Bina and Raj Sharma started the 'Bombay Mahal' restaurant in Brunswick city to bring diversity to Maine's international culinary scene. They share how they established the oldest Indian restaurant in Maine and how they earned admiration from generations since 1991.
Located in the northeastern corner of the United States, Maine is known for its scenic countryside, rocky coastline, sandy beaches, maritime history and its lighthouses. It also houses the spectacular islands of the Acadia National Park. Every year, thousands of tourists flock to New England’s northernmost state, and once among them were Bina and Raj Sharma.
In the early 90s, when the couple went on a vacation to the region, they instantly fell in love with its coastal charm so much so that a year later they relocated from Europe to the state. “It is a very beautiful place. Here, one feels safe and peaceful,” Bina tells The Better India.
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After relocating, the Indian-origin couple observed that their new home did not have any Indian restaurants. “At the time, the population in Maine was not at all diverse and immigrants, especially from India, were far and few in between” she says.
Today, the couple runs ‘Bombay Mahal’ in Brunswick city to bring diversity to Maine’s international food scene which lacked it. Being Punjabi, the couple introduced a North Indian menu and offered staple tandoori dishes such as tandoori chicken, naan, butter chicken, saag paneer, and much more to the people in Maine.
Once scared to try Indian food, today Bina and Raj welcome hundreds of local customers from Maine, as well as Canada, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.
From seafood to aloo paratha, kulcha and lassi
While Bina was born and raised in Kenya to an immigrant Punjabi family, Raj was born in Punjab and raised by his Kenyan mother and father from present-day Pakistan. After completing his culinary studies at the age of 22, Raj left India to work in Europe across restaurants in Holland, Italy, France, and Germany.
With about two decades of experience in the food industry, Raj set out to establish Bombay Mahal in 1991. During the same time, the couple decided to get married. This year, they celebrated their 40th marriage anniversary.
With Bombay Mahal, the couple offers at least 70 varieties of Indian food including pakora, samosa, rikki tikki tavi, 11 kinds of breads like peshawari naan, keema naan, onion kulcha, aloo paratha, moghalai butter chicken, saag paneer, gulab jamun, and Punjab’s most beloved – lassi.
“Maine is known for its seafood and local ingredients. So, we also experimented with native and localised specials, offering dishes like lobster tikka masala, pumpkin curry, and blueberry lassi,” Bina elaborates.
“We have used several international and local suppliers over the years for not only the delivery of local produce but also for the Indian and Asian spices for all our curries and menu items,” she adds.
When Maine experienced the Indian hospitality
The couple says that people in Maine had never tasted Indian food and they feared the food to be too spicy. In fact, before coming into the restaurant, customers even researched about the dishes they offered, the method of preparation and even the types of spices used.
Over the years, the Sharmas were able to make Maine fall in love with their culinary delights and the unique flavours that they offered. Despite being thousands of kilometres away from their countries of origin, Raj and Bina have been able to gain admiration for their Indian roots in Maine.
“During our peak summertime season, we get hundreds of people coming in and out of the dining room. We have had people from all over the world come to Bombay Mahal as they are on holiday going to Acadia National Park, or even driving from Portland especially to come to try our food,” says Bina.
Today, they have also catered numerous Indian and American weddings and events. Talking about introducing Maine to Indian delicacies, Raj tells The Better India, “When we opened, our guests loved learning about India. They would enjoy listening to Indian music, its artwork, and cuisines.”
“People here embraced our food right from the start and were very keen to learn more about India and our culture. They also asked how they could make some of these foods at home. They would tell their friends about it and keep coming back,” he adds.
The couple adds that they have had diners from three generations who not only relish food at Bombay Mahal but also bring their grandkids to try Indian food for the first time.
Bombay Mahal has won an America’s Best Business Award and voted the Best Indian and International Restaurant in Maine. Today, it is the oldest running Indian restaurant in the state.
Other than Bombay Mahal, the couple opened their first Indian restaurant in 1990 with immense success called the ‘Taste of India’ in Bangor and ‘Tandoor’ in Portland’s historic Old Port, which they sold in a few years.
“All of them were hugely successful and are still running. We have heard numerous times that Bombay Mahal and our other two restaurants were the first places where locals tried Indian food for the first time ever in their lives,” says Raj.
“Being in the hospitality and restaurant trade all these years, you have to love dealing with people and making your customers feel welcomed. Indian hospitality is very important to us and how we make our guests feel. We are very grateful for the love and the long standing loyalty Bombay Mahal has had here in America,” he adds.
After Maine, the couple plans to expand their presence in Europe, Florida, and back home in India.
Edited by Padmashree Pande. All photos: Bombay Mahal.