Local heroes: Malhana Cloud Kitchen

Malhana Cloud Kitchen

By Rajan Sami

Lot 1 Koronivia Road is not, as one might expect, where Koronivia Road starts but rather, a good three kilometres inland off the Kings Highway, past acres of farmland and homes in nearly every shade of the rainbow.

It’s where you will find offices for Waste Recyclers Fiji and Pacific Recycling Foundation, as well as Malhana Cloud Kitchen, a delightful little restaurant in an unlikely location, which speaks to where business, food trends and our collective eating out habits are heading in a post-Covid world.

Serial entrepreneurs Joseph Inoke Deo and Amitesh Deo are the couple behind Malhana, the popular brand of suji (semolina) laddoo found in Fijian supermarkets. Joseph, who is Rotuman-Fijian, runs the laddoo business, having learned how to make them from his late mother-in-law, Pushpa Wati Deo. The line has recently expanded to include other Indian sweets like lakdi mithai, barfi and sweet and savory puri.

Malhana Cloud Kitchen first started out as a canteen to serve healthy meals to staff working in their recycling business. “We saw what our staff would buy and bring back from Nausori for lunch,” said Amitesh. “Things like noodles and deep-fried food.”

When Covid-19 hit Fiji in early 2021, the couple decided to expand the canteen to a food delivery service via a ghost or cloud kitchen, but dissatisfied with the food delivery options available to them, they decided to open a restaurant once the pandemic restrictions eased.

Today, the health-conscious duo is trying to shift the food culture in Fiji by offering healthier options such as tofu curry, vegan kokoda where crispy fried baigan replaces fish, gluten-free rotis made with local cassava, and fish kokoda served in a papaya alongside curries, stir-fries and deep- fried options. Drinks with non-dairy milk alternatives like almond and soy milk are also available.

Malhana Cloud Kitchen

Their long-term ambition is to turn Malhana Cloud Kitchen into a farm-to-table destination like Tukuni, which is run by non government organisation Friend in Lautoka. That’s where they took inspiration for the cassava roti. Since then, Friend Founder and Assistant Minister for Women, Children and Poverty Alleviation, Sashi Kiran, has eaten at the Malhana Cloud Kitchen and given her seal of approval.

The couple has a six-acre farm nearby, which their nephew Prithvi looks after. On the day I visited Malhana Cloud Kitchen in mid November, the cucumbers, chillies, cassava, coconuts and taro that were used in the meals had been sourced from the farm. Over time, they hope to grow more of the food that’s served at the restaurant.

Their “go local” philosophy extends to the restaurant’s staff and engagement with the local community. All of the Malhana Cloud Kitchen’s staff, bar one, come from the local area. “One of the main reasons why we wanted to open in this farming community was to provide employment,” said Joseph. “There are a lot of unemployed people in the area and most people have to catch two to three buses to get to work.”

Malhana Cloud Kitchen

Chef Rahul Krishna, who has done stints at Uprising Beach Resort in Pacific Harbour and Kokomo Private Island in the Kadavu Group, is from the area. Together, he and Joseph design the menu.

Beyond the restaurant, Waste Recyclers is working closely with the local community on garbage collection, disposal and recycling efforts. To this end, they’ve set up a community recycling station and built platforms to get household waste off the ground and away from stray dogs.

“Covid taught us that we don’t have to be in Suva,” said Amitesh, of their decision to base the offices for their businesses in Koronivia on a plot of land that once belonged to his grandparents. “Our staff don’t have to spend two hours each day sitting in traffic.” The factories for their recycling operations are in Lami and Lautoka.

Their decision to take a chance and launch the restaurant where it is—in the middle of a rural farming community—was a gamble. So far, it’s paying off. Their story is part of a larger decentralisation trend that’s been afoot in Suva for many years now as satellite developments (including eateries) crop up in suburbs like Flagstaff, Raiwai, Nakasi – and now Koronivia, once mostly known for the nearby agricultural research station.

Places like Eden and Rudy’s in Tamavua and Zamzam in Samabula have proven that Fijians are willing to make the trek for new culinary experiences. While it may be a fair distance from Suva, Malhana Cloud Kitchen is only a ten-minute drive from Nausori Airport, where the food and drink choices have always been lacklustre at best and which works to their advantage.

“We were sent here while waiting on a connection at the airport and I can tell you, it is worth checking out! Lovely little spot, well taken care of, and great service,” wrote Katie Burton, a traveller on the restaurant’s Google Reviews. On the Sunday I visited, the restaurant filled up with locals who came after church, and Fijian families living abroad. Joseph and Amitesh are proving the old adage that if you will build it, they will come.

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