Immigrants changing P.E.I.'s culinary landscape

Jocelyne Lloyd jlloyd@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on September 27, 2014

Anuj Thapa, originally from Kathmandu, Nepal, opened Himalayan Curry in Charlottetown earlier this year. Here, he serves Holly Giesbrecht a traditional South Asia dish.

When Anuj Thapa would look out his window in Kathmandu, Nepal, he would see mountains on all sides. At street level, multi-unit homes, businesses, palaces and temples crowded together in the 2,000-year-old city of three million people. He could not see the sea from anywhere in Nepal.

It is hard to imagine a place in the world less like Prince Edward Island.

But Thapa, 38, now considers P.E.I. his home and has found a way to introduce Islanders to a taste of Nepal. Quite literally.

Thapa opened Himalayan Curry in Charlottetown earlier this year, becoming perhaps the latest example of immigrants who come from faraway, exotic locales and open restaurants with equally exotic menus in a province known for its staple diet of meat, potatoes and seafood.

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Thapa has not found it difficult to tempt Islanders to take a bite.

“Actually, they want to try. The first thing is, it’s different so everybody wants to try. Because when I say Indian food, you don’t need to explain what is Indian food. Islanders know samosa, Islanders know butter chicken,” Thapa said, while sitting at one of his tables at his restaurant in the Midtown Plaza in Charlottetown. Enlarged images of Asian scenes, Mount Everest and the Taj Mahal decorate the space.

“Everybody knows chicken curry even if they never had it.”

Andrew Sprague, who has been writing a restaurant column for The Buzz for more than 10 years, was one of those Canadian-born Islanders who was enthusiastic to try Thapa’s curry.

“It really is fantastic and I hope he does well,” Sprague said. “He’s in the right place to do it because there is no other place offering his style of authentic Indian food in town.”

Sprague says Himalayan Curry and the many other ethnic food restaurants that have opened their doors in the last seven or eight years are bringing Charlottetown through a “culinary revolution”.

“I don’t want to overstate it, but there is exponentially more choice here than there ever was before,” he said. “And Islanders are starting to find things that they really like from these new places that they never had the chance to try before — or only in small doses in other centres.”

Rita Zhao, 48, who owns the Beijing Restaurant in Winsloe, has two menus: one for locals and one for any Chinese people who come to her establishment.

“Same food,” she said. “Just the locals have some combinations and the Chinese have the big plates of individual dishes.”

Most of her clientele are people who live in Winsloe or who drive by her restaurant on Route 2 on their way in and out of Charlottetown.

“Some Chinese come, but not many because we are a little too far from downtown,” she said while her son, Tony Yan, cooked his specialty northern Chinese cuisine in the kitchen in the back of the restaurant that used to house MacQuarrie’s grocery store.

She said her restaurant is not very busy on Mondays and Tuesdays, but business picks up on the weekend with Sunday seeing a lot of takeout orders.

Like her restaurant’s name, Zhao and her family come from the city of Beijing. They never heard of Prince Edward Island when they first discussed immigrating to Canada, but as they searched possible new homes they were attracted by the Provincial Nominee Program.

They decided to begin their new Canadian life in P.E.I., with a view to moving to Toronto or Vancouver in a year or two. As soon as they landed in Charlottetown, however, Zhao’s husband, Kevin Yan, loved P.E.I. right away.

“It was 2010, September, like this, like this! Not hot or not cold, the weather. Everything green. The grass. The blue water, the air clear. So, wow, this is a good place. We will live here and not move to another place.”

Having newcomers choose P.E.I. as their permanent home in Canada has been a challenge. A report by UPEI and the P.E.I. Association for Newcomers to Canada in 2009 found that only 25 per cent of immigrants stayed in the province beyond a couple of years. That statistic is slowly improving (the number is closer to 37 per cent now) in part because newcomers are finding a community of people who share their culture — which includes food and restaurants— already established here. The retention rate of business owners who came through the PNP is about 64 per cent.

“P.E.I. is the only province in Atlantic Canada that has grown our population last year, and that’s due to immigration,” said Jennifer Jeffrey, employment services co-ordinator with the P.E.I. Association for Newcomers to Canada.

“Most (immigrants to P.E.I.) are coming through the PNP, so they have an obligation to start up a business within two years, so a lot of them are opening restaurants. And, of course, the more people who come and settle here, the more customer base they get here. And those of us who were born on P.E.I. get to try different foods that they get in other cities, and we benefit from that as well.”

Jeffery notes the benefits to born-and-raised Islanders go far beyond exposure to new foods.

“These restaurants are hiring. They’re creating employment. They’re hiring (native) Islanders,” she siaid.

“They’re also leasing and renting, too, and that’s good for our economy, too. Better than an empty space there. There is a lot of misconceptions or that negative thinking that ‘They’re taking our jobs’ or whatever. But really they’re opening businesses and creating jobs.”

Axel Leonhard, 42, moved to P.E.I. from Germany in 2008. He and his ex-wife began their business by offering German-inspired baked bread once a week at the Charlottetown Farmers’ Market. By November of that year, they opened Leonhard’s Bakery and Restaurant five days a week in a cosy space in downtown Charlottetown.

Now, Leonhard employs 12 people in a space that is twice the size with plans for further expansion in his kitchen area.

While his business offers such favourties as Bauernfrühstück and schnitzel, he disagrees that his establishment is a “German” restaurant.

“Everything I have is because my customers demand it. Even opening on Sundays was because the people asked me to,” he said.

That demand comes from immigration and Islanders’ changing tastes.

“If you go back 20 years and do a cross-section of Island restaurants, 90 per cent of them are doing homestyle-type meals, meat and potatoes,” said Sprague while finishing off one of Leonhard’s Bavarian-style desserts.

“What you’ve seen happen with more cultures, is Islanders are developing a taste for these dishes and restaurant owners see and are adopting those flavours into their restaurants. So it may not be a Thai restaurant or it may not be a Vietnamese restaurant or an Iranian restaurant, but you’re seeing those influences on the menu because Islanders have become more familiar with them over the last few years.”

jlloyd@theguardian.pe.ca

Twitter.com/jocelynelloyd

MUST TRY

Himalayan Curry: Owner Anuj Thapa says his butter chicken and chicken tikka masala are the menu items most people order at his restaurant in the Midtown Plaza, Charlottetown. But Thapa says his favourite dish is saag lamb. “Saag means spinach and lamb is lamb, so it’s a good combination. It’s good for your stomach. It’s made with herbs and it’s healthy.”

Beijing Restaurant: Rita Zhao recommends customers who visit her at 512 Malpeque Rd., Winsloe, try the Kung Pao chicken and chicken fried rice. Zhao says her dishes are made with traditional Chinese spices but Island-grown carrots, potatoes and chicken.

Leonhard’s Bakery and Restaurant: Axel Leonhard’s cafe at 42 University Ave. has a dessert menu beyond compare. Try a schillerlocke: a puff pastry with a crispy roll on the outside filled with vanilla cream and dusted with sugar.

By the Numbers

BY THE NUMBERS

369 — Total number of restaurants in Prince Edward Island in 2013, according to Restaurants Canada, up 30 establishments from 339 in 2012 and a seven-year low in 2009, when there were 317.

1,226 — Total number of immigrants registered with the P.E.I. Association for Newcomers to Canada since January. The total number registered with the association for all of 2013 was 918.

58 — Percentage of immigrants who came to P.E.I. in 2012-13 through the Provincial Nominee Program who bought a business outright or started a new one, according to the Island Investment Development Inc. 2013 annual report.