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

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Is Queen West ready for Sri Lankan food?

Toronto is fortunate to have some great Sri Lankan food, but it's not easy to find downtown. Aside from a few Sri Lankan places around Parliament, like Rashnaa, you have to head up to Markham and Scarborough to try the cuisine, which is perhaps described as a labour intensive, spicier version of Indian food, but with dozens of its own unique dishes. However, one Sri Lankan family is bucking the trend by opening up a Sri Lankan take-out spot right on Queen West at Spadina.

In August, Saffron Spice Kitchen was opened up at 459 Queen Street West by the family that runs Esther's Soup Kitchen (Queen of Soups) at Cumberland Terrace at Yonge & Bloor. It's a venture run in part by Esther, a Tamil woman hailing originally from Colombo, and her nephew Jacob.

There are several soups of the day available of course, including a mulligatawny soup, an Anglo-Indian spiced classic served with hefty chunks of chicken, carrot and celery. 

But the star of the show here is the kotthu roti. I recently visited Sri Lanka, and in the evenings there you hear the chop/chop/chop sounds of this dish being made on the street. It's prepared by chopping the morning's stale roti bread on a flat grill, throwing on heaps of chopped veggies, egg and spices, and mixing it all together to create a dish that tastes something like fried rice—but without the rice. It's a fabulous dish that would probably be popular across the globe if people knew about it.

Kottu roti was supposedly created in Batticaloa, a coastal town in eastern Sri Lanka that was cut off during the civil war, a situation that Jacob says sparked some creative cooking. "During the civil war, Tamils had to make due with any food they could find, as supplies were cut off and they couldn't get food at the store," explains Jacob.

Saffron Spice Kitchen's version of kottu roti is true to what you'll sample in the island nation. It's hefty, intensely flavourful and punched up with a mouth-warming amount of chili.

The dish may be a hit in Tamil-heavy Scarborough, but is it ready for prime time on Queen West? Saffron Spice's owners certainly think so. "Oh yeah," says Esther. "We're already crazy busy at lunch time. A lot of people call and ask for kottu roti and they know what it is."

Soon they plan on introducing Queen Street patrons to some new Sri Lankan flavours. They'll be offering egg hoppers—wonderful, golden rice flour crepes with eggs cooked into them—as well as string hoppers—a noodle type dish served with dahl or curry.

Saffron Spice Kitchen is located at 459 Queen Street West just west of Spadina. Telephone is 416 203 0222. Hours are Monday to Friday 11am to 10pm. Saturday and Sunday 11am to 9pm. There are a few seats at the counter to eat but the restaurant focuses mostly on take-out. 

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