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Saturday, June 22, 2013

Snake gourd, oxtail, fresh channa and other culinary wonders at Iqbal Halal Foods

Iqbal Halal Foods is one of the pioneer ethnic grocers in Toronto. Established in 1991 at 2 Thorncliffe Park Drive, this large halal superstore is a well loved destination for Thorncliffe Park's large South Asian community. Another great thing about Iqbal is the location: nestled on the edge on an industrial zone in Thorncliffe Park, it's one of the closest ethnic supermarkets to the city core. 

I started my visit to Iqbal's off with breakfast in the adjacent Iqbal Kebab & Sweets Centre. For $6.95 you get a spicy potato dish aloo, a chick pea curry called chhole, two fried puri breads, a garnish of Indian pickle and some bright orange cream of wheat. The cream of wheat, explained one of our fellow diners, Nazmul, is made with ghee (Indian clarified butter) and spices, while food colouring gives the dish its orange hue. 

In the grocery store next door, Nazmul, who hails originally from Bangladesh, kindly offered to show us around the store. First stop was the bread section. There's a wide selection of Afghan flat breads, pitas, naan, chapati and paratha. If you want to make your own dosa or idli, a type of Indian/Sri Lankan breakfast cake made from fermented lentils, you can buy premade batter. 


The produce section features some veggies you're unlikely to find at many other groceries in town. Iqbal's sells fresh channa—raw, unprocessed chick peas—as well as raw (unroasted) peanuts, which are strangely squishy to the touch. You can sample banana flowers, which can be made into salads, fritters or stir fries. In addition to more familiar vegetables like bitter melon and okra, you can get snake gourd, a long, thin vegetable that resembles a serpent, and betel leafs, a mild stimulant chewed with betel nut. 

For cheese lovers, there's a good selection of paneer and Middle Eastern cheeses, such as akawie (a milder version of halloume), string cheese and the Palestinian nebulsi. 

The main attraction of Iqbal's is the meat counter, explains the grocery's co-owner, Anwar Tejani, who hails originally from Pakistan. "People come here because they can get everything in one place. They can get their meat, spices, rice and flour. There are so many traditional things like sweets that they can find here."

There's a large queue at the meat counter, as people wait for their numbers to come up. In the back, a small army of men chop up the meat for customers, largely by hand with small knives. You can get various cuts of chicken, beef and lamb, plus more unusual things such as cow feet and tongue, oxtail, and nahari beef, ready to be made into a type of south Asian stew. I had the butcher cut me some goat chops, which were easy to grill up on my barbecue, sprinkled with a box of Shan spices recommended by Nazmul.

Iqbal's also boasts a stash of rice that would get you through a famine, and a selection of bottles containing rose water, orange blossom water, mint water and pussy willow water. These specialties are used for cooking as well as for medicinal purposes. Last but not least,  there's an adorable little ice cream hut outside, serving up fresh juices, shakes and faluda, a South Asian drink made with rose water and jelly pieces. 

Thanks to Gabby R. for the tip.

Iqbal Halal Foods is located at 2 Thorncliffe Park Drive, Toronto. Tel: 416 467 0177. Meat department 416 467 9112. Hours: Monday to Sunday, 7am to midnight.

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