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She grew up all over the world, but now Rokeya Chowdhury is committed to creating gathering places in Boston neighborhoods

The Dudley Café and Shanti owner prides herself on running businesses where people live, work, and play.

Rokeya and Solmon Chowdhury pose for a portrait at their home in Roxbury in 2016.Jessica Rinaldi

Rokeya Chowdhury, 37, is busy: She and her husband, Solmon, oversee three Shanti restaurants. The Dorchester branch has served Indian food for 23 years — a lifetime in the business — with other locations in Roslindale and Cambridge. The pair also run Roxbury’s Dudley Café, which opened in 2015 and serves as a comforting neighborhood gathering spot. Chowdhury prides herself on running businesses where people live, work, and play. Her family, which includes two little girls, lives on the Dorchester-Roxbury line.

Walk me through how you first got your start. How did you get involved in the restaurant industry?

I married into it, literally. It was originally my husband who started the business in Dorchester in ‘99. When we got married, I started helping — that’s 15 years ago now. I got more and more attached to the restaurant. I was enjoying being in the dining room and doing a lot of the marketing efforts. It eventually became my baby.

What were you doing before you met your husband? Did you have any idea that you’d get into the food business?


Something completely different! I was in nutrition and health sciences. I actually didn’t imagine myself being an entrepreneur owning a business; it was something that I got to see him do. Slowly, I felt drawn to it myself.

How did you and your husband meet?

Before Boston, I was living in Dallas. We have family members who are friends, and we met while he was visiting friends and family down there.

Was it love at first sight?

It was love that developed over time, through talking to each other. We dated for a while, long distance.

What was your impression of Boston restaurant scene when you first moved here?

I spent my childhood in Brussels. When I first moved to Boston, it just reminded me a lot of that, especially the architecture and restaurants being these small spaces or even underneath triple-deckers, like some places in Dorchester. It was very similar to what it was like in Brussels, where you’d see a lot of small, small restaurants, where the family lives upstairs and the restaurant is downstairs. It reminded me of that and felt really comfortable.


You grew up in Belgium?

My dad was a diplomat for Bangladesh. I got to move around a little bit and was able to live in different places and experience different cultures and languages. I was born in Bangladesh, but from 2 years old, I was traveling with my parents. I think Boston is the longest place I’ve lived, which is 15 years. This also plays a big role in how I see food and why I’m drawn to food: One of the things that was always exciting to me was discovering food.

Tell me about that. What are some of your best or most memorable styles of food, having lived all over the world?

As a kid, I spent some time in New Delhi. I remember kebobs. It’s known for biryanis and kebabs. When we lived there, it was still the outskirts; New Delhi was just being formed, and in Old Delhi, people were expanding out. I remember going for milk with my mom, and the guy would milk the cow there, and then we would bring our container back to the house — those kinds of memories. Even when I go back now to visit Brussels, it’s like: Oh, the fries. So good! As a kid, whenever you were out, you ate so much of that.


Tell me about your food at Dudley Café and Shanti.

Shanti is Indian cuisine. One of the reasons my husband opened the place is because he missed having it in Boston, and especially Dorchester. He was going to Cambridge to have that food, and it was a comfort food for him. So that’s why he wanted to open the restaurant: As long as like I can eat, I’m set. I don’t need any profits from it. I just need food from it.

We highlight northern Indian dishes, as well as different specials and different regional dishes. Currently, we offer a subscription, which takes you around the different regions within the Indian subcontinent. One month you could get southern Indian. Last month, we highlighted Kerala. The regional dishes are different, especially because the Indian subcontinent is so huge. The climates in the south versus north are totally different, just like in the US, like Florida versus Minnesota.

What was the inspiration behind Dudley Café?

It follows the same pattern of why we opened Shanti. We live close to Nubian Square, and we have our office here. My husband previously had a real estate office here. It’s something that we always missed — there were just not enough places to gather. Whenever we would have a meeting or wanted to meet up with a friend, gathering spaces were lacking here at the time.


We didn’t think that a restaurant like Shanti was a good fit here, but the Square did need more gathering spaces, more comfortable spaces, where I could meet up with a friend, a neighbor, or just do a quick professional meeting with somebody. That was our vision. We’re very proud of that space and how you can run into your neighbors here. You can see an entrepreneur working there or a city official meeting somebody here. That warms my heart, when I walk into the cafe and see this buzz happening. When I’m in there sitting and working on my laptop, I just love hearing the conversations.

How have your restaurants’ neighborhoods changed over the years?

Most of our restaurant spaces are in neighborhoods where businesses are more needed, where having something like that can give back to the neighborhood. It’s something that people who live and work there can really benefit from. You don’t usually see a lot of businesses open up in Dorchester and Roxbury like they do in Back Bay. I feel that it’s kind of up to us, for the people who live here, residents who are deeply connected to these neighborhoods, who are willing to invest in the space.

On paper, it’s harder to tell people about this neighborhood, but I live it day in and day out. I am more attached. And I know what my neighbors want to see, or what I want to see, and because I’m here 24/7 raising my two little girls. I [know what I] want them to grow up with or eventually be able to have in this neighborhood. It’s easier for a corporation to decide [to open] based on numbers and then also to decide to close up shop based on numbers, but it’s different when people within the neighborhood open a business in their neighborhood.


An Iftar box from Shanti Restaurant in 2022.Courtesy of Shanti Restaurant

Is Shanti doing something special for Ramadan?

When I was living in Dallas, there were a lot of options for Ramadan meals. Traditionally, it’s a meal in the evening when the sun goes down, after you have been fasting for the entire day, which you take part in with your family and friends. This wasn’t really offered at many places in Boston, and I wanted to start offering something small.

We’ll do an iftar box, with different foods that are traditionally eaten during this time. People can preorder it and take it home, or they can enjoy it at the restaurant. It’s also a great opportunity for us to share this with others who might not partake in the fasting but can still partake in experiencing the food. This is the second year we’re doing it. Last year, we got a lot of great feedback.

What foods do you recommend?

Oh, so many things. I love a lot of vegetarian dishes. I always go for our aloo gobi, which is a cauliflower dish. I also love our okra dishes. When it comes to meat, the ultimate is our goat curry, which is different from curry goat. The recipe and ingredients are a little bit different with goat curry and curry goat, but they’re both delicious.

Where else do you like to eat in your free time?

I’m a sucker for spicy food and really awesome cocktails. I go to Blossom Bar a lot. I also like their other place, Ivory Pearl. Their other new spot in Brighton is on my to-do list, Birds of Paradise. Being a mom of two, I have to plan my cocktail nights. My oldest daughter is 6 and the youngest is 10 months.

You’re busy! What’s your favorite snack?

It’s a snack made out of chickpea flour, a mixture, a street food that you find in our region. It’s called jhal muri. It’s spicy chickpeas, crunchy, that you mix with puffed rice.

Are you going to open any new restaurants?

We have some things in the pipeline soon to come. I can’t share at this moment. But soon. We’ve been so lucky to have such a loyal following for Shanti that we’re always asked which neighborhood we might open in next.

Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.