It is a long way to Namakkal in the Indian province of Tamil Nadu, but if you want to sample the local cuisine, you need only stop by the New Glasgow Farmers’ Market.
Ranjith Murugesan and his wife Kiruthika Sekar spend their Friday nights at the market, cooking a variety of dishes they sell at the Spicy Kitchen booth on Saturdays. Both will be on hand this week, but up until Christmas, Sekar manned their New Glasgow booth and Murugesan ran a booth at the Antigonish Farmers’ Market.
“The Antigonish market closes for the winter, so now for a few months, we cook for only one market and are together selling,” said Murugesan.
Sekar is quick to point out he is the chef and she is the chef’s assistant, adding she does a lot of chopping vegetables “his way” and washing dishes.
“I want the dishes we sell to be as authentic as possible and okay, I admit I like things done a certain way, but we work well together,” Murugesan said.
He came to Canada in 2011 and got his masters’ degree in electrical engineering and computers from Dalhousie University in 2015. He went back to India to marry Sekar, whose family lives one street away from his. They moved to Toronto, but Sobeys lured them to Stellarton where he works as a business analyst.
“It was a better job than in Toronto and I was already familiar with Nova Scotia. I have good co-workers and the company looks after me well, but the area is small compared to what we are used to and the Indian community is very, very small,” he said.
Sekar, who has a degree in information technology, has been unable to find work since they moved to Pictou County almost a year ago. She volunteers two shifts a week at the Aberdeen Hospital’s front desk.
Joining the Multicultural Association of Pictou County is what led them to the market. When the association organized a multicultural market, they provided Indian food.
“We sold out of samosas in two hours, so we went to another event and again got a good response. We didn’t have much to do on weekends, so we decided to try the market,” said Murugesan.
He grew up eating well, but admits he never cooked until he was 21.
“I belonged to international students’ and Indian students’ groups at Dal and that’s where it started. We’d rent a hall and cook for hundreds of people for cultural events or special occasions.”
At the markets, he likes to discuss his dishes with customers and is happy to suggest which foods go together.
“Some dishes are hot, some not. Some are in sauces, some dry. We use a lot of spice, but that doesn’t just mean heat; it means flavor. We bring our spices from home when we visit and we use good cuts of meat. What you won’t find from us is bland food.”
Indian cuisine varies from province to province, but a general distinction is that the northern part of the country uses more fat, particularly butter, milk and cream, he noted.
“We make some adjustments for the local market. We don’t use beef at home, but it is popular here, so we include it but the methods and the spices are as my family would have.”
Samosas are a snack food in India, never a meal or an appetizer, he pointed out.
“Here, you’d have tea and a biscuit or cookies when we have tea and a samosa. Here we offer a bigger samosa than in India because people like a bigger portion.”
Most Indian dishes require hours of slow cooking, which is why they are busy at the market kitchen on Friday nights, using all four burners and a couple of electric skillets, all at the same time.
“I can handle four or six dishes at a time, no problem. What I can’t do is cook for two people, but Kiruthika is very good at that so we eat well at home,” said Murugesan.
The New Glasgow market has a second Indian food booth with all vegetarian offerings, so Murugesan and Sekar concentrate on meat dishes including lamb kebabs, chicken biryani and a variety of curries. Because the Antigonish market did not need a second Indian vendor, they offer East Asian, Thai and Korean food.
“We get a lot of university students, a lot of foreign students and people who have lived in Toronto and other large cities so we do well in sales.”
Working the Antigonish market means being up by 4:30 a.m. to pick up and pack the food cooked in New Glasgow the night before, drive to Antigonish, set up and be ready for customers. With that market closed, they can sleep until 5:30 a.m.
Their families in India both have small farms though they do not live on them. Murugesan’s family grows mangoes, sugar cane, rice and onions while Sekar’s father is an engineer. They are pleased that the young couple share their Indian cuisine, but worry they are lonely or work too hard.
“It is a different culture in many ways. If we were home, we’d live with my parents and our social life would be with our families,” said Murugesan.
Both enjoy eating out and are willing to try anything except “Canadian Indian” food because it always disappoints.
“I love Italian food, so it is my first choice for eating out,” said Sekar.
Murugesan has two local favourites.
“I had my first steak at Mother Webb’s and I haven’t found any better and I love Sam’s pizza.”
Rosalie MacEachern is a Stellarton resident and freelance writer who seeks out people who work behind the scenes on hobbies or jobs that they love the most. If you have someone you think she should profile in an upcoming article, she can be reached at email@example.com