Where the owners of Bombay Street Food Co. eat Indian and Pakistani food in the burbs
We’re going on the road with some of the city’s top chefs and restaurateurs to explore their favourite suburban restaurants. Amreen and Seema Omar tell us what’s good in Markham, Scarborough and East York
Sisters-in-law Amreen and Seema Omar each developed a passion for food at a very early age. Both women were born to Gujarati parents, and their moms were very good cooks. “My family lived in southern India for a bit, too,” Amreen says, “So I was educated in both north- and south-Indian food.” In 2014, the two decided to turn their love of Indian food—particularly street food—into a pop-up. The Bombay Street Food Co. was inspired by Mumbai’s bustling street food scene. After nearly two years of food festivals and farmers’ markets, Amreen and Seema opened their first bricks-and-mortar restaurant on Bay Street last May.
3021 Markham Rd. #50, Markham, 416-412-0024, nilgiristoronto.ca
This vegetarian restaurant is the Omars’ favourite South Indian spot, and they visit it at least once a month. The Nilgiris is popular for its breakfast menu, especially the savoury crepes made from a rice batter and topped with a variety of sauces and curries. “We have six kids in total, so it’s a great family brunch spot for all of us to feast,” Amreen says.
Go-to item #1: Mysore masala dosa
Tasting notes: The cylindrical fermented lentil pancake is one of the best in the city, according to Seema and Amreen. The crispy crêpe gets a smearing of spicy red chutney (mysore) on the inside, and is stuffed with a dry potato curry (masala). The restaurant serves a variety of dosas, and all come with an assortment of chutneys (tomato, pepper salsas) and rasam (South Indian soup).
Go-to item #2: Upma
Tasting notes: Semolina flour and rice flour are cooked with a variety of spices and vegetables until the mixture achieves a thick and grainy porridge-like consistency.
Go-to item #3: Masala uthapam
Tasting notes: Similar to a dosa but instead of a crispy crêpe, it’s a thicker pancake dotted with green chilies, onions and tomatoes.
Go-to item #4: Idli
Tasting notes: “These are basically fermented rice cakes,” Seema says. “They’re light and fluffy and can really soak up whatever you dip them in.” The white round discs are broken off piece by piece and dipped into the rasam or chutneys.
Go-to item #5: Masala tea
Tasting notes: The Omars like to end their meals at the restaurant with masala chai. The tea arrives piping hot, aromatic and seasoned with Indian spices.
Sultan of Samosas
1677 O’Connor Dr., East York, 416-285-6565, sultanofsamosas.ca
This small take-out shop in East York pumps out nearly a dozen kinds of samosas, in a variety of flavour combos from Tandoori chicken to dhal. According to the Omars, it makes the best Rajasthani-style ones. They say the distinction is important, as the Northern Indian samosas look and taste different from what’s typically found in downtown Toronto. “The shell is thinner and there’s noticeably more spice in the mix,” Seem says. “They’re not oversized—the ratio between shell and filling is just right.”
Go-to item #1: Minced beef with green onions and coriander leaves
Tasting notes: “With a good samosa, you should taste the flavouring, not just the pastry and meat,” Seema says of her favourite samosa. The taste of coriander lingers long after the last bite.
Go-to item #2: Curried four-way vegetables with assorted spices
Tasting notes: For this one, potatoes and carrots are tossed with a secret blend of North Indian spices. “No one makes a veggie samosa like this,” says Amreen.
160 New Delhi Dr., Markham, 905-472-1683, federickrestaurant.com
Federick’s original Scarborough location has long been the go-to spot for families that want to enjoy a style of Hakka cuisine that made its way to Canada via India. After nearly two decades, the owners expanded to a new location. Federick’s signature braised meat and rice dishes attract a huge lunch crowd.
Go-to item #1: Chicken and sweet corn soup
Tasting notes: The restaurant’s signature starter is a creamy mix of stock, egg white, poached chicken and sweet corn, all thickened with corn starch. Amreen’s favourite way to enjoy it is by mixing in some pickled green chilies, red chili sauce and finishing it with a drizzle of soy sauce.
Go-to item 2: Hakka noodles
Tasting notes: Thin noodles stir-fried with spices, shrimp and strips of chicken. “I like the way the spice clings to the noodles,” Amreen says.
Go-to item #3: Chili chicken.
Tasting notes: No trip to Federick is complete without a plate of this quintessential Indo-Chinese dish. There are two ways to order chili chicken: dry or wet. The dry kind is battered, fried, then tossed in a wok with chili powder and spices. The wet version is finished with a corn-flour-and-water solution to soak up the spice mix. “I prefer the dry version because the outer shell is nice and crunchy, but the meat inside remains moist,” Seema says.
Iqbal Kebab and Sweet Centre
2 Thorncliffe Park Dr., #17, East York, 416-425-7866, iqbalkebab.com
Amreen and Seema frequent the stores of Thorncliffe Park regularly for their meat and produce. When they’re in the neighbourhood, they stop by this popular Pakistani halal restaurant for a quick meal. “They serve one of the best biryani dishes in the city, and their grilled meats are also good,” Amreen says.
Go-to item #1: Biryani with meat kebabs
Tasting notes: The mixed rice dish is cooked with an assortment of spices, mixed veggies and nuts. It’s large enough to feed three people. You can order the biryani with meat (chicken, lamb, veal) or enjoy it plain. “You don’t need any curry with aromatic rice like this, it’s so flavourful,” Seema says. If you do want something to accompany the rice, the Omars recommend you order some barbecued beef kebabs.
Iqbal Halal Foods
2 Thorncliffe Park Dr., #5, East York, 416-467-0177, iqbalhalalfoods.com
Go-to item #1: Assorted salty snacks and spiced nuts
Tasting notes: Amreen and Seema swear that the Iqbal’s snack aisles are the largest they’ve seen in Toronto. If you haven’t had the chance to enjoy Indian snack mixes, they suggest starting with the Punjabi one, an assortment of fried-and-dried ingredients (lentils, nuts, corn, noodles) tossed together in a spice mix. It’s best enjoyed as a pre-meal snack with cold beer. The spicy para (cracker) is also one of their favourite snacks.
Go-to item #2: Rice
Tasting notes: Iqbal arguably has the largest selection of imported rice in the GTA. Over 100 varieties of rice come in from all corners of Asia. For Amreen and Seema, that means an endless number of canvases for different dishes. Their current favourite brand is the Sona Masuri medium-grain rice from the lower states of India, known for its soft texture and aromatics.
1010 Danforth Ave., 416-466-9886
Good Indian-style baked cookies are hard to come by in Toronto, so Seema and Amreen stick to their favourite bakery because they know that it’s always consistent. Seema and Amreen say that a a good Indian cookie is one where you can taste the ground nuts.
Go-to item: Nan khatai
Tasting notes: Muzda’s version of this Indo-Pakistani shortbread is made with rice flour, heaps of butter and powdered sugar.
3001 Markham Rd., Scarborough, 416-754-8936, alkaramsweets.com
Desserts play a very important role in Indian food culture, but they’re difficult to find in the GTA. Many Indian restaurants and shops in the city get their sweets from a handful of factories, so they’re often overly sweet, noticeably low in quality and have most likely been sitting on a shelf for a while. When Amreen and Seema have a sugar craving, Al-Karam is the only place that satisfies their needs. “This shop has been around for nearly 20 years and the quality is impeccable, everything is freshly made on-site,” Amreen says.
Go-to item: Assorted box of sweets
Tasting notes: Al-Karam takes the art of refined sugar to a whole new level with 70 different kinds of sweets. Amreen and Seema suggest ordering an assorted box to try as many as you can.