Forget chicken soup for the cold, get yourself a curry chicken roti when you’re feeling sick
There is a lot of cultural wisdom in food. And indeed, that’s how we knew what to eat for all this time. We didn’t have scientists. We didn’t have industry, you know, hawking products at us. We had food culture. —Michael Pollan
Clothes, I.D., and music are just some of the things you should bring to the hospital when you're ready to give birth. For one woman, this list also included six rotis from Mona's Roti for her and her West Indian family. "The woman was literally going into labour, and I was like, 'Are you okay?'" says Reesa Khan, Mona's daughter and manager of the restaurant that specializes in Trinidadian cuisine. She was telling me the story as she stood outside her parents' restaurant.
It was the end of the mid-week lunch rush, which had a line that trailed outside the restaurant door for more than an hour. Weekends are even worse. It was a Saturday when the customer came to buy food, and she joined the line instead of calling ahead to place an order as recommended by Khan. "And she was like 'It's [the baby] coming and we are just going to the hospital now, but I had to get food for my mother-in-law and my father-in-law,'" says Khan. "I was laughing, but trying to move faster because I was like 'I don't want your baby to come out while I'm doing it.'"
While providing rotis for women about to give birth is out of the ordinary for Khan, it's not the first time she's provided comfort food for people. "A lady came just now to get food for her friend who is in the hospital nearby. She wanted curry chicken and rice because it's easy on the stomach, and when they are not feeling good you want a hot meal and curry chicken." Khan knows the feeling. "When I was in the hospital a couple of years ago for a week, I was eating hospital food and I was like 'Oh god,' and my mother went home and cooked for me."
She's not the only one who wants her mom's cooking when she's upset or ill. Anuradhapura Doulatram and his mother Veenu may make 4,000 to 5,000 chapatis per day at their bakery, Suraj Desi Kitchen, but when he's in the mood for comfort food, it has to be from his mom, specifically her mutton curry and roti.
Doulatram admits that he doesn't go to a lot of Indian restaurants. "You know what's funny? A lot of people ask me too, they're like, 'How come you never take me to an Indian restaurant?' I'm like, 'Because I'm gonna end up comparing them to my mom.'" That desire for homemade food is the reason for the bakery. Chapatis are traditionally homemade, but no one has the time now to make them. Khan's customers flock to the bakery because her chapatis taste just like those made by their mothers. One customer says while paying, "I don't have to make them at home and I know they're made with fresh healthy ingredients here."
Scarborough's diverse palates
Most of us have an idea of what we're supposed to eat and drink when we're sick, thanks to television, movies, books, and advertising. This includes soup (usually chicken noodle), hot tea, a glass of orange juice, and a container of jello. Another widely-held notion is that ice-cream, usually eaten directly from the container accompanied by anger or tears, is the ultimate comfort food, but as neighbourhoods become more diversified, comfort food has evolved from traditional to a blend of different cultures and flavours.
It's no surprise that Scarborough has such a great and diverse food culture. Toronto and the Greater Toronto Area has been called the most diverse city in the world and that was reflected in the 2016 census with more than half of the residents identifying as visible minorities. Scarborough residents come from China, the West Indies/Caribbean, India, the Philippines, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the African continent, Eastern and Western Europe—and all have brought their food culture with them.
The census also found that during that time, while the number of Toronto's visible minority residents grew to 34 per cent, in Scarborough during the same period of time, residents who identified as visible minorities grew from 51 to 73 per cent. This diversity means that Scarborough has become the place to go to when you're looking to experience the range of comfort food for citizens who call Toronto home. This knowledge was an open secret for many Canadians who wanted authentic food from various cultures until the rest of the world discovered Scarborough in the last three years. American economist Tyler Cowen called Scarborough "the best ethnic food suburb I have seen in my life, ever" and Vox Media's Eater took a trip to Scarborough for Sri Lankan food. They discovered what Greater Toronto Area residents already knew: this is where you go when you want good food. All this recognition came from visitors to Scarborough restaurants but what do the residents prefer to eat?
Beyond chicken noodle soup
That doesn't mean there isn't room for soup, it's just that the soup isn't always chicken noodle. Vergel Sebuguero prepares and serves the food at Lola Sally's Authentic Filipino Cuisine restaurant. He craves sinigang when he thinks he's getting sick, ideally pork Sinigang, a Filipino soup or stew often characterized by its sour and savoury taste, most often associated with tamarind, and related to the Malaysian version of the dish. But he, and Marissa Concepcion, who had walked into the restaurant, agreed that the clientele, which is 90 per cent Filipino according to Sebuguero, comes for the beef stew. "I owned two restaurants before, and this is the best place for beef stew," says Concepcion, telling Sebuguero to give us a small portion (it's delicious). She's looking at new locations now because she's wants to open a another restaurant. In the meantime, she comes to Lola Sally's for lunch, which she eats in the kitchen with staff because she doesn't like to sit out front. Before she disappears into the back, she insists we try the deep fried chicken skin. "Good when you're feeling sad but not good for your cholesterol level!"
There is still room for chicken soup in Scarborough. Kathryn Halloran says that a bowl of Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup hits the right spot when she's sick. "My mom and my dad were both teachers so they worked. My mom wasn't ever home with me when I was sick. My babysitter, I guess, made chicken noodle soup." The soup is still her default, but for pure comfort, Halloran goes with pasta. "Well, there's quick and dirty, which is normally really, really shabby versions of Cacia e Pepe, which is basically cheese pepper, and it's really hard to get right. So the version I normally do, have done, just down-and-out and angry and hungry and I hate the world, is boiled pasta, either spaghetti or rigatoni. Then toss it in butter and olive oil and then add powdered garlic, because powdered garlic works really well with the butter, and then salt, pepper, and Parmesan."
Rice, congee, and jollof
For others, carbs remain popular but instead of pasta, rice is their default comfort food. Min Di, who self-identifies as a Canadian born in China, says that congee is what she wants to eat, preferably plain congee, but the versatility of congee is that you can add meat or eggs to it depending on your tastes. Euphemia Adjei, who was born in Ghana, lived in the UK, and then immigrated to Canada, loves jollof rice. When she cooks for her family she tries to balance flavour and health informed by her background in nutrition. Not only does rice remind her of making it with her mother, it's a one-pot meal that her three kids will eat, including her 11-year-old son, who is a picky eater. "Little kids like rice, right?" she says. "And at times the kids are a bit picky. But with jollof, because it's in one pot, it's easier for me to do than to separate it, because with a pot of the jollof rice, you can make it plain then use stir fried vegetables, and I know everyone will eat it."
The beauty of living in diverse neighbourhoods is the access to a blend of different foods and flavours in one meal. When Aretha Horton-Taylor and her husband, Chris Taylor, opened up Chris Jerk, they were surprised by their customers. "When we were opening this restaurant we were like, 'Oh, there aren't West Indian people in the area?'" said Horton- Taylor, taking time from a busy lunch service. Behind her spun a large cone of meat, familiar to shawarma lovers and most often seen in Middle Eastern restaurants. While you can get traditional jerk meals in the restaurant, the Horton-Taylors have a different clientele in mind. "They're not coming here for the traditional," says Horton-Taylor about their customers. "You know, some people may be mistaken that this is like a traditional restaurant, but it's not. We're fusion. That's why we're trying different things."
Examples of 'different' include their jerk chicken shawarma and shawarma poutine, and the other is their gravy. Most West Indians grew up eating a gravy made from oxtail and Chris Jerk continues to make it for their more traditional customers but the favourite is a jerk chicken gravy. "They can't get enough of it," she says. Their customers have also sparked a possible side hustle—pepper sauce—something that every good West Indian has, usually handmade by their parents or bought from the local restaurant. The Horton-Taylors make it from scratch. "We have to start selling it by the bottle," says Horton-Taylor. "I cannot keep up." She's told her husband that one day she and her daughters are going to make and sell the hot sauce. "We're all gonna take the hot sauce to the road."
There is hot sauce at the Taibu Community Health Centre, where it's not unusual for there to be a different menu every Wednesday. The lunch program, organized by Firaaz Azeez, started two years ago and feeds approximately 200 people each week. Depending on the donations, says Anita Rajroop, who is in charge of the kitchen, it could be jerk chicken and rice one week, eggplant and dahl another, or in the case when we visited, chicken pasta in white sauce with a bean salad and garlic bread.
When Azeez took over the food program, the menu changed, catering to the taste of the diners. "Today we've got a lot of West Indians," he says, indicating the filling room. Rajroop says that the menu improved once it moved from the previous location in a nearby Presbyterian church. "I think it was soup and bread," she says. But when the lunch program came over to the Taibu Community Centre, they served a full meal with food donated from various restaurants. They got donations then from a Trinidadian restaurant and these days from a Guyanese-Canadian chef who cooks and delivers the meals. "I don't cook here," says Rajroop. "I cook enough at home."
The ever-changing menu is something that appeals to Lucinda Levair, who has lived in Scarborough for six years. "I grew up Polish, so we ate a lot of potatoes, meats, blood sausage, things like that. As I’m living here in Scarborough, I’m eating a lot of curry and East Indian food, chickpeas for the first time, sweet potatoes for the first time. I am diabetic, so I’m always experimenting or exploring new varieties of things.”
Levair’s diabetes and other medical issues (she chose not to get into them) does not define what foods she likes or wants to try. She craves the salty and pickled food of her childhood; her diabetes means she has to be careful of her sugar intake. That’s led to Levair experimenting with food. “I’m branching out toward some more Mediterranean kind of foods, which is a much healthier plant-based diet. It’s a big transition. You crave what your grandmother and your mother ate, and it’s hard. It’s really hard. Even some Caribbean and East Indian foods, they’re not really healthy for you. So it’s hard to integrate that stuff into your life and your culture, I guess.” For now, she accommodates her dietary needs by adapting some of her childhood flavours, especially salt. “We pickle everything, and we salt everything. I don’t know how to get away from salt. It’s my go-to food, I guess. It’s like its own food group. We pickle with three cups of salt in everything. I don’t know how to get away from it.” To counter the craving, she got a dehydrator to make cucumber, zucchini, and sweet potato chips—but it’s still hard for her.
Scarborough rightly deserves all the local and international accolades for its food culture. Residents don’t need to be told about how good their local food options are. What’s most interesting for them is what’s next? What new blend of flavours and ingredients will be on offer at the nondescript strip mall down the street? How will that newly minted blend satisfy their cravings for comfort, well-being, the feeling of support, and importantly, for a delicious meal?
Interviews and reporting by Renee Sylvestre-Williams
Photos by David Pike
Editing by Jennifer Decaria of The Local a project of UHN Open Lab.
Note: This was written in October 2018 but unfortunately isn’t going to published anytime soon. I’ve been given permission to post this article here.