Meet the couple behind Melbourne’s iconic grocery shop

Meet Michael Sharma, a resilient, quiet achiever who has contributed immensely to Melbourne’s multicultural story.

Since the 1970s, the city of Melbourne has seen a historic evolution enforced by changing social, cultural and economic shifts. If there is one person who has been witness to this change up, close and personal, it is none other than Michael Sharma, owner of the iconic Indian one-stop shop Curry Corner at 188, Russell Street.

The first Indian grocery-cum-takeaway food shop, Curry Corner has contributed to the rich multicultural history of Melbourne having introduced spices and its signature ‘samosas’ to the once inquisitive Melburnians. More remarkable is the fact that Curry Corner established its niche in an area dominated by Chinese commercial establishments, the China Town, a distinctive area of Melbourne. In 1861, the largest foreign contingent on Australia’s goldfields was the 40,000 Chinese who made their way here to make up 7 per cent of the Victorian population. It is said that the growing Chinese community in Little Bourke Street provided lodgings, food, equipment, medicine and some of the comforts of home to them. As gold dried up, those who did not return to China came back to Melbourne’s Chinatown.
By the 1970s, China Town was thriving. And Sharma, an engineer by profession, who had just been transferred to Melbourne, saw a business opportunity in the area, coerced by his wife Jaya who wanted to showcase her passion for cooking.

“Curry Corner was my wife’s idea,” says Sharma, sitting relaxed in a café close to his shop. It is obvious that by now most of the people around him know him on a first name basis. “She is a passionate cook. She said because I work long hours and have worked for so long, why don’t we do something different.”

At that time, Sharma was working for TAA in the aircraft industry (prior to that he was with Massey Ferguson Tractors), an engineering company. Born in Fiji, he completed his engineering course from Walsall and Staffordshire Technical College in England, specialising in diesel fuel injection systems and worked for TAA that took him almost all over the globe including the West Indies before he got posted in Melbourne in 1974. Clearly, it was a profession he loved. So when his wife suggested the idea of a business, he told her he will continue to work but help her out at the same time.

After spending 16 long years in England, Sharma decided to settle down in Australia, a country he had grown to love. While still working for his company, he started looking around and found the Russell Street shop which was up for sale. He bought it and started Curry Corner which introduced Melbourne to true Indian curries and sold spices, herbs, pickles, chutney and curry pastes. The year was 1978. “There was not a single Indian grocery shop at that time. My shop is small but I tried to make it a one-stop shop making sure I have got everything to do with Indian cooking, even if it is a few packets only.”

But it was a time when Indian migration to Victoria was few and far between and people were not accustomed to Indian food or spices. “We struggled a lot initially because nobody knew what curries were. It was hard to convince people that Indian food is spicy but not hot.”

Fortunately at that time, the Gas and Fuel Corporation of Victoria were giving cooking classes and they needed ingredients. So they came to Curry Corner. “My wife was conducting classes too so they used to send their clients to me,” says Sharma. He also recalls the man who was the first to import herbs from India, the proprietor of Ostindo Australia Propriety Ltd, with whom he had good contacts. As Sharma imported all his herbs from Fiji, Sri Lanka, and China, they found a common link.

“We were the first to start proper takeaway food from China town,” says Sharma. At the same time he wanted to dispel the myth that Indian curry is not hot. So he introduced a lot of food tasting in the beginning so that people acquire the taste. He even educated them on the kind of herbs used stating that curry is not necessarily hot but can be spicy and tasty. What makes it hot is the chili powder, he explained. Slowly people started developing their taste buds and a word of mouth helped. “To get into full swing however took me about 2-3 years,” he says.
People coming from England who looked for curries also found Curry Corner. “The curry is so popular in Britain; people would walk in and say we love the samosas. That’s how we started to build our name and how people acquired the taste. We did OK as time went by. I have no regrets whatsoever,” reflects Sharma.

Several stories surround the samosa at Curry Corner, its number one selling snack. Sharma says his wife has never changed the recipe since its inception almost 40 years ago. People from Canberra, Portland and faraway Victorian towns such as Bendigo and Ballarat ring up to make sure the shop is opened late so they could pick their favourite item. Once, a businessman from Apollo Bay rang up Sharma saying he wanted 100 samosas. “I said OK, give me about five hours. He jumped on his plane, flew to Essendon airport, took his car, came here, bought the samosas, drove back to the airport and flew back to Apollo Bay.” The businessman had tasted Sharma’s samosas earlier and admitted to not having eaten something as unique as this.

Jaya, Sharma’s wife, modestly talks about how former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sent her body guards to buy the samosa when she came for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in October 1981. “This is not the typical Indian samosa, it is tastier and not oily. That is our best seller for a long, long time, even now,” says Jaya, adding, “At one stage we used to supply to Chinese shops and at shopping centres such as Chadstone.”
But Curry Corner is no stranger to celebrities dropping in. There is the story of how Hollywood actor Vincent Price made a surprise visit. “Geez your shop smells so lovely,” he remarked to which Sharma said, “Take a deep breath, it is good for your sinus.” Sharma feels vindicated that the smell which was once too ‘strong’ for local taste has now found its way into many palates and hearts. Interestingly Bollywood actor Shatrughan Sinha found the shop so fascinating that he was overjoyed at the experience of shopping there. Others such as Lata Mangeshkar and Jagjit Singh too have paid Curry Corner a visit.

“Curry Corner is my identity,” proudly claims Sharma. And rightly so. In 2010, the Lord Mayor of Melbourne Robert Doyle awarded Sharma with the Silver Medal for his “untiring and unyielding spirit to provide services to the local community of Melbourne – making his contribution to the multicultural capital of Australia – serving to the appetite of lovers of Indian spices and Indian food.” The Mayor commended Sharma’s dedication to the city of Melbourne since 1978.

Over the years, Sharma diversified the business catering for parties, weddings, New Year celebrations et al. “We did that for 5-10 years and then we got tired.” There was also no competition to boot. “I was the only one here then and later other restaurants came up.” Though the Indian community was sparse in the 70s, there were a lot of Anglo-Indian communities they catered to.

Sharma recalls a lot of happy memories back in those early years. “There were about 40 Indian families, mostly professionals consisting of doctors, teachers and scientists. It was a closed knit society. We used to hire the YMCA hall and celebrated Diwali and other festivals that came along. We bought different dishes and shared. Now it is very different, the community is bigger and commercial,” he laments. Over the years, he has also helped many new immigrants in settling down drawing on his experiences and guiding them well.

Almost 40 years later, Curry Corner is still going strong. For the Sharmas, it is a family business. Jaya says her children Aneal and Kirti helped them a great deal when they were growing up. In fact her son Aneal, who she used to bring in a basket is today 34 and comes to help out in the shop even today every day after work. “He likes the shop. You must what you do, then life becomes easy.”

Sharma was born Sahadeo Sharma to devout Hindu parents from Ayodhya who migrated to Fiji. “My father came as a priest to Fiji for the community in 1900. Then he settled there. We had a farm and worked in our own farm. My sister still lives there.”

Known as Michael, Sharma says the name change happened in school in Fiji when his teacher who had difficulty pronouncing his name christened him Michael. “Since then I never changed it. Name is just a name, though Indians still call me Sharmaji. But once an Indian always an Indian,” he laughs.

Today Sharma is proud of his achievements. “I worked, I studied hard, and I wanted to achieve something. I practiced my own profession and also learnt how to cook in the process.” But he also credits his wife for all the success. “It was her passion to open this business and we are pretty self-sufficient. If someone is not well, the other is ready. I have learnt a lot from her.”

As we are wrapping up our conversation, a customer tells him ‘go and give lectures’. Sharma explains that when people are in the last stage of their lives and are dying, he does voluntary service of reading a chapter of the Gita for them. “I try and give them the satisfaction, it is salvation for them. I also read the Ramayana path. Whatever you do, if you do with achha bhau (good intention) and biswas (trust) it takes a long way. When I touch the Ramayana, there is God in us when we breathe.”

In business and in life, Sharma is guided by spirituality and Hindu philosophy. “There is one God, they came in different forms in different yugs (eras), therefore respect all religion.” Curry Corner is the rich identity of the Sharmas and it is not hard to guess how they have contributed immensely to Melbourne’s multicultural fabric.
by Indira Laisram