Once a quasi-secret menu item, toppings like ginger and chiles are getting more common — and pizza experts say it’s delicious.
If pineapple as a topping is Canada’s claim to pizza fame — or, to some, infamy — then the city of Brampton is home to what’s next: Pizza made Indian-style.
That’s pizza topped with garlic, coriander, ginger and green chilis. For decades, Brampton’s South Asian community has been calling up local chains and ordering “Indian-style” pizza, and that success has led to even more Indian toppings (hello, butter chicken) being thrown on.
Joshna Maharaj, a chef and food activist, likens it to “a perfect Indian grilled cheese sandwich” complete with gooey cheese and a surprising kick.
Maharaj, who grew up in the rapidly growing city northwest of Toronto, says the pizzas often felt like a secret menu item long before secret menus became a thing.
“You have to just know the right person to ask for on the phone. They’re the ones who have the permission, or the power in the joint, to greenlight paneer (Indian cheese) and green chilis so that you can get what you want,” she said.
WATCH: Maharaj and the CBC’s Nav Nanwa head to Brampton for an Indian-style slice
Brampton’s Indian-style pizza could be coming to you
The CBC’s Nav Nanwa takes you inside Popular Pizza, which has been putting garlic, coriander, ginger and green chilis on its pies for years. Now, the chain’s expanding fast in Ontario. 4:21
More pizza places across Canada are now giving that green light. You can find Indian-style pizzas, often complete with butter chicken, from St. John’s to Winnipeg to a vineyard restaurant in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley. Chains like Popular Pizza, which has multiple locations within Brampton, are now expanding fast across Ontario into cities like Kitchener, London and Windsor.
Then there are the established giants, like Pizza Pizza, that are now offering tandoori vegetable pizzas.
So if you haven’t had a pizza like this, the question might not be if, but when. Because make no mistake, it is delicious.
India’s place in the pizza world
When you think of pizza you probably think of Italy.
A pizza margherita — thin crust, crushed San Marzano tomato, fresh mozzarella, basil and a drizzle of fine olive oil — is, when done right, absolute perfection.
It’s the subject of debate but it’s possible that the mozzarella on that classic Italian pizza came from water buffalo originally from India, says international pizza consultant Anthony Falco.
Falco, who just returned to New York City from opening a pizza restaurant in Bangalore, India, says butter chicken (murgh makhani) also makes a “completely harmonious” pizza topping.
“Think about it, a fluffy pizza dough cooked to blistered perfection is very similar to naan bread,” he said.
The key difference: naan is cooked by throwing the dough onto the side walls of a super-hot tandoor — a cyclindrical oven.
Pizza, on the other hand, goes on the floor of an oven, which also has to be incredibly hot for best results.
“The curry is applied directly onto the raw dough instead of being served separately,” Falco said.
The result? Well, here’s a picture.
This is not what’s happening in Brampton, though.
Popular’s shops are nothing fancy. They’re making pizza via conveyer belt and they’re making a lot of it — inside, there are so many takeout boxes it looks like a post office — and you can order all the traditional toppings.
“We’re not only targeted towards Indians, obviously being in this diverse city, we have to target a bunch of different cultures,” said Gurpreet Gill, who coordinates where Popular’s franchises will expand next.
But throw those spices on and you’ve got something different enough to make a food writer and restaurant critic like Chris Nuttall-Smith take note.
In 2013, he wrote this about Indian-style pizza in Brampton in the Globe and Mail: “It’s a simple thing, but unbelievably effective. And it quite suddenly makes chain-store pizza one of the most weirdly fascinating, fantastically delicious GTA fast-food experiences there is.”
For Gill, Indian-style pizza was once the local South Asian community searching for familiar flavours; a comfort food that “takes you back to memories of home.”
Now, he’s ready to welcome those who want to experiment.
“Why would you try the same pizza over and over?”
‘This is who we are’
Maharaj said her first memory of an Indian-style pizza was something her mother made. She recalls a conversation where her mom assured her she could make pizza if she wanted to.
“But the Indian reflex can’t hold back, and the chilis and the coriander and stuff just has to be there,” she said.
Her reaction: “Ooh, this is pizza, but not quite.”
Looking back, Maharaj said it’s first a “very Indian thing to do” to take a dish and add the classic spices. But pizza places actually putting it on menus and making it ubiquitous was something else entirely — that was the sign of a community announcing its presence.
Eventually, her local pizza spot was just getting so many Indian-style requests it simple had to go on the menu. That was a “big moment” for the community, she said, a statement of, “This is who we are.”
Now, this pizza is always there — it’s affordable, it’s filling and it’s delicious.
And it might soon be time for you to try a slice.