Written by Humaira Saeed
Pakistanis have been migrating to Toronto since the 1950s. Many of them were determined to maintain the Urdu language or establish religious organizations here in Toronto, while others, like Alnoor Sayani, created spaces where people could experience and learn about the culture. The founder of Lahore Tikka House, a restaurant in the heart of Little India on Gerrard Street East, Mr. Sayani serves as an example of an individual who has contributed to the city’s social fabric and its diverse history.
The reasons for Mr. Sayani’s migration to Toronto are quite different from those of other newcomers. While many Pakistanis in the city have come from the Indian subcontinent, this entrepreneur came via Uganda. Mr. Sayani’s parents moved to that country at a time when many Urdu-speaking individuals chose to make new lives in British-influenced countries like Uganda in East Africa. However, when the political situation in Uganda began to destabilize, the safety of their Urdu communities was increasingly at risk. Under the Ugandan dictatorship of Idi Amin, many Pakistanis left Uganda.
From Uganda, Mr. Sayani’s family moved to England, where he spent his childhood. There they built on their passion for food and established a halal meat manufacturing business. In 1982, at the young age of 15, Mr. Sayani decided to move to Toronto, and with his previous business experience, he set out to make his vision of a restaurant a reality. Encountering racism and discrimination on a regular basis, he also found the city to be full of opportunities.
In 1996, with only a few old tables and a dozen chairs, he opened Lahore Tikka House in the Gerrard India Bazaar, one of North America’s largest South Asian market places located on Gerrard Street East, between Greenwood and Coxwell Avenues. In the 1970s, this part of Toronto had been transformed into a thriving hub for the city’s South Asian community. Prior to incorporating South Asian heritage, this section of Gerrard housed bicycle repair shops, electronic stores and hardware centres. Things began to change when a cinema called Naaz Theatre started showing Indian and Pakistani films. Within a short period of time, South Asians began to frequent the area and some had set up businesses such as restaurants and cultural clothing outlets. The streets of the neighbourhood became the open expression of this growing community. As time passed, the city began investing in this cultural district. New streetlights were installed, sidewalks were repaved, and storefronts were updated to make the Gerrard India Bazaar an attraction for locals and tourists alike. As development progressed, one could simultaneously partake in cultural cuisine, music, films, art, clothing and literature from places like Pakistan.
With local support, Lahore Tikka House grew and expanded into a former Kentucky Fried Chicken store. Eventually, the tattered KFC outlet was transformed into an imposing, two storey, stucco building with golden arches and intricate tile work. With its lively conversations, musical atmosphere, and the aroma of traditional cuisine, Lahore Tikka House became an important centre for Pakistani culture in Toronto. Its rickshaws, tents, grills, and clay ovens reminded its patrons of home, and provided a vital connection to their roots. For non-Pakistanis who come to Lahore Tikka House, it is another great feature of the cityscape where one can enjoy food and culture. The restaurant provides a chance for Mr. Sayani and his staff to showcase Pakistani history, heritage, language and identity in order to increase the awareness of this community’s presence in Toronto.
Mr. Sayani has stated that the success of his restaurant was directly related to Toronto’s celebration of diversity. He considers himself a proud Torontonian, and has a strong will to give back to the community. Mr. Sayani believes that the diversity of the city is its strength. When cultural groups work together, visions like his own can become reality.
The story of the Lahore Tikka House is one of many. It is the individual journey of a Pakistani immigrant to Toronto, the growth of a cultural community, the evolution of buildings and neighbourhoods, and how the heritage of the city is being shaped by diversity and immigration. The restaurant has contributed to the physical transformation of the East Toronto landscape. What was once a neighbourhood of people of British descent is now a cultural hub for thousands of Urdu-speaking Torontonians. In addition, the restaurant is a symbol of the celebrated cultural pluralism which lies at the heart of Toronto’s modern identity.
Interview with Alnoor Sayani, July 2012
Interview with Shamim Ahmad, July 2012
Interview with Shahida Ahmad, July 2012
Heritage Toronto is pleased to acknowledge the support of the Government of Ontario, through the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, for this project.