Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Ethnic delights on Ellice

West End strip offers food, fashion from around the world

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Pick a culture, any culture, and you can find it on Ellice Avenue in Winnipeg's West End.

On a strip near the other-worldly Hindu Society building, glowing in blue light, are many ethnic restaurants and stores. They will open your mind and your heart to things you never knew about. Come with me on a little tour, made on a chilly night, and feel the warmth of three special spots.

SELAM CANADA (714 Ellice): From the outside of this Ethiopian corner store, you see signs advertising food, imports and ways to send money around the world by RIA or Western Union.

Inside, many other surprises await. Love Ethiopian food? Who knew you could pop in and buy fresh injera in Winnipeg, made every day? Injera is a large pizza-shaped flatbread you top with scoops of many foods -- not easy for a novice to make. It's a romantic way to eat. You break bread with a sweetheart, relative or friend and use scoops instead of cutlery. Charming!

Selam (translation: peace) also has a licensed back kitchen, where co-owner/manager Genet Gebreyesus prepares many foods such as deep-fried bread, fresh-cooked and frozen chicken and beef stews for quick dinners at home, and large orders of Ethiopian food for catering.

Near the front counter is the colourful Ethiopian clothing section. You can buy decorated velvet clothes for your wedding after-party, or loosely woven cotton dresses and scarves for a holiday sunspot.

"My family sends the handmade clothing. They do all the shopping for me," says Gebreyesus.

In addition to bags of fresh spices such as chili and paprika, she sells brightly-coloured "grass" coffee mats, earthenware coffee pots and cups for the daily Ethiopian coffee ceremony -- served on the floor, with friends on little seats around you, like a picnic. She pulls on a fancy dress and sets it up for me to see. The coffee is strong, "like espresso," so one tiny cup has enough kick to get you through the early morning or a mid-afternoon lag.

The smell is rich and invigorating. It's customary for Ethiopians to roast their coffee beans on the spot. "It only takes 10 minutes," says Gebreyesus.

You can buy the raw coffee beans and the long-handled metal roasting pan to pop in your oven. Then you grind and mix it in the coffee pot -- as fresh as coffee can get.

Selam also runs a catering business for weddings and birthdays and family get-togethers. In two weeks they're adding a new element: Selam hair salon.

Gebreyesus has been in Canada for 12 years after living in several troubled areas of the world, and she says "I love Winnipeg." She says she feels safe in the West End, and in Canada generally.

"Everybody is fighting in the world now, but I love Winnipeg because you can live your life in peace here. You can work hard and nobody bothers you."

INDIA PALACE (770 Ellice): With neon lights and a big sign advertising their famous samosas, the India Palace restaurant beckons on a cold winter night.

Chef Ashwani Nagpal and his wife, Saroj, hold court in the warmth of their popular Eastern palace. A large elephant painted on the wall many years ago by a talented 16-year-old artist kicks up a cloud of painted dust on what looks like a hot Indian day, and makes people smile as they pull off wool hats, gloves and heavy coats.

Ashwani and Saroj come from the Delhi area of India. They married in 1983 on Christmas Day in India, then Ashwani returned to Canada, where he had moved in 1979. Saroj, a clothing designer, followed in 1984. Since then, they have owned a clothing store (Tops) and the Bombay restaurant on Ellice between Sherbrook and Maryland streets. In 1992, they moved out of a strip mall on Marion Street and transformed a laundromat on Ellice Avenue, still their primary location.

"We sold the satellite on Marion after two years. Now, Ashwani is the head chef and staff trainer, and often the delivery guy in the big van for catering jobs," Saroj says. "I am trained to be the manager, waitress, everything. I can do each and every field, and I am the troubleshooter."

"But," she adds, "My husband is amazing at putting out food. He can do a catering job for 200 to 400 people in just four hours."

Together with staff, they do large, fancy Indian weddings, pointing out that for a long time, they were the only people in that market in Winnipeg. Taste for Indian food has spread over the years.

"Now little kids are having catering for their birthday parties, and they love it," Saroj says. "We are starting on the third generation of customers now."

"People open the door for delivery," says Ashwani, "and if it is me they start laughing, because they remember me. I was the only one doing deliveries of Indian food 25 years ago."

Downtown, they do office deliveries for luncheons, business meetings and groups working late. They now have an additional kitchen for catering and luncheons downtown at their Waves restaurant and meeting rooms, located at 330 Kennedy St., in the hotel where Lo Pub used to be.

Everyone notices the big sign on the front advertising their famous takeout treats. Samosas and sweets are big sellers for takeout.

Among diners, some people order off the menu, but most head straight to the buffet -- known for being tasty and inexpensive -- to heap food on their plates.

PHO KIM TUONG (856 Ellice): This restaurant featuring Vietnamese/Chinese cuisine, nestled beside the Hindu Society Temple, is a favourite for film stars and celebrities who come to town.

You never know who will be sitting at the back table wearing sunglasses. Not that Winnipeggers would bother them. What a happy, noisy, atmosphere!

"I like working here with my family," says manager Melanie La. "See, that's my mom over there, sitting with those people. My sister works here, too."

And many other relatives, it turns out. "Where else can you find a place where eight people in a family can work together?" says La.

Just then, La's mother, Kiet Tran, comes flying down the aisle towards us. She's outgoing, funny and affectionate. "I love people!" she says, giving me an unexpected squeeze. "That's my mom!" says her daughter, shaking her head and smiling. "She can speak Vietnamese, Mandarin, Cantonese and Cambodian, and she thinks she can speak English."

Mom takes off again and settles into a booth up front with two blue collar workers, who estimate they come in three times a week for hot soup and other dishes. While many customers are drawn in for pho soups, the menu is great fun and offers all kinds of delights, such as unusual sweet vegetables that aren't easy to identify (it becomes a game at some tables), all kinds of noodles, meat with delicious spices, spring rolls and crazy side dishes.

"Some people come every day, and we get the kids from General Wolfe School across the way," says La.

The front cash area lights up with bright yellow blossoms, a crazy fish with a ball in its mouth, and a shiny golden Buddha watching, laughing. But some people's favourite room at Pho is the bathroom area, with a hut built around the doors to the loos that has a pointy roof on top.

"It's a Vietnamese-style roof which is made of straw to let the breeze in," says La.

Inside are more sprays of pink blossoms at the sinks -- and an ultra-modern hand dryer that will blow you halfway across the room. East meets West.

And booths? We all know Winnipeggers love booths. This long restaurant has about a dozen booths for four down the sides, tables for eight, and round tables at the back that can pack in 10 people for a feast and conversation. It's a very friendly place.

Where else would people walk customers to the outside door, open it and say "Have a safe drive home!"

Maureen Scurfield is an urban explorer, roving the city of Winnipeg, in touch with other peoples' roots.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 23, 2014 ??65528

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