Travel

Surrey’s Culinary Spice Trail turns up the heat

One of the fastest-growing cities in Canada is on its way to becoming a global foodie destination

  • Apr 25, 2024
  • 1,284 words
  • 6 minutes
A fragrant chicken kebab, spiced saffron rice, and traditional eggplant and spinach dips from the Afghan Kitchen in Surrey, B.C. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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With the largest land area in Metro Vancouver, hundreds of new residents (mostly from South Asia) arrive each month in one of Canada’s fastest-growing cities. Just 40 minutes on the Skytrain from downtown Vancouver, Surrey’s rapid growth is evident by dozens of cranes, towering residential towers, and a spate of new developments across its six sprawling communities. By the end of the decade, it will surpass Vancouver as the biggest city in B.C. Amidst this staggering growth is a culinary scene that promises to whet the appetites of foodies everywhere. Crossing the sparkling Fraser River, let’s hop off the Skytrain to take our first hungry steps on the Surrey Spice Trail.

Carefully curated from more than 750 restaurants, the Spice Trail is the passion project of Ange Chew, a tourism veteran who helped transform nearby Richmond into a global destination for Asian cuisine. “Surrey is truly a cultural mosaic, and I knew there’s just so much more to our dining scene than curries. Indian, Asian, African, Central American… spice really captures everything coming together,” she tells me at our first stop for the evening. We’re inside a modest, chef-owned restaurant called Kerala Kitchen, sampling a delectable dosa (a thin savoury crepe) served with slow-cooked, dry-roasted beef ularthiyathu, a traditional Chettinad goat curry and a spicy fried chicken that tingles my soul. Ange set out to develop a diverse, self-guided food trail that would support and focus on authentic cuisine served from “mom-and-pop” kitchens. “All these restaurants are a reflection of what the community will support,” she explains. “People commute hours for this food this good.”

The exterior of Kerala Kitchen located in Surrey, B.C. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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On the Spice Trail inside Afghan Kitchen. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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I certainly would, but I’m an easy sell, so I brought along two foodie friends, the kind of folks who spend hours preparing elaborate dishes, read cookbooks, and take their restaurants very seriously. Kerala Kitchen’s Chef Sujith’s coconut-infused dishes seduced them in minutes, but this is just the first step on a trail that currently boasts 65 culinary viewpoints.

Kathmandu Bar and Grill’s momos have shut down the conversation. We’re a block away from Kerala Kitchen (in Surrey, exotic destinations like Kerala and Kathmandu are within walking distance) and are drowning our taste buds in spices. The heat index in Surrey runs from a mild one to a tongue-scorching six, and after a conservative start, we’re growing in confidence.

Mustang momos at Kathmandu Restaurant in Surrey, B.C. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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Nepalese momos consist of steamed or fried dumplings stuffed with meat or vegetables and served dry, glazed, or with gravies. We’d already warmed up with mouthfuls of pani puri, a traditional Indian street food that consists of a thin fried dough shell filled with diced veggies and sweet-spicy ‘waters.’ Next comes the lamb-stuffed mustang momos with a crunchy, sweet-chilli glaze and the steamed, chicken-stuffed butter-cheesy momos smothered in a rich, butter chicken gravy. Our lovely Nepalese server has only been in Canada for four months and expresses genuine delight with our reaction to the delectable momos. We welcome her to Canada and ask her if the food back home is also this good.

My daughter is obsessed with a popular Netflix baking contest series called Is it Cake? Selected from tens of thousands of talented bakers across North America, a handful of contestants create cakes indistinguishable from objects like lanterns, handbags, toys and clothing. The break-out star from the third season is a Surrey chef named Jujhar Mann. Located in the Newton neighbourhood, his Mann and Co Bakeshop is in high demand for weddings, birthdays, celebrations, dinner parties, and dessert treats. Jujhar proudly reveals his Indian popsicle-inspired rose kulfi royale opera cake, a pistachio-layered entremet with a hidden raspberry explosion, a gluten-free mango cardamom creation, and a hazelnut-almond caramel tart topped with a light vanilla bean mousse. The combination of sweet spices brought a happy tear to my sweet tooth. Jujhar spoke about his passion for French baking, the process behind his elaborate cakes, and how supportive the competitors were behind the scenes on the hit TV series. Not yet 30 years of age, this soft-spoken Sikh chef is baking magic into Surrey’s culinary melting pot. 

Chef Jujhar Mann inside his Mann and Co Bakeshop in Surrey, B.C (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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A successful immigrant story is served up on a large platter across town, just blocks from the U.S. border in the neighbourhood of South Surrey. Decked in carpets, traditional paintings, and low-hanging lanterns, Afghan Kitchen is a family-owned and operated restaurant that picked up national attention on the Food Network series You Gotta Eat Here. My appetite somehow makes room for kiwi-marinated, charcoal-grilled lamb, a fragrant chicken kebab, spiced saffron rice, and traditional eggplant and spinach dips. Taking a break from the kitchen, co-owner and chef Ace Sarwari tells us the recipes come straight from his mother, who insists that diners must feel like they’re part of an extended family. With a loyal clientele and numerous awards, it’s another inspiring story of a family escaping war to find success in a welcoming Canadian community. It reminded me of the story I wrote about Peace by Chocolate in Nova Scotia and how Canada so obviously benefits from hardworking immigrants in search of a better life.

We’re stuffed to the eyeballs, but before seeing us off at the Central Surrey Skytrain Station, Ange invites us for a nightcap at the adjacent Skye Avenue Kitchen and Lounge. It’s been an evening full of culinary surprises, and we’re not done yet. With 1200 different labels from around the world, Skye Avenue boasts Canada’s largest whiskey collection and the fifth largest collection in the world. At a stylishly illuminated bar with towering bottles of whiskies, manager Richard Goodine speaks of the collection with awe, guiding us through a complex tasting of Ardbeg Blaaack, aged in New Zealand pinot noir casks (hence the sheep reference).

Whiskey aficionados will be in heaven, but then so will foodies, locals, or anyone visiting Vancouver with a little bit of time and curiosity for a culinary adventure. Surrey’s rapid growth reflects the big dreams of its new arrivals, and that’s worth a toast of the finest. Having sampled just a handful of entries on the Spice Trail, my foodies are in full agreement with the authoritative publication Food and Wine. In 2023, the magazine put Surrey on their list of the world’s Next Great Food Cities.

Richmond Dumpling Trail. (Photo courtesy Tourism Richmond)
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Ale Trail. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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