Vancouver’s Chinatown gets a lot of attention, but consider taking in the sites, smells and tastes of another of the city’s ethnic enclaves: Punjabi Market, the epicenter of Vancouver’s Indo-Canadian community. Not a market at all, but rather a neighbourhood that occupies six blocks on Main Street, starting at about East 49th Avenue, this Little India is marked by shops touting bright swathes of silk, intricate gold bangles and some of the best (and most affordable) curries outside of Punjab. Here, we offer our recommendations of what to eat, see and buy in this colourful, friendly district.
Punjabi Market’s History
Immigrants from Punjab — a state that straddles the Indian-Pakistani border — first arrived in British Columbia more than a century ago to work in the booming lumber trade. But it wasn’t until the 1970s, when a mass influx of Punjabis settled in South Vancouver, that Punjabi Market truly blossomed and Vancouver’s Indo-Canadian community became inextricably woven into the city’s cultural fabric. Historically, patrons of local shops and groceries have been predominantly Indian, and, although gentrification and high rents have left some storefronts empty, it’s still possible to get a taste of the city’s Indo-Canadian identity.
There is absolutely nothing like dipping into a rich curry still steaming from the stove. Fresh spices, such as tamarind and cumin, and exotic produce like jackfruit make Punjabi Market’s eateries some of Vancouver’s prime places to grab a bite. Restaurants here are affordable, too, offering delicious vegetarian buffets for $11 or less. (Don’t miss delicately spiced samosas and the gulab jamun, a fried pastry dipped in honey, at All India Sweets and Restaurant (6507 Main St.) Or stop into Punjab Food Centre (6635 Main St.), where bulk spices perfume the air, and aisles are lined with authentic Indian packaged goods and snacks.
Though not actually a food, pan is sold by some restaurants and shops in Punjabi Market. Known as betel nut, this stimulant is a traditional Indian breath freshener and is chewed in leaf-wrapped bundles packed with areca nut, lime and spices.
Shopping for Bangles and More
If you like colour and sparkle, Punjabi Market will be your kind of shopping. Pashminas and saris may be purchased for very affordable prices. And everywhere you go, you’ll see (and hear the tinkle of) luminescent bangles. Bangles in all colors of the rainbow are available at East West Quality Wear (6657 Main St.) and at Palika Gift House (6526 Main St., #3). But it’s the fabrics that truly shine: Even if you don’t sew, it’s worth stopping into some of the incredible fabric stores to ogle the plentiful bolts of silks. Shopping in Punjabi Market also comes with a soundtrack. Bhangra, the super-danceable music made popular by Bollywood and the Oscar-winning film “Slumdog Millionaire,” can be heard wafting from shops up and down Main Street.
Arthur Erickson Ross Street Sikh Temple
Punjabi Market is primarily a residential and shopping district, but there is one important attraction nearby — the Sikh temple at the foot of Ross Street. Designed by Vancouver native son Arthur Erickson in 1969, the contemporary structure is an example of the straight lines and symmetry that made Erickson one of Canada’s most beloved architects. Visitors are welcome to peek inside the impressive structure, provided you follow the Sikh custom by taking off your shoes and covering your hair with a provided kercheif or headscarf.
Feasting and dancing are intrinsic to Indian culture, so it’s appropriate that Punjabi Market hosts its share of annual community parties. The five-day Vancouver Celebrates Diwali Festival commemorates the Indian New Year and is traditionally celebrated by Sikhs, Hindus and Jains in November. Meanwhile, the Vaisakhi Day Parade on April 14 marks the start of the harvest and celebrates the 1699 establishment of the Khalsa (community of baptized Sikhs). In May, don’t miss the Vancouver International Bhangra Celebration, dedicated to the ancient form of Indian dance.