Some Like It Hot

Warming up to Indian cuisine in PEI’s capital

There’s been something special in the air in Charlottetown lately, and it’s not just the remnants of Christmas spirit. How about freshly baked naan and the scent of richly spiced curries that have been simmering into perfection? The alluring smell of Indian food is now more common and recognizable in Charlottetown than ever before.

Butter-Chicken-from-Taste-of-India – photo credit: Evan Ceretti

Just a few years ago you’d be hard-pressed to find quality Indian food in Charlottetown. Papa Joe’s started hosting Indian night on Wednesdays, Minsoo had a few Indian dishes on its menu, and Churchill Arms offered its curries, albeit British. Fast forward to today, and things have fired up. Islanders can choose from a much wider range of melt-in-your-mouth Indian food from a variety of Indian restaurants and caterers, and it’s unlikely that anyone is complaining about the recent upsurge of Indian cuisine.

Anuj Thapa opened Himalayan Indian Cuisine in February, 2013. Thapa, originally from Nepal, came to PEI for the first time in 2012 looking for a new home for him and his family. He didn’t move here with the intention of opening an Indian restaurant, however, he soon cooked up the idea after spending time in Charlottetown. “I feel I can do something here,” Thapa recalled. There were no other predominantly Indian restaurants in Charlottetown at that time.

Anuj Thapa, owner of Himalayan and Spicy Chef – photo credit: Evan Ceretti

Thinking about the success and prevalence of other world-renowned cuisines, like Chinese, Italian, and Thai, Anju said he figured an Indian restaurant would be successful in Charlottetown because India’s famous food has already been branded. “Even if you’ve never tasted any curry, you know what curry is. You know what naan bread is.”
When describing Himalayan’s menu, Thapa noted that some recognizable Indian dishes originated elsewhere or were influenced by the British. In that way, the Indian and Nepalese dishes were designed with Islanders in mind. Himalayan’s menu includes butter lobster, a Island-infused take on the classic butter chicken, which happens to be the restaurant’s top seller, responsible for a whopping 30 percent of all sales.

Following Himalayan’s success, Thapa opened a second restaurant, Spicy Chef, in April 2017. Spicy Chef serves Indian dishes as well as Mexican and Thai. The concept behind the fusion restaurant was to include cuisines that typically use a lot of spices. “This kind of foods have all different kinds of spices, which is good for your body,” said Thapa.

Thapa doesn’t think the success of Charlottetown’s Indian food scene is primarily due to the ever-growing Indian community, as newcomers from South Asia only recently started to rapidly come to PEI. He said, “Islanders are more curious to taste new things.” About 90 percent of his customers are Islanders and tourists, while 10 per cent have Indian background, he figured.

Craig Mackie, executive director of the PEI Association for Newcomers to Canada, said that over the last two years just under 500 people from India registered at the association for settlement and immigration services, help with documentation, or employment assistance. Numbers from elsewhere in South Asia were much lower: Pakistan, 28; Sri Lanka, 6; Nepal, 10; and Bangladesh, 20. He attributes the sudden increase in newcomers from India being due to the provincial government recruiting through the PNP program and PEI Express Entry. In contrast, through 2008 to 2015, Indian newcomers registered with the association averaged only 25 new people per year.

These statistics don’t accurately represent the recorded population of people from India living on PEI. According to the 2016 Census by Statistics Canada, there were 615 people from India living on PEI, and almost 1.4 million across Canada. In 2011, there were only 255 people from India living on PEI, according to the 2011 census. According to the 2006 census, the visible minority population for all of South Asia on PEI was only 135 people.

Ramila Agrawal is one person with an Indian background who came to PEI through the PNP Investor program. Agrawal was born in India, lived most of her life in Dubai, moved to Charlottetown in 2016 and recently opened The Spice Store. Getting the spices you want on PEI just got a lot easier for spice enthusiasts and restaurant owners.
“We found that there was a space that was seriously lacking—a proper outlet to have all the available Indian food,” said Agrawal. After meeting other Islanders of Indian background, Agrawal found out that many people order spices through mail or have relatives bring home supplies from away.

Ramila Agrawal, owner of The Spice Store – photo credit: Evan Ceretti

There has been tremendous growth in PEI’s Indian population since Agrawal’s first visit to the Island, which is encouraging to her. However, she wants all Islanders to be interested in the products at The Spice Store. She noticed that Indian eateries were packed in Charlottetown and learned that many of her friends love Indian food. “Let’s not only cater to the Indian community. I think there’s a lot of people who want to know more about Indian cooking and they’re not able to get ahold of all the spices.”

Only having been open for just over a month, the feedback has been very encouraging, she said. “I’m astonished at the response I’ve been getting from Islanders.” Agrawal wants to give people a reason to stay on PEI and to make it comfortable for those seeking the spices and products she offers. “Canada is showing that it’s the world in one country.”

“As you know, Charlottetown is like ‘restaurant-city’,” said Thapa, when asked if he thinks there’s even more room for Indian food in Charlottetown. He suggested to look at Chinese restaurants or pizza joints on PEI as examples of what’s possible when people develop a loving taste for any country’s food. As a testament to this, Charlottetown is also home to two Indian food caterers, which can be found at events and markets. Both 4S Catering and Namaste PEI, which opened in late 2012 and 2015, respectively, are well known among lovers of Indian food.

The newest addition to a string of Indian eateries in Charlottetown is Taste of India, which was opened by Paul Sohi and Sam Semwal in May, 2017. “We have been busy ever since we opened our restaurant, consistently,” said Sohi.
Again, the majority of people who dine at the restaurant are Islanders, while the Indian community makes up about 20 percent, said Sohi. The co-owners, who also manage the restaurant and work in the kitchen, moved to PEI last year from Vancouver. They were working at an Indian restaurant where Semwal was the head chef and Sohi was the manager.

Sohi and Semwal looked at multiple Canadian cities before choosing to open Taste of India in Charlottetown. They thought fully authentic Indian food was something the Island lacked, particularly in downtown Charlottetown. “Not just an Indian restaurant that does 10 different things, we wanted to focus just on the authentic Indian food and the quality of that food.”

Paul Sohi and Sam Semwal, owners of Taste of India – photo credit: Evan Ceretti

Sohi had little doubt the restaurant wouldn’t be popular. He noted that the population of PEI has increased and is projected to continue increasing. Tourism is also increasing on PEI, which was another defining factor in opening up shop in Charlottetown. “When I walked into this place [Taste of India location], it was like I couldn’t be any happier. Our gut told us this is the place we have to open.”

Sohi said the main thing that makes Indian food authentic is the spices that are added to each dish. “The taste that you get at Taste of India in PEI will be similar to what you’re going to get in India.” The restaurant currently gets all its spices directly from India. Sohi is interested in supporting local businesses and may consider purchasing spices locally, however, he’s satisfied with his current supplier, he said.

The sudden demand for Indian food on PEI. doesn’t surprise Sohi. He attributes people’s curiosity and ever-changing palates to technology. Consumers are being educated online about international food, and social media is connecting the world, one dish at a time. “That’s one thing that makes them wonder, ‘well ok, how would this dish taste?’”

Veg-pakoras-and-Chai,-Himalayan – photo credit: Evan Ceretti

About Evan Ceretti

Evan is a vegetarian foodie and freelancer based in Charlottetown. His two greatest loves are food and travel, which just so happen to be the perfect pairing. A graduate of Holland College’s journalism program, and of UPEI’s print journalism program, Evan enjoys writing about the local food scene as well as writing about gastronomic journeys from the other side of the world. He’s had to luxury of visiting 30 countries and traveling for more than 1,000 days. In Charlottetown, you’ll either see him riding his bicycle, eating curry, taking photos, or playing ultimate frisbee. Follow him on IG @Evanontheroad, and on Facebook at Evan on the Road.

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