301 George St. South, Peterborough
It’s long been a staple on the steaming streets of Mumbai and Delhi and Dhaka, where a steady and seemingly unending flow of traffic streams, cheek-by-jowl. Rush-hour professionals, still in suits, pushing past the slowpokes, vendors cooking up their street-food specialties, big, old taxis rumbling by, everything a shifting kaleidoscope of humanity. On the road, horns honk, impatiently. On the sidewalk, people buy and sell, picking up a last few items for dinner, maybe. And through it all, the rickshaw—now almost all of them automated, the driver encased in a small cab, pressing—passenger in back, with a low rumble—into that great cacophony.
But every so often, you still see an old-school one powered by pedals, and that’s what I pass just across from Del Crary Park in downtown Peterborough, on my way to see Shafiq. Stationary, in front of a patio with Mughal, Taj-Mahal-like archways, and fixed at the back with a faded ad for his restaurant (and an image for Kingfisher beer, one of India’s favourite brews), it looks ready to make a delivery of tikka or naan. Inside, I’m met by the man himself, who tells me about his remarkable journey, to reach this sunny corner in the heart of the city, where’s he’s been serving up excellent South Asian cuisine for the past 15 years.
Beginning in Bangladesh, Shafiq Rahman came to Canada, and Toronto, in 1988, moving to Peterborough back in 1996. “Toronto is okay for a bachelor, but I had a family, and this is such a beautiful city, a peaceful place,” he tells me. Along the way, he honed his culinary craft in a number of five-star kitchens, and collected recipes during trips around India.
That’s reflected on the menu—which is peppered with little anecdotes, historical notes and explanations (for example, details about the “amazing tandoor,” a clay oven fired by hardwood charcoal that “simultaneously bakes, roasts, grills and smokes food,” noting that the one here is imported from India). Plus helpful asides about individual dishes, where they originate, how they’re cooked—Madras, for example (fish, chicken, lamb, beef or veg, from the south, very hot), or saag (with shrimp or meat), a leafy green, moderately spiced, from the east.
“People are scared of curry, afraid of hot, but if there’s no chilli pepper, you’re fine,” Rahman smiles, noting that every dish is fresh, custom-made and tailored to palate. All his sauces are created from scratch. And South Asian cuisine has always been a favourite for vegetarians—Rahman’s menu has 25 different non-meat dishes.
What’s the most popular item he serves? Butter chicken—that rich, almost-sweet, silken sauce, best sopped up with a slice of garlic naan, still hot from the tandoori oven. “Butter chicken is so famous here,” he says, while recommending something a little different, called dhansak, a curry that mixes spicy, sweet, sour and hot, cooked up with lentils and flavoured with fenugreek leaves.
Striding back out onto the street, nobody’s honking, the waters on Little Lake, across the way, are calm. And the bicycle-rickshaw is still in place, as if waiting to take me home—a trip all the way back from the subcontinent.