Sacramento, CA 95823
Fiji, with its 882 islands—half of them populated—seems like a place where coconut, guavas, mango, jackfruit and a cornucopia of seafood would top the culinary charts. They’re part of the program but, as Mani’s aptly named “Curry House” demonstrates, Fijian fare is wildly more complex.
Located at Stockton Boulevard and Mack Road in the southernmost of south Sacramento, Mani’s opens doors to a wide array of Fijian food—mild, medium and spicy—through $8.95 lunch and $10.95 dinner buffet. Mani’s says on its website it wants to be the best Fijian place in Sacramento. If any indication of authenticity, the other patrons are conversing with management in what presumably is Fijian.
The Spartan interior is brightened by a wall-length mural of an azure sea with a two-sailed Fijian boat in the foreground, a long sand strand where a man—presumably from the grass hut village to the right—regards a flock of seabirds flying above a bank of white clouds.
Among the elements creating Fijian cuisine is a China connection. Fijian versions of chop suey—plenty of cabbage—and chow mein appear in the buffet. But the biggest shocker is the deep influence of Indian cooking. Expecting exotic ocean-based, tropical concoctions, instead there’s appetizers of crispy pakora clumps and triangular samosas—stuffed with the same potatoes and peas that would be found on the subcontinent. Something real close to naan accompanies the meal, and there’s tamarind chutney and a creamy green raita in the condiment section. Four versions of basmati pulaos, including goat, are also offered. As are four aloos—whose simmered-to-tenderness iterations all include potatoes combined with anything from garbanzos to cauliflower to eggplant.
“We make the same stuff, just a different way,” the major-domo says. Apparently, the British are to thank for this—they brought indentured Indian slaves to Fiji to toil in the cane fields.
Curry is king at Mani’s. No false advertising here. There’s five meat versions featuring lamb, chicken and goat. Another three seafood versions including a tasty crab and a tomatoey shrimp with their shells still on. More down-home Fiji is the dalo curry—taro—and another of potatolike breadfruit. Channeling China there is also a long-bean curry.
What distinguishes Fijian curry is its chronic lack of creaminess. There’s nothing, say, like a Thai panang or any of the yogurt-thickened Indian varieties. In Fiji curry is more like broth. Potatoes, some other vegetables, spices and whatever the centerpiece is—meat, poultry or seafood—adrift in a runny soup. The shrimp curry, one of the more benign versions with merely a playful sting at the end of a bite, spreads swiftly across the plate. So does the goat curry except for its monolithic hunks of same. The word “boned” at Mati’s has the opposite meaning. While the general belief is that boned means removal, a simple glance at the serving trays reveals the opposite is. It can make for a labor-intensive meal, avoiding the bones and peeling off the shrimp shells.
Among the several standouts is bhindi: buttery, tender okra sautéed with wispy onion slivers and a bit of cumin. It’s of Indian origin, but there’s no heat. It’s a calming influence on the strong afterkick of cinnamon-flavored goat curry and the powerful jolt of the crunchy pickled carrots. From the contrapuntal school of cooking is the jackfruit or katahar curry, which by appearance doesn’t fit into the traditional curry milieu. It looks like and tastes like shredded chicken although that’s the fruit, Jack, which is often called the “vegetable meat.” Unique and flavorful.
Drink options are proscribed. Seek alcohol elsewhere. And several of the fountain selections like lemonade, Fanta and raspberry ice tea are nonoperational.
Like the Mexican joints that do barbacoa on weekends, Mani’s offers a Fijian signature dish—fish lolo—curry with coconut milk, cabbage and tomatoes. And some taro on the side. An eye-opening culinary adventure.