Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Toronto, Canada: The Centre of International Cuisine

A glistening selection of poultry and seafood in a shop window in Chinatown, Toronto (photo by Luis Bastardo)  

Although I was born in England, I grew up in Toronto, Canada in the 1960s, well before the CN Tower or the SkyDome/Rogers Centre were built and long before the Harbourfront Centre was developed. Toronto was a very different city then, not just because of the massive urban development that has taken place since the 60s, but also in terms of the variety of food and restaurant options available. Even then, Toronto was an international melting pot (or perhaps it's more accurate to say it was a cultural Pu Pu platter with selections from countries all over the world). Toronto has long celebrated its multi-culturalism with popular festivals such as Festival Caravan, an annual all-city tour which allowed the residents of Canada to experience the sights, sounds and tastes of other cultures. But, despite that awareness, the food options were generally limited to specialty shops in specific neighborhoods (Italian, Chinese, Portuguese, Ukrainian, Polish) and weren't widely available in other parts of the city. Coming from an English West Midlands background, I didn't taste such exotic foods as Nutella, mozzarella or dark brown German bread until I was in my pre-teens. I didn't try pastrami, biryani or Peking duck until I reached my twenties. Back then, if our family went to a restaurant, there were very few "ethnic" options available other than the ubiquitous Canadian version of a Chinese restaurant featuring neon red, glazed short ribs or a beige, bland mound of chow mein. But oh, how times have changed.

Latin foods from Venezuela, Mexico and Peru in a Kensington Market store (photo by Luis Bastardo)

Canada's first immigrants, after the First Nations (Native Canadians), were the English, Scottish and French, followed closely by the Irish and Loyalist Americans, all of whom still influence the cuisine of Canada today. Between the two world wars and the 1970s, Ukrainians and Russians were the predominant groups migrating to Canada. In 1967, the Immigration Act was revised and many more immigrants flowed into Canada from all over the world: Jamaica, China, Japan, India, Pakistan, Latin America, Thailand, North Africa, the Philippines and Poland, to name just a few. These diverse influences have had an enormous impact on the cuisine of Canada, currently making Toronto one of the most important international food capitals of the world. Although many foodies think of New York City as being the epicenter of cultural culinary variety, major cities in Canada such as Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver shouldn't be overlooked as the food meccas that they are.

 Sampling Dim Sum at the Pink Pearl restaurant on the Harbourfront, Toronto (photo by Luis Bastardo)

In Toronto, neighborhoods such as Chinatown (Chinese, Japanese, Southeast Asian), Kensington Market (Jewish, Latin, Caribbean), Little India, Bayview and Leaside and Bloordale Village (Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Afghan, Bangladeshi), Cabbagetown (farmers' markets), Little Italy, Corso Ilalia (Italian), Danforth (Greek), Koreatown (Korean) and Parkdale (North African, West Indian, Tibetan) are just a few of the jewels worth unearthing in the vast culinary landscape of Toronto. It would take years to visit the food shops, restaurants and food festivals offering samples of the world's most interesting foods. St. Lawrence and Kensington Markets alone would take several wonderful weeks to explore. When Luis and I visited Toronto last year, in the span of just two weeks, we were able to sample Jamaican Meat Patties, Dim Sum, Bento Boxes, Paella, Curried Goat, Nutella/Banana Crepes, Peameal Bacon Sandwiches (a delicious soft, fragrant, porky bacon sandwich on a fresh, chewy roll; next to Peking Duck, one of my all-time favorite foods), Samosas, Moussaka, Sushi, Dragon Fruit, Lychees, Mamónes, Almond-filled Chocolate Croissants, Purple Cauliflower, Poutine (a French-Canadian concoction of french fries, gravy and cheese curds), ArepasDal Makhani and Maple Fudge. The choices are literally endless, as new restaurants are always opening and new foods are constantly being introduced.

Luis sampling his first peameal bacon sandwich outside St. Lawrence Market, Toronto (photo by Simone Cannon)

This food bonanza isn't limited to the city limits of Toronto either: it extends to the numerous surrounding suburbs and towns of Mississauga, Niagara-on-the Lake, Burlington, Hamilton, St. Jacob's and the many other food and wine regions within driving distance of the city. There is no shortage of wine options available to accompany all this delicious food, as the nearby Niagara Peninsula is home to 15,000 acres of vineyards, producing table, sparkling, dessert and fortified wines, including Riesling, Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Gamay Noir, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Baco Noir and Maréchal Foch. Toronto is one of the most diverse and interesting culinary cities in the world and luckily, one of the safest and easiest to navigate, with a fast and reliable public transportation system that allows foodies to widely explore the neighborhoods and taste the world.  

Toronto residents grabbing a quick poutine and kebab lunch at a mobile food cart (photo by Luis Bastardo)


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