Gastrodiplomacy in Toronto

On Toronto’s Food Identity and how Immigration shaped it

In an effort to stay awake on the plane and avoid the jet-lag when I reach Tokyo, I start to write about our stop in Toronto aiming to answer the question: “What is Canadian food?”.

We just arrived at the hotel room. The city looks busy and vibrant below.

Toronto is an immigrant-made metropolis where everyone competes to make whatever means to them success, a reality. Every nationality is represented in the restaurants scattered across the city. Of course there are important contributions from Canadians to the international the traditional food scene with dishes like poutine and the “very beloved” (a wink to Italians) Hawaiian pizza, topped with pineapple. I just read that it first debuted in 1962 in the Satellite restaurant in Chatham, Ontario. But the real contribution to the gastronomy is the unique melange of food cultures in one city.

Toronto’s streets boast diversity. 230 nationalities are represented and half of the people living there were born abroad. Each immigrant community has its own representation in a part of the city so you walk from Little India to Greektown and find every other nationality in between. You can chat away with vendors that share with you a taste from their country.

Having a background in International Relations, I have always loved observing how the shifts in the international system affect and shape society. Immigration shapes the identity of cities, and food is the most true expression of this impact. I am not saying all immigrants open up restaurants, but they do shape the demand and define what the food scene in a city looks like. If you look around the streets of Toronto, you will be able to figure out much of the global geopolitical situation by paying attention to what new restaurants are opening in town. For example, in the past years the number of Syrian restaurants is increasing.

Alaa Soufi chatting with us in his family restaurant: Soufi’s

We interviewed Alaa Soufi, who’s family opened Soufi’s when they moved from Homs to Toronto and became the first Syrian restaurant in the city. Their menu consits of two Syrian specialities: manakeesh, a soft flat bread smeared with halloumi, spices, aubergines and many other wonderful fillings baked in the oven and folded into a sandwich, and knafeh, truly delicious mini phyllo pies filled with cheede finished with rosewater and crashed nuts.

The international food scene is not the only one that defines the food landscape in the city.

The relationship between restaurants and Ontario farms is very strong and some restaurants are positively “obsessed” with sourcing from local produce. Actionolite, Cafe Belong and Farmhouse Tavern are just some of them

You also find all kinds of food markets around the city go from traditional ones like the St. Lawrence Market which remind you to those in Spain and Italy, to international glossy ones like the Assembly Chefs Hall.

On the last night in Toronto, I was looking for a place where to have dinner with my team and I stumbled upon the catering company Victor Dries and when I started reading about all the different restaurant concepts they created and more importantly about the project the co-owner Chris Brown is running, my jaw dropped. He founded Chefs for Change: an organization that sets-up top-notch dinners and donates the proceeds to low-income families through Community Food Centers in Canada. These events happen only a few times a year so we weren’t lucky enough to have one running at this time of the year but they suggested we went to their newest creation: Rosalinda, a Mexican vegetarian restaurant. Sounds contradictory, but works perfectly.

The ceviche made with young coconut instead of fish was outstanding and the end of the dinner with banana churros with melted chocolate was the cherry on the cake. The chefs here are doing an incredible job to make plants simply delicious. You don’t miss meat here!

With the chef from Rosalinda Restaurant

Toronto’s strength is in its diversity and nowhere more so than in the kitchen. The city gives you the opportunity to learn about other cultures through something tied to everyone’s daily life: food.

A special thank you to our friends and partners Steve Gedeon and Bryan Koivisto from Ryerson University, for sharing with us the magic of this city and for leading one of the top entrepreneurship programs in the world that is helping many young entrepreneurs shape, among other things, the future of food businesses in the country.