Different restaurants are handling the pandemic in different ways. Many have re-tooled to become take-out and delivery hubs.

Some are offering Instagram followers and others special pandemic packages. Others are offering groceries and other needful things people might have trouble getting otherwise. You can even buy cookie dough and make your own Craig’s Cookies at home. It’s been fascinating to watch how many ideas bars and restaurants have come up with to deal with obstacles no one could have foreseen.

Little India was in a tougher situation than many. After having rented their space on Queen just west of University subway station since 1995, they bought their building a couple of years ago, taking on mortgage payments that are even higher than their rent was.

So what was their response to the biggest challenge ever to face Toronto’s restaurant industry? They started giving meals away. Lots of them.

“This is what we do for our living, and it’s our passion,” says manager Sri Selvarasa. “These people have helped us out for 25 years, so this is the perfect time to give it back to the community.”

He says they’re giving away up to 100 meals a week to walk-in customers, as well as providing large orders for free to nearby hospitals and shelters.

The family behind Little India

Who says Queen West ain’t what it used to be?

It’s what families do. Sri was 18 when his father opened the restaurant, and he and his three brothers, Seelan, Thanes, and Nithy, have worked there ever since.

“I was at the bar with my younger brother, and a couple of customers came in asked, ‘Can we get the meal now and pay later?’” And we just gave it to them. That’s when I went to my brother and family, and said we should give food to people who have lost their jobs.”

As the idea evolved, however, they decided they didn’t want to force people to prove they’d lost their jobs or anything, so they made a point of telling everyone that they would ask no questions. If you want a free meal, you get a free meal.

“We felt so bad, we should do something for the people,” Sri says. “Right now we’re giving more than 100 meals a day, to shelters and other stuff and charities. It’s unbelievable how many people are hungry out there.”

This would be remarkable for any restaurant, but unlike some that involve investors and multiple locations, Little India is not only a one-off family business, it’s the family business. Two brothers do the cooking, the other two work in the front. Though Sri went to grad school, the other three went straight from high school into the restaurant, and none of them has another job to fall back on.

The Selvarasa brothers wouldn’t have it any other way.

Butter chicken is one of Little India's most popular dishes

Origin story

Their father, Nalliah, worked as a cook in an Indian restaurant in Vancouver before moving to Toronto to open his own place. That’s why it’s an Indian restaurant, despite the fact that the Selvarasas are Sri Lankan, from Jaffna in the north of the island nation.

Though Toronto has come a long way since the late great Indian Rice Factory on Dupont offered the city its first taste of subcontinental food in 1971, and restaurants now specialize in Ragasthani, Punjabi, Keralese, or Mumbai street cuisine, Little India remains proudly old-school, its menu a hall of fame of Toronto favourites, including aloo gobi, biryani, chana masala, pakoras, masala, and mulligatawny soup.

Their most popular dish is their murgh makhani, otherwise known as butter chicken, the rich red yogurt and butter drenched pan-Indian dish that probably originated last century in New Delhi as a way for restaurants to freshen up their leftover tandoori chicken. Though the Selvarasa version, made from a secret recipe, usually ends up on the city’s best butter chicken lists, Sri prefers the hotter dishes: his favourites being the chicken Madras, after the old British name for the southern city of Chennai, which mixes coconut milk and a lot of chili pepper (and maybe a little ginger), and chicken vindaloo, a Goan dish of meat marinated in vinegar and sugar, with even more chili heat to it.

Secret menu hack

If you’re interested in getting the real Sri Lankan experience though, here’s a menu hack: Kothu roti is a classic Sri Lankan dish of vegetables or meat chopped up with flatbread and all mixed together. Little India’s biryani is also Sri Lankan style, a little hotter than its northern cousins. And since Sri Lankan food is typically eaten with the fingers, these stay-at-home days are the ideal time to give it a try.

For the moment, you can get Little India delivered in the usual radius from Door Dash and Ubereats, though there’s a 20 per cent discount for pick-up orders, and Sri says they’re currently looking for drivers so they can make their own deliveries.