Hot Stuff

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-By John Boley

Current Overseas Australian of the Year Barry Humphries tells a good story about ordering a salad with a meal in a rural hotel in his youth. The request was greeted with incredulity and a good deal of rudeness along the lines that ‘this was not Europe and he could take his fancy tastes elsewhere.’

The Aussie palate has become a whole lot more sophisticated since then, and the country more cosmopolitan. Not far from Humphries’ suburban Victorian origins, and not long after he failed to get his salad, an enterprising Indian family was setting up a company called Ostindo International, which with its Maharajah’s Choice brand has been responsible for establishing that country’s very distinctive cuisine and its reputation for quality.

In 1969 Abul and Judy Hasnat decided to import a small range of Indian food products. At the same time they opened the first Indian restaurant in Melbourne, together with another couple. Both businesses grew, and Abul and Judy decided to concentrate on importing. In 1971 the Taj Mahal was given to their partners to run, enabling Abul and Judy to build up Ostindo. From very humble beginnings this business has grown along with Australians’ tastes for Indian cuisine.

Dean Hasnat, Ostindo’s General Manager, says the company’s business encompasses a wide range of prepared meals, sauces, condiments and raw ingredients that are used by Indian restaurants continent-wide. Indeed, the company has become a leading importer of a wider geographical range of foods. “Our main brand is Maharajah’s Choice which is Indian food, but we also carry a large range of other Asian food – Filipino food, Malaysian food, Thai food and Chinese food – that goes directly out from us to Asian stores. That is a large part of our business.”

Some of the foods are sourced from within Australia, not least some of the pulses. “I think Indians traditionally have been largely vegetarian, mostly for religious reasons. One of the staples in Indian food are pulses – especially beans and lentils.” A lot of Australian farmers that have traditionally grown wheat, barley and oats have recognised in recent times the value of having pulses in their crop rotation. “So we are starting to find Australia, while still primarily focused on the major crops, is providing an increasing availability of pulse foods that would have been for export, but we find that we can tap into that now and we no longer need to import some of those products because we can source them here.”

Dean is a businessman. A strong dollar doesn’t automatically mean it’s easier to do importing. “I think the dollar is a double edged sword. Yes, the dollar is strong and it does help to some degree, but I think what most people don’t appreciate is that without the dollar being so strong there would be significant inflationary pressure. There have been cost increases with our major trade partners which have been offset by the dollar, so we have been able to keep our prices relatively stable over the last four or five years,” he says. “If the dollar had not been so strong we would have had to have been passing those increases on to consumers. It is a competitive market; it is not necessarily something that adds to our bottom line but I think it has allowed us to maintain price stability.”

But Dean is also an enthusiast for Indian food. “I think that my family are foodies and although I have studied business, I have very much grown up around food. I worked as a young man – more years ago than I care to remember – in an Indian restaurant that my parents owned at the time.” Even with other family members, he says, the conversation around the dinner table is “very often about what we are eating and analysing the food to carry it forward.”

Dean adds that one of the keys to the success of the business all those years back is that “my mother has a very exceptional palate. She is able to taste and break down food like nobody else I have ever met. It is that background combined with the business – my father is very entrepreneurial – that has allowed the business to evolve to what it is today. So when you say my background is business, I would say in terms of study, yes it is, but it is very much from a food point of view as well in terms of the home and growing up.”

Nevertheless, the business is booming, with more than 1,500 lines in the warehouse in demand for Indian stores and restaurants all over Australia. “We see ourselves as really a one stop shop for Indian food from the main stream consumer right down to a person wishing to make a quite specific regional Indian curry , we would say that we have got the ingredients for it.” That includes numerous varieties of bhasmati rice to enable chefs to create a more authentic taste when cooking regional Indian cuisine, for as Dean says there is no single “Indian” food but a series of really quite substantially different recipes and styles of cooking as found in the country itself.

“We’re quite lucky in that a lot of the chefs, given that Indian restaurants in Australia are relatively new, have been trained in India. There are very few chefs that have learned their trade in Australia. So they have brought with them the recipes base and the knowledge and experience directly from India to here.” This has helped to preserve the authenticity and also the quality of the dishes served in Indian restaurants in Australia, which Dean believes “is of the highest standard… most of the chefs in Indian restaurants in Australia have been trained in very good restaurants in India, so when chefs come out here you are getting a very high standard. I think that has really helped Australian people to develop an understanding of what good Indian food is.”

Foods sold under the Maharajah’s Choice brand have been developed to be authentic in their taste. Dean rejects any notion they have been ‘tuned’ or ‘toned down’ for the local market and its tastes. “Absolutely not. We try to hit a happy medium, and it depends on the area that we are looking at. If we are looking at mainstream, we try to hit a happy medium between what we would consider as authentic Indian food – it might be on the less spicy end of that but it is still what we would say is an authentic product. And certainly for the restaurants we try to deliver pretty much the real deal, as you would expect in India, rather than tailoring to an individual country’s taste.”

The family travels widely to check out innovations and trends in taste in other countries, although Dean says the UK – where Indian cuisine is said to be the semi-official number one cuisine and even the queen eats it once a week at least – is quite some way ahead in terms of acceptance of Indian food, which “in the UK has morphed into its own style of cuisine.” The UK has its own requirements and taste rather than a non-indigenous population. “Indian food in the UK has very much become mainstream, which it has not yet here.”

The ready meals range is proving a hit. “In the mainstream market, people are time-poor and there is pressure on when it comes to meals. There might not be the time available to prepare meals that there once was. We are certainly seeing a growth not only in our ready-to-eat curries but also our convenience products like chapatis.” The family’s leadership all those years ago helps in this regard. “We were very much around before Indian food was really heard of in Australia. Having been in the market for so long I think there is brand recognition and I know that our brand carries customer trust; there are people that have been using it for a very long time. So when we are talking to retailers or other wholesalers it is generally true that they already know the brand and the company, which has helped us in gaining footholds that otherwise might have been difficult to get if we had only started more recently.”

At the moment the family and the whole company are focussing on the Maharajah’s Choice brand to retail, “developing and strengthening the customer trust that we have out there.” It is an interesting time in terms of the global economy, says Dean. He is not sure Australia is going through the same woes as Europe, for example, but consumers here are “are tightening their belts and there is pressure on price. But it is really a key time for us to maintain our quality to keep customer trust and deliver to people the experience they are looking for. Going forward, I think there is still a lot of opportunity in Indian food so we are very much still working in the Indian and Asian food spectrum in the short and medium term. There is still a lot of work to be done.”

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September 20, 2018, 5:30 AM AEST