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

Monday, November 21, 2011

Mongrel Chinese cooking with an Indian kick

What do you get when you take a group of culinary minded Chinese people to India, home of many of the world's greatest spices, and have them refine their cooking for local tastes for several generations? You end up creating Indian-style Hakka Chinese food, such as the fare served at Danforth Dragon at 861 Danforth Ave. 

Danforth Dragon owner Anthony Lin is hakka, meaning he speaks the hakka dialect of Chinese. His grandfather took a two-month boat ride to flee China for India to avoid political instability and violence. Anthony was born and raised in Calcutta.

"Hakka people are like gypsies," says Anthony (pictured below). "They travel everywhere." Anthony says as the third generation of his family to live in India, he doesn't know much about China, but he still speaks hakka at home and cooks hakka food. However, Hakka cooking evolved considerably in India over the years. "Our food has an Indian twist," he says. "It is Chinese food for Indian taste buds, so it's spicier."

The Danforth Dragon's jeera beef dish ($9.50) is a good example of the hybrid techniques. It's marinated in a Chinese style, using soy and potato starch to make it tender. It's also infused with a strong dose of cumin seed and garlic, giving it punchy flavour that resembles a Pakistani lamb skewer.

Chili paneer with Chinese greens (below; $8.99) is another great dish, featuring flavourful Indian cheese and Chinese cabbage stir fried with onion and soy. Many of the dishes are peppered with bits of green chili, which pack a fiery punch. It's also worth paying 99 cents for the hakka-style special hot sauce—a slightly sweet concoction made with chilis and garlic.
The spicy egg roll is better than expected, with minced pork, fresh green peas, and a bit of curry flavour. Hakka style fried rice ($7.99) is a spicier version of the Chinese classic.

The evolution of hakka food hasn't stopped since its arrival in Canada: Anthony also serves what he calls "North American Chinese" food such as chicken balls, chop suey, General Tso's chicken and lemon chicken, to cater to his mostly Canadian-born clientele.

Danforth Dragon is one of the only Indian-style hakka place in Toronto proper, but Scarborough is chock full of hakka places, some Indian-style and some with more traditional fare. Scarborough is also home to many Jamaican restaurants that are run by Chinese—turns out that most of the Chinese population in Jamaica is also of Hakka origin.

Thanks to Neeraj Singh for the tip. 

Danforth Dragon is at 861 Danforth Ave. between Pape and Donlands. Tel: 416 461-9238. Hours: open Monday to Friday, 11:30am to 10:00 pm; Saturday 4pm to 10pm; Closed on Sunday and holidays. Delivery in the local area starting at 1pm daily.

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Monday, November 14, 2011

The best ethnic restaurants in Toronto, displayed on Google Maps

By popular demand, I've created a Google Map of all the restaurants I've visited while writing this blog. Lovers of cheap ethnic food can quickly see which places are located near each other when planning expeditions to new parts of town, and they can look to see if there's any spots they should visit in their own neighbourhoods.

View Spice City Toronto GTA Map in a larger map

This is a companion map to the Spice City Toronto World Food Map, which shows the same restaurants on a map of the world based on the food's country of origin.

Happy travels and please keep me updated on your Toronto food adventures. —Sarah

Twitter: @spicecityto
Facebook: www.facebook.com/SpiceCityToronto
Email: spicecityto at gmail dot com

Thanks to Valerie, Shawn and Ian for the suggestion.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

A visit to Toronto's Persian Plaza

Food lovers be warned: A first walk through North York's Persian Plaza is overwhelming. Every shop is brimming with familiar and not-so-familiar Iranian hot food, baked goods and meats.

The Persian Plaza is located at Yonge Street in North York, just south of Steeles. It was originally a multi-ethnic plaza, but in the mid-1990s, it morphed into what it is today: one stop shopping for members of the nearby Persian community who want to make use of tailors, video shops, travel agencies and money transfer services run by their compatriots.

The Iranian businesses are not contained to this one strip mall. Both sides of the street of the surrounding blocks are dotted with Middle Eastern speciality stores.

All the food shops sell similar fare, and competition amongst them keeps quality high. Super Zamani (above), a meat shop across from the plaza at 6120 Yonge Street, is a refreshingly clean and organized shop with Iranian groceries, breads an a take-out counter serving kebabs. 

In Persian Plaza, Arzon Food Market (below) is a maze of tiny aisles packed with giant tubs of silky Persian-style feta, and jars of cedrate jam (a citrus fruit) and carrot jam (yep, Iranians eat this on toast apparently). Arzon has a take-out counter where kebabs are grilled over charcoal. The juicy, salty taste of the beef kebab ($6.99) did not disappoint. It was served on a bed or rice that was punctuated with lentils and tiny raisins. 

Pars Food, also in the plaza, is a family business run by Pouria Khoshkhou (below), who is originally from Tehran. His shop sells dozens of kinds of picture-perfect Persian sweets—delicate sugary pastries made with saffron, pistachios and walnuts.

The store also has a wide selection of Persian breads, most of which are made at Pars Food's other location at 365 John Street in Thornhill. "Our breads are all hand made, with no chemicals or preservatives," says Pouria. "They're made of flour, salt and yeast—that's all."

My favourite of the breads is sangak, a whole wheat sour dough topped with sesame seeds. It has a tangy tart taste and is wonderfully chewy and stretchy. The shop also has lavash (a super thin bread) and barbari (a thick, textured flat bread), as well as sweet breads made with fresh dates, walnuts, cinnamon and vanilla. 

The hot food counter in the back serves a wide selection of Persian stews made with eggplant, spinach, lentils, and coriander. They are served with rice flavoured with dill, parsley and fava beans. However, the koobideh kebab seems to be the most coveted menu item by the clientele: it's a marinated meat kebab that sells for just $3.99 with rice. 
You won't go wrong with a kebab in the Persian Plaza, but if you're in the mood for risk, there's no shortage of novel products to try. Hookahs for smoking tobacco and herbal mixtures are on display, as well as herb waters, such as cumin water, that are supposed to help you with a stomach ache, kidney pain or to lose or gain weight. The Persian ice cream (faloodeh, below) is another oddity for Western palates: it's a seemingly alien concoction made of saffron, rosewater, pistachio and thin vermicelli noodles. 

Thanks to Ruth of the Toronto Multicultural Calendar blog for the tip. 

Pars Food is located at 6089 Yonge Street;  telephone 416-223-0020. Super Arzon is located at 6103 Yonge Street, telephone 416 222 4726. Super Zamani is located 6120 Yonge Street, telephone 416 250-7314. 

  • Share your own thoughts on Persian Plaza in the comments field below.
  • Follow Spice City Toronto on Twitter and like it on Facebook.
  • Recommend a place for Spice City to visit at SpiceCityTO @ gmail.com 
  • Taste the food of the world without leaving Toronto with the Spice City Toronto World Food Map.

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