At Himalaya Restaurant in Vancouver’s Punjabi Market, the smell of hot curry and spices rises from the long buffet table.
Rivalling it in length is the impressive sweet case, covered with colourful treats such as gulab jamun (deep fried orbs of dried milk dipped in honey), jalebi (chewy, pretzel-shaped, bright orange from saffron) and berfe (snowy bars of dense milk topped with nuts).
If you’re planning an Indian wedding today, there are a number of places across Greater Vancouver you could find the traditional sweets for your guests. After all, the strip of Main Street called Punjabi Market or Little India isn’t the only Little India around. A neighbourhood in Surrey has also earned that name among locals.
But the treats were hard to come by 40 years ago, and for restaurateur Kewal Pabla, his sweets had a special role to play for his business, his family and the local South Asian community.
Pabla opened Himalaya on the corner of Main and 50th in the early 1970s. There was little hint anything like Punjabi Market would exist in the area.
“There were hardly any Indo-Canadian shops here,” said Pabla. At the time, the Sunset neighbourhood had a large German population, which grew after the Second World War. Wes Jang, a nearby resident of 48 years recalls German linen stores, a Chinese grocer and two paper shacks where youth would collect news for delivery.
However, there has been a South Asian presence in Vancouver since the turn of the century. It experienced a spike in the 1960s as Canadian immigration became based on merit rather than criteria such as race or national origin.
The busiest hubs of community for South Asian immigrants were the various temples in the city, and that was where some locals discovered that Pabla knew how to make sweets. At that time, there was no one around who knew how to prepare the traditional treats for weddings. Many were willing to pay Pabla for catering, who had experience at his parents’ restaurant in Punjab cooking and making sweets.
And so, on the other side of the world, more than 10,000 kilometres from the hands that taught him, Kewal Pabla was feeding Vancouver from his restaurant on Main Street, and business was good.
HUSTLE AND BUSTLE
Pabla’s brother, wife, children and parents joined him in Vancouver before the end of the decade.
Other South Asian businesses such as fabric shops and jewellers clustered in the area. Public celebrations for holidays such as Vaisakhi and Diwali began in the 1980s.
“People still tell me to this day there was a lot of hustle and bustle,” said Kewal’s son, Manjit. “People always bumping into you... I never really got to see that.”
There was always work at Himalaya, and many members of the Pabla family have helped out at the restaurant. Manjit, the second of four siblings, remembers that being his life after school.
“You start picking up dishes and slowly, you start bussing tables and waiting tables and maybe somebody tells you to peel onions. That’s how you keep on fitting wherever you’re needed, because you’re family.”
It was especially challenging in his 20s and telling friends that he couldn’t hang out.
“Weekends were a lot busier, long weekends were extremely busy and holidays were just crazy,” said Manjit.
Some remember the 1990s as Punjabi Market’s heyday. But Kewal remembers chatter about leaving Vancouver for Surrey even before that, in the mid-1980s.
“The land was so cheap, the houses were so cheap,” said Kewal. “If you could sell your house here, you could buy a brand new house in Surrey and have quite a bit of money in your pocket too!”
While it wasn’t just the South Asian community that turned to Surrey as a cheaper alternative from Vancouver to live, Kewal added that the affordability made transitions for families expecting relatives to move to Canada from overseas.
Since 1986, Surrey’s population has tripled to more than 460,000, according to Statistics Canada — 2011 data revealed that about 31 per cent are South Asian, compared to Vancouver’s six per cent.
But as members of the South Asian community started to buy houses in Surrey, that’s when Kewal Pabla built a house for his family in 1986 in Vancouver.
It was a big house about a block from Himalaya, and neighbours wondered during construction if it was a church. Twenty-two family members lived in the house — uncles and aunts and cousins were everywhere—and sometimes even more if relatives needed a room. Manjit said it was “like a circus.”
“Everybody’s always in front of you,” he said. “We never locked the door because there was always somebody in and out.”
Manjit is 47 today. He manages the Main Street Himalaya with one brother and also helps out at a Richmond Himalaya location with another. While there were challenges being tied to the family restaurant growing up, he loves it today. Manjit cooks, but his joy is being with the customers.
“I love meeting all the people,” said Manjit. “Back in the kitchen, you only see your pots and pans. Here you see fresh faces, new faces, and you get to know everybody. It’s like being on stage. Everyone recognizes the person on stage.”
NEIGHBOURHOOD IN TRANSITION
There are some recent changes in Punjabi Market. Two marijuana dispensaries have moved in, along with an engineering consulting firm and a Chinese wellness centre. Some storefronts are empty. And if a development application at the intersection of Main and 49th goes through, a six-storey mixed-use building will come into the area, adding 75 homes.
“Change is universal,” said Kewal Pabla. After all, there was never a Punjabi Market here to begin with. He wonders if the area will become a more “mixed” market. Regardless, business at the restaurant has always been good, with customers of all ethnicities.
So Pabla’s sweet case might not be the only sweet case in Greater Vancouver. Punjabi Market might not be the only centre of community for local South Asians.
But despite these changes, Main Street is still home for the Pabla family. Work is just a stroll away for Manjit. He works 16 hours, seven days a week.
“If there was an eighth,” he said, “I’d be there too.”
After all, he has a show to run.