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Shakahari clocks up 50 years of business in Carlton

Carol Saffer

The result of a Google search on Shakahari comes up with “Modern pan-Asian dishes served in a bright, Indian-inspired dining room and a colourful courtyard.”

But there is so much more to this legendary ground-breaking vegetarian restaurant than one line.

The business name was registered on February 18, 1972, and 50 years on, Shakahari is still trading in Carlton.

Malaysian-born Beh Kim Un started working there in 1977 and took over the business with John Dunham in 1980.

“When I [first] walked into Shakahari, I knew I wanted to work here,” Mr Un said.

Located next door to Jimmy Watson on Lygon St, the restaurant was staffed by volunteers.

“Many of the group that started at Shakahari were members of the Hindu religion who were like-minded and worked when they could,” he said.

He started as a dishwasher and was asked if he could cook after a couple of months.

After preparing several dishes, the boss said, “you are not a dishwasher; you are way too good at cooking.”

“Shakahari started with good intentions but without the skill to make it serious,” Mr Un said.

“I wanted to be [or do] something different as long as it was with food.”

His mother was a great chef and influenced him.

“I grew up in the kitchen working with her; I learned what taste is about and its balance.”

He became a forerunner with his vegetarian menu, a hippy owner with something he wanted to share.

“Our customers at the time thought it was very fashionable to be hippies and did a lot of travelling in Asia and the subcontinent.”

“When they came back to Melbourne, they wanted what they had experienced overseas.”

The proximity of Melbourne University was paramount in growing and developing Shakahari.

Writers, actors, and university academics were influential in singing its praise by word of mouth.

“We didn’t know who Joan Armatrading was when she rolled up in a white limousine, but she put us on the map.”

During an interview, while touring in Australia, she was asked what was the best thing in Melbourne?

“Eating curry at Shakahari,” was her reply.

His manager and right-hand helper, Manjula, has been with him since 1978, and he describes the two of them as the witnesses to changes.

Ingredients like fresh galangal, lemongrass and coconut milk were unavailable in the late 1970s.

He respects the Vietnamese who bought their cuisine, planted new types of vegetables and influenced mainstream tastes. “I offer a great gratitude for their migration.”

Mr Un said that using plant-based ingredients to create dishes that resembled meat was tapping into a non-vegetarian circuit.

“We are different; vegetarians are the main people we cook for; anyone else is a bonus.”

“[Interestingly] most of our current customers are not vegetarian, but they prefer our menu, and when they come here, they can eat and not leave feeling hungry.”

“While vegetarianism is recognised as a cuisine, we haven’t changed much; the furniture is still the same as when it was hand-made in the 1970s.” •

“Every day is new for me, and I will keep going until I collapse over the wok.”

 

Caption: Beh Kim Un and Manjula.

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May 4th, 2022 - Carol Saffer
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