Toronto·Suresh Doss

Gandhi Roti created what might be Toronto's signature dish. Now chef Avtar Singh is hanging up his apron

Ask a Torontonian to pick the city's signature dish and you’ll probably get a different answer every time. In a city as diverse as this, it might be an impossible task. But the roti Avtar Singh has prepared at Gandhi Roti on for the last 25 years truly should be in the running.

Gandhi Indian Cuisine is located at 554 Queen St. W. in Toronto

Avtar Singh has prepared the East Indian roti at Gandhi Roti for the last 25 years. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

What is Toronto's marquee food — its signature dish?

Ask a Torontonian to pick and you'll probably get a different answer every time. In a city as diverse as this, it might be an impossible task.

But the roti Avtar Singh has prepared at Gandhi Roti for the last 25 years truly should be in the running. 

This week, Singh announced he's retiring from cooking, leaving people all across Toronto planning one last trip down to his Queen and Bathurst restaurant, where walking through the door feels like hitting a wall of roasted spice smell. 

The pandemic has been tough, but Singh says he's just ready to retire. One of his cooks will take over, carrying on Singh's legacy, which is now firmly stamped on the entire GTA.

You can find roti shops from Brampton to Scarborough and many points in between. Name a roti shop, I can draw a connection to Singh.  

This week, Avtar Singh announced he's retiring from cooking. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

If you haven't had Singh's roti already, here's how it works: picture flour rotis, rolled thin and cooked over a large tawa —a flat griddle — until large blisters form like leopard spots, filled with a thick meat or vegetable gravy (the butter chicken is perhaps the best known), before it's tucked and folded into an aluminum lunchbox. 

As you cut through the delicate skin of the roti, that familiar aroma of spices will rise. You're led on a journey through the Indian pantry, a curry that tastes like it has been cooking for hours, absorbed and softened by the flatbread.

While some aficionados of the Caribbean roti may proclaim that it should be eaten with your hands, this is a fork-and- knife affair.

Tip: I always leave it half uneaten, it tastes even better the next day. 

Singh moved to Canada in the late 70s from India. An aspiring cook, he quickly found employment in the restaurant industry, at first as a dishwasher, eventually landing in the kitchen at the once famed Babur restaurant.

"My wife and I are both deeply rooted in the restaurant industry. Her family ran Babur for over three decades. We introduced Toronto to butter chicken."

I've had the privilege of having a number of conversations with Singh over the years. What I learned early on is that Singh would regularly eat his way through the city, discovering cuisines from around the world in small mom-n'-pop shops.

"I started to think of making this kind of roti after I ate a Caribbean roti in Toronto," Singh said.

Singh recalls eating a West Indian style roti, meat and vegetables stewed with roasted and garam masala, turmeric and garlic and stuffed into dhalpouri roti.

"It was familiar but also very foreign to me" he said.

Singh preparing his signature roti. You can find East Indian-style roti shops from Brampton to Scarborough and many points in between. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

Inspired by the Caribbean roti, Singh sought to present his take.

With his wife Parveen Wadhawam, he opened Gandhi Roti in the mid 90s on a then-grimy part of Queen West.

The menu was simple at first; Singh would make Indian curries traditional to both their families, and present them in a shell.

"I decided to use flour roti, more Indian style. Like naan but thinner."

Familiar but also foreign. This is exactly how I felt when I landed at Gandhi for the first time.

Fresh out of high school, I felt like I knew Scarborough like the back of my hand. Downtown Toronto, not so much. A friend drove me down to Gandhi Roti insisting that I try Singh's food.

Entering the tiny space, you are immediately greeted with an invisible wall of roasted spices. It clings to you, permeating your pores, kick-starting your appetite.

"The aromas of spices is part of the experience," I remember my friend telling me.

Singh's menu quickly expanded along with its popularity, featuring a wide range of regional Indian curries. 

My favourite over the years have been his take on channa, chicken tikka masala and shrimp. Singh was one of the first Indian takeout spots to feature a range of vegetarian rotis.

Avtar Singh's legacy is now firmly stamped on the entire GTA. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

With each subsequent visit, I noticed his audience grow significantly. Expanding beyond his local base, curious eaters would travel in from across the city to try this unique dish.

Aside from the novelty aspect, Singh's curries were beautifully layered. They were always cooked to order and tasted like something you would have at home. 

I think what also gave it universal appeal is that the roti is incredibly transportable. Like any good curry, stew or soup, it gets better after it sits for a few minutes. 

These Indian-style rotis may be on their way to becoming a classic feature of homegrown cuisine in our city.