Taste the Bangladeshi Countryside in the Biryani at Café Maharani
Café Maharani delivers rich flavors from Northern India.
2015 Hale ‘Aina Awards: Best Indian, Gold — Café Maharani
IN 1984, HONOLULU MAGAZINE ESTABLISHED ITS HALE ‘AINA AWARDS AS THE ISLANDS’ FIRST LOCAL RESTAURANT AWARDS. OVER THE PAST 30 YEARS, THE HALE 'AINA AWARDS ARE THE MOST PRIZED DINING AWARDS IN THE ISLANDS. CLICK HERE TO LEARN MORE.
Cafe maharain’s chicken tikka masala, lamb masala curry and rice pulau.
Photo: Steve Czerniak
To ask what kind of Indian food Café Maharani serves is to embark on a breathtaking sweep of geopolitics and history. Jocya Prince Arafat, one of three siblings who own the Mō‘ili‘ili restaurant, gives the CliffsNotes version. “Our food is Northern Indian, and most of it came from Moghul times,” he begins. He’s talking about the Moghuls who conquered the Indian subcontinent after their ancestors, the Mongol armies of Genghis Khan, had subdued North Asia and beyond. “When the Moghuls ruled, meat was their main food. So we have kebabs, biryani rice dishes, naan breads. Our ancestors are Muslim. Our food is close to Pakistan. South and north, east and west, all the foods of India are different.”
There’s more. The departure of the British Raj in 1947 left the subcontinent divided into India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Which all helps explain why Arafat’s family, which hails from Bangladesh, serves Indian food. “Our mom was a really good cook,” sums up his brother, Chris Rahman. “More or less we all learned from her. So this is home cooking.”
The core of Maharani’s food derives from shared childhood memories of the countryside north of Dhaka. Arafat, Rahman, their sister Nasrin Sultana, their oldest brother, Francis Tulu—who arrived in Honolulu first and opened Maharani in 2000—and six more siblings grew up in a family that processed mustard and sesame seeds into cooking oil. (Another sister, Hosneara Nitu, opened Café Taj Mahal in Kaimukī.) The men went to market early in the mornings, bought the day’s meat, fish, vegetables and legumes and delivered them to the women of the house, who spent the rest of the day prepping and cooking three meals plus snacks.
Even everyday lunches and dinners featured three or four courses. “Bengali meals have a vegetable in the beginning, then a meat or fish, then lentils or garbanzos,” says Rahman. “Rice is a must. You put everything on top of rice.”
Maharani’s menu is pan-Indian and beyond, so there’s spicy vindaloo from Goa, and South Indian red lentil and vegetable dal, and Kashmiri pulau saffron rice, and even spiced Manchurian chicken stir-fried with bell peppers, dried chilies and nuts. There are curries, masala dishes and assorted meats cooked in a 1,000-degree tandoor, the traditional clay oven that takes tremendous fortitude to operate. (“Can you imagine sticking your hand in there just to make naan?” Rahman says. “Which takes one minute to cook? Every minute? You’re basically cooking your own hand.”)
But if you’re curious for a taste of the Bangladeshi countryside—for the Moghul/Mongol North Indian flavors passed on by a Bengali Muslim woman who raised 10 children north of Dhaka—it’s in the biryani. The dish of basmati rice is cooked with cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, saffron and an unnamed ancient pod. “That,” Arafat says, “is the flavor of our childhood.”
Café Maharani, 2509 S. King St., 951-7447, cafemaharanihawaii.com.
To find out which other restaurants won awards in the Best Indian category, click here.