Are you a foodie? Do you like eating local cuisine when you travel? If you’re thinking of traveling to Toronto, Canada, you might be thinking “Mmm, I can’t wait to try some of that poutine, bacon and maple syrup!” It might surprise you, then, to learn there is a lot more to the “local” Toronto cuisine than you think. Once you’ve sampled your way around the city, your tastebuds will think you’ve traveled the entire globe! (Okay, maybe not the entire globe, but a fair share of it.)
When I was in Toronto in early June, I went on a tour of some of the city’s multicultural neighborhoods with chef and cooking instructor John Lee. This tour was arranged by Toronto Tourism for travel bloggers who were in town for the TBEX conference. To be honest, I’m not what I’d call a “foodie”. Sure, I like to try the local cuisine when I travel, and I know what tastes good to me, but for the most part, food is just something I eat because I need the fuel to keep my body going. I don’t approach food the way my foodie friend Jodi Ettenberg, author of The Food Traveler’s Handbook, does–as a way of exploring foreign cultures via their interaction with food, what dishes they serve, how they’re made, and with what ingredients. I think that is a brilliant way of approaching travel, it’s just not my way.
Still, I signed up for this tour because I thought it would be a fun way to explore the various cultures of Toronto in a compact time frame (which was all I had). I was right about that. The tour was called “World in a City,” and I think that’s as good a way to describe Toronto as any.
According to the Toronto website more than half of Toronto’s residents were born outside of Canada and over 140 languages and dialects are spoken there—making it one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world. So you can think of Toronto as a microcosm of the planet, in a way. Think about it: If we travel to explore other cultures, imagine being able to do so by hopping on a city bus or train and just going to a different neighborhood of your own city. How cool is that?
One of the things John said to us on this tour was that Toronto isn’t a “melting pot”. Immigrants who have come to Toronto have tried to hold onto their cultural traditions as much as possible. The best way to do that is through their food.
It’s not hard to find ethnic restaurants in most cities. But they’re typically isolated outposts of the culture they represent, set in a homogenous neighborhood that looks like any other. Oftentimes, the food has been modified somewhat to appeal to palates unaccustomed to exotic or spicy tastes. In Toronto, there are still ethnic neighborhoods where there are concentrations of restaurants, along with other businesses, where you can not just sample the cuisine but also wander and get a feel for that culture.
I’m not aware of any Toronto food tour that will take you to all of these neighborhoods, though there are food tours that may take you to one or two. But you can go the independent route and make your own way around the city to sample its multicultural cuisine. Just plan your meals around some of the following neighborhoods:
Koreatown is located primarily on Bloor Street between Christie and Bathurst Streets. You’ll find loads of retail shops here, restaurants, bakeries, and more. My tour stopped at the local grocery store, P.A.T. Central Market (675 Bloor). Why a market? Because markets are an essential aspect of the Korean experience in Toronto. Many Korean immigrants who moved to the city were entrepreneurial and started out owning small corner groceries. (Also, you learn a lot about a culture from visiting its grocery stores. Be sure to add that to your “to do” list next time you travel to a foreign country.)
Toronto’s Chinatown is located in the neighborhood of Dundas Street West (between Augusta Avenue and Beverley Street) and Spadina Avenue (between College and Sullivan Streets). Here, you’ll find souvenir shops, herbal stores, restaurants, bakeries and markets, along with produce stands lining the sidewalks*. Kensington Market, another location that should be on your list if you’re a foodie, is adjacent to Chinatown.
*Be careful what you photograph in this neighborhood. Some members of our group got yelled at in Chinese by a very angry elderly woman for taking photos—not of her, but of the produce she was selling. Apparently, even photographing someone’s belongings without their permission is disrespectful.
The India Bazaar (a.k.a. “Little India”)
The so-called “India Bazaar” or “Little India” is a commercial neighborhood along Gerrard Street East featuring a cluster of Indian, Pakistani, and other South Asian businesses, including clothing stores, electronics stores, and jewelry stores, among other things. I’m not much of a shopper, but I found the window shopping to be fascinating here. There was very ornate clothing (with silk and embroidery) in storefront windows and the most elaborate gold jewelry I’ve ever seen. (Because gold is important in Indian weddings, rituals and other important events.)
But of course, you’re here for the food, and there are also plenty of restaurants to try. We ate at the Bar-Be-Que Hut (1455 Gerrard St. E), which featured the first charcoal tandoori oven in Toronto. They serve East Indian and Pakistani foods, including vegetarian if you’re so inclined, at very reasonable prices.
Little Italy is located along College Street West between Euclid and Shaw Streets. This neighborhood is chock full of cafes, bakeries and restaurants—an embarrassment of riches, really. If you like cannolis, I can recommend those at Riviera Bakery (576 College St). Also available in this neighborhood are bars, nightclubs and the Royal Cinema. This may be the best neighborhood to head to for dinner in the evening. There’s a lot going on.
If you’re looking for Greek food, the place to go is Danforth Avenue between Chester Avenue and Jones Ave. Every summer, this neighborhood hosts an annual, multi-day event called Taste of the Danforth featuring food and entertainment that has drawn as many as a million visitors. As an added draw, if you’re a movie buff, some scenes from the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding were filmed here.
So there you go. Go forth and eat your way around the world by eating your way around Toronto.