Journalist Sarah Efron explores strip malls and hole-in-the-wall restaurants in search of the city's best ethnic food

Monday, January 17, 2011

Halloumi: This amazing Middle Eastern cheese is available at No Frills

Halloumi is one of my all-time favourite cheeses. It's super salty. It's wet, like feta, and even a little squeaky, like fresh Quebecois curds. Halloumi (also written halloume) has a high melting temperature so you can throw it right on the grill with a bit of oil, where it gets soft and toasty. Traditionally this unripened cheese was made with sheep milk but now it generally comes from cow's milk.

People think that halloumi originally comes from the island of Cyprus, but that's not the case, according to Hiyam, co-owner of Akram's Shoppe, a Middle Eastern store and restaurant at 181 Baldwin Street in Kensington Market. "It comes from a village in Syria called Halloumi," she says. "It is a very Syrian cheese." Hiyam and her husband Akram come from Syria, of course. Their shop, which set up in Kensington 15 years ago, reopened last spring after a short renovation morphed into a two year and eight month ordeal.

Hiyam says halloumi cheese is very popular with her customers. She adds that it can be lit on fire like the saganaki cheese you get at Greek restaurants.

You used to only find halloumi in Middle Eastern/Mediterranean speciality shops, but for at least a few years, you've been able to get it at the bigger No Frills stores. I was recently surprised to see halloumi and it's close cousin akawie at the Metro. The Metro products are the same as Akram's, from a Montreal company, Phoenicia Products.

But Akram's has some special things that the big chains will never be able to replicate. They serve a halloumi sandwich with veggies and olive tapanade, wrapped in a pita and grilled. Hiyam also serves a halloumi salad with olives, pickles, walnuts and sun-dried red peppers. She also says they have halloumi pizza.

Akram's also has another of my all time favourite cheeses, twist cheese.

According to the Internet, this cheese originates in Armenia, but Hiyam's daughter is quick to point out that it must also come from Syria, as Damascus is 5,000 years old and predates other cities in the region. It tastes like halloumi but is even a little saltier. It comes in threads wrapped up in a ball of cheese. "When you're making the cheese you boil it and strain it quickly to make the strings," explains Hiyam. It has a nigella seeds in it-- also called black cumin or black caraway--that add a nice texture.

Hiyam recommended another cheese to sample, Nabulsi. She explained that it originates from Nablus, in Palestine. While the other cheeses I mentioned are salty, this one is an insane salt-packed punch. Eating a bite is kind of like downing a shot of hard liquor. Probably better eaten as they do in the Middle East, baked into a savoury pastry.

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Saturday, January 8, 2011

A hidden hotbed of African food at Jane and Finch

If you look closely when driving around Jane and Finch, you'll notice that this is the heart for Toronto's Ghanaian community. There are Ghanaian clothing shops and restaurants, including Panafest Sport Bar & Restaurant, a recommendation from a friendly Ghanaian cab driver. It's located in a strip mall at 2708 Jane Street south of Finch.

African music pumps on the main floor bar; head down to the basement for the restaurant. There is a steady stream of Ghanaians heading down to pick up take out orders, some arriving by car and others arriving by foot.

A bunch of women are in the tiny kitchen preparing orders, including Tina, the owner. She opened up this place four years ago. She says the most popular thing to get here is the yam fries.

The food was absolutely wonderful. A nice piece of fried fish complete with its head and tail, just like you get in West Africa, but better quality. The plate came with a generous amount of plantains and a couple of large fried yams that were like giant starchy french fries. The best part was the black-eyed beans, a spicy dish cooked with tomatoes.

Other items on the menu include joloff rice (a rice and tomato dish common across West Africa), fufu, and pepper soup. They also serve banku and kenkey (both maize-based staple foods) and waakye (rice and beans). Meals run around $11 or $12 and are enough food to feed a small army.

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Sunday, January 2, 2011

Yes, New York Sub is disgusting but don't miss it

Update: New York Subway has reopened after its renovations.

Many a friend of mine has told me a story of heading to New York Subway and being appalled by its grimy condition.

This little joint is located next to a—um—Subway restaurant on Queen Street (520 Queen Street West). It's staffed by a man who is somewhat of a legend in the neighbourhood for his permanent tormented expression.

New York Subway is part of the wonderful empire of restaurants connected to Gandhi Indian Cuisine a block down the road. Gandhi has the best roti in town and its sister restaurants (Mother India in Parkdale and Roti Time on St. Clair West) also share the same wonderful recipe.

So while New York Subway may not be the cleanest place in Toronto, hey, it could be worse. A couple of years ago, the menu sign had bandaids stuck to it to cover up items that were no longer available.

Even carnivores will be best advised to go veggie at this place, as the veggie food seems superior to the meat. The thing to get is the burrito. My personal fave is the mixed veg. (go for spicy, as Gandhi's insanely torqued up spice scale is not in effect here.) The burrito is a yummy mix of mashed veggies and a tasty sauce.

The regular sized mix veg burrito is just $3.95. Wow!

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