Following in her parents’ culinary footsteps, Joti Dhanju opened Zaika Indian Bistro on Edmonton’s south side a decade ago.
She offered made-from-scratch curries and her mother’s spicy condiments from a circular buffet with food kept hot beneath a dozen shiny domes.
Instead of the typical elephant and Taj Mahal pictures, framed modern prints and a huge photo of Joti’s striking, kohl-lined eyes served as artwork on charcoal-coloured walls.
Zaika was sleek, stylish and hip, and well ahead of its time.
Dhanju has done it again with Tiffin Fresh Kitchen, a fast-casual restaurant that features flavourful Indian food served in compostable, sectioned containers for dining in or taking food to go.
The restaurants — three of them now — feature bright, open spaces, high ceilings and walls with painted murals and giant-sized pictures of Indian street scenes.
The concept for Tiffin originated when Dhanju began using a generic food container to fill take-out orders at Zaika. The boxes resembled the tiffins (lunchboxes) used to deliver food in Asia. The orders were so plentiful that Dhanju soon realized the opportunity for a separate business.
In 2017, Dhanju and her husband partnered with her father, brother and long-time family friend, chef Unni Klannan, to launch the first Tiffin Fresh Kitchen on 50th Street. Since then, the group has opened two more — one on Jasper and 104th Street; the other in Currents of Windermere.
Among the food options are 18 gluten-free curries — nine with meat, nine without — made from Dhanju family recipes as well as some southern Indian favourites from chef Unni.
While pakoras, samosas, naan, biryani and onion fritters (called bhaji) are made-to-order, the curries are cooked from scratch and held in steamer trays.
If the choices overwhelm, choose the Rana Tiffin which features three of Joti’s father’s favourites: Kashmiri lamb, fenugreek chicken and paneer pepper masala.
Kashmiri chilies make the lamb dish a spicy one and are also responsible for the dark red colour of the sauce that features underlying notes of cumin and fennel.
The more mellow fenugreek chicken is layered with onion, ginger, fenugreek leaves, black onion seed (called kalonji) and mustard seed.
It’s a luxuriously rich combination of flavours, but of the three, it’s the paneer pepper masala that leaves a lasting impression.
This vegetarian masala dish features sweet red and green peppers with cubes of tofu-like cheese (called paneer) in a mild, red pepper-based curry. People who like butter chicken will find similar flavours in this dish.
To add to the flavour, customers have the option to top the curries with items like roasted garlic, cilantro, fried onion, nuts, chilies and peppers, all at no extra cost.
A swirl of yogurt-based raita will help temper the heat of spicier dishes like Kashmiri lamb or chicken vindaloo.
People averse to spice should like the butter chicken, made with cream, tomatoes, ginger and garlic, and the coconut milk-based basa curry, a southern coastal dish that features a hint of sour tamarind and some edible, citrusy curry leaves.
If one chooses to dine in at the Jasper Avenue location, take note of the wall mural painted by Montreal artists Lacey Jane and Layla Folkman.
The mural features Joti’s mother and was painted from a picture taken in 1980 while she was on her honeymoon in Kashmir.
It’s a gorgeous mural and the look of joy on Mrs. Dhanju’s face is unmistakable.
How fortunate we are that she and her husband set their sights on Canada to start their new life together.
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