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Eleven years ago, I arrived in St. John’s as an international student (hand in hand with Hurricane Igor). I remember having intense pangs for the tang of saaru, the earthiness of homemade chapatis and the crunch of a palya (or as they say in Hindi, sabzi). These tastes and smells swam through my memory, making my heart pine for home. The only places to satiate some of those cravings were the celebratory (and free!) meals at the Hindu Temple or one of four South Asian restaurants—India Gate, Taj Mahal, Shalimar, and International Flavours—that added their flair to downtown St. John’s. Both options weren’t in everyday reach—one due to availability and the other due to costs.
A decade later, things have changed and how!
The first time it happened I was walking through the vegetable section at a local grocery store, perusing through the greens. Lettuce, kale, spinach and kara bevina soppu. I did a double take. For a good ten seconds I stared at the dark, green leaves and the brown branches of a leafy green that is a staple in South Indian cooking. I picked it up (and ignoring how many people would have touched it), and held it close to my nose. As the ferrous-like, earthy aroma filled my lungs, I felt overcome by a sense of joy. Before I could comprehend the million feelings that coursed through my mind, my eyes gushed tears. The last time this aroma had hit me was at my grandmother’s home. She would ask us to run up to her terrace, bend over the ledge just a smidge and pluck these very leaves that she would drop into piping hot saaru.
The availability of these ingredients has reduced the ravenous gnawing for the food I grew up with. But what has also calmed the hunger pangs is South Asian restaurants taking St. John’s and NL by storm.
“WE WERE FIGHTING FOR PEOPLE TO TRY OUR CUISINE”
One of the places that we love visiting (for what I think is one of the best and most authentic samosas in town) is India Gate. Deriving its name from a war memorial built by British colonizers in India, located astride Rajpath in New Delhi, NL’s India Gate has stood tall since 1989 in downtown St. John’s.
“It was a challenge in the beginning. Nobody knew what Indian food [was],” said restaurateur David Sood, who owns and manages the business with his wife, Nikki Sood and brother, Bobby Sood.
Sood didn’t grow up in St. John’s.
He hails from Phagwara, a town in heartland Punjab, where tall, thick and tillering ganné ke khéth, golden fields of gehu and lush paddy grow amidst construction and unending traffic. As a nine-year-old, he immigrated to Toronto with his family. Their home was filled with the aromas of his mother’s cooking where roti, sabzis and daal were the staple and chicken was eaten, occasionally. Working as a server and in the kitchens of Toronto, he said he did what he could to learn his trade. Destiny came calling when Sood’s brother, who worked at the Janeway, suggested that Sood check out the culinary scene in St. John’s. A trip in 1989 and a meal at the first (and then, the only) Indian restaurant, called Curry House (which had been in operation, it appears, since the early 1980s), gave him the idea to bring the flavours of his roots to St. John’s.
“We ate at [Curry House]. It was nice… But they weren’t doing justice to Indian food, in our opinion. We felt that wasn’t right… [So] we [decided to bring] the right [Indian] cuisine to St. John’s,” said Sood.
Opening and operating the first fine dining restaurant to serve authentic North Indian cuisine wasn’t as smooth as the creamy dishes they serve. The first ten years, Sood recalled, were very difficult.
“People weren’t coming to us. We were fighting for people to try our cuisine. They weren’t used to it. If 10 people were going out, [we might have] got 1% because nobody liked [Indian food]… they didn’t know about Indian food taste,” said Sood.
Indian cuisine dates back to as far as eight thousand years with influences as old as the Indus Valley Civilization to as new as McDonald’s constantly adding to its intricate nuances. The region is a vast area, sprouting over 25,000 dishes. Yet, all that survives popularly, largely and stereotypically in North America are Curry, Chai Tea and Naan Bread, words that are not traditional to South Asia and have been anglicized in order to serve the Western market.
“[People here] always [say Indian food is] curry and spice. They didn’t understand that there’s certain cuisines from India that have [different flavours]. It was tough. It is hard to teach people. But they adapted. They tried it and slowly, slowly [it changed]. Anything new takes time,” said Sood.
“TODAY, I AM SPOILT FOR CHOICE”
In North America, Indian food seems to have first manifested in restaurants as Butter Chicken, a recipe that was created in Peshawar by Kundan Lal Gujral while working at a small eatery called Moti Mahal, before India was divided by the British. Post Partition, Gujral migrated to Delhi and began a new restaurant called Moti Mahal in the capital of partitioned India where Murgh Makhni (Butter Chicken) and its deliciousness exploded. It is said to have first appeared as Butter Chicken on this continent in a Manhattan restaurant. Today, it is a worldwide favourite and is associated with Indian food (more so by many outside of India).
While I knew Indian food is more than Butter Chicken and Chickpeas, eleven years ago when I arrived in the province, it is what appeared to be sold here the most.
However, today, there are (from what I have counted) seventeen Desi joints serving up South Asian meals in NL (and over sixty South Asian restaurants in Atlantic Canada). Each comes with its own tadka and twang. In some, amidst plastic chairs and metal tables, large LCD TVs blare Kapil Sharma’s comedy. In others, soft sitars and tablas dance away a tune. Regardless of size, in most of these spaces, there are objects, publicly displayed to root the restaurateur’s association with the South Asian countries they represent. In some it is splashed as the colours of paint, drawn from their country’s flag. In others, the artistic expression is through Meerabai’s saree-clad statue greeting their clients. What has stayed with me is the visual of a brownish-grey fishing net hung on a blue wall in a restaurant reminding the business owners of not only their home of origin but also their chosen home in NL.
Most serve flavours associated with North India. One of these seventeen, now, offers South Indian flavours and two, selected dishes from Bangla cuisine. Several dabble in chaat, a spicy, tangy, vegetarian (often) street snack. A few have branched into food trucks and are, also, selling in mini marts, gas stations and grocery stores. Some sell South Asian groceries at their restaurants. And many are shifting to use only Halal meats in their kitchens to ensure their Muslim clients have equitable choices in their dining experience.
Of these, five are run jointly by South Asian couples—four are managed largely by women and six are run predominantly by men. The women running these restaurants are, often, equally if not more educated than their spouses with some having studied as high as their PhDs. Limited English proficiency, their degrees not holding the same merit in Canada, unemployment, experience in the service industry, and multigenerational families to support all catalyze many South Asians in and outside of the province to pursue entrepreneurial opportunities in the restaurant industry.
South Asian restaurants in Canada, in relative comparison to their white counterparts, are known for setting lower price points as their function is, more or less, reduced to takeout spots rather than dine in restaurants. Often, high end restaurants will use South Asian flavours to give a traditional European dish a new twist, but seldom are authentic South Asian dishes seen on their menu. It remains an uphill struggle for many South Asians in the industry to have their food seen as haute cuisine and sold at the same high prices their “white” counterparts are. These biases start young. It isn’t uncommon for South Asian children to choose to take a sandwich over Rajma Chawal as their lunch to school, afraid that its distinct aroma will lead to teasing, name-calling, and even bullying.
On the other hand, often the authentic flavours in South Asian restaurants are twisted and turned to suit the local community they are serving. And, this isn’t necessarily right or wrong, merely what helps the business survive. In NL, it has led to the creative amalgamation of unexpected flavours. Whether it is spicy Butter Chicken pasta or Tikka pizza, moose Rogan Josh or Gulab Jamun cake, “inauthenticity” has exposed South Asian and non-South Asian palettes in the province to newer zings.
“ARRIVE VIA A SINGLE, CONTINUOUS JOURNEY OR GO BACK HOME”
The first South Asian immigrants were said to have arrived in Canada at the start of the 20th century. Hailing from Punjab, and consisting largely of Sikh men, they settled mostly in Vancouver, finding work locally. However, the climate in Canada, then, wasn’t accepting of non-white immigrants. Soon, like the Chinese head tax, the Canadian parliament passed a law that required immigrants from India to arrive via a single, continuous journey—impossible in those days—which led to a steep decline in migration from the Indian subcontinent.
It wasn’t until the 1960s and the advent of the points based, merit system in immigration that saw an influx of Indians, Pakistanis, (post-1971, Bangladeshis), Sri Lankans, Nepalese and Bhutanese into cities like Toronto and Vancouver. This filtered down to St. John’s too, slowly seeing a rise of a South Asian community in Newfoundland and Labrador.
At the start of the 21st century, just over a thousand South Asians called Newfoundland and Labrador home—of which nine hundred were classified as East Indian. By 2016, these numbers had more than doubled. In the last five years, there has been a significant boost by the Government of Canada to bring global talent to live, work and contribute to the social, economic and cultural fabric of the country. Atlantic Canada has seen an influx of immigrants through the Atlantic Immigration Pilot Program. As of December 2019, due to this program, nearly five thousand six hundred individuals chose to make the region their home, of which 10% settled in Newfoundland and Labrador.
One such family is that of Aravind Muthuswamy, Ranjini Aravind and their two daughters.
“WE REALLY THOUGHT WE’D ENDED UP IN THE WRONG PLACE”
Aravind and Ranjini’s roots take them back to Tiruchirapalli, a city in Tamil Nadu, surrounded by agricultural fields, owing to the start of the river Kaveri’s delta. It is here where the ringing of brass bells in ancient temples intertwines with the chime of the Roman Catholic Basilicas. In the shadow of a tall fort, where temple gopras, coconut trees, high rise buildings, Masjid domes and church steeples inch towards the sky, bustling streets burst with vendors and their price-savvy buyers negotiating in rapid Tamil, the cost of everyday things like onions.
“I ate only Indian food [while living in Tiruchirapalli],” said Ranjini, a Tamil major with a Bachelor of Education who taught middle grade children at a private school in Tiruchirapalli.
Her day, she said, would begin with a hearty breakfast that ranged from dosas, idlis, upma and pooris. She relied on rice, rasam and sambar for her nutrition, splurging occasionally on Chili Chicken, Hakka noodles and Parathas.
In contrast, her husband, Aravind, who left India at a young age to pursue his education in Hotel Management and Catering in the UK, got accustomed to English foods. The couple lived in Dubai prior to arriving in Grand Falls-Windsor. It is in Dubai where Aravind was interviewed by a recruiter, Franchise Management Inc., who was mass hiring people from India, Philippines and UAE for jobs in Atlantic Canada. With an offer letter in hand to manage the KFC in Grand Falls-Windsor, the family set out to root themselves in Central Newfoundland.
“It was a bit tough for the first two days. [We really thought we’d ended up in the wrong place.] Then my next door neighbour, George, came and checked on us. It wasn’t as scary for us after,” said Aravind.
Aravind came here with the dreams of using his education to open an Indian restaurant. And although Ranjini wasn’t formally trained in the culinary arts, she brought with her fifteen years of home-cooking experience. With this, they began their entrepreneurial venture: East Atlantic Tandoor.
“EVERYTHING WAS SOLD IN 30 MINUTES”
Their path wasn’t without challenges which, on closer examination, appears similar to what India Gate faced in the St. John’s of 1989.
“Opening [this] kind of restaurant, in Grand Falls-Windsor, where people are not exposed to these kinds of spices before [is a challenge]. When they think of Indian food, they think of spiciness… the level of heat they will feel. That is what they’re afraid of. Having an Indian meal should give you all types of flavours on the palette and not just a hot kick,” said Aravind.
Like India Gate, they persisted.
With the help of community members, that includes the Youth 2000 Centre (who offered them a free kitchen) and the Association For New Canadians (that connected them with supports, including participation in Conversation Cafe and English classes for Ranjini), they set up shop at the local farmer’s market where they encouraged the people to sample their food.
“We cooked everything and took it to the market. Everything was sold in 30 minutes. That’s how it all started,” said Aravind.
East Atlantic Tandoor is located where Kumar’s used to be (also called Sara’s Diner Indian and Canadian food). Kumar’s made history by not only being the first South Asian restaurant in Central Newfoundland but also one of (if not the first) to serve South Indian cuisine in the province.
Both Sood of India Gate and Aravind & Ranjini of East Atlantic Tandoor chose to settle and open businesses in Newfoundland and Labrador due to the quiet life it offered, a stark change from the busy metropolises they lived in before moving homes. While India Gate serves a quintessential North Indian, Mughlai fare, East Atlantic Tandoor’s menu isn’t fixed and is an eclectic mix of recipes from the north and south of India, and of the foods that Aravind and Ranjini grew up eating. Their major clientele are white Newfoundlanders in and around the areas they operate.
“I DON’T KNOW HOW TO DRIVE”
Running a business based on recipes whose ingredients aren’t mainstream comes with its own challenges. India Gate sources it from a supplier in Toronto. East Atlantic Tandoor is working with a local business in Grand Falls-Windsor, called Scoop and Save, for their spices and groceries like tamarind, a key in many South Indian and East Indian dishes.
The restaurant business is labour intensive and from what Sood and Aravind said based on their experience, it appears it is more so for South Asian restaurants.
“We bring in six to seven kilos of onions and chop them from scratch everyday,” said Aravind.
Most of the dishes that are prepared and served by their restaurant, they said, requires a lot of labour in chopping onions, ginger and garlic as the food they serve, like butter chicken or samosas, all are made from square one.
“We had some part-time people [working with us]. [When we told them] about chopping the onions, they left. They said it’s too much for them and it hurts their eyes. Our job is not something that can be easily done,” Aravind added.
In India Gate’s case, the solution lay outside the borders of Canada.
“The chefs came from back home. They still come from back home. It is hard to find anyone here as cooks [for Indian food]. Unless you want to do it yourself. Then it’s different,” said Sood.
East Atlantic Tandoor, now, find themselves in a situation where they are not able to find the right talent to work with them.
“It’s a kind of battle. I’ve posted jobs, but no one has applied,” said Aravind.
The couple remain acutely aware of the fact that minimum wages, which the position at their restaurant has been advertised for, isn’t attractive and humane pay. However, as new, small business owners and as immigrants, they find themselves in a tricky position without the right support in their kitchen and are, now, operating on limited hours every week.
Choosing not to rely solely on their income from the restaurant, Aravind also works a full time job (not with KFC). The busy, shift-working parents face challenges in childcare for their children, both below five, beyond the usual 9 to 5 work hours.
And, for Ranjini, like many immigrant and refugee women, one of the biggest problems remains transportation.
“I don’t know [how to drive]. So, I need someone’s help. [Either] my husband’s or a neighbour’s,” she said.
Keen on seeing her business succeed and interested in returning back to university to upgrade her education in teaching to match the required standards here, Ranjini communicated her frustration at the lack of transportation being an impediment in continuing gainful employment in the province, conscious of the doors that would open if she were in a place like Toronto.
“If we’re in the mainland, [I] can teach Tamil. It’s taught in schools there. I can [also provide] tuition,” said Ranjini.
Still, neither want to give up on their dream and on the Town of Grand Falls-Windsor. Describing the sense of community they feel and reminiscing the support they received while opening the restaurant, the family has rooted not only their business but also their home in Central Newfoundland.
“ST. JOHN’S HAS BEEN VERY LOYAL TO US”
Being in business for thirty two years has meant that India Gate has seen many restaurants—Indian and otherwise—come and go.
“For us it is consistency [that makes people come back],” said Sood.
He explained that there may be new items on the menu, since the inception of the restaurant, however, they haven’t modified it much. They continue to see repeat clientele looking to eat the same dish they may always have and rely on India Gate to serve it in its classic manner.
While East Atlantic Tandoor, like many in St. John’s, is establishing itself as a reputable and reliable cultural ambassador for South Asian cuisine in the province, India Gate is looking ahead to a different future.
“I’m almost 60 and I’m going to retire soon. I wish someone will take over from me and try their hand. I hope they keep the name going [and] run the place as their own. That’s my dream and hope. But it’s hard to find someone who would want to do something [also] for the 14 people we’ve employed,” said Sood on the plans ahead for the restaurant that has embedded itself in the province’s culture and history.
Cognizant of the support their business has found in St. John’s, he said: “St. John’s has been very loyal to us… They keep liking our food and keep sending their friends too. We always appreciate the customers for supporting us and giving us a livelihood in St. John’s.”
As for the new entrants into the restaurant industry, Sood, Ranjini and Aravind were of the mindset, the more the merrier.
“If more restaurants are coming up, there’s a demand for it. There is a gap in the market and people are seeing it as an opportunity. I’ll be happy if they survive. We [Indians] should support each other,” said Aravind.
“THEY TREAT US LIKE WE ARE THEIRS…”
Health Canada defines food insecurity as “as the inability to consume a diet of sufficient quality or quantity, or the uncertainty that one will be able to do so, and is typically linked to a lack of income available to spend on food.” Often, this is married to economic insecurity (and therefore tends to impact racialized/melanin-rich immigrants more). On our shores, the problem is undeniable—real and pervasive as COVID-19. Under its umbrella also falls the lack of culture specific foods whose intrinsic recipes would have nourished immigrants, like me, in a previous life. It can take time to explore, understand and make the flavours of your chosen home yours.
And so, for my family, South Asian restaurants are more than an excuse for entertainment. The food of my ancestors evokes a deep sense of home, belonging and comfort. The same emotion that a touton dipped in lassy does. Or bakeapple jam on warm toast.
Many of the people who run these restaurants are people that form my community. Their food has helped heal from bouts of flu and satisfied insatiable pregnancy cravings. Their humble spaces have a large function in my life as they facilitate an atmosphere that allows me to share my heritage with my daughter and bestow upon her, her inheritance. Allowing it to beat and thrive thousands of kilometres away from where it originates. When we enter their establishments, they treat us like we are theirs and we, like they are ours.
It is a strange bond—of genetics, of culture, of brownness—that is forged in our chosen home, due to our distance from our homes of origin.
Without it, life would be pheeka—dull and tasteless.
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