TRACY WHIT­MEY un­cov­ers the story of Rupa’s cafe, a bat­tler that’s still stand­ing de­spite a tur­bu­lent past.

Cuisine - - CONTENTS -

Tracy Whit­mey finds an Auck­land cafe with an in­trigu­ing past and some crack­ing samosas

KIDS ARE SPILLING OUT of school at the end of the day, and as they wait with Mum to cross the road out­side Rupa’s cafe, two small girls are high­fiv­ing with cafe owner, Dilip Rupa.

Oc­cu­py­ing a prom­i­nent cor­ner site on Welling­ton Street in Auck­land’s Free­mans Bay, Rupa’s – in­clud­ing the colour­ful bill­board across its up­per storey in­spired by a his­toric Bushells tea sign – is firmly rooted in lo­cal his­tory. The two-storey wooden build­ing was erected in 1899, with the brick build­ing next door be­ing added in the 1930s. They were bought in 1953 by Dilip Rupa’s par­ents who opened a gen­eral store. Dilip’s fam­ily worked hard, build­ing a loyal cus­tomer base of lo­cals and the sup­port of their neigh­bours. And to­day, Rupa’s is a pop­u­lar neigh­bour­hood cafe, still at­tract­ing many res­i­dents and lo­cal work­ers, who pop in for one of Dilip’s sig­na­ture cof­fees or chai, for lunch from the cab­i­net stuffed with samosas, filled rolls, wraps, slices and cakes, or to pick up a frozen curry to take home.

But it takes more than an in­ter­est­ing build­ing and a good lo­ca­tion to make a stand-out lo­cal cafe, and clearly this is no trendy, here-to­day-gone-to­mor­row pop up. It’s a solid, tra­di­tional cafe, the type of which can be found in suburbs across the coun­try. So what is the se­cret of its longevity? “It’s part of the neigh­bour­hood,” Dilip says, “It’s a place where peo­ple feel com­fort­able, where peo­ple come to­gether and ev­ery­one is wel­come.” Dilip also be­lieves that Rupa’s is re­spected for its sense of so­cial jus­tice and as an anti-bu­reau­cratic sym­bol of the re­fusal to be bullied.

So there’s more to this cafe than you see at first glance – and in fact tech­ni­cally it’s not even a cafe, but still classed as a gen­eral store – just as there’s more to Dilip, a vo­cal po­lit­i­cal cam­paigner as well as the ge­nial cafe owner goof­ing about with the school kids. And the two are in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked. “You don’t want to know about all that stuff,” says Dilip, but tales trickle out over the course of our con­ver­sa­tion about the cir­cum­stances that have shaped Rupa’s and why it is what it is to­day.

Go­ing back to the 50s and 60s Auck­land City Coun­cil de­cided that the time was ripe to clean up the area and de­mol­ish large parts of the neigh­bour­hood. Be­liev­ing that the school ad­ja­cent to the store would grow, Dilip’s par­ents bought prop­erty across the road in case they had to move but were dis­mayed when this and other prop­er­ties were bought out by the coun­cil. This was the first of many is­sues be­tween the Rupa fam­ily and the coun­cil – what Dilip sees as sys­tem­atic dis­crim­i­na­tion against the fam­ily over many years, stymy­ing their plans and pre­vent­ing ex­pan­sion – mat­ters which clearly cut deep. Glanc­ing around the cafe Dilip says rue­fully, “This place should be so much bet­ter.”

As the area changed, the needs of the com­mu­nity changed, too. Cus­tomers wanted a cafe and Dilip wanted to give them the food and the flavours he had grown up with and loved. Even­tu­ally, tired of be­ing dic­tated to by bu­reau­crats and with the build­ing be­com­ing in­creas­ingly di­lap­i­dated due to a

des­ig­na­tion pre­vent­ing im­prove­ments, Dilip de­cided to take mat­ters into his own hands. He be­gan to ren­o­vate bit by bit, with­out per­mits, and slowly a cafe emerged from the bo­som of the store. Re­flect­ing the bu­reau­cratic buf­fet­ing suf­fered by the fam­ily, the build­ing too bears scars of past tur­moil: in­side there’s a skew-whiff door and a chim­ney and wall lean­ing at an an­gle, legacy of when bull­doz­ers work­ing on the site next door dug up the land ad­ja­cent to the shop. Other as­pects of the place’s colour­ful past and Dilip’s var­ied in­ter­ests pop up through the in­te­rior. One en­tire wall of the cafe is taken up by the in­fa­mous wooden Bushells tea sign; for­merly part of the build­ing façade it was re­moved, re­stored and is now clev­erly rein­vented as a slid­ing door fronting a stor­age area. A pic­ture of Queen El­iz­a­beth II and Prince Philip hangs along­side a United Tribes of New Zealand flag.

The food, too, re­flects el­e­ments of the fam­ily’s past. Dilip cred­its his Gu­jerati an­ces­tors for a deft hand with the spices, as that re­gion was the gate­way through which much of In­dia’s spice trade passed on its way out to the world.

Large freez­ers are stacked with cur­ries made in house to take away, many of them ve­gan or veg­e­tar­ian. Dilip is proud of their but­ter chicken which he says is au­then­ti­cally spiced, with­out the sweet­ness that mars many res­tau­rant ver­sions.

Rupa’s fa­mous samosas, rated by Cui­sine's se­nior food writer, Ginny Grant as the "some of the best samosas in Auck­land", are made to a Gu­jerati recipe. Fra­grantly spiced, bulging with flavours and with pas­try hit­ting the sweet spot be­tween chewy and light, but never greasy, they truly are worth cross­ing town for.

OP­PO­SITE TOP TO BOT­TOM Iconic im­age of the Welling­ton Street dairy, circa 1980, by ac­claimed NZ pho­tog­ra­pher Robin Mor­ri­son; Rupa’s cafe to­day THIS PAGE Dilip Rupa in front of the fa­mous Bushells tea sign

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