What exactly is Canadian food? It’s hard to get past the stereotypes of crispy bacon and maple syrup – after that I’m stumped when it comes to deciphering Canuck cuisine. I’m thinking about this as I tuck into a Vietnamese Pho in Kensington Market, Toronto. My limited knowledge of Canadian history tells me that the founding fathers of this vast nation were predominantly English and Scottish – not exactly known for their gastronomic prowess – and the French influence only really resonates in Quebec. So what makes Toronto so foodie?
Toronto is a buffet, smorgasbord, a veritable hot-pot of great food, highlighting the very best gourmet delights from every corner of the world. This is true of every neighbourhood, from the sophisticated and fashionable Yorkville, to the foliagedressed avenues of Cabbagetown, and especially in the dazzling fusion of ethnicities in Kensington Market, you’ll find grub in Toronto that will make your soul fly.
For me, Kensington Market sums up the very essence of this multi-cultural city. Peek through gaps between buildings in the area and you’ll see the symbol of the city, the CN Tower, high in the distance. But look at what’s up close and you’ll note that each building in this neighbourhood has its own culture, language and cuisine – first, second and sometimes even third generation migrant in identity – internationally influenced and creative, but distinctly Canadian. This is how Toronto works. Kensington Market is a perfect case study for the underlying diversity of the city – there’s something almost magical in the air that successfully removes barriers between different cultures, while preserving the very best and most valuable from each one.
My authentic Pho tasted like it was straight from a market in Ho Chi Minh City, except this time I could actually identify its contents. It was cooked lovingly by the cafés Vietnamese proprietress and served by her beautiful mixed-race son who fronted the establishment. I tasted Korean Pajeon to rival Seoul in a place that also served as a Korean-Canadian community radio station. I sampled sesame bagels baked by a family of Venezuelans and authentic SoCal Tacos. And whilst all this interests me as a visitor, I don’t feel at all like I’m in some tourist trap – I noticed that swathes of Canadians eat here too. Yes, there are those who say that it isn’t what it used to be, but then nothing ever is, and Torontonians are known to be understated when talking about their best assets. Characteristic Canadian modesty could be the reason for this – that, or they want to keep these gastronomical delights all for themselves.
But, modesty aside, something really wonderful is at play here – being Torontonian, but actually coming from somewhere else, is a matter of citywide pride. Even ‘native’ Torontonians (defined as when over two generations of the family come from the city) will proudly state multiculturalism as a primary reason why their city is so wonderful. People will openly ask where you’re from, or enquire what your ‘racial mix’ is – something that I’ve often avoided in the past, for fear of offending. In Toronto this stems from an authentic interest, and a sense that your heritage is something to take pride in, share and celebrate. It may be weird that ‘foreignness’ can be so intrinsically Canadian, but locals would not expect or accept anything else. In a modern city of just three million people, around half of who were born outside of Canada, I’m not at all surprised.
The integration of cultures go beyond the obvious. Like my Venezuelan bagel, I found that it wasn’t at all rare to find people of different cultures intermixing when it came to food. Back home, it is commonplace for Indian people to work in Indian restaurants, Chinese in Chinese. But here, your laksa could be Latvian, your pasta Caribbean and your sushi Chilean. You’ll also notice that groups of foodie friends are more ethnically diverse than elsewhere, families are often of mixed heritage and where they aren’t, they’re happily socialising with families of other backgrounds. All these people are fiercely proud of their own culinary traditions – but my quandary really is about when the food technically becomes ‘Canadian’ or better still, ‘Torontonian’? You’ve heard of American food, or food from New York, or Chicago, or from the Southern American states – but what is Canadian, Ontario and Toronto cuisine?
There are some grey areas, Toronto will naturally struggle to lay claim to its inhabitants’ individual ethnic cooking, but it does tend to claim the whimsical food it invented and the evolution of its traditional, global fayre. Torontonians will tell you pointblank that sushi-pizza is a local staple, as is Kraft-dinner (macaroni and cheese, but it has to be Kraft) and, as crazy as both may sound, they’re further examples of Toronto’s diversity at work. The city’s population is also heavily into the ‘local food movement’, craving locally sourced, seasonal food.
Their other culinary interest that really stands out is a love of fish. Both of these are distinctly and historically Torontonian – it is said that the meaning of the city’s name is derived from the Wyandot (native North American) way of saying a “place for gathering food”, particularly fish. The city was founded on very fertile land, carved out by glaciers, and the original settlement of Toronto was defined by Lake Ontario, the rivers Humber and Don – rich in fish, game and natural flora. Hunting and foraging, followed by a vibrant agricultural industry, meant that the locals always benefited from the bountiful opportunities for food production. So it’s no wonder that fresh, local produce and ingredients are musts, it’s ingrained into the psyche.
What I’m trying to say is that Toronto’s relationship with food defines its cuisine far more than the actual food itself. It’s progressive and forward thinking, wholly open-minded and inherently social. From the minute you land at the airport (itself a foodie mecca), you’ll feel it. Lunches for workers during the week are wholesome and people really take the time to lunch out with colleagues. At weekends, brunch is more of a religion than a mere meal – albeit also an excuse to drink the city’s plethora of craft beers, home-made bitters and house-infused spirits. For kicks, locals will happily window-shop restaurants, speciality food stores and fresh-produce markets. Café culture is still thriving and generally independent or small chain. Even the local government produces specific studies and strategies on how food plays vital roles in building happy people and healthy cities. Most importantly, they found that food plays a crucial part in bringing people together for conversations, sharing in cultures and creating opportunities to understand each other’s heritage – as art and eating combined. And there we are, back to the very core of the city’s spirit, its diversity.
It seems that in Toronto, food is also worthy of political action. It makes absolute sense if you think about it – if it’s true what they say, that we are what we eat, then we do it as a symbol of who we are, not just for ourselves but for others around us. Food gives us an identity and defines our freedoms – we can eat what we like, when we like and with who we choose. We share in its stories and get to enjoy and understand the life experiences of others. I’ve clearly overused this notion of diversity in Toronto, but I want to draw attention to what it really means – discovering new experiences, shedding your blinkers, getting to know what it’s like to walk in the shoes of others and finding the things you didn’t even realise you would, in a million years, like.
Toronto is a place that harvests benefits from its multiculturalism, by hitting all the senses. The city is a space that rewards its people and visitors with new experiences – sometimes familiar, other times completely alien – in a mixed up, but simply delicious, not to mention whimsical, colourful and welcoming way. They say a way to a man’s heart is through his stomach… Toronto certainly has mine.
For everything you need to know about the big T.O., visit the city’s website at www.seetorontonow.com
GET OUT THERE
1. As a sucker for Asian food, I often seek out a city’s Chinatown. Toronto has three, my favourite is on Spadina Avenue.
2. Check out the culinary night-markets throughout the city during the summer – dates vary, but it’s guaranteed happy tastebuds all round.
3. Fresh and raw are Toronto foodie buzzwords, but writhing? Very, very freshly prepared lobster is the speciality at JaBistro.
4. The city is obsessed with pickling and preserving, and these make great souvenirs. Look out for Manning Canning on your travels.
5. Want to relive that fun cocktail-fueled night out at Geraldine or the Toronto Temperence Society? BYOB is an amazing store for the wannabe mixologist.
6. As you’ll find yourself at Church and Wellesly at least once, drop into Fabarnak, at the 519 Church Community Centre, (if you can get a table).