The inventiveness of Ragini Dey, one of Adelaide’s finest chefs

By Indira Laisram
Ragini Dey

When Ragini Dey migrated to Australia in the early 1980s, she attributes the move to the itchy feet she and her chef husband Sujoy shared at the time. And once they landed in Adelaide, they found not just opportunities but also challenges in a city with a fledgling food industry then.

Says Dey, “Indian food was almost non-existent. But even with Italian or Chinese food—it was just Italian Bolognese or a sweet-sour honey chicken respectively that was popular.” It was clear food would obviously become Dey’s passion to penetrate the culture.

But she struggled with finding spices. The Indian restaurants’ version of food was just two types of sauces used to drum up an exhaustive menu with 300-plus items. Bizarre thought Dey, who was brought up with the best tradition of Indian food—having studied, worked and taught in the food industry in India prior to moving here.

Dey would go on to start The Spice Kitchen, which she ran for more than 20 years, and which was one of the “most sought after restaurants”, winning even the national award for one of the best Indian restaurants in the country in 2009.

“We have definitely come a long, long way and with the migrants moving in a lot more as well. Also, Australians have an open mind to taking on different cuisines and cultures and with that encouragement the whole food scene is very different today,” reflects Dey.

Among her other achievements, Dey has also authored two books on cookery—Spice Kitchen and Everyday Indian.

Today, her Ragi’s Spicery, a very small restaurant, is a culinary achievement and even in the pandemic has been said to be a “powerful lesson in lean business thinking and emergency planning”.

To keep driving the business forward, she also continues with selling her unique and original spice mixes and has introduced new delivery products. In conversation with Ragini Dey.

▶︎ You have traditionally been a chef out and out?

Yes. I did my chef’s degree at The Institute of Hotel Management Catering and Nutrition, Pusa, Delhi. Then I got a job in the Mumbai College of Catering and Nutrition where I worked for four years. In that time, I also did my teacher’s degree for cookery, which stood me in good stead when I moved here and felt the need to run some cooking classes. While I didn’t teach in a TAFE or a formal institute, I did a lot of classes with South Australian cookery identity Margaret Kirkwood at the Gas Company and also taught with the WEA South Australia, which is an adult education program, for 26 years.

▶︎ Tell us about The Spice Kitchen, now an iconic name.

We moved to Adelaide in 1982 and seven years later started The Spice Kitchen in 1989. Before that I did a variety of jobs. 1982 was a difficult time for Indian chefs to get jobs and I landed up in aged care. So, for 11 years I worked in retirement and nursing homes, which also gave me a completely different look at the food scene because in India I had nothing to do with catering for older people as such. It was a great eye opener.

I suppose the key to its success was persevere, because first of all we had the passion and we didn’t not think so much on a commercial basis because if it was just to make money there was an easier route to cook. But if you like me have this passion, then you take it on you to showcase Indian food – something that may not be instantly popular, say, the bitter gourd or okra, which are cult vegetables in India. The Spice Kitchen ran for about 26 years, so we accomplished a lot in that time to change people’s mind about what Indian food really is. So, it’s the perseverance, one has to push it.

▶︎ You also started cooking classes to bridge the gaps in understanding Indian food?

When you say gaps, it was all a gap. Most of the restaurants at the time had this concept of two sauces, which unfortunately, dodgy restaurants still do that these days. And you have this 300 items of menu and it doesn’t matter what you want, they will have the same sauce and you have tomato filled in one and some cashew nut puree and chillies in another. So basically you might be making a vindaloo or a butter chicken but you are making the same base and that is really disgusting. So, most Australians were eating the same thing but they were not clever enough or, I should say, educated enough to discern what was happening and they thought ‘oh Indian food tastes all the same’. Whether they had five or ten dishes, it’s the same flavour which they thought tasted all the same.

And in the early days there was a fledgling vegetarian food culture coming along as well but mostly it was meat and they were eating this mass quantity of meat with very a tiny piece of bread or rice. So, the whole balance was completely wrong. They were thinking that Indian food is too harsh, too rich, that it is not this light and lovely cuisine, which is actually not true as we all know.

So that was the major gap that needed to be exposed so people realise—that first of all Indian food is so diverse and the diversity comes from its regionality, it’s not just north and south but it’s north south east west and everything in the middle is also different. I wanted to bring into focus that the restaurant cuisine is not Indian cuisine but a reflection of five different things that have become popular through the times and it has nothing to do with Australia because if you went to a restaurant anywhere in the world that’s what you would find. It’s only recently, even in India, that we have ethnic restaurants with different cuisines.

▶︎ So can we safely say people have now gone beyond butter chicken and rogan josh?

I suppose. But there is nothing wrong with butter chicken and rogan josh. Don’t’ get me wrong. It’s a bit sad when people think this is a limited thing. And they look at other cuisines and say ‘oh the Vietnamese or the Thai cuisine is so healthy and Indian food is delicious but gives us all these calories’. That is sort of unjustified and not true.

▶︎ How was it cooking for Sir Donald Bradman?

It was very scary. I was working in Government House at that time. We were given the seating plan and it had all the names on it. As luck would have it, he actually lived down the road from where The Spice Kitchen was and his son would bring him. I very much doubt if I would have recognised him but my dad was there one day and he said you know who is in table one, it is Sir Donald Bradman. I believe he had come quite frequently because his son enjoyed our food and brought his dad along. It was good to know he came to eat Indian food at The Spice Kitchen out of his own choice, it was a huge honour.

▶︎ Other memorable experiences?

More than anything else, I would say it is changing the landscape of Indian cooking that is memorable to me. Because it is actually thousands of people who have attended our cooking classes just in the restaurant and in those days when cooking classes were not popular and not something one did in a restaurant really. We were definitely the trendsetters because we did a lot of things which today are a run of the mill path.

We also started our spice blends which we have even now. When we went shopping in the early days, you couldn’t even get basic spices not like now where you have a separate Indian aisle in the supermarket. So we started our own blend which was gluten free with no preservatives, even in those days we were looking at the natural and healthy aspects of Indian food.

▶︎ What can a home cook learn from a restaurant chef?

I think it’s the other way round. If I have to answer that question, I would say working methodically, food safety, because when it comes to the variety of cooking, generally speaking, there are bad home cooks as well so it’s not that all home cooks are fantastic. But home cooks have a bigger repertoire than restaurant chefs as what they do day in and day out is limited when compared to what home cooks do.

▶︎ Tell us about the Adelaide Beer And Barbecue Festival and what you are bringing to it.

It’s the first time we are participating. We’ve seen it happening for a few years and somehow never got to do it. This time the organisers actually asked us if we would like to come on board, we said yes because most people think Indian food is just curries.

There are so many styles of cooking in the Indian cuisine and barbecue has been very much a part of the Indian scene from the earliest days. From the time of the Mughals we have brought a refined barbecue technique and the tandoor itself, which is the clay oven which you don’t use just for making breads but also for cooking meat and vegetables in charcoal. It is so unique. So Indian barbecue is just not meat but also vegetables.

We are hoping to showcase some of these dishes that not everyone is familiar with. Everyone is familiar with tandoori chicken or lamb cutlets but beyond that, restaurants have not done much to showcase barbecues.

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