Savoury dosas, Indian-style crepes, made to perfection at this Whitby takeout counter
Rekha’s Indian Kitchen is located at 1800 Dundas St. E. in Whitby
Four years ago, a friend from high school reached out to me about a food popup that she had discovered in Whitby.
"She's here. That's Rekha. Let's go get our chicken curry," she said as we sat in a parking lot near Thickson and Taunton roads. She was talking about Rekha Umesh, who was selling homemade Indian food out of her car.
Along with the chicken curry, our order also included rice, naan and some samosas.
But we weren't the only ones waiting for Rekha and her meals.
I noticed many other cars arrive in the parking lot and neatly park by the hedge across from a large chain grocery store. Then, one-by-one, the drivers lined up next to Rekha's red vehicle, picked up containers of food, got back in their cars and hurried off.
I learned from Rekha's Facebook page that she had been selling Indian meals for a few years, originally out of her home down the street from the parking lot on Cathedral Drive, before bylaw officers requested she move her delivery services to avoid clogging the residential streets.
"That was a very exciting time for us, Whitby and Oshawa really rallied behind us since day one," Umesh said when I spoke to her this summer.
No longer in a parking lot, but nearby in a small takeout counter she opened in a small strip mall off Dundas Street East. Umesh upgraded to the brick and mortar location after five years of selling meals through Facebook. Her location is now called Rekha's Indian Kitchen.
In the few minutes we spoke, I was stuffing my face with pieces of freshly fried masala dosa, a wafer-like savoury crepe made from fermented rice and urud daal batter, crispy on the edges with a pancake centre. She then presented me with two curries to accompany the dosas, and sambar, a vegetable stew used to coat thick strips of dosa.
The sambar was a revelation, I have not tasted anything like it outside of an Indian home.
"The sambar is a love song. I take a lot of pride in making it," Umesh said.
She stews a large pot with an assortment of vegetables and flavours it with a secret blend of spices.
"We cook it for hours. It eventually becomes this wonderfully perfumed rich stew. I make mine a little chunky because its good for scooping."
The vegan sambar can be enjoyed by the bowl on its own. Umesh told me that locals will visit to pick up large servings of sambar, "like a soup."
Everything she served me tasted like cooking coming out of my mom's kitchen. While Umesh is not a trained chef, there's a long history of cooking in her family.
"Both of our families have a long lineage of well-respected cooks. Mine, South Indian while my husband's is more influenced by North Indian and mountainous-styles of cooking."
Umesh and her husband Umesh Kumar Shivanas arrived in Canada in 2007 after Shivanas, a recognized horse trainer, was hired to work at Windfields Farm in Oshawa.
"I immediately fell in love with this city and country after we arrived."
A school teacher by trade, Umesh continued her vocation at a local Montessori school for a few years before she was presented with an opportunity to showcase the food of her motherland.
"My local church was hosting a fundraiser to repair for damages and I volunteered to cook a home-cooked Indian meal for a group. It was for 60 guests and it was a hit," Umesh explained.
Umesh wanted to explore food as a business and was encouraged by her friends and neighbours to use social media as a platform.
"I started selling samosas via Facebook. This was 2014. Samosas, butter chicken, naan and rice. I would teach during the week and cook on the weekends. Sometimes we'd go through 2,000 samosas." she said.
Much of what made Umesh's fledgling popup a success is still a part of Rekha's Indian Kitchen. It is a modest counter operation where you can walk in for a plate of rice and curry, naan and butter chicken, or the incredibly good masala dosa.
"The dosa is my husband's specialty" Umesh said.
Shivanas grinds rice and urud dal in house to create a thick white batter, which he ferments overnight. The fermentation brings a slightly sour characteristic and a the vaguest sense of umami.
The batter is not the hard part, it is how you cook it. Shivanas will ladle a thick scoop on to a hot griddle, and then using the back of a tumbler, he extends the batter from the centre, forming larger and larger rings with troughs and ridges of dough.
The technique is crucial. It gives you a crepe that has rings of crispy bits woven with grooves of steamed pancake. There are many dosa places in the GTA, but time and time again I find myself driving east to Whitby to enjoy the crepes at Rekha's.
Try it a few different ways with whatever curry Umesh has on the menu, but don't forget the sambar.