Thursday, October 7, 2010

RIP Mrs. Patel

On Dupont Street, just a few blocks from the church and my home, there is a well-known Restaurant called "The Indian Rice Factory." Betsy and I have only been there once, but man did it make an impression! Some of the best Indian Food I ever had. Turns out the chef/owner, known as Mrs. Patel, is famous for basically introducing the city of Toronto to good Indian Food back in the 1960's and 70's. James Chatto has a wonderful telling of the story that he also related in his book, The Man Who Ate Toronto:
There were only two Indian restaurants in Toronto in 1967 (India House and Rajput) when Mrs. Patel arrived in Canada, a young nurse from Bombay. One afternoon, she decided to have lunch at the Inn on the Park hotel, at Eglinton and Leslie. The hotel’s restaurant, Café de 1’Auberge, was famous for sophisticated French cuisine, but it was the buffet of the day that aroused her curiosity – a culinary event entitled “From the Chafing Dishes of India.” In those dishes were examples of the curious travesty of Moghlai cooking that European chefs were trained to prepare: chicken, shrimp, or beef in a sort of bechamel sauce coloured with curry powder. Mrs. Patel called the manager and gently tried to explain that this was a little less than authentic.

When the conversation moved into the kitchen, executive chef Georges Chaignet listened politely and then invited Mrs. Patel to come back next day and cook him a meal. She obliged; he was stunned. As Stratford Chefs School instructor Jacques Marie, then Chaignet’s sous-chef, recalled: “She showed us what curry is really about. It was a new world to me.”

To the kitchen’s eternal credit, Mrs. Patel was hired to teach the team all that she knew. After a year, she moved on, first to Julie’s Mansion on Jarvis, working her magic in the casual upstairs dining room called the Bombay Bicycle Club, more famous in those days for the lissom beauty of its sari-clad waitresses than its buffet, and then to the Hyatt Regency.

In 1970 she opened her own place on Dupont Street, called Indian Rice Factory. The tiny room would be considered avant-garde even today. It seated barely a dozen customers who sat around an open cooking station, choosing from a short and frequently changing list of dishes on a blackboard tied to the back of the fridge. Slender, beautiful and always elegantly dressed, Mrs. Patel radiated a soft-spoken confidence as she worked, preparing many items à la minute, and explaining her recipes to anyone who asked. (Source)

By all accounts, she was a major force in the development of the Toronto Restaurant scene. She was generous with her time and recipes and something of an institution. You can find some of her recipes on the Indian Rice Factory's website.

It's telling that the website for the restaurant discusses the spiritual implications of Indian Cuisine. She had deep knowledge that craft to those places of art and truth. "Cooking is an art we savour and a ritual that we take seriously."

She died in August after a long battle with breast cancer. She had been the owner and chef of the Indian Rice Factory for 40 years. Her son had become increasingly involved over the years and now is taking her place.

A few days ago we had the planning team for the Music that Makes Community Conference at Church of The Messiah. I invited them over to the rectory, but had no intention of cooking for nine people on short notice, so I suggested that we order out. Many of the group were from San Francisco and complained that they can't find good Indian Food there.

I realized, then, that I didn't actually have any Indian takeout menus, so I googled the problem while Betsy got them drinks. As soon as I saw a reference to the Indian Rice Factory I knew it would be perfect, but it is not the kind of place that usually does delivery.

I called them, and they said they would make an exception since it was a relatively large order (9 people) and since the owner happened to be there with a car. The host helped me through the menu and made helpful suggestions about things that were particularly fresh or good that night. In the end, he also through in a few free dishes compliments of the house.

Forty-five minutes later or so Mrs. Patel's son, Aman, came to my door with a truly memorable meal. Our guests from San Francisco were impressed. Aman gave me a "Namaste" kind of bow after I thanked him profusely and complimented his restaurant. I didn't realize, yet, that his mother has passed on. I think I should send him a note saying that the meal we had was a great tribute to his mother.

I'll end this little obituary with one her recipes:

Butter Chicken in Three Easy Steps:

The Chicken

2 lbs boneless and skinless chicken

12 cloves garlic
2 inches ginger
2 tsp coriander powder
Lime juice – 2 limes
4 tbsp canola oil
2 tbsp white vinegar
1 tsp cumin whole or ground
½ cup yogurt
1 tbsp red chili powder
Salt to taste

— all Marinade ingredients except the salt into blender and puree. Add salt to taste such that Marinade has a salty tinge. Put chicken in bowl, add Marinade, mix to coat thoroughly and refrigerate for 4 hours.

2 tsp ghee
1 tsp dry fenugreek leaves
1 tsp dried mango or lime powder
1 tsp roasted black cumin powder
Salt to taste

Pinch of Garam Masala
½ fresh lime

— mix all ingredients together and have basting brush ready
— Prepare the marinated chicken either by grilling, broiling (cover with foil so as not to burn) or baking in a hot oven (350°F) until done. Baste regularly with Basting. Once done, set aside and garnish with sprinkle of Garam Masala and light drizzle of fresh lime juice.

The Butter Sauce

Butter Sauce
3 oz unsalted butter
2 tbsp sugar
4 tbsp fresh lime juice
4 green chilies – slit
6 tomatoes – cut into wedges
2 tbsp whipping cream – unwhipped
— in a pot, melt butter and sugar over a medium-high to high heat until brown (not burnt); add lime juice (watch out for splutters and splashes!!) and quickly follow with green chilies and let cook for a minute, add tomatoes and reduce to medium heat and cook until tomatoes break down, add cream and reduce to a slow simmer. Set aside.

The Chicken Goes Into the Butter Sauce

2 oz unsalted butter
1 tsp red chili powder
4-6 green chilies – fine cut
6 firm tomatoes – quartered
2 inches ginger – grated
— in a pot, melt butter over medium-high heat, add red chili powder and Butter Sauce, bring to boil, reduce to medium heat, add the chicken, tomatoes green chilies and ginger. Simmer for 10-15 minutes.
— Remove to a serving dish, add small specks of butter, pinches of roasted cumin powder and finely chopped coriander as garnish.

Serve with plain Basmati rice or Naan (or both). (source)


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