In 2007, when co-owners Hemant Bhagwani and Derek Valleau launched the Amaya Indian Room on Toronto's Bayview Avenue, they didn't want the place to look like an Indian restaurant. They were anxious to move away from the stereotypical temple look and $9.95 buffet and earn some respect for the cuisine, which Canadians generally regard as cheap buffet fare. Accordingly, the room was designed to be quite contemporary, so that when you walked in, you wouldn't necessarily know it was an Indian restaurant.
"Making the restaurant Westernized made it more acceptable and approachable," says Mr. Valleau, who met Mr. Bhagwani when both worked as sommeliers at the CN Tower restaurant 360. "When people first came, some had had a great experience with Indian food previously, but many others were scared and concerned about their stomachs. I'd literally get phone calls the next day with surprised customers telling me, 'I feel great today.'"
Adapting ethnic cuisines to the Canadian market can be tough going for restaurateurs. Among the misconceptions about Indian food, for instance, is that it's too spicy for the Canadian palate. Yet if people think ethnic foods are not "authentic," they won't eat them.
So while Amaya's owners made the service and decor distinctly Western to increase the comfort level for their largely Anglo-Saxon and Jewish clientele, the food stayed traditional - they could be a modern Indian restaurant serving authentic food.
"The only tweak we did was using local produce," says Mr. Hemant, whose Amaya group of restaurants has grown to 10, including eight casual Amaya Express locations, in just four years. The company also started a retail division for naan bread and sauces. "There are no real changes to the way we would normally cook in India. At home we don't eat spicy food, so we've kept to a lighter version with lighter sauces than what's normally done in other Indian restaurants."
Mr. Hemant acknowledges that the food in India is a bit hotter than what's normally served in the West but says that's mainly because chefs often don't get good quality meat in India and need to use more spicing as a cover up.
"We're fortunate that we have access to an exceptional quality of meat here," says Mr. Valleau. "We just need to enhance the flavours of the products we're using, not bury them. There are hot elements, but the complexity and layering of the spicing is more important than how many hot chilis are used. The cooking found in our restaurants has stayed very authentic."
But when it comes to ethnic eateries, what does "authentic" mean? Toronto restaurant columnist and food writer Chris Nuttall-Smith says he tries to stay away from the word because everybody has a different version of authenticity.
"We really kind of fetishize authenticity," says Mr. Nuttall-Smith. "There's this idea of timelessness - that we've made everything perfect, now don't you dare change a thing. I think that's completely bogus."
When the world-travelled Mr. Nuttall-Smith eats at a local Indian or other ethnic restaurant, he doesn't look for exact replicas of what he had when he was away. What he wants is great food.
"I've eaten a lot in India and Pakistan and the service is generally crap," he says. "There are some things that I don't want to be authentic."
Restaurants that make the obviously needed adaptations, yet still honour traditional techniques, ingredients and flavours, do extremely well, he says.
"Amaya has figured this out and do a really good front of the house and a great wine list that you typically wouldn't find at a mid-range restaurant in India."
Being inventive is hugely important.
"For example, the thing that makes Vikram Vij of Vij's so interesting and why he's done so well in Vancouver is that he uses the best ingredients he can find plus traditional ideas and techniques about Indian food. But he's not a slave to them," says Mr. Nuttall-Smith. "So you'll get his lamb popsicles, which are playful, and he uses great British Columbia spot prawns, which you'd never find in India. Another one is Enoteca Sociale, a Roman-style trattoria that opened last year in Toronto, who do local fish wonderfully using Italian techniques."
Another drawback about authenticity, particularly from a business perspective, is that the second you call yourself authentic, you open yourself to criticism, Mr. Nuttall-Smith says. People aren't going to agree with you because their idea of authenticity is different from yours.
That's something Amaya's owners say they have experienced.
"The media have been very positive, but some people, especially other restaurants, have said that we're trying to French-ify [the food] But it's not true," says Mr. Bhagwani. "The sauces and food are pretty traditional, but we do great inventive cocktails such as curry martinis, cucumber green chili gimlet and stuff like that. We use Indian herbs and spices but it's very Westernized, very North American."
That Westernization also applies to the packaging of Amaya's jarred sauces, sold in food stores such as Longo's, Metro, Summerhill Market and Whole Foods in Toronto. To make sure their product and label stood out on the shelves, they incorporated elements of India using rich vibrant colours, but the design of the label itself is contemporary.
They also use the words "spicy tomato ketchup" instead of "tomato chutney" for one of the products.
"By keeping the name ketchup, we're placed next to a Heinz ketchup and since ours is more expensive, it's probably harder to sell there," said Mr. Bhagwani. But once we're on the ethnic shelves, things move more. We're trying and learning from what we're doing. It's still not perfect, but it's getting there. Sales are going up."
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