Culinary Toronto

by Ollie Barstow on 16 February 2012, 13:02PM Culinary Toronto

The World in One City

I have a rule when travelling. Just one. A simple rule that can help me gain a greater impression of a city than just glancing at its most famous landmark or interacting with its people – and that rule is to eat!

OK, so I really don’t need much encouragement to put fork to mouth, even before you consider its necessity in one’s life, but to me eating out in another country can be more than just satisfying my pangs of hunger. It can literally leave an exquisite – or indeed bitter - taste in my mouth, so when I tread new shores, I make it my duty to ensure my trip is as much a culinary journey as it is a holiday.

This means pasta is reserved for Italy only, fajitas can only be wrapped in Mexico and Thailand puts the green into my curry… At least, this is what I am supposed to abide by, but my staunch rule is being tested at this particular moment.

Right now, I’m in Toronto and my stomach is rumbling, but choosing what to eat is proving a head-scratcher. As possibly the most cosmopolitan city in the world, with almost half of its residents being born outside Canada, the plethora of mini-cultures that have sprung up in Toronto is fascinating, yet bewildering for my appetite.

Chinese, Thai, Korean, Japanese, Jamaican, Polish, French, Greek, German, Portuguese… the list of communities that call Toronto their home is vast, so tucking into a local dish really can be a quick culinary ticket around the world.

But it is that multi-culture which sparks Toronto’s vibrant atmosphere. Indeed, if its Canadian cities were represented by colour, Toronto would have to be the entire rainbow…

So after a fair amount of time trawling the vast Kensington Market, with its pockets of diversity, I settle for a delicious – and authentically Canadian – pea meal Bacon Sandwich, and consider how Toronto has, as a city, come to sate the cravings of so many different people from around the world.

In essence, it doesn’t take long to understand why Toronto is such an attraction to newcomers, its blend of beauty, culture and choice proving a tempting proposition to holidaymakers and long-term dwellers alike. Many happen to agree too, with Toronto regularly listed as amongst the top tourist destinations in the world, as well as one of the top cities in which to live.

Perhaps the best place to start a Toronto visit is at its focal point at the iconic CN Tower. Holding the title of being the world’s tallest structure until the Burj Khalifa ended its 34 year reign in 2007, the mere difference in metres means little from the incredibly lofty vantage point on the observation deck, a view that stretches to the horizon and encapsulates the entire city. The more adventurous can even ‘walk’ around the edge, but only those with a head for heights need apply…

Back on flatter land, Toronto sprawls around me, a maze of streets and parks, where magnificent architectural centrepieces are dotted around the city, including the bold City Hall, which looks like an eye when viewed from above, the Royal Ontario Museum, with its incredible jagged glass and metallic façade, and the Art Gallery of Ontario, distinguished by its Frank Gehry-designed glass and wood exterior.

These spell-binding structures are equally as impressive inside, particularly the museum and art gallery, where internationally-celebrated exhibitions are often on show, showcasing the finest in Toronto’s thriving cultural scene.

Indeed, Toronto’s varied arts stage successfully covers most cultural preferences, from civilised opera at the Four Seasons Centre for Performing Arts, to literally ‘ROFL’ing’ (rolling on the floor laughing, for those less savvy with Canada’s youth speak) at the many comedy clubs. My favourite cultural diversion however, perhaps because of the slight absurdity of it, is the Bata Shoe Museum, where footwear worn by everyone from Queen Victoria, to Elvis Presley, to Elton John is on display.

Keep walking and you are bound to reach Yonge Dundas Square, Toronto’s rendition of Times Square or Piccadilly Circus, its neon lights, billboards and television screens prompting me to crane my neck at the visual distractions around me. In fear of colliding with other pedestrians, I lower my head and instead make haste towards the ferry that’ll take me across a short stretch of water to the Toronto Islands, a cluster of small islands that were once connected to the mainland until a storm washed away the sandbar.

Entirely car-less, these leafy islands are a wonderful opportunity to slow your pace with either a leisurely walk or a lazy ride on one of the many bikes available to rent. There are even pleasant beaches, though the bracing weather means sunbathing is reserved for special occasions only…

Indeed, Canada is synonymous with winter sports and though the likes of Calgary and Vancouver are more attractive for those looking to ski or snowboard, no visit to Toronto is complete without treading the ice for a spot of skating. Looking more like a nervous duck than Torvill and Dean on the ice, I’ll stick to circulating in safety, but for the more ambitious, you can sample ice hockey, which is a veritable religion throughout Canada.

Shopping is also something of an event, rather than a mere pastime, in Toronto, with the enormous Eaton Centre and its 330 stores proving the headline draw for those with cash to burn. However, I find a greater satisfaction trawling the markets that frequent Toronto’s districts, most notably Kensington Market and St. Lawrence Market, where wonderful food, crafts and produce can be purchased over an enjoyable afternoon’s perusal.

Which brings me back to my initial problem… A bacon sandwich is all well and good now, but what am I supposed to eat tomorrow? These markets supply the inspiration, but the choice is immense and my cravings are being taunted from many angles…

Never mind, rules are meant to be broken, so perhaps I’ll make an exception just this once. Trouble is, as my stomach demands to be filled once more, I have to decide whether I fancy Chinese, Korean, Thai, Japanese, Greek, Italian, Indian…

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