Photo: Balzinder Balz)

What makes the various anecdotes in this book fascinating, whether elephant-themed weddings or guns at 15 paces at interfaith nuptials, is how they are described: with equal parts humour and drama. Not unlike the family itself.

“Batshit crazy” is the way Cain describes them. And yet by his own observations of their life at work, outside work, and in times long gone, he builds a picture of a solid firmament: aspirational, creative, pushing boundaries, and having each other’s backs in challenging times.

Not so batshit crazy as you peel away the layers.

If you want to know even more about the people behind the Manjit’s persona, all you need to do is check out the recipes they each present to Cain in the book Manjit’s Tandoor of Secrets. Read each recipe closely, and guess the identity of the Gujral family member responsible for it. (For those reading that know the family, this should make perfect sense.)

Balmain bug curry. Mysterious. Experimental. Amalgamated. Not exactly traditional but with a distinctly Indian base. (It’s gotta be Varun.)

Goat Shoulder Curry. A Punjabi family’s Sunday ritual. Rustic preparation. Not overly spiced or marinated. (This one’s got Manjit written all over it).

Fish Amritsari. Just like the fish tikkas made by the street vendors outside the Golden Temple in Amritsar. (How can this not be Kanwal?)

South Indian Fish Curry. This is South Indian in style but it’s not spicy. You’ve got to try it… Ha, you loved it!  (Yup. It’s Deep).

Deep Gujral speaks
Deep Gujral speaks at the book launch (Photo: Balzinder Balz)

READ ALSO: Manjit’s expands its empire

 

Rajni Anand Luthra
Rajni Anand Luthra
Rajni is the Editor of Indian Link.

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