Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A taste of India

You don't have to board a plane to make this exotic trip

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Want to take a shopping trip to India in 20 minutes?

No jet lag -- you're going to The Maples. Who knew there were so many treasures from India and Pakistan in one spot --well, besides the 6,000 people from the Indian sub-continent who now live in and around the Maples?

Mandalay West Plaza is Little India's indoor bazaar. People pop in for Bollywood clothing, sparkly jewellery, Indian food, a tasty sweet house, groceries, teas and herbal cures.

To get there, head for Inkster Boulevard and the Maples' main drag, Mandalay Drive. It looks like you're going nowhere at first, but keep looking left. Within a few blocks you'll find an L-shaped strip mall with a big parking lot anchored by Style India.

Delicious smells waft from the Punjab Sweet House & Restaurant in the bend of the L, and from the India Spice House at the other end of the L.

Then there's the giant Punjab Banquet Hall, an ornate wedding-reception palace with a throne-style stage for the happy couple.

"About 80 per cent of our customers are from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Philippines and the Middle East," says owner Ravinder Singh Buttar, 45.

While the plaza may look pretty quiet mid-day, when rush hour traffic starts rolling in, watch out! The entire parking lot is filled by 5 p.m. with shoppers looking for groceries, herbs and spices, take-out samosas and dinners, plus clothing and jewellery for the many weddings and parties in the community.

When that banquet room fills up with party-goers in brilliant saris and suits, it's bang-shang-a-lang until 1 a.m.

"It gets pretty loud, but the grandmothers are all up dancing too," Ravinder says.

There are four ceremonies/parties as part of most weddings: the engagement party, the girls' music and henna party, the wedding ceremony and the reception, he says. These days they can be spread apart or booked together over a couple of days.

Unlike many Canadian weddings, these big affairs are often booked, cooked and hastily planned at the last minute.

"People will phone three, four days ahead and say, 'Do you have Friday open? If not, how about Saturday then?' " Ravinder says. "That can mean up to 13 or 14 different main dishes, fruit drinks, chai tea and liquor."

Ravinder is especially proud of the private dressing room for brides and bridesmaids, secretly accessible from the back of the building for surprise grand entrances.

Ravinder's brother Parminder Singh Buttar, who sells clothes for weddings and other occasions at Style India nearby, explains why many East Indian wedding are done in a rush.

"If it's a love wedding, where the young people choose each other, or even if it's an arranged wedding where the parents choose," people from this background seem to think it's wise to get the couple married quickly once the decision is made. No time for arguments, changing one's mind or bridezilla nonsense. They just get the deed done.

Parminder deals with customers and tends the busy phone at Style India, the huge "Bollywood collection" clothing store in the strip mall. There are about 20 mannequins lined up on a shelf overhead modelling different styles of richly coloured and lavishly beaded suits. A suit is a dress with matching narrow pants underneath, hand-embroidered and usually shipped from India. They can be ready-made in different sizes, or fully beaded and semi-stitched with the sides left undone to be tailored to fit different widths of customers.

If you want to pick your own colours and designs, staff will take measurements at the store for their tailors -- local artisans who custom bead and embroider.

Saris, an easier form of dress, are 5 1/4 metres of material wrapped in a certain fashion to stay on a woman's body. These days, in recognition of fumble fingers, some are already made to stay done up. They run from $15 to $500.

Special wedding dresses, called lengha, encrusted with embroidery and beading, cost anywhere from $500 to $5,000 and can be as heavy as 12 kilograms.

Men's wedding suits -- elegant knee-length coats with embroidery and beading -- match the brides' clothing for beauty.

Soft blankets with patterns are featured in the windows of the store.

"It is a tradition to give a blanket as a wedding gift," says Parminder. A couple will get 10 to 12 blankets at a wedding.

"When the groom's father meets the girl's father in their home it is a tradition to hug each other and give a blanket," he says.

The store also stocks children's clothing.

"I came here to Canada in 2001," says Parminder, 48. "I was an electronic technician but it was hard to get work repairing computers. But we discovered it was hard to get Indian clothes in Winnipeg."


Punjab Sweet House & Restaurant

This charming shop is run by a family of five -- father Gurtej Singh Malhi, mother Rajinder Kaur Malhi and teenage sons Ishraj, Jahuir and daughter Simrat. There are dozens of colourful dessert treats in the showcases, the top sellers being gulab jamun (whipping cream and milk, deep-fried in syrup) and kaju barfi (diamond shaped treats made of cashews, milk and sugar).

"The buffet is all vegetarian,'' says Ishraj, 19, who wears his hair in a sikh topknot and went to Mennonite Brethern Collegiate Institute. "We supply to other stores and weddings and do a lot of catering and we bake for Dhoom Restaurant downtown. We are famous for our samosas."


India Spice House

At the far tip of the L we find the lively Joe Gupta of India Spice House fame. Gupta, a former journalist, is also a herbalist and cook.

"I taught Peter Warren from CJOB how to cook curry, and Mayor Bill Norrie used to stop on his way back from getting his haircuts near my Pembina Highway location," he says.

Gupta says he is proud of his service to people with aches and pains and common diseases such as diabetes. He opened his Mandalay West store in 2002.

"I was the only tenant at the time, bit now the plaza is full," he says.

"Come in and I'll teach you how to make good curry."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 10, 2013 A6

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