The Jewish festival of Sukkot is currently taking place, and it's a great time to sample some excellent food and get a glimpse into ancient traditions. Every year, religious Jews build a sukkah—an outdoor structure that resembles a hut or a booth—to remember the ancient Israelis' fragile shelter when they wandered through the desert after escaping slavery in Egypt.
During the festival, Jews are supposed to eat their meals inside the sukkah, and many families build the structures in their yards or on their balconies. Several North York restaurants catering to the Jewish community also build their own sukkahs.
Located in the middle of a desolate industrial park near Steeles and Dufferin, Dr. Laffa Restaurant (401 Magnetic Drive) is brimming with life. A crowd is lined up to buy the restaurant's Iraqi Jewish food, and out in the parking lot, the plywood sukkah is packed with diners. "We live in a condo, and we have a sukkah there, but it's not very convenient to carry food up and down," explains Hadassah Bernstein (above). "We prefer to come here."
The mostly Orthodox diners are happy to explain the traditions of the holiday: one shows us how to do the traditional blessing, using the etrog— a type of citrus fruit — and luvav— a palm frond blended with willow and myrtle (below).
It would be impossible to remain hungry for long inside this sukkah. Dr. Laffa is named after an Iraqi pita bread laffa. It's baked in a similar way to Indian naan, by sticking it on the inside wall of a clay oven. Dr. Laffa's co-owner Sasi Haba was born in Jerusalem, and he learned to make the bread from his father, a baker originally from Iraq.
The chewy, dense bread is is the basis for Dr. Laffa's falafel sandwich. The result is a gargantuan wrap that skillfully blends the fresh, cool taste of the vegetables and humus with the warmth of the crisp falafel balls. Even better is the sabich, another popular street food in Israel. This sandwich is filled with smoky, fried eggplant and "latke balls" made of potato, celery, eggs, parsley and green onion. These sandwiches are hefty meals and cost just $5.99 each.
Tov-Li, a classic North York kosher pizza restaurant, also has a sukkah at its "south" location at 3519 Bathurst between Lawrence & Wilson. The original north location doesn't have room for a sukkah, but here it's very popular. "People have sukkahs at their homes, but having it here is a plus," explains Tov-Li's Miriam Epstein. The restaurant serves a light, fresh version of the falafel, topped with a generous serving of carrots and beets.
If you want to check out the sukkahs, you better act fast. These restaurants are closed Saturday for the Jewish sabbath, although Tov-Li opens up again after sundown. Sukkot ends Sunday (October 6, 2012), so that will be your last chance to dine in the sukkah this year.
Photos by Ronit Novak.
Dr. Laffa is located at 401 Magnetic Drive in North York. It's open Sunday to Thursday 11am to 10pm; Friday 11 am to 3pm; closed Saturday. Tel: 416 739 7134.
Tov-Li's South location is at 3519 Bathurst Street. It's open Sunday to Thursday 9am to 11pm; Friday 9am to 3pm; Saturday 1 hour after sundown to 12:30am. Tel: 416 784 9900.
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