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

Monday, October 22, 2012

Try the pastel, Brazil's answer to the empanada

Posters recently appeared along Dundas Street West, the centre of Toronto's Portuguese-speaking community, advertising the "Festival do Pastel." Starting a few weeks ago, the local restaurant Brazilian Star (1242 Dundas St. W. just east of Dovercourt) began serving pastels, a street food akin to an empanada, every Thursday.

The restaurant previously had only a Portuguese version of the pastel, and the predominately Brazilian clientele often asked for their own country's version of the fried snack. Brazilian Star hired someone to make the pastels on Thursdays, and according to server Bruna Lima (below left) it's one of the only places in town that sells them. The flat, doughy snacks are available with different fillings: meat, cheese, pizza, chicken, and guava/cheese. 
The carne pastel ($3.98) is filled with tasty spiced beef, while the cheese one is stuffed with an oozing, mild white cheese. The shell is a dimpled, oily dough reminiscent of Chinese egg roll pastry or a deep fried wonton. Bruna says the pastel may have an Asian origin, as they are frequently sold by Chinese vendors in Brazilian markets. It's one of the many examples of cultural fusion on this intensely diverse South American country. 
The guava and cheese pastel is a surprise: sweet rather than savoury, the mild cheese fuses with the rich, carmel flavour of the guava. Be sure to wash it down Brazil's national cocktail, the caipirinha, the perfect blend of lime, ice and sugar cane rum. 

Festival do Pastel takes place Thursdays at Brazilian Star, 1242 Dundas St. W.; tel: 416-588-2967.

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Saturday, October 6, 2012

Tasty Jewish meals served inside the sukkah

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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Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Are you ready to try the wedding-size buss-up-shut roti?

Toronto Weston Flea Market vendor Tenny Ramkissoon has a personal mission: to make roti and doubles—a Trinidadian roti-like snack—as popular as pizza and hamburgers. "Roti is a food a lot of people love, but it's not internationally known," says Tenny. "My intention is to put doubles and roti on the international map." 
Tenny and his wife Chandra, who both hail originally from Trinidad, opened up Kavita's Hot & Spicy Foods inside the Toronto Weston Flea Market last year. Despite the fact the duo each has a full time job—Tenny works the night shift at a car parts factory and Chandra packages coffee—they were excited to bring the Trinidadian food they served at weddings and parties to a wider clientele by opening a weekend stall at the market. (See part one of Spice City's post about the flea market here.)

This flea market vendor thinks big. "I contacted Galen Weston's people at President's Choice to talk about doubles and roti," says Tenny. "Someone in the office is not communicating with him, because he's not calling back, and it's been a month now." 

Several years ago, Tenny attempted to break the world record for the largest roti with Etobicoke's Roti Roti restaurant. He says the Guinness Book acknowledges they broke the record, but hasn't updated their site to confirm the feat. 

At his flea market stall, named after his youngest daughter Kavita, Tenny sells a giant "wedding size buss-up-shut roti." During a wedding in Trinidad, instead of making individual rotis, chefs make huge ones that are divided up, stuffed with curry and eaten by 10 or 15 people. It's a paratha roti, made of thin layers of dough dusted with crushed yellow split peas.

The moniker "buss-up-shut" comes from the fact the hefty pile of dough looks like a busted up or torn shirt. "I'm the only Canadian chef who can cook it and I've been doing it since I was small," boasts Tenny. "I cook it at home with my wife. We throw it on a hot plate and use wooden pallets to turn it." In the photo below, Chandra holds a ball of dough from a half-size buss-up-shut roti. 

Tenny's pride in his cooking isn't misplaced: the goat roti he serves at his stall ($7) features fresh, delicate sheets of paratha roti stuffed with flavourful tender chunks of goat meat and potato. The doubles—two fried pieces of dough slathered with chick pea curry—have a rich, smooth flavour. 

Also worth trying is the mauby, a homemade beverage created with bark from a tropical tree. It tastes similar to root beer, but has a slightly bitter, earthy flavour.  

Photos by Molly Crealock

Toronto Weston Flea Market is located at 404 Old Weston Road, just north of St. Clair Ave West. Admission is free. It's open Saturdays and Sundays 10am to 6pm. Tel: 416 654 6455.

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