Sharing Stories in Bits & Bites

Spices From Home

Growing up in a small town in the Northwest Territories, meant that in some ways, my food experiences were somewhat limited. Although both of my parents were good cooks, we just didn’t have the opportunity to try out foods from far away cultures. When we traveled, the big treat was always Chinese food. Apparently, when I was very young…I was so afraid to try anything new, I would order a hamburger while the rest of my family would enjoy their chicken chow mein and stir fry. Sadly, I have a horrible memory, so I don’t remember when my palate changed, but these days I am constantly seeking out new flavours. Through all of the different food journeys I have been on…my top three favourite remain the same. Indian. Italian. Thai. The foods from these countries inspire me and the flavours delight me. I decided to do a little searching in my own backyard and see if I could find a few culinary geniuses nearby that I could glean a few secrets from. Ask and you shall receive, it never fails. First in my edible expeditions…India.

We were doing some general garden research and decided to head out to Parksville to see what was available in their nurseries. It was one of those humid on and off rainy days, a relief really, after this tremendous summer. Finally our stomaches protested and we needed to stop for lunch. The destination, an unobtrusive Indian restaurant on the side of the highway. I often ask servers what their favourite thing on the menu is. She confidently replied “Everything!” and then shared that the paneer tikka was beyond delicious. We tried a few different things on the menu, avoiding the kids favourite butter chicken, just to be adventurous. Everything was so fresh and cleanly flavoured, reminding me of morning curries served in Malaysia…I wanted to know more.

Our server was obviously someone who knew what was going on, so I asked if this restaurant, Amrikko’s was owned by the same people who had the seaside and mall restaurants in Nanaimo. Turns out, Mulu Silvey, had recently purchased this establishment after running it as a manager for several years. She’s grateful to be operating a sister company to the original restaurant. Many weeks later, I sat across from this quietly dignified woman, trying to find out where her food passion lay. I was feeling awful that day, and she was much more concerned about my health than getting through the interview, that should have been my first clue. Raised here on the Island, within a traditional Indian family, her first memories are coloured with the scent of fresh chai, waking her each morning.  Although she was never really drawn to cooking, she has been in the hospitality industry for a long time. As I continued to question her… I still couldn’t figure out what drew her to this business. Honestly, I was a bit baffled. She was obviously proud of the food there, she was knowledgable about the restaurant business, but I was clearly missing something.

Then I asked about the kitchen staff. Mulu was positively thrilled to share the story of her dedicated culinary team. Amrikko’s Chef, Yaspal Singh, spent eight years training under various hotel chefs in the beautiful Punjab capitol city of Chandigarh. He’s been here for six and a half years and is the calm and quiet guide in the kitchen, he claims he can teach anyone who is willing to learn. For those of us with teenagers at home, this statement speaks volumes! He has carefully trained and works closely with, the two other cooks, also from India. Mulu’s respect for the the gentlemen of the kitchen is unmistakable, sharing that they work like a well oiled machine. They dictate the quality control for the food. Ordering fresh and local produce, but insisting that certain specific ingredients and spices come directly from India. No wonder the flavours are so genuine.

I was welcomed into the “inner sanctum” of the kitchen and given a demonstration of how they use the clay tandoor oven to craft their delicious naan bread. The cook, with magician-like hand motions, made the task of spreading dough in a volcanic-hot oven look like child’s play. Apparently many bear the scars of trial by error, while learning this skill…not this man, as he proudly displayed his burn free arm!

The birth of naan bread…

Although she is appreciative of her hard working, positive front end staff, Mulu claims that her kitchen staff really set the tone of respect within the restaurant. “We learn so much from them.” Everyone admires their incredible ability to work as a team with the utmost respect for each other. Respect that carries out to other aspects of the business. A graciousness that extends to the food, the clientele and each member of the restaurant staff. They are far away from their families and have many challenges of their own, yet every day they come to work with an amazing attitude that is simply contagious! Each member of the staff has come to learn that this is just expected. A lovely young server, Victoria, shared that she will be out at her car and suddenly remember that she neglected to say “good-bye” to the kitchen. She insists she HAS to go back, “you just don’t do that, it’s about manners and respect”. We could all use that kind of reminder in our lives these days.

Although I haven’t yet made it to India in my travels, I profoundly admire the culture and obviously the flavours. How wonderful is it that I only have to drive down the road to Parksville, to experience the best of both. Mulu and her restaurant family will be thrilled to serve you and share their amazing food and generous spirit. Go, visit, taste. You will not regret it. Namaste.

“Indians are the Italians of Asia and vice versa. Every man in both countries is a singer when he is happy, and every woman is a dancer when she walks to the shop at the corner. For them, food is the music inside the body and music is the food inside the heart. Amore or Pyar makes every man a poet, a princess of peasant girl if only for second eyes of man and woman meets.”
Gregory David Roberts

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