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By Aneesa Bhanji and Lynette George

On a sunny afternoon in late November, the sweet smell of saffron and the sound of oil bubbling fill the tiny kitchen nestled in the back of Mess Hall Cafe in Toronto’s Gerrard India Bazaar.

Richa Sandill is standing comfortably behind the kitchen's corner stove, expertly navigating through a barrage of bowls and spatulas, to reach her slowly-solidifying milk. 

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There is a lot of multi-tasking going on and yet, this is one of Sandill's calmer days in the kitchen.

 

Just one week before, she was doing the same thing for hours, stirring milk endlessly and frying countless treats in preparation for her massive Diwali order rush. Sandill never expected for this to be her life but, here she was. 

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GROWING UP

Growing up in Hamilton, Ont., Sandill and her family had trouble finding traditional Indian sweets or mithai in their area. That’s why every year, she looked forward to getting her hands on freshly made milk cake and rasgulla from one of the city’s most recognized South Asian culture hubs – Gerrard India Bazaar. 

As a little girl, getting a small pink rasgulla with a cute smiley face design on top was a sign that Diwali was near. 

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LAWYER BY DAY

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This love of Indian sweets stayed with Sandill as she got older. After deciding that her book-loving “nerdy” self would make a great lawyer, Sandill went on to pursue law in university. When she was a busy law student, mithai was always the comforting treat she relied upon.

“If I discovered that somebody had brought a mithai box, I would just eat it while stressing about my exam,” said Sandill.

After finishing her law program, Sandill moved to downtown Toronto to practice human rights law.

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BIRTH OF THE MITHAIWALI

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Even though mithai was always something Sandill turned to during celebrations or as a piece of comfort, she never once thought about trying to make them herself – until one day during the pandemic.  

 

With a late night craving for traditional Indian milk cake and nowhere to turn to because of the lack of Indian sweet shops in Toronto’s downtown core, Sandill thought to herself – how hard could this be? 

After mixing together boiled milk, sugar, ghee and other Indian spices, Sandill placed the paste in a mold and stayed up until midnight to check if it had set properly. Before her eyes was fresh milk cake. Once she tried her homemade dessert, she wondered why she hadn't made it earlier. 
 

“I think I saved like one piece for my fiancé and then ate the whole brick of milk cake myself,” Sandill said, chuckling afterwards. 

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One milk cake led to another and Sandill experimented with making more types of Indian mithai such as jalebi donuts and coconut barfi. After seeing how much passion Sandill poured into making mithai, her fiancé and friends urged her to sell her sweets online.

 

 


 

That’s when Richa Sandill became a lawyer by day and a mithaiwali (or sweetmaker) by night. 

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Sandill launched her small business on Instagram, where other second generation immigrants like her could get fresh traditional Indian sweets. After her 9-5 job at the office, she would head straight to her kitchen to get working on the number of mithai orders she received that week.

Richa Sandill and Manish Oza in fancy clothing pose for a photo.
icha Sandill and Manish Oza behind a counter selling Indian sweets.
Richa Sandill and Manish Oza taking a selfie.

Manish Oza, Sandill’s fiancé and Mithaiwali’s “delivery man” during its early days, says although the beginning of the business was filled with many “science experiments” and moments of “total chaos,” it has also been filled with lots of fun memories. 

“People would be lining up outside her building. She would be cooking and when the next person arrived I would run downstairs with this big bag of jalebi and hand it to them,” said Oza. 

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CHOPPING UP STIGMA

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Even though Sandill’s business was gaining attention, it also came with criticism.

 

When Sandill posted about Mithaiwali on her Twitter account, a place where she usually posts about her law career, she received backlash. “Somebody in my family was like, take this down, you're embarrassing yourself,” Sandill said. 

This comment prompted Sandill to ask herself – “why am I wasting my time?”. She then decided to take a break from selling her sweets.

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Two years later, Shilpa Kotamarthi, a Mithaiwali customer and the owner of Canada's first South Indian coffee company, Madras Kaapi, encouraged Sandill to restart her business.

“I met [Richa] and felt like she had something really beautiful to build,” said Kotamarthi.

Kotamarthi has also faced similar challenges to Sandill when starting her own business. 

“People tend to be very critical when it comes to their own community. I’ve definitely had those issues building my cafe…a little more love towards [our] own people is something that is needed,” she said. 

Kotamarthi feels encouraging more South Asian women to become entrepreneurs will only have positive impacts on the community. 

“Women and businesses have always been hard to put together in the South Asian community,” said Kotamarthi. “For that reason it’s important to influence a new generation of entrepreneurs who have the dream, [but] don’t do it because their parents tell them they should stick to what they’re studying in [school].”

After receiving this advice from Kotamarthi, Sandill decided to start up Mithaiwali again. Since then, the business has had major moments of success. 

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“Women and businesses have
always been hard to put together
in the South Asian community.”
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BLENDING IDENTITIES

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Richa Sandill in a pink saree talking to a customer.

Aside from individual orders, Sandill has also sold her sweets at farmers markets around the city, hosted popups at local businesses like Madras Kaapi and has expanded her business to catering. 

She was even able to bring her two worlds together, catering trays of mithai to one of this year’s Ontario Bar Association events. 

“It was like all of my lawyer colleagues. I got there. I set up the mithai, they ate it, they loved it and then I networked with the attorney general right after,” said Sandill. 

“So [this business] isn’t a waste of time.”

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According to a 2021 Statistics Canada census, South Asians are the largest visible minority population group in Canada. 44.3 per cent of this group were born in India, while 28.7 per cent were born in Canada – making a large portion of South Asian Canadians second-generation immigrants. 

“The South Asian community as itself is so diverse.. but every region has its own version of these sweets,” said Sandill. 

“But as we sort of like, go on, it's inevitable that our future South Asian generations will merge more with [Canadian] culture. So it'd be nice to…make mithai more relatable to our generation and future generations so that it's not just this thing from India or Pakistan that feels so far away.”

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One jalebi donut at a time, Sandill hopes that many second-generation South Asian millennials and Gen Z’s will continue to feel at home with her desserts. In the Mess Hall kitchen, after reflecting on her Mithaiwali journey these past few years, Sandill chops her freshly made milk cake, sprinkles them with pistachios and carefully places them in a box. 

Even though juggling her job as a lawyer and a mithaiwali has not been easy, Sandill is proud of her accomplishments. She thinks back to younger self, going to Gerrard India Bazaar, holding the pink smiley face mithai in her hands, wishing she could tell her younger self and other South Asian girls one thing.

 “You're capable of more than you think you are.” 

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