British Columbia·Savouring Surrey

Surrey's Indian cuisine: Food solace for the new girl in town

Savouring Surrey is a week-long series looking at the history and the future of Surrey through its many restaurants and the people who make up the diverse community.

After I moved to Canada, Surrey adopted me

Seerat Rana moved to Canada from India in 2016 and found a little bit of home in Surrey's restaurants. (Peter Scobie/CBC)

Savouring Surrey is a week-long series looking at the history and the future of Surrey through its many restaurants and the people who make up its diverse community. 

In this instalment, Seerat Rana talks about how she found a connection to her home through Surrey's food scene after moving to Canada from India in 2016.

I lived in a small city called Patiala in Punjab, India, for the first 18 years of my life. There, eating isn't just about satisfying tummies, it's a social activity. 

Every evening, my friends and I went to the playground where different street vendors gathered. Their food stalls were snack-break stops for kids and hangout places for teenagers.

In the week-long series Savouring Surrey, CBC Vancouver's Lisa Christiansen looks at the history and the future of Surrey through its many restaurants. (Peter Scobie/CBC)

After Grade 12, my parents decided to move to Canada, and I applied to the criminology program at Simon Fraser University. 

After starting at SFU in the fall of 2016, my days consisted of staying home, going to work and school. 

I missed the food culture of India. 

But then, as I met more people, I found out about different food places in Surrey — especially on 120 Street — where the multitude of restaurants and food culture bring Indian society to life.

Saravana Bhavan has won my heart with its colourful feast. (Peter Scobie/CBC)

The aroma emitting from the kitchen, music and the eclectic decor of these restaurants make me feel like I'm back at the playgrounds of Patiala. Like I'm back home.

The social setting isn't limited to people from India: you see the true Canadian spirit when people from different ethnicities enjoy and appreciate food from your culture.

CBC Vancouver's Lisa Christiansen, left, shares a meal with Seerat Rana. (Peter Scobie/CBC)

I remember once a Chinese woman walked up to me in one of the restaurants and asked if she was eating naan bread the correct way.

Teaching her the correct technique was the highlight of my day.

I'm often asked to translate basic phrases like: 'Hello. How are you? What's your name,' in my language.

Food becomes an experience that leads to good conversations. 

Dosas come in different sizes and, if the chef is having a great day, he might make you one that is 40 inches long. (Peter Scobie/CBC)

Breakdown of an Indian buffet

Saravana Bhavan, a vegetarian South Indian chain with a location on 120 Street, brings together cuisine and culture particularly well — even the cutlery reminds me of our kitchen back in India. 

During lunchtime, Saravana Bhavan sets up a buffet in the middle of the restaurant and plays classical Indian music.

One round at the buffet leads to a very colourful plate. (Peter Scobie/CBC)

The buffet starts with a variety of steaming sambar — a stew of yellow lentils cooked in a broth of masalas (spices), curry leaves and fresh veggies. These are accompanied by biryani (mixed rice dish) and plain rice.

Channa masala is a chickpea curry that spices up the plate and is served with either rice or bhatura, a fluffy deep-fried leavened bread.

Seerat Rana and CBC's Lisa Christiansen load up their plates at Saravana Bhavan's lunchtime buffet. (Peter Scobie/CBC)

Rava khichdi, made by cooking semolina and veggies together, offers light eating compared to the rest of the buffet. 

And don't forget to enter the wonderland of chutneys, the cold sauces made from a variety of different ingredients. Coconut chutney always wins my heart.

Towards the end, pick up some vada — a savoury fried snack — and the heavenly pudding rava kesari, made with semolina, dry fruits, ghee, and saffron that melts on the first bite. 

The spiciness of sambar and chutneys, mixed with the sweetness of kesari, makes my day 10 times better. (Peter Scobie/CBC)

After a round at the buffet, you end up with a colourful plate of sambar, rice, chutneys and other dishes.

But the adventure doesn't end here.

You then order a side of dosa, a pancake looking crepe made with rice and black grams (my favourite), or the bread-like bhatura to eat with the sambar.

And the final part of the feast: the special madras coffee.

Unlike regular coffee, this one is made by mixing frothed and boiled milk with finely brewed coffee powder in a traditional Indian filter.

If you plan to visit Saravana Bhavan or any other Indian cuisine restaurant, remember to:

  • Not eat anything beforehand.
  • Eat slow.
  • Eat more.
  • Don't forget the sweet dish.

Other stories in the Savouring Surrey series:


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