Moving past Pad Thai
How Toronto chefs are embracing micro-regional cuisine
A cocktail bar on Queen West seems like an unlikely spot for a pop-up that focuses on regional Peruvian cuisine. "There are Peruvian restaurants in Toronto but no one is focusing on specific parts of Peru," Elias Salazar says while hovered over a plate of raw fish. His most popular dish is from his hometown of Callao, a ceviche of sea bass served in a bath of citrus chili marinade (leche de tigre) with varieties of Peruvian corn and deep-fried shrimp. "This is street-style from a specific beach town in the country, " says Mr. Salazar, who recently launched his three-month pop-up at Rush Lane bar.
A few doors down, Noureen Feerasta's menu at Rickshaw seems broad at first, spanning two continents from East Africa to South Asia. But Feerasta draws influence from both sides of her family with dishes that can be traced back to key places. The makai curry on her menu, made from corn, chickpeas and red chili, is inspired by the shores of East Africa. "The Kenyan version is richer with cashew paste, compared to the Dar es Salaam version which has a tomato flavour." Her interpretation of khao shay which includes strings of deep-fried parathas, was inspired by the cooking found in the mountainous Shan state of Burma.
If the last two years with restaurants such as Pai, Little Sister and Rickshaw Bar are any indication, local cooks are confidently veering off-course from ambassador-type dishes and embracing micro-regional cuisine, venturing into the cooking of villages and towns for inspiration. Toronto has started to geek out when it comes to lesser-known international cuisines, taking advantage of the availability of rare ingredients and a customer appetite for something truly different.
"This is not just Thai cooking; many of the dishes are specifically from my hometown of Pai, that is the main inspiration. We don't see food like that often in Toronto," chef Nuit Regular says as she's ladling one of the newest dishes on her Pai Market menu; kuay jap – cylindrical bean noodles that she serves in a five-spice broth with braised pork, egg and fried garlic. The curly rice noodle, called guayteiw sheng hai, is unique to Toronto: "I import it from central Thailand specifically for this dish." Ms. Regular imports many ingredients direct from Thailand (such as sawtooth coriander and Thai pomelo) which come in twice a week to the restaurant. "We have a new dish on the menu which requires a very particular kind of northern Szechuan peppercorn," Ms. Regular says of the restaurant's tom zap nua. The pork-rib soup is widely consumed in Thailand but Ms. Regular's version is particular to the northern part of the country. Szechuan peppercorn is a unique ingredient, not the same as used in China.
Paul Kim, 32, is the owner and chef behind Doma, the newest micro-regional restaurant located in Little Italy in the former Acadia space. Born in Seoul, Mr. Kim says that he draws his culinary prowess from all corners of South Korea, "but particularly from Gimje; that's where my mom is from." He describes Doma as an experiment. Mr. Kim is trying to adapt Korean dishes with French cooking techniques. Gimje was a direct influence for his Spanish mackerel plate. Mr. Kim makes a sauce with a Korean chili condiment (gochujang), fish stock, garlic, onion and ginger to marinate the mackerel, he then layers it with sous-vide radish, candied ginger and bok choy, and steams it en papillote to create an ethereal dish that softens the effects of the chili paste and brings out the fermented nuances.
Chefs such as Mr. Salazar are going for the "deep cuts" when it comes to cooking their native cuisine. "The cuisine of my country changes so much from town to town" Mr. Salazar says. His Rush Lane pop-up, called Limon Modern Peruvian Kitchen, will be featuring a rotating menu that highlights the landscape of Peruvian food, from street-style ceviche found along the coast to skewers of anticuchos common in the Andes.
The evolving menu and the freedom of a guest stint at Rush Lane allows him to test "hundreds" of dishes during the winter setup before he finds a permanent address for his regional Peruvian restaurant. "I want to open a place that shows all the unknown food regions of Peru."
With a steady brigade of Asian restaurants opening this year from noodle houses specializing in Northwestern Chinese noodles ( Shaanxi) to the Filipino renaissance, diners are embracing and distinguishing geography-specific dishes. "It seems that guests are ready for this kind of food," Mr. Kim says. "They are ready for the spice, and for the full-bodied flavours."
The import market is also playing a role in encouraging this micro fascination, key ingredients that were once impossible to find are now available at neighbourhood markets. From rice smoked in the mountains of Iran to jaggery ( palm sugar) from Sri Lanka and key varieties of Armenian cucumbers. A wave of food markets has sprung up all over the GTA. "Five years ago, it would've been hard to source some of these items, but now it's easy," Mr. Salazar says.