Seema Omar’s dining room table is packed with ingredients. There’s finely diced raw mango, onions, sev, squeeze bottles filled with tamarind and mint chutneys, diced lime, paapdi, and a serving tray with small heaps of spices.
Seema starts to put together a helping of sev puri – the dish that started her and sister-in-law Amreen Omar on a journey of serving Indian snacks in Toronto, the Canadian city with a large Indian diaspora.
“Torontonians really took to sev puri,” said Amreen, as Seema passes a carefully prepared plate. She said that when they first started out at a stall in a farmers market, people had preconceived ideas about Indian food. “Everybody asked for naan,” she said.
After becoming a hit at farmers markets, pop-up shops and food expos in Toronto, Amreen and Seema are now preparing for their next major pit stop – a bricks-and-mortar establishment in downtown Toronto named Bombay Street Food, which is set to open this month.
But it was the sev puri that fuelled the duo’s early success. Amreen recalls one of their early food expo experiences.
“There was this guy from India – he spoke Hindi. He had one,” she said. “Then he took a round and came back for one more. Then he had two or three more. His wife joked they should have just stayed at our stall, since he had used up all his tickets. It’s nice when someone from your country appreciates it because they know what it should taste like.”
The experience of dishing out traditional Indian snacks to an uninitiated but warmly receptive clientele has been fulfilling enough for Amreen, a former crown prosecutor, to quit her job as a law professor, and for Seema to consider a new role beyond being a full-time mother.
The idea for Bombay Street Food came about soon after Seema married and moved to Canada from Mumbai, where she was working for fashion designers Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla. She found herself missing Indian street food staples and decided to recreate a childhood memory.
“I grew up in a Bandra building complex [in Mumbai], and every day at 4.30 pm, this sev puri and bhel puri wallah would come to our complex, and all of us kids would make a line,” said Seema. “I still remember him. He used to dress very nicely in white dhoti and kurta. I would watch him as I waited in line. I make my sev puri the same way he made his – he used raw mango, and so do I. Some people put chopped tomatoes, but he didn’t – so I don’t.”
For Amreen, her childhood memories are full of summer trips to India and winters in New Brunswick, the eastern Canadian province that borders the US. The only Indians for miles around, the family sustained themselves through snowed in winters with food and movies.
“I grew up spending Canadian winters with Shammi Kapoor, Raj Kapoor, Amitabh Bachchan and my mother’s dal chaawal sabzi, gosht ka saalan or kadhi khichdi,” said Amreen.
Their first stint as food entrepreneurs began in May 2014 at a newly opened farmer’s market in downtown Toronto. After that they moved to a more established weekly farmer’s market in the city’s east end. Requests to cater holiday parties soon followed. The sisters-in-law also cooked more than a few times at The Depanneur, a foodie hub where every Friday night guest cooks from amateurs to established chefs can present their favourite foods.
Patrons raved about their Besan Ka Chilla savoury pancakes and Hyderabadi-style dessert Qubaani Ka Meetha (apricot puree topped with cream, a dollop of custard and almond slivers). But their full-fledged debut was six months later at the Gourmet Food and Wine Expo.
“We made chaat for 1,600 people that night,” said Seema. “People didn’t know what sev puri was, and were confused by what they were calling ‘crispy noodles’. But they kept coming back for seconds and thirds.”
And that event proved to be the turning point. “We decided to go for it,” said Amreen.
Straight from the source
Seeking inspiration, the duo and their business consultant travelled to Mumbai a little while ago. They connected with food bloggers such as Kalyan Karmaka, who gave them a tour of Mumbai’s finest street eats, including stops at Bohri Mohalla, Mohammed Ali Road, as well as haunts such as Suleman Usman Mithaiwala.
Seema even got hands-on tips from a pao bhaji stall owner behind the Cricket Club of India.
“I’ve had pao bhaji in places like Shiv Sagar and Sukh Sagar, but this was the best pav bhaji I tasted,” said Seema. “He showed me his technique, and it was very similar to mine. I felt so relieved.”
Their Mumbai food quest turned out to be rather eventful.
“Then there were places that had no name, like this one restaurant that served only keema and pudding,” said Amreen. “All of us were very keen on trying everything, from frankies to vada pao. And no one fell sick.”
While Bombay Street Food draws on all these experiences, its main inspiration comes from Mumbai’s famous Irani cafes, which are slowly disappearing from the city’s streetscapes.
“We visited all of them including Ideal Corner and Britannia,” said Amreen. “But our place is really inspired by Yazdani Bakery – the ambience, the colour, even the wood details. We spoke with the owner, Rashid Zend, who is in his seventies. We had chai for Rs 15, and it was the best tea I had in my life. We also spoke with his nephew Tirandaz. He was frustrated because there’s a Starbucks opening two doors down, and he wants his uncle to make some changes. But the uncle was having none of it.”
With their new restaurant, the Omars want to pay homage to the Mumbai of both past and present. The menu features dishes ranging from frankies to keema pao. Cutting chai can be enjoyed with a serving of khaara biscuit or naan khatai, sourced fresh from a Gujarati bakery in Toronto. Their pao, meanwhile, is being custom baked by a local bread chain to replicate the hardier Mumbai version as compared to local hamburger buns.
“We haven’t toned down anything, not even the spice,” said Seema. “Torontonians are ready for stronger Indian flavours. The only thing we have changed a little is the presentation.”
Amreen said they want to stay true to their niche.
“We’re not interested in doing fusion food,” she said. “We are sticking to our comfort zone; stuff that we love and have perfected.”
Despite their success, there is one dish that hasn’t gone down too well their customers and most likely won’t make it to the menu at Bombay Street Food. “Falooda! People kept on asking us why we gave them spaghetti in their milk,” Seema said with a laugh.