Indian-style pizzas heating up Winnipeg’s food scene

Putting pineapple on pizza is a divisive topic for some, but what about cauliflower? Or fresh ginger? Cilantro? 

Winnipeg’s toppings choices are changing when it comes time to order a pizza.

Indian-style pizza (also known as Punjabi pizza or Desi style pizza) is appearing on many menus in the city. The pizzas feature toppings like tandoori chicken, butter chicken, paneer and spinach, often topped with fresh ginger and cilantro, or even raisins and cashews.

“When I started it was hard to get the people aware. Pizza is Italian — who eats Indian pizza, right?”Jagtaran Singh Sidhu is the owner of Desi Pizza and Curries.

Walking into Sidhu’s storefront on Henderson Highway, the black and white checkered flooring and red and green stripes on the walls are reminiscent of an Italian eatery — but what’s offered is anything but your traditional ‘za.

Sidhu claims Indian-style pizza is more suitable for vegetarians, such as this spiced paneer pie from Desi Pizza & Curries. (Holly Caruk/CBC).

When Sidhu opened in 2008, six years after coming to Canada from India, pizza was popular, but there was one big problem: many people from his home country didn’t like it.

Sidhu said that the tomato-sauce-slathered dough did not satisfy the Indian community.

“In our culture, 60 per cent of the people are vegetarian, and 90 per cent of the Canadian pizzas are meat pizzas,”He said.

“All they have [for vegetarian options] is bell peppers, onions and mushrooms.”

Sidhu wanted to offer more options while satisfying his customers’ need for spice. He started making pizzas with toppings like marinated cauliflower, paneer (a soft cheese) and spinach.

He makes everything himself and uses spices that he imports from India.

“We hand-chop that cauliflower, we marinate it, let it sit overnight, and then when the spices get absorbed we roast it before we put it on the pizza. And trust me, it was better than meat,”He said.

“I created about eight to 10 vegetarian pizzas, which was a super-hit in our community.”

Sidhu states that all the spices used at his restaurant are fresh and imported from India. (Holly Caruk/CBC).

Sidhu’s Indian-inspired pizzas now make up about 90 per cent of his pizza sales. He says he’s noticed more and more people outside of the Indian community eating it up.

“Filipinos, Chinese, Ukrainians, European, even people from Australia,”He spoke highly of his customer base.

Indian pizza orders are on the rise

Although the concept isn’t brand new, it seems to be growing in popularity.

In Winnipeg, Skip The Dishes says it’s seen a 109 per cent increase this year in orders of Punjabi-style pizza compared to 2020, and a 60 per cent increase of Desi-style pizza over the same time period.

Across Canada, there’s been a 59 per cent increase in orders for Punjabi-style pizza this year, with 38,000 orders for tandoori chicken pizzas and nearly 45,000 orders for paneer pizza so far in 2021, according to a spokesperson for the food delivery service.

Winnipeg City Pizza offers Indian-style Pizza from its Portage Avenue Location. Abhishek, the co-owner and chef head of Winnipeg City Pizza, said that the business has grown faster then expected. (Holly Caruk/CBC).

Sidhu says the growth of the Indian community in Winnipeg, and a rise in the popularity of Indian food in other cultural groups, has boosted the demand for Indian-style pizza.

Sidhu believes that he was the first to add Indian toppings to pizza in Winnipeg in 2008, but many others have followed his lead. 

Abhishek Dadra, who moved to Winnipeg from Brampton (Ont.) just over a decade ago, also found that the pizza options were lacking.

“We couldn’t find a good, nice place to eat pizzas and stuff,”Dadra is the executive chef and coowner of Winnipeg City Pizza.

“The Italian-style pizza, it’s kind of dull in taste — the only flavour you can have is the sauce. The toppings don’t really have that much taste,”He said.

Winnipeg City Pizza’s malai tikka chicken tikka pizza is Indian-inspired and features creamy chicken, fresh Ginger, and Cilantro. (Holly Caruk/CBC).

Dadra and his business partner opened their takeout and delivery location on Portage Avenue last October. 

“We tried it out and the sales went booming.”

A second location was opened in Ur’s Convenience store on Selkirk Avenue in March, and a third is planned for somewhere in the Maples neighbourhood next year. They are considering franchising and plan to make the Portage Avenue location open 24 hours a day.

“It’s like a fusion between Italian style and Indian spices and flavours,” said the 23-year-old, who came to Canada at 18 and started working in restaurants.

Dadra stated that it’s more than just adding Indian flavours to a pizza. It’s about re-creating the flavor from the crust up. The dough is made with a mixture of Indian and Italian spices.

Dadra said that a third Winnipeg City Pizza store is planned for The Maples next year. (Holly Caruk/CBC).

“So when you eat it it feels like you’re eating naan [bread] and with the tandoori chicken on top it’s really heaven in your mouth,”He said.

Dadra still offers traditional pizza toppings but says Indian-style pizzas now account for 60% of his pizza sales.

‘Pizza has been pandemic-proof’: food writer

Michelle Brisebois, a digital marketing consultant for the restaurant industry and a writer for Canadian Pizza Magazine, says it’s not surprising Indian flavours are popping up on pizza. 

Indian food in general has taken off in recent years, with many new immigrants opening restaurants to cater to their communities, she said.

“It’s kind of a natural evolution that people come here, they introduce their food, they open restaurants, and then the culinary scene starts to look at, ‘How do we put a twist on that?'”

Sidhu claims that the popularity of Indian-style pizzas has increased due to the growing Indian community in Winnipeg and the rise in popularity Indian food among other cultures. (Holly Caruk/CBC).

Brisebois believes that selling pizza is a good business idea because of its low cost ingredients and higher profit margins.

Also, pizza is easy to transport in a takeout environment. She stated that pizza restaurants were already in the delivery business when the pandemic hit.

“Pizza has been pandemic-proof.”

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