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Toronto is more than just a great place to live, with world-renowned restaurants and nightlife to match. It’s earned the distinction of the most diverse city in the world according to no less than the United Nations and the BBC. All that aside, if you really want to know about the diversity of any location, you need to look no further than its groceries.
Imagine a city where relatively everyone eats the same type of food, and because no grocer wants to stock their shelves with foodstuff that’s likely to remain unsold, the grocery aisle stays pretty homogeneous. Rows upon rows of standard food fare for an unadventurous population of “same same” people and diets. “Ethnic” grocers are the hallmark of a diverse population and a way to measure the educated palates of any city. To list every grocer with food items dedicated to the various cultures housed within Toronto would be a grand undertaking beyond little old me, and that wouldn't even include specialty stores. However, taking on a very specific area of the city, like Leslieville on downtown Toronto’s eastside, is definitely manageable.
What you learn quickly upon entering most ethnically diverse grocery stores is that there’s a high possibility of running into staff where English is a secondary language. At Smyrna - Laz Bakkal, a Turkish grocery a block north of Pape Station, the cashier was incredibly friendly but our language barrier made it difficult to talk in detail about anything. However, she granted me full access to walk around the corner store with 3 full rooms of imported Turkish delights.
A refrigerator reveals stacks of soudjouk, a kind of sausage typically made with ground beef, animal fat and various spices before being piped into a sausage casing. Imported olive oil in ornately decorated black and gold bottles adds a sense of regality to the grocery shelves. Of course, you can’t cook Turkish food without Turkish spices, and you’ll find that in abundance all over the store. Thyme rubbed oregano called Kekik—which is like coating a stick of grassfed butter with chocolate if you ask me—is an example of the ways in which a spice run to the east end can elevate your next bowl of pasta beyond your wildest dreams.
What’s dinner without dessert? Not really dinner if you’re at Smyrna-Laz Bakkal. You won’t need to speak Turkish to know that rows of treats like Pasta Helva—a layer cake of candy made with tahini, rosewater, cardamom, caramel, dark chocolate, pistachios and hazelnuts—and Pismaniye—a Turkish milk chocolate coated cotton candy made with butter roasted flour and pulled sugar—should make it onto your dessert list on any occasion. Wash that down with any number of Turkish teas on display in the store and you have several reasons right there to explore this grocery.
Further south over on Queen East you’ll find brand new labour of love for Ricardo Cunningham, owner, chef and operator of hybrid Caribbean grocery and takeout spot Blessed Love. Now going into its third week, according to Cunningham their takeout offerings have been sold out every day. Open 2 weeks and sold out every day.
“I’ve never sold so many patties in so short a time in my life,” he says. “I’ve gone through 2 boxes of patties today.”
I have no reason to disbelieve him. Our chat was interrupted several times by locals ordering Jerk chicken and poutine, fried snapper, and an already beloved patty and coco bread combo. Cunningham isn’t new to the area either. He used to live in the community where his daughters attended Morse Street Public School. He took his background in business and international marketing and co-founded New Kingston Market in Scarborough with two friends. After running that business for a few years, he wanted to strike out on his own. After selling his interest in the market and searching for a space, he found Blessed Love’s empty location last year during the COVID-19 shutdowns.
Although people are lining up for the takeout options—soon to include all your other Caribbean favs like oxtail, and curry goat—Cunningham is just as proud as the grocery store provisions. There are cans of callaloo, Jamaican spinach, and ackee, typically combined with salted cod.
Speaking of fish, you’ll also find the aforementioned cod in a freezer along with imported mackerel and herring fillets.
With necessities like jerk marinades and curries, Caribbean produce including actual sugarcane and coconut, and a favourite wall of medicinal teas, Blessed Love hopes to be a longstanding “blessing” to the east side. Look out for a jerk chicken drum (open air grill) if the grocer can eke out enough sidewalk space to make the community and city hall happy.
Not surprisingly, East Toronto’s Little India community of Gerrard has its own grocery stores, but the most lauded with its 30-year history has to be BJ Supermarket. What is surprising is the colossal size of the market once you enter through the storefront door. I was greeted with multiple rows of long aisles stocked with both North American and Indian goods. Of course, if you’re in a store in Little India, you better go for the Indian items, of which there is also no shortage.
Columbus travelled far and wide (and got lost quite a bit along the way) for India’s spices. How lucky are we that we can just hit up this supermarket and walk out with armloads of traditional, imported direct from the source, goodness? Yes, you will find ginger and garlic pastes, all the masalas, and even Karala powders for your savoury baking.
But you’ll also find food off the beaten path like frozen Naan Pizzas and premade meals, and a window display stacked with savoury to sweet Indian baked goods and treats.
If cooking isn’t your thing—but dinner parties are—BJ Supermarket has you covered. Premade appetizers, dinner, and dessert all under one roof.
Grab a few jars of mango, garlic, chilli, lime, or mixed pickles to accompany your authentic Indian feast and thank me later.
A little further along Gerrard, you’ll find Philippine Oriental Food Market, owned and operated by Rosita Del Cruz from as far back as 1973. One of the longest running grocers on the strip, this is the spot for all your imported Filipino food provisions and treats.
It’s a compact space that requires some negotiation around the pair of women stocking shelves that have seen a lot of action over the years.
This is another grocer that’s got you from the moment you wake up to your last meal of the day. Cultural brand names like Kopiko have your morning coffee covered, and cured longanisa sausages—typically served with breakfast with a fried egg and rice—will set you up for the day ahead.
Looking for a snack? There are mountains of treats like chicharon (pork rind) chips with meat and Boy Bawang Cornick flavoured corn chips. Lunch or dinner has you set up with a plethora of noodle soups, canned meats and fish. For dessert, you can treat yourself to mung bean in coconut milk desserts that can be ready to eat in minutes according to the package. They haven’t been here since 1973 for nothing.
Just east of Broadview on Gerrard is the massive Asian food market Galaxy Fresh Foods. It’s the largest of the ethnic grocers on the East side, and its presence can be felt at street level with neatly stacked produce on skids and wooden shelving that wraps halfway around the building.
Offering produce lesser known to people from cultural backgrounds outside Asia, it’s a great place to learn about different types of veg outside of the salads you’ve grown tired of.
Descending a flight of stairs will bring you into a fab playground of imported delights. Want to jack up your soup?
Try some Tom Yum instant hot and sour paste and see if that doesn’t change your life. Crab paste, a mix of fresh crab guts and roe, can turn a boring bowl of white rice or rib roast into a heavenly experience.
Thirsty? Wash that down with a tasty rice or plum based drink.
If you’re looking for some solid protein to go with your sauces, produce and drinks, there’s a butcher and a fishmonger in the back.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of ethnic grocers east of the DVP, but they’re great places to discover the wealth of options the world’s most diverse city has to offer.