Pioneer Indian street food restaurant Raja Monkey is leading the war against coronavirus head-on – doubling in size.
Its newly completed expansion into leafy Hall Green is a delightful combination of two old adages: “If you can’t beat them, join them” and … “Put your money where your mouth is.”
The year-long journey from small to medium has not been easy and at times has been fraught with difficulty, especially when the supply of materials started to dry up during the lockdown.
But for owner Munayam Khan, it was a battle that had to be won – because Raja Monkey is the secret place where some of the city’s Michelin chefs go to eat when they’re not working.
âWe’ve already been through two recessions since we opened here 13 years ago,â says Munayam.
“So I already feel so thirsty that I think you could probably throw anything at me right now.”
âYour instincts kick in and you have to be optimistic, you have to make it work because quality has always been our niche.
âWhat we are doing is soul food, where everything comes from the heart and I hope everything will be even better now in terms of the overall experience.
âI once saw a documentary about the family that makes the Swiss Army Knife and I always remember them saying that in the good times you save for the bad times just in case.
“We quietly reopened a week ago and just made it right without going crazy, but the response we have received from returning customers has been fantastic.”
Along with his older brother Jabbar Khan, Munayam was one of the founders of the award-winning Indian restaurant Jewelery Quarter, Lasan.
Munayam is now the father of a son and two daughters aged ten, seven and four, and proudly says that Raja Monkey was the “first street food restaurant in town.”
âThere are half a dozen more now, so we thought it was time to refresh everything – and when the store next door became available, we took it and knocked it down.
“We went for a Nordic theme and made the place feel more natural, so it’s very different from what it was before.”
Rebuilding in times of pandemic
The opportunity to start a bigger business has been both a blessing – especially in terms of the need for social distancing in the battle against Covid-19 – as well as a logistical curse at the same time.
But with so many other pubs, bars and restaurants struggling, Munayam has decided to take a long-term view by creating a brand new venue that will have the ability to employ up to 20 people.
He was six when he arrived in this country from Sylhet in Bangladesh – only to spend a long period of time at his home in his mid-teens watching how the cafes worked.
âI missed my GCSEs, but I had a life experience that taught me a lot,â he recalls.
A management accountant by training, he has always had a passion for food and cooking and, with Jabbar, decided to make his dream come true, first at Lasan from 2002, then at Raja Monkey, which he launched. 13 years ago.
âCreating the biggest restaurant has been scary and painful,â Munayam admits.
âBut I hope the changes are really refreshing for clients who can still watch our chefs at work.
“We had toyed with the idea of ââexpanding for a while and thought about it for a long time, then the premises next door became vacant.
âWhen the lockdown came, it gave us the opportunity to tear it all up, ready to start over.
âWe had issues with the materials and working from home meant it was difficult to get everything started.
âBut being able to put the staff on leave meant that was a blessing as well, so we had it timed well in that sense.
“We’ve also received a lot of support from loyal customers and encouragement, so it’s been an amazing (trip) in that direction.”
Michelin-starred chefs who eat at Raja Monkey include Adam Stokes and Brad Carter.
But the only person you won’t find there is Aktar Islam.
Although Munayam says he watched his brother Jabbar give him his great opportunity to grow stronger, the couple fell out.
Raja Monkey’shearty menu
Among the dishes to choose from on small plates designed for sharing include pau bhaji (Â£ 4.99) – a street vegetable curry from Mumbai with toasted pau buns and Punjabi samosas (with potato and peas greens) Â£ 5.29.
Tandoori chicken with spicy thigh, gem lettuce and dressing costs Â£ 6.79 and seared scallops with spring cabbage, chutney, peanuts and cucumber kadki are Â£ 12.79.
Raja Monkey’s signature dishes served on large plates include braised mutton chops and prunes (Â£ 13.99), beef biryani Â£ 15.79 and paneer kofta with samphire and palak sauce for Â£ 12.49.
Munayam wants his restaurant to be “authentic” while being aware of the impossibility of defining the word.
âWhen my mother came here, she started making bhajis with zucchini, but you can’t get it in the subcontinent, so this is a great example of how traditions are changing.
“Where do the meals come from, how are they suited … how far back do you go to say that something is authentic when two mothers cook the same meal differently?”
âWe say we are British Indians, not Bangladeshi Indians or Indian Indians, because we also source local ingredients.
âWhat we look for in chefs is attitude. They can come here after spending 20 years elsewhere and they will arrive with luggage, unable to think outside the box, which means trying to push things is not always easy. “
Learn how to do it
One of the perks of going to Raja Monkey is that if you want to learn how to cook any of their meals, they will offer you a class where you can do that.
His cooking classes aren’t advertised and are relatively low-key, but Munayam has such confidence in what he’s doing that he’s not afraid to share secrets if it means passing on advice to the next generation.
âYou have to impart knowledge,â says Munayam.
Always the type to keep an open mind, he laughs at what his father tells him.
âHe reminds me that when the British left India the country was split into three – and now everyone is here.
“Is this funny?” “
And yet, at the same time, I remind him that the world’s most famous Brummie, Ozzy Osbourne, is rarely seen here (so he doesn’t know what he’s missing!).
It really is a funny old world but despite Covid-19 where Munaym is the first to say: “Birmingham was the home of the Industrial Revolution and is still capable of so much.”