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Fire Dragon, Langsat and other Toronto Delights

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Chinese Food in Canada

Fall Volume: 1999 Issue: 6(3) page(s): 7, 8, and 12


Going to visit Chinatown in Toronto requires serious decision making because there are not one, not two or three, but five different places called Chinatown. Two are in the city and three in the suburbs. All offer visual and gustatory surprises. All require eyes wide open and tastebuds at the ready.

Visiting this poly-ethnic city to attend a 'Crossing the Borders' conference and having not been there since 1996 were the rationale. Afterall, much had changed since last visiting and sampling the efforts of some terrific Chinese chefs (one of whom has moved to Costa Rica, but more on that in a following issue).

A bit of history: The first Chinese recorded in Toronto were the owners of two laundries founded in 1877 (Sam Ching & Company at 9 Adelaide Street East and Wo Kee at 385 Younge Street). These laundries opened about eight years after the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railroad. They were not the immediate result of railway migration but perhaps these were owners who came from the United States, possibly Chicago, where in the 1870's there were close to 40 such laundries.

The first wave of Chinese immigration to Canada was not to Toronto, but to British Columbia in the 1850's. Later Toronto and all of Canada had three major immigration waves, the first three decades before World War I, the second after World War II, and the last in this decade. All substantially increased the Chinese population, increased it form the first estimate of two thousand Chinese in 1907 to more than three hundred thousand today.

Chinatown(s) in Toronto: Tour brochures can confuse indicating three, four, or five locations. Actually, there are five, two downtown where about a third of the Chinese population lives and works, and three in the suburbs. The largest is in the metro area within city limits in and around Spadina and Dundas Streets. A smaller city one is located in the Broadview/Gerrard area. The other Chinatown areas in the suburbs are at East Scarborough around Victoria Park and Sheppard Avenue East, around Dundas and Hurontario in Mississauga, and in Markham circa Kennedy and Steeles Streets.

What tour brochures also do not advise, is that this population has achieved remarkable measures of financial and political power, and that the Chinese in Canada come from many different backgrounds and cultural groups. In Toronto, the Chinese are born in Canada or mostly come from Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Peru, the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, and Vietnam, and from the Chinese provinces of Hunan, Jiangsu, Manchuria, and Sichuan.

Fire Dragon Fruit: This trip to attend the aforementioned conference and speak about Fujianese foods allowed lots of time to wander in almost all of the Chinatown areas; and, there were two big rewards on the first of these meanderings. These were two sweet finds on Spadina Street, both unfamiliar, and both fresh fruits. One was bright red and covered with a foam net (see cover photograph) that reminded of nets experienced chefs make out of large daikons or carrots. I remember one such covering a fantastic fish at a banquet at the Ritz Hotel in Taipei.

The fruit itself, known by many names including cactus pear, strawberry pear, dragon fruit, and red dragon fruit is, without this packaging material, very unusual. The most striking difference is that it looks like a small painted pineapple. Botanically called Hylocereus undatus, dragon fruit is in the Cactaceae family. If that says night-blooming cereus to you, you are correct. This cactus family fruit is known as H. undatus Britt. and Rose (syn. Cereus undatus Haw.). Some call it by its Spanish name, Pitahaya, which has a variety of spellings. The fruits seen in Toronto were red on the outside and white on the inside. Some varieties are peach-colored or yellow on the outside and pink on the inside, or either of these can be a flaming red on the inside. The yellow ones are specifically called pitahaya blanca, the red ones pitahaya roja.

Only the red ones are known as Fire Dragon Fruit. The Chinese characters for it are published in the hard copy of this issue and provided thanks to the calligraphy of Hsi Ming Lee. She also helped research information about the fruit as she had seen them at street markets in Taiwan. The fruits that are not red are simply called dragon fruit and could have the top character eliminated, however, even Chinese books about them use three ideographs. For the most part, they are available during June, July, and August.

No matter the color, the fruits are popular, may have originated in Guatemala, and have now spread to Nicaragua, Vietnam, and to the rest of Asia. They grow on trailing vines, can be found in baked scrub lands, around waterways, and clinging to walls some twenty feet high. The fruit is spiny, the flower is not, and the fruit has a plethora of partly hollow black seeds. When blooming, and many do so only once a year unless forced more often, the bell-shaped white flower is huge, and it is unbelievably fragrant. Some flowers open to fourteen by nine inches, and take several hours to do so.

The fruit we bought and later devoured was adored for the succulent nature of the interior. It had seeds the size of poppy seeds, and varieties that are red on the inside can have larger seeds. The common way to eat this unusual fruit, and the way we did, is to cut it in half and use a spoon to eat the flesh. The exterior is never consumed, nor do we know of any way that it might be used.

As our hotel had no refrigerator, we did chill it atop the air conditioner for a few hours. It was juicy and sweet, softer than any lychee, longan, or mangosteen, and almost as soft as an over-ripe melon. If we had a stove, we could have made a syrup of the flesh and used it to color and sweeten candies and pastries, mashed and made it into a cooling drink, prepared preserves or made a sweet rice pudding with it, or used the inside of the fruit as a stuffing in poultry or pastries.

Incidentally, some weeks later I did learn that this fruit is sporadically available in the United States, but mostly in its frozen form. For example, Paradisio Sorbet, a product of Artisan Foods in Santa Barbara CA (805/884-0337) is manufacturing an exceptionally red and naturally colored pitahaya sorbet, one of the more than fifty flavors they produce. It gets its fruit frozen from Nicaragua. I tasted that sorbet and can advise that this is another wonderful way to enjoy pitahaya. If interested, you might contact them to learn where it is available in your area or how they can ship it to you.

Not only is the fruit made and adored in many forms, but the flowers are used dried and fresh, unopened or just beginning to open. Fresh and dried they are cooked and eaten as an herb or as vegetable. The dried flowers, available at many Chinese markets and herb stores, and can be used in a long-cooked soup made with pork, pork bones, carrots, and a little ginger.

Because of its flavor, color, and its uniqueness, when this fruit gets aggressive marketing in North America, the slogan: “Move over Mango; Make Room for the Pitahaya” will make more sense.

Landsat fruit: The other sweet find was bunches of langsat, botanically classified as Lansium domesticum, in the Meliaceae family. Also known as duku, though that is similar but not identical, and wild langsat Asian fruit crossed the ocean in the opposite direction than dragon fruit and was introduced from Asia to Hawaii in the early 1930's.

The fruit grows on trees with a bark of reddish-yellow or yellow-brown in tight clusters; most in bunches with about thirty fruits packed tightly together. The ones we bought were under a sign that said “lansonese,” a word not found in any book or on the web. Each of the fruits can have up to six internal segments of white flesh clinging tightly to very soft seeds, hardly discernable in the ones we purchased. Thus, we ate flesh, seed, and all. Later, we learned that canned ones are usually seeded. We also learned that langsat trees need what some call ultra-tropical climate, prefer well-drained soil, and can not tolerate water-logged roots.

When we peeled our one inch fruits, and you must do that because the peel is known to be toxic, we ate them out of hand. They were refreshing and juicy, but not too sweet. Canned ones come in heavy syrup and are not sweet either. The toxicity of the peel is an interesting issue. In Julia Morton’s Fruits in Warm Climates book, she advises that the peel is burned in Java as a mosquito repellant.

Lai Wah Heen at 118 Chestnut Street is a fantastic restaurant. On earlier visits we enjoyed dining there. It is in the Metropolitan Hotel. To stay at this hotel is to be pampered, to eat at their Chinese restaurant, is not to be missed. Don’t look for it on the street level, that eatery is not Chinese. Seek it out atop a grand staircase or arrive on the second floor by elevator.

On this conference trip, we delighted and devoured five items from the dim sum pages of the menu one lunch time; and on another day, did the same at a sumptuous dinner, self-designed from other parts of the same menu book. Neither came cheap, even with the Canadian dollar worth sixty-seven American cents. That difference allowed us to indulge in Lai Wah Heen’s 'trend-but-traditional-tasting dishes' prepared under the supervision of Chef Ken Tam. And what an indulgence that was!

The dim sum cost $27.82, American, for one order each of Crystal Shrimp Dumpling, Deluxe Deep Forest Mushrooms made with bamboo fungi and steamed in a rice wrap, Pan-fried Pin-wheel Puff Pastry Wrapped over Thousand-year Egg, Steamed Calamari Mousse Stuffed with Diced Vegetables Served With Crystal Sauce, and Deep-fried Shrimps Wrapped in Tofu Layers. Four of us shared them and every one agreed they were outstanding.

The larger and more elegant meal, a dinner ordered for seven lovers of fine Chinese cuisine cost $98.28 per person, also in American dollars. This and the previous bill included tax and tip.

At this banquet-cum-dinner we indulged in appetizers that included Vegetarian Barbecued Goose, Smoked Ham Hock sliced and served with chili vinegar, Minced Pork Cake Blended with Sun-dried Salted Fish and Pan Fried with Soya Sauce, and Shredded Jelly Fish. Every appetizer was more than very good; they were outstanding. The smoked flavor of the mock goose dish was so terrific that it won all of our hearts, the other dishes had many lovers, too.

For main dishes we shared Shredded Conpoy and Diced Taro, Tea Smoked Duck, Three Kinds of Mushrooms Braised in Oyster Sauce, Deep-fried Asparagus Dusted with Seasoned Salt, and Wok-fried Dungeness Crab with garlic, black bean paste, scallions, and minced pork. At this go-for-broke-type dinner, we each had our own order of Premium Shark’s Fin Braised in a Supreme Broth with Bamboo Fungus but shared a Thickened Supreme Soup of Dried Shredded Abalone, Sea Cucumber, Fish Maw and Deep Forest Mushrooms. Other than the fact that the management needed reminding to serve the crab dish, we had no complaints, just praises. The service, ambiance, and food were worth every penny as this was one fantastic meal served with care in fashionable surroundings.

Should you go to Toronto, not eating at this restaurant would be a gross error. They offer fantastic food, white table-cloth service, and a sense of new twists on classic dishes that are of showcase quality. Our suggestions are: Reserve at the latest, early in the day you want to go, and before you pay for a special tea, ask to taste it. The one we tasted before ordering was stale so we ordered a ten-year-old house variety of Pu-er Tea that, like a good wine, improved with every dish we ate.

The restaurant has preset banquet and dim sum menus for those who can not make decisions. We did as well, if not better designing our own. The menu has some long-cooked dishes, ones that that take days to prepare, on hand. That helps as one makes personal and not banquet menu choices. Every dish is a treat, many are quite different from familiar dishes, and every one we’ve ever tried has been very special, indeed.

Fujian Food: Less successful was a search for foods of this province. We did visit the recommended Swatow Restaurant at 309 Spadina Avene that several sources indicated was a place chefs dine at and one with foods of Fujian. Our friends and the newspaper review pasted in their window agreed that they do serve foods from the Fujian province. As a matter of fact, one paper’s headline read: Little Known Fukien Creative at Swatow.

However, creative it was not, nor was it Fujianese. The only menu items that were Fujianese were easy to spot. The waitress agreed with us that there were only three. The Fuk-kin Fried Rice swam in half an inch of tasteless water; it reminded that this province has much coastline. The Special Lo Mein, certainly was creative and red, too, as are many foods of Fujian. The only positive comment about it at our table was that it 'tasted and looked as if it was made with ketchup.' The Fish and Beef Balls Noodle Soup was in a lovely broth and did have fresh Chinese steamed broccoli in it. It also had commercially prepared frozen fish balls and a like set of beef balls swimming in it. In Fujian, soups with fish and beef balls have the meat hidden inside the fish ball. Obviously these were not made that way; nor were they soft or good. (For information about this cuisine, see Flavor and Fortune's Volume 6(2); it has articles and restaurant reviews of interest.

Cantonese Dim Sum: Should you want typical Chinese breakfast foods, cross the street and visit the Bright Pearl Restaurant on the corner of St. Andrews Street. It is on the second floor of a very Chinese-looking building. Though it looks seedy when you step though the door, take the steps to the second floor. Some traditional and modernized Cantonese items are worth the climb. The Chicken with Ginseng was good, as was the Sharks Cartilage Soup. One previous Canadian reviewer called this place a 'bright pearl amid a sea of disappointment on Spadina.' It is but a few trappings such as the carpeting make you want to re-polish this Pearl. Ignore them and try the Pomegranate Shaped Chicken, a clever idea that tastes good. Though we did not order General George’s Chicken, those at the next table did and it looked like an interesting twist having only onions, chili peppers, and white chicken meat.

Names were as fascinating here as was the Cantonese food. Imagine eating a Chinese Burrito served in what they call: lettuce bags. Any idea what Crispy Pickeral, Beaded Shrimp with Sweet Lemon Sauce, Shark’s Fin Gourd, or Beef Orange Delight? We’ll let you in on a secret, the latter one is made with noodles and their B.B.Q made with pork, seafood and vegetables. Better yet, try another odd-named item, the Stuffed Bone Duck with Herbs. It is steamed about six hours and is quite special.

Royal Ontario Museum: In downtown Toronto, this sweet find is affectionately known as the ROM. This gem should be a must on everyone's itinerary. While my buddies searched for Intuit art, the floor plan at the entryway enticed me to the T. T. Tsai galleries. Its artifacts were outstanding food for the mind. They offer the best Chinese artifacts outside of China and Taiwan; having been to both. I agree with their brochure; it said that. Partly, it is the way they are presented and explained and partly their condition. They are in top notch shape, clearly labeled, and the best of their genre.

Truly homage to heaven and art, these are so many treasures at the ROM. The Bishop White Gallery has huge paintings and a plethora of wood sculptures from the Shanxi Province. It gives the sense of being in an old monastery hall, overwhelming with some Daoist and other Buddhist art.

The ROM also has magnificent jades and hardstones, a few are neolithic, many from various centuries BCE, some from early CE periods, and some are more recent artifacts and jewels. A large number of items at the ROM are food-related be they bronzes, ceramic items, paintings, or sculptures of various periods. Then there is an unusual collection of burial figures including an entire tomb.

To learn Chinese things past and present, grab car, train, or plane to Toronto. Taste classic foods, traditional and extraordinary, get a glimpse of how Chinese people and foods are mixing older tastes and designing new ones, visit treasures at the ROM, and enjoy, as we did! One more thing, do go beyond Toronto's downtown. You will be glad that you did.

Suburban Chinese Areas: In the Markham area at Kennedy and Steeles Avenue, the Pacific Mall is one to be sure to visit. More than a hundred tiny stores, some only twenty-feet by twenty feet, and called units, carry more unusual things than in other Chinese shopping area. There is one store, pardon me, a unit with mostly sharks fins. It is appropriately called Shark’s Fin City. Half dozen other units sell crack seed and other Chinese snack foods. Dozens of units that range from cleaners to mixed-item-emporia sell toys, clothes, and gift items all in one. One place tucked in a corner near a shoe-store-unit sold superb Chinese knives, vegetable cutters, commercial kitchen equipment hooks, and wonderful one-person woks with heaters under them for dining table use. This football-sized Pacific Mall also has units such as tea shops--to buy or drink--including those that sell bubble tea, and herb store-units, ice cream and drink units, and even half dozen bookshop-units. And, if you get hungry, a huge restaurant unit on the second floor provides delicious Hong Kong style Cantonese cuisine. It is so very popular at mealtimes that waiting half an hour or more for a table is commonplace. Make a reservation and wander in the mall or in the attached stip mall. If you have no patience, try other restaurants on the strip including the Chinese Buffet Restaurant, an idea that may have had its origin in Canada.

In the hours we spent at this mall, we had a ball and other than in the restaurants, we were the only Caucasian visitors. The merchandise was varied and packed in every unit. We felt as though we were in Taiwan or Hong Kong on a shopping orgy. In the other suburban Chinese areas, shopping is more spread out, and there are lots of strip malls and small malls to enjoy; more on them some other time.

                                                                                                                                                       
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