In 1989, the banks refused to lend Rano and Nitu Vasani money to open a restaurant. And the bank manager wasn’t happy when Nitu’s response was to cash in all his RRSPs. “I was 42 years old,” says Nitu. “I wanted to take a chance then when I still could, not wait until I retired.”
And over 20 years later, it’s obvious that the Vasanis made the right decision. The Taj Mahal restaurant has been and continues to be a highly successful restaurant with a loyal clientele.
The couple seems to make a habit of defying convention and beating the odds. Rano and Nitu were next-door neighbours in Nairobi, Kenya. They fell in love and wanted to get married but were forced to elope. “Rano is Sikh, and my family is Gujarati,” explains Nitu. They celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary on July 31 of this year.
Childhood Cooking Adventures
Rano says that she always wanted to own a restaurant. She started cooking when she was 12 years old. Her parents went shopping, and by the time they came home, she had made three or four dishes. Their initial reaction was horror – what if she had burnt herself! But then they tasted the food, and it was really good, so they changed their minds.
Rano’s family was vegetarian, and she continues to follow her mother’s vegetarian recipes. She developed her own meat and seafood recipes.
Learning on the Job
The Taj Mahal opened its doors in March 1989 on Laurier Drive in a former pub and biker hangout. “The rents were more affordable out there,” says Nitu. They had never owned a restaurant before, so they had a lot to learn. “I was very organized,” Rano says, and that helped a lot.
But they had their moments all the same. The restaurant opened on a Wednesday, and the kitchen staff asked for the weekend off in order to attend a wedding. There were only three or four reservations, so the couple thought they could handle it on their own. But then 30 to 40 more people arrived without a reservation. “It took us over two hours to feed all the people,” says Nitu. “Every half hour, we would send out complimentary appetizers. People were very generous; they knew it was a family-run restaurant.” And some of those people are still coming back to eat 20 years later.
The Taj Mahal has seen a great many changes over the years. They moved to Broadway in May 1993 and now have a downtown location in the renovated King George. The new facility is the first one they were able to design from scratch. Their son, Beemal (one of the owners of Sous Chef) designed the kitchen and dining room, while Rano took personal responsibility for the interior design.
The customers have changed as well. Initially, couples would come in with their children. Then those children came in with their dates and, eventually, their wives and husbands. Now they come with their own children. “There’s been a whole cycle of generations,” says Nitu. “It’s very gratifying.”
There have been changes for the Vasanis as well. Rano used to run the kitchen singlehandedly. She is now one of four cooks. “Now, I’m the choreographer,” she explains. “They put on the show.” Rano has standardized the menu and the spiciness of the food in order to ensure consistency and is delighted that customers cannot tell who is cooking because the food is always equally delicious.
Authentic Indian Cuisine
Very soon after they opened the restaurant, they had a phone call from a party of five. The customer explained that one of their friends didn’t like Indian food and asked if the restaurant would prepare an alternate dish for him. Rano and Nitu refused. “We didn’t want to water it down for the North American population,” says Rano. “We wanted to offer authentic Indian cuisine. Otherwise, what’s the point?”
The party of five decided to come to the restaurant anyway. When Nitu came out a little later to check in with them, the man was clearly enjoying it. “He realized what he had been missing by refusing to try Indian food,” says Nitu.
Food is a Science
Rano is very serious about providing healthy food and a balanced diet. She takes care to ensure that each of the meals on the menu has a balance of protein, starch, dairy and vegetables.
“The food in some Indian restaurants can taste very generic,” says Rano, “because they use the same base for everything. Here, each dish tastes very different.” Rano also prides herself on knowing how to cook seafood well. “It’s finicky,” she explains. “It mustn’t be overcooked or undercooked. If it’s not done right, people don’t enjoy it.”
Almost all the food is prepared from scratch on the premises. They use dried chickpeas and cook the saag and paneer from scratch. The ice cream is made by Prairie Sun Orchard, but they use the Taj’s own recipes.
It has been a busy 20 years, and Rano and Nitu are looking forward to handing the restaurant over to their children once the new location is well established. They would like more time to travel and more time for themselves. The couple has a property in Mexico (“The closest food to Indian is Mexican,” says Rano.) and would like to visit South America.
But customers have nothing to fear. The Vasanis have established a solid foundation and a clear template for future generations to follow. The Taj Mahal will continue to delight Saskatoon with its authentic Indian cuisine for many years to come – thank goodness!
Note: The Taj Mahal is located in the renovated King George Hotel near the corner of 2nd Avenue and 23rd Street. Call 978-2227 to make a reservation.
The photographs are of a vegetarian meal that a friend and I enjoyed recently.