The ceiling upstairs at Shakahari was silver insulation foil. There was brown rice a-plenty. The food was wholemeal, unrefined and usually an extremely good chew. The influences, as the name suggests, were initially Indian but the cuisine evolved into an east-west fusion. The restaurant had its devotees and was a cool place to go to feel the love.
In the early 1970s, Carlton was a centre for the counter-culture movement, with stores selling whole foods and Indian-style embroidered clothes, experimental theatre groups, and cafés full of espresso-slurping university types. Shakahari (the name is a Sanskrit word that means one following a vegetarian diet) was founded by the followers of an Indian guru, Muktananda. It was a time when young Australians were following the hippy trail across Asia and becoming interested in yoga, mediation and alternative lifestyles.
In 1978, Beh Kim Un began working at the restaurant and two years later he and a partner, John Dunham, took it over. In the early years, the dishes tended toward the hippy staples of brown rice and lentils, but after the change of ownership the menu began to evolve. As chef, Beh Kim Un began to introduce Western fusion and multicultural dishes, including his famous vegetarian lasagne.
The original Shakahari was in a two-storey former terrace house in Lygon Street. In the mid-1990s it moved around the corner to another former terrace house in Faraday Street. It exchanged the hessian and silver foil decor for a more restrained interior design, described by The Age in 2009 as “a study in brown”. The reviewer found the red paper napkins and thick break-resistant glassware “very student share house”.
The menu was expanded to include foods from Japanese, Thai and Chinese culinary traditions. The restaurant aims for dishes with the right balance of carbohydrate, protein, mineral and texture. Shakahari can boast many famous names among its patrons, including Barry Hymphries, David Bowie, Carlos Santana and Kylie Minogue.
In 2012 a second restaurant, Shakahari Too, was opened in South Melbourne.