The Story of Multicultural Canada, Told in Humble Strip Mall Eateries

SCARBOROUGH, Ont. — At a tiny strip mall where the painted parking lines had faded completely some time ago, the chef at the New Kalyani restaurant effortlessly prepared one of the most exquisite treats in the Toronto area.

Pouring fermented batter into a small wok, he gripped the pan with both hands and swirled it four times in the air before laying it on a portable gas-burner.

Made to order, the resulting hopper, a classic Sri Lankan dish, appeared — a thin, lacy, bowl-shaped pancake that rose from a pillowy bottom to its delicately crispy edges.

“Most people don’t know he makes hoppers to order,’’ said Suresh Doss, a food writer, on a recent visit to the New Kalyani, which has no tables or chairs. “When they’re left to sit, they deflate, they crumble. The difference is night and day. I’ve brought so many chefs from Toronto here, and they would eat it and go, ‘This is the best thing I’ve eaten this year,’ because this is so different from what you would have in the city.”

Toronto became the first Canadian city with its own Michelin guide last year, and has 13 restaurants decorated with Michelin stars, mostly in fashionable neighborhoods like Yorkville.

But an alternative dining guide published by Mr. Doss casts a far wider net, finding and celebrating establishments in the city’s periphery — in the blocks surrounding the last subway stops, across the so-called inner suburbs like Scarborough or in the outer stretches of what is known as the Greater Toronto Area.

Most of the restaurants on Mr. Doss’s list are mom-and-pops and walk-ins. Many lack seating, and are squeezed in aging, low-slung strip malls, next to coin laundromats or nail salons. They are often little known by diners beyond their immigrant patrons, offering dishes that — mixing memory and desire — spring from recipes that were popular in their owners’ home countries decades ago.

A former tech worker turned culinary blogger, Mr. Doss, 45, reports on food for The Toronto Star and the CBC, the public broadcaster. His guide steers the hungry from places like the Jus Convenience Jerk Shop with “insanely good” oxtail to Lion City and its “celebration of Singaporean hawker fare.” Then there’s Monasaba, a Yemeni place with the “best mandi” (a blend of meat, rice and spices) in the region, and Mamajoun, an Armenian eatery with a menu based on “grandparents’ recipes.”

“Food trapped in time is what I call it,” Mr. Doss said recently, as he drove to some of his favorites in the guide. “Food is constantly evolving. But when you have food tied to immigration, it becomes much more than just food. It becomes nostalgia. It has to be trapped because changing it wouldn’t make sense.”

Still, there is evolution. When children of first-generation immigrant restaurateurs decide to stay in the same business, they invariably tweak their parents’ recipes.

For example, he said, as second or third-generation Sri Lankan immigrants have left Scarborough for suburbs further east, the flavors change.

“Some of the most exciting Sri Lankan food right now is in Ajax,” Mr. Doss said, referring to a town some 45 minutes without traffic from the constellation of Michelin-starred establishments in Toronto’s core.

The guide is also a road map to the ever changing immigrant culture in Canada’s largest city. With a perspective that combines food critic, local historian and sociologist, Mr. Doss keeps tracks of demographic shifts in communities as well as the story inside his favorite eateries.

Some places do not stick to traditional food scripts from a single country but instead blend together flavors from afar, reflecting how each wave of immigrants in Canada has been joined by another.

To Mr. Doss, Teta’s Kitchen, an Indonesian and Lebanese restaurant in a mall near the city’s northernmost subway stop, tells the story of Canada’s easygoing multiculturalism. One of the menu’s highlights is “Pandan Kebab,” fusing the Southeast Asian herb (“the star of the show”) with the Middle Eastern mainstay.

An underappreciated but essential player in the flourishing Toronto’s food scene is the humble, but vanishing, strip mall, a center of immigrant culture and the only place where many first-generation restaurateurs can afford to start out.

“Strip malls were a safe haven, a third space when I was growing up in Scarborough,” Mr. Doss said, describing their disappearance as a “loss of culture.”

“Because I’m an immigrant kid,” he added, “I know what we’re losing.”

Born in Sri Lanka, Mr. Doss and his family settled in Scarborough when he was 12. Much of his adolescence was spent at strip malls playing pool with friends, and trying out the seemingly endless cuisines on offer.

Today, Mr. Doss dines out 16 times a week, crisscrossing the Toronto area, scouring for leads to hidden gems.

“It is a pretty exciting time to eat in the city,” he said. “You just need to get in the car.”

When he finds something new, Mr. Doss asks the owners’ permission to introduce their restaurant, worried they’d be unable to handle an influx of new customers. Many refuse. It took him seven years to persuade the family behind the New Kalyani.

Kumar Karalapillai opened the restaurant with his wife and mother eight years ago. He had not felt the need for publicity because most of his regular customers are of Sri Lankan origin.

“We have just a few white people, some Indians and two, three Filipinos,” said Mr. Karalapillai, who serves hard-to-find dishes like curry with hard-boiled eggs and fried beef liver in addition to those ethereal hoppers.

Mr. Karalapillai, 40, said his dishes were based on his mother’s recipes, which the family had never considered altering.

“Eight years the same,” he said.

The future of the New Kalyani worries Mr. Doss. The restaurant is near a major intersection in Scarborough, where other strip malls are being torn down and replaced with high-end condominiums in this city with an acute shortage of affordable housing.

“This place over here, that’s being demolished,” Mr. Doss said, driving past what he described as one of the oldest strip malls in Scarborough. “So many Sri Lankan takeout places were lost because of that.”

At another mall not far away, where his favorite Malaysian restaurant, One2Snacks, is tucked in between a tax accountant and a computer repair shop, Mr. Doss orders smoky-flavored char kway teow stir-fry noodles and curry laksa noodles.

Bryan Choy, 36, runs the restaurant with his parents, Tracy and Chon Choy. The family arrived in Canada 35 years ago. While employed at another job, his father spent a decade fine-tuning recipes at home before opening the restaurant 13 years ago, with the goal of recreating the dishes from his youth in Kuala Lumpur.

“My father’s taste buds are so exact that when he eats something, he remembers it even if it was back in the day,” Mr. Choy said. “So all of his dishes, basically, are from 30-odd years ago and have that type of flavor profile.”

Like many other restaurateurs offering food trapped in time, Mr. Choy was uncertain what would happen to the restaurant after his parents retire. His younger brother works in finance, and he said he did not feel up to running the place by himself.

“If I hire a different chef, the flavor will change because it’s hard to mimic some of the things that my parents do,” he said. “Even for me, it’s hard to replicate some of the things they do.”

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