As a food-loving travel writer, my work-world turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic. True confession: More than once, I imagined a magic carpet that would whisk me off, far off, on an exotic culinary adventure.
But wait! There is a wow foodie destination within Canada’s stay-safe borders and, as travel restrictions begin to ease, one that could provide a memorable re-entry to travel. And also provide beneficial consumer information to farmers across the country.
“Today it’s not enough for farmers to know what they are producing,” says Janet Horner, executive director of the Golden Horseshoe Food and Farming Alliance. “They have to know for whom they are producing their food.”
What better place to encounter a broad spectrum of consumer preferences than the city that has been declared the most multicultural in the world. Toronto, where nearly half the population was born outside of Canada, is home to more than 200 ethnic groups and 140 languages. This diversity has given birth to a smorgasbord food scene that offers an opportunity to eat your way around the world in a weekend. Between world famous markets, ethnic grocers, fine dining establishments and hole-in-the-wall eateries catering to locals, you have an opportunity to capture the region’s emerging food trends.
Saturday morning, when about 50 farmers and producers fill the St. Lawrence North Market with fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, organic meat and home-baked goods, makes a great start to a city food tour.
St. Lawrence Market has inhabited the same downtown location since 1803. In 2012, National Geographic proclaimed it the best food market in the world.
The three-building complex includes the South and North Markets and St. Lawrence Hall. The South Market, open Tuesday to Saturday, is home to vendors selling a variety of foods, as well as to-go lunches and one-of a-kind crafts. Both venues are a hotchpotch of activity and an up-close and personal look at consumer buying and eating preferences.
Peameal on a Kaiser bun that was created here has been an all-time favourite. New in the last few years is lactose-free milk from Sheldon Creek Dairy. Not to be missed — Manotas Organics, if you are in the the mood for Latin foods.
Kensington Market is not your traditional, fresh-produce farmers market, but a colourful maze of narrow, pedestrian-friendly streets and alleys, lined with an eclectic mix of ethnic eateries, hole-in-the-wall vintage stores and produce shops. Photogenic graffiti adds to the gritty charm.
This bohemian heart of Toronto is a National Historic Site. A throwback to the early 1900s and its original Jewish market roots, it has welcomed subsequent waves of immigrant settlers who have brought flavour, flair and quirky diversity to the area. Fusion foods and flavours are big here. Taste Jamaican/Italian food at Rasta Pasta, a little sandwich shop and eatery in a reggae hub at the south end of the market. The smells of jerk chicken wafting over the street is irresistible, thanks to chef/owner Magnus Patterson’s special blend of spices.
Toronto is a city of neighbourhoods and each ’hood exudes its own personality that’s worth exploring. Here are three of my favourites. Discover them on foot and with food.
The oldest of Toronto’s four Chinatowns, often referred to as Chinatown West, is where the mid-20th century Cantonese diaspora settled, followed by Mandarin-speaking settlers. Adjacent to Kensington Market, at the intersection of Spadina Avenue and Dundas Street West, it is the city’s primary hub of Chinese culture. Food alone is reason to visit.
Here’s where to stock up on hard-to-find Asian ingredients or indulge in authentic regional dishes in lieu of the North American-influenced cooking we’ve come to think of as Chinese food.
Explore the multiple streets where you can join locals elbowing their way in for bargains, soak up the buzzing activity, and revel in the colourful signage and dizzying array of sights, smells and produce spilling out of little shops onto the sidewalks. Where to eat: The Bright Pearl for Peking duck; The Golden Leaf for dim sum.
From Yonge Street, travelling east for a couple of kilometres along Gerrard Street, you’ll discover another ethnic enclave. This is the commercial centre for South Asians living in Greater Toronto.
Packed in on both sides of the strip are mom and pop shops, grocery stores, shops full of colourful silks and saris, jewellery shops dripping with gold, and most importantly, food.
Restaurants include the Llahore Tikka House (North Indian cuisine in a casual, relaxed atmosphere), Udupi Palace (for South Indian vegetarian, among the best in the ’hood) and Guatama (a bustling family-owned buffet guaranteed to fulfil a curry craving).
Just north and east of the downtown core is where Greek immigrants settled in the 1900s, making the stretch of Danforth Avenue between Broadview and Jones Avenue one of Toronto’s oldest ethnic food-centred neighbourhoods. Although the Greek community has largely moved to other parts of the city, the strip remains a diverse, food-centric neighbourhood with an eclectic array of food purveyors and plenty of excellent restaurants such as Mezes, Mousaka @Pantheon and Anestis in which to enjoy souvlaki, sanganaki and moussaka.
The Taste of the Danforth, the strip’s annual Greek-inspired street festival, shines for three days in mid-August. Greek food prevails, but you’ll find options too, including Thai, Chinese, Brazilian, Indian and Japanese.
How Toronto shops
A Toronto culinary experience wouldn’t be complete without checking in on a supermarket. Or three. You’ll find the highest concentration of grocery stores in the uptown Yorkville area, including “The Mink Mile” along Bloor Street between Yonge Street and Avenue Road. Not just any stores, but high-end food halls including Whole Foods (an upscale chain with a cult following), McEwan (celebrity chef Mark McEwan’s gourmet market with to-go meals), Pusateri’s (a beloved family-operated food shop) and, the latest addition, Eataly, part of the wildly popular Italian food-hall chain that, besides offering upscale produce and meat, includes restaurants, bars, coffee shops, live demos and a cooking school. Then head to TNT at the north end of the city for ethnic Asian, and to Nations in the west end, for ethnic everything.
Before the pandemic, the city’s restaurant scene was bubbling over. Now, in place of brick and mortar establishments, “virtual kitchens” have popped up, operated by entrepreneurial chefs selling online and offering pickup or delivery service. Comfort food has topped their lists. Karon Lui, a Toronto-based food reporter at the Toronto Star believes the comfort food trend will continue post-pandemic. And he predicts restaurants will reopen, cautiously.
Vanessa Somarriba of Tourism Toronto agrees. “Sustainability is a big thing and will continue to be when the city opens up,” she says. “Consumers are more curious about where their food has come from and what is in season.”
Planning to visit? For those preferring a guided food tour, here are three of the best: