Toronto's South Asian Canteens are a Diasporic Phenomenon

Gujarati, Sri Lankan, Bengali, Malay. Why have Toronto’s South Asian canteens become a hub for the diasporic community?

Gharoa restaurant in East Toronto is easy to miss, tucked into a street corner and overshadowed by the neighbouring Bengali grocery store whose baskets of produce spill out onto the sidewalk. Crowds of people linger outside, children crouched on the pavement and groups of youngsters chatting animatedly. But lean in closer and you’ll notice a trend: all of them have their hands full of paper plates soggy with fish curry, or white grocery bags turning dewy with steam. They’re all here for one purpose: to eat.

This restaurant is part of a phenomenon that exists in Toronto and its suburbs: the South Asian canteen that has become a hub for the diasporic community. In a city abundant with ethnic enclaves from across the world, these neighbourhood spots become cultural institutions, holding decades of history, social connection and localised knowledge within their walls.

Moving through Toronto and its greater area, these restaurants can be found everywhere: nestled into a strip mall between a hairdresser and a DVD shop, peeking from the edge of a suburban Brampton plaza, dotting the retail-populated stretch of Little India, among sari shops and jewellers. They live on the periphery of cities, often existing within ethnic neighbourhoods and boasting several languages on their signposts. They are small, family-run, and bustling with people, light on the frills but heavy on flavour. And they serve as a point of connection, for immigrants new and old, for international students looking for a home-cooked meal, and for people like me, members of the South Asian diaspora in Toronto, searching for that elusive taste from another place, a memory, an imagined homeland.

My family has frequented one such canteen time and time again. Govardhan Thal Vegetarian, next to a line of grocers and equally unadorned restaurants that is typical of the suburb of Scarborough, has that quintessential strip mall feel. The inside is uncluttered, with a small row of tables adjacent to the buffet, behind which is the open kitchen. Here, several women flip rotis on an open flame, dip metal trays of bhajias into a shimmering pool of oil, and constantly replenish the many vats of dal and rice. It’s a self-service restaurant, save for the rotis, puranpoli, thepla, and rotla, which the women bring straight from the tawa to each table, flopping them directly onto your plate, hot enough to sear eager fingertips. Before you can finish what’s on your thali, another roti is slipped on top, thanks to the ever-watchful cooks whose purpose appear to be to keep you chewing, before you realise how much you’ve actually eaten.

Indian canteen scarborough

For the last twelve years, this restaurant has served as a hub for Indian immigrants, particularly those from Gujarat, which is where the owner, Bina Shah, moved from years ago. Single men still wearing winter coats hunch over plates of food, eating quietly in groups or alone as they watch the Hindi film playing on the TV. On my most recent visit, several young families stream inside, cramming into all corners of the room. The women who are cooking — Surekaben, Bhartiben, Smitaben — emerge from the kitchen to serve hot rotis, cajoling the children in Gujarati to eat just one more. They move around the room with a kind of ease that I’ve seen so many women in my family possess, as if this is their home and these are their children, as if all of us belong. Surekaben tries to place a second puranpoli on my plate, which I refuse at first, but then she says, “Come, you haven’t eaten enough tonight,” and in the pause that follows, she cheekily makes her move.

I realise as I let this second ghee-laden bread melt in my mouth that I feel like I’m in my mother’s kitchen, brandishing my fullness against her need to feed. I understand, then, why places like this exist: because they are a part of survival, an element of familiarity in an unfamiliar city, a callback to the women who sustained us when we could barely lift a spoon to our own lips. As Surekaben moves back to rolling dough, I think about how my mother used to roll khichdi into bite-sized balls when I was a child, hoping that the tiny creations would entice me to eat just one more. In a city full of restaurants, the conventions of this one sit outside of the norms, but it is precisely these rituals — so unexpected in a restaurant and yet so familiar in my memories - that draw the newly arrived back here time and time again. That, and the fact that it is classically Gujarati, because absolutely everything contains jaggery, and all the food is truly and unabashedly sweet.

The most well-known of canteens lives in the same suburb, but in keeping with Scarborough’s multi-ethnic fabric, its food hails from another country entirely. Babu Catering & Take-Out, a Sri Lankan joint that promises ‘quality taste & flavour of Thamil Eelam,’ can only be described as an institution. For twenty-six years, this restaurant has been open from 5 A.M. to midnight seven days a week, overseen by Babu Rajakulasingam himself, a banker from Jaffna who opened what was initially a small restaurant to support his family after they immigrated to Canada. The crowds arrive at opening hour, when the morning’s first mutton kothu and milk hoppers are ready, and it’s rare to find a time when there isn’t a line winding out the door and around the industrial plaza. As I wait in line, I take in the menu: the selection is unending, displayed in a 30-foot row of steam trays and staffed by a long line of men in matching maroon golf shirts. Although I mostly hear customers speaking in Tamil, over the course of my visit I notice a smattering of many other South Asian languages. The restaurant, too, seems to have picked up on this, because whole sections of the menu are devoted to various regional cuisines: North Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Malaysian, Hakka.

Indian canteen scarborough

The first thing to know about Babu is that there’s nowhere to dine in — it’s an exclusively take-out restaurant. As we pulled into the parking lot, I wondered whether this might impede its popularity, but I soon realised that was far from the case. Aside from the constant stream of people joining the line — families, young students, people in work clothes on their way home from the office — I also noticed how every person seemed to be taking away giant parcels of food. And so did I — although there were only two of us eating, my partner and I carried four hefty bags of food back to the car, one of which was so hot that I couldn’t hold it in my lap on the drive home. The portions are family-sized, and the flavours even bigger, particularly the lamprais, with six different curries lumped onto a mound of rice and wrapped in a banana leaf, or the string hoppers, which had my sinuses cleared in a matter of minutes. It’s no surprise that Babu, where you’re sent home with enough food to feed an entire family for days at an alarmingly low price, has become a staple in the surrounding communities, a lifeline of sambar and eggplant pickle, fish curry and mutton rolls, a menu that seems to grow along with the diaspora that devotedly lines up for it. Babu said that as his restaurant became more successful, customers began demanding specific dishes they craved from back home — a testament to that precise taste of nostalgia that many of us are in search of.

If a canteen can serve as a point of connection in the diaspora, no better place exists than Gharoa, a Bangladeshi restaurant in Toronto’s East Danforth neighbourhood. This becomes clear before even entering the place: its windows are plastered with posters and signs for English language classes, vacant rooms for rent, job openings, and after-school activities in the neighbourhood. When I met with Gharoa’s owner, Syed Shamsul Alam, in the storage room behind the restaurant, he explained to me over singara and chai that most days the food runs out by 4 P.M. because of the sheer flow of people coming through. He and his wife, Mahmuda Khan, opened a shop 23 years ago, which they transformed into the present-day restaurant eight years later. “Nowhere else serves fish five-six times a day,” he laughs, telling me that the restaurant is full of regulars, students filling up on the 3-course-$9 student package, single Bangladeshi men who have moved to Toronto for work, and now even people outside of the South Asian communities. “More white people have been moving to the area,” Alam says, a reference to the creeping gentrification of Toronto’s ethnic enclaves, “and when they smell the lentil pakoras frying, they start coming here every day.” As we talk, he pulls up a photograph on his phone of himself standing arm in arm with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who he tells me once came here to eat.

Indian canteen scarborough

In spite of its growing visibility, Gharoa primarily exists as a point of connection for the large Bengali population that has lived in the area for decades. And it’s not just through food: the owners have made it a point to involve the community, hosting events for Bengali New Year and International Mother Language Day, which draws more than a thousand people in the middle of Toronto’s stark winter. Beyond the celebrations, though, it’s a place where newcomers know they can find support when they move to the area. Alam explains how he keeps a notebook for new immigrants to write down their information; he uses this to connect them to jobs, housing, and other resources. In a city that can be overwhelming and taxing for the newly arrived, hubs like Gharoa build social capital and networks of support, working to lift the community up by sharing knowledge and opportunities. The best part of all of it, of course, is the food: it’s traditional and hearty, and as I savour my zilebi, thicker and spongier than the Indian ones I’m used to, I realise it’s no accident that ‘gharoa’ in Bangla means home.

These canteens, and others like them, have risen up over the last few decades with the influx of South Asian migrants into the Greater Toronto Area, and they’re here to stay. Owned and run by immigrants, it’s a point of pride and hope to witness the continuity of these spaces, and a special privilege to be welcomed inside, to be fed endless puranpoli and singara and cups of chai. Seeing me struggle after I had eaten a particularly spicy bite of bhaji at Govardhan Thal, one of the women came over and refilled my glass of buttermilk chaas. This kind of care is not uncommon here: indeed, the canteens can become a kind of balm, a stable refuge, reliably familiar. Like the communities from which they emerge, they are expansive, growing, and surviving, and they’re raising others up along the way.

Janika Oza is a writer based in Toronto, where she writes food, family, and fiction. Find more of her work here.