Before the Indian Rice Factory came on the scene, the odds of finding a good curry in Toronto were approximately zero.
When Amar Patel was inducted as a fellow of the Ontario Hostelry Institute in 2008, she discussed her reasons for having opened Indian Rice Factory nearly 40 years earlier. “It was not with the idea of making money. It was the idea of promoting Indian food.” True to her intentions, Patel was largely responsible for introducing Toronto to refined subcontinental cuisine at a time when only poor imitations were available here.
Though she passed away in 2010, her legacy was preserved for a little while. Indian Rice Factory, located at Dupont Street and Howland Avenue, survived for three more years. On November 3, its owners announced its closure.
If you wanted authentic Indian food in mid-1960s Toronto, your best bet was to drop into somebody’s home. Restaurant options were limited to a handful of eateries—starting in 1963 with Yonge Street’s India House—whose menus were criticized for their mediocrity. One restaurant owner told the Star that he preferred that East Asians stay away from his business, because they grumbled about spicing, portion size, and the food’s inferiority to home cooking. Other restaurants offered “curries,” which were little more than stale curry powder dumped into a creamy sauce.
When the Inn on the Park’s Café de l’Auberge offered a special buffet billed as being “From the Chafing Dishes of India” in 1967, Patel’s curiosity was piqued. A nurse who had arrived in Toronto two years earlier, she was shocked to discover dishes drowning in curry powder-enhanced béchamel sauce being passed off as her native country’s cuisine. She debated the spread’s authenticity with the executive chef. He invited her to prepare a meal. The subtlety of the flavours stunned him. Patel was hired to teach his staff how to cook proper Indian food.
After stops at several other restaurants, Patel opened Indian Rice Factory at 490 Dupont Street in 1970. Amid walls painted orange and yellow, a dozen diners sat around an open kitchen where Patel cooked to order. It was not a place for a speedy meal of meat and veggies swimming in sauce. “Unlike most Indian cooks in the city, Amar spices gently, refusing to drown her meals in curry,” Toronto Life observed in 1971. “There is no Indian restaurant in the city so constantly rigid in its maintenance of quality and none so imaginatively designed.” Subsequent reviews across Toronto’s media praised Patel’s use of pure ghee, and her practice of limiting her cooking to small batches. When his dining companions complained about high prices and the overwhelming smell, the Star’s Charles Oberdorf replied, “What do you expect when you’re sitting in the kitchen? And who can complain about cooking odours like these?” He also noted that, “The Indian Rice Factory is not for newcomers to Indian food. Even the knowledgeable save it for special times.”
Indian Rice Factory expanded to a second location on Yonge Street in 1974, then consolidated into a single, larger home at 414 Dupont Street in the early 1980s. Patel continued to innovate, offering one of the first Indian-themed brunch menus in Toronto, and also proper wine pairings with the cuisine. She opened her kitchen to other chefs to teach them the cuisine, allowing them to test out dishes. “She was unfailingly generous with her knowledge, her recipes and her wise and inclusive views on her chosen profession,” noted critic James Chatto. The business was a family affair. Patel’s son Aman grew up entertaining diners with stories as a child, eventually running the restaurant as an adult. Other members of the family opened their own eateries, among them Danforth Avenue’s Sher-e-Punjab.
In a 2008 interview, Patel noted that the reason she cooked was to avoid being dependent on anyone. While it was hard work, she enjoyed every moment of it. “I love cooking. If someone has my food and they tell me it’s so good, it still makes my day. I feel very happy inside.”
Additional material from the May 26, 1982 edition of the Globe and Mail; the November 1971, May 1996, and February 2008 editions of Toronto Life; and the February 19, 1972, January 12, 1974, and April 21, 2008 editions of the Toronto Star.
Lead photo by Jamie Bradburn/Torontoist.