The “Dishing Up Toronto: Kain Na!” Food Tour

Earlier this year, I co-led a food tour of three Filipino restaurants in Toronto and talked about the owners’ migration stories, how Filipinos have woven their way into Canadian society, and the history of foods they served while (importantly) eating and drinking things that in the simplest way, made me very proud of my food culture. What more could I ask for?

It’s been hard to get my head around this myself, but after taking time to review what we talked about – I realize that it personally meant a lot because these kinds of conversations around food were ones that I’ve been longing to have, both with Filipinos (who share a similar point of cultural reference) and with non-Filipinos who, over time, have “become Filipino” in more ways than one.

At each stop of our food tour, we asked our hosts – three groups of Filipino-Canadian restaurateurs – about why they started their business, why they’ve focused on featuring food and drink from the Philippines, examples of everyday challenges to running their business and of course, about what we were about to eat.

Tara, kain na! (Come and let’s eat!)

The program

Dishing Up Toronto is a series of food tours and tastings organized by the Ward Museum in collaboration with the Culinaria Research Centre, the hub for food studies at the University of Toronto. The program aims to create space for Torontonians to tell their stories of migration using food as a vehicle for storytelling.

For last year’s pilot project, the Kapisanan Philippine Centre for Arts and Culture brought my co-host Joyce Voegler on to lead the “Balikbayan Renaissance” food tour. Other Dishing Up Toronto guides brought guests to join in an intimate feast celebrating the end of Ramadan; a walking tour of Toronto’s Chinatown; and a cooking workshop held in one of the city’s best-kept historic manors.

What absolutely hooked me onto this program was the fact that it put the principles of culinary tourism I’ve been reading a lot about into action. Seeing as I also recently completed a certification course with the World Food Travel Association, I couldn’t wait to apply what I learned!

Stop 1: LASA by Lamesa

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Located at a busy corner of Queen Street West, Lamesa Filipino Kitchen is easily the city’s most recognized Filipino food spot, consistently voted into “best of” restaurant lists by local blogs and magazines. As the main stop for last year’s food tour, owner Les Sabilano and executive chef Daniel Cancino instantly got on board – with a new venue (and equally compelling story) in mind for their sister spot, LASA by Lamesa, a fast casual restaurant that serves classic Filipino dishes made to order.

Topics discussed: On adapting Filipino recipes in Canada, barriers to mainstream success (among both non-Filipinos and within our own community), finding your place in the city

While I can’t really list down everything we talked about (though wish I could!) here are some things we talked about:

  • “The original” Filipino restaurants
    • How today’s turo-turo is a descendant of the carinderia, an informal food shop built along the riverbanks of pre-colonial Manila
    • How carinderia originates from the word kari – a local adaptation of Indian curry, carried by tradesmen who eventually married locals
    • Why cheap, filling dishes from these establishments made it locals’ go-to spot very quickly
    • How did they migrated with Filipinos as they settled in different parts of the world
  • How food brings people together
    • From the 1900s onward, the turo-turo/carinderia became an important source of income for many families. It had minimal overhead costs, could become very popular based on a cook’s skill, and allowed owners to build relationships with regulars. This entrepreneurial mindset travelled with Filipinos across the globe.
    • Outside the Philippines, many of these turo-turo restaurants served as ad-hoc community centres where you could post flyers for community events/jobs, catch up on news and celebrity gossip through the cable channel playing overhead, or send a balikbayan box home to your loved ones.
  • On finding your place in the city (the Filipino-Canadian experience)
    • Filipinos started to settle in pockets of Toronto that were not traditionally ‘ethnic enclaves’; an example is the affluent Forest Hill area, where the federal government’s live-in caregiver program offered work for many Filipinos
    • Over time, the community’s main road, St. Clair West, housed businesses serving Latin, Filipino, South American and Jewish populations – a reflection of changing resident demographics and symbolic of what happens in many cities across North America

We asked Les and Chef Dan:

  • How much of what you learned at Lamesa was applied toward reworking Les’ parents’ old turo-turo space into LASA?
  • How do translate your experiences into making Filipino food accessible for customers in Toronto?
  • How have people responded to LASA? Generally, this breaks down into:
    • The older generation
      • Apparently, with quite a bit of skepticism! We talked about the widespread concept that “Filipino food isn’t good/special enough” and the “I wouldn’t pay that much for something I can cook at home” kind of feedback, which reflect the values and mindset of people who have spent most of their lives sacrificing small comforts for the betterment of others; where the effects of colonialism that surrounded them and shaped their everyday life back home are carried forward; and as a reflection of the innate thriftiness and “penny pinching” you would have if you had to save every peso you could to leave the Philippines for another country
    • The younger generation
      • Love it for the accessibility (i.e. via Uber Eats), the space (vibe is much brighter, walls in pastel hues with tropical prints, paintings of Filipino food by local artists on a wall) and value for money (price for set meals are what you’d normally spend on lunch, with excellent quality!)
    • The broader community
      • As a place to sample home-style Filipino cooking done well
      • No heat-lamp warmed rows of monotonous brown stews in pans, but instead an array of colourful dishes made with freshly sourced Ontario ingredients
  • How do you see LASA and Lamesa growing with the Filipino community?
    • Talked about the ULAM program in collaboration with Kapisanan  and Sketch Working Arts

On the menu: Kare-kare

  • Its history is intriguing in itself! Interesting things we noted were that:
    • Peanuts did not arrive in the Philippines until the Acapulco-Manila galleons of 1500s
    • Organ meats, tail, skin of carabaos were the first types of meat included
    • Annatto seeds (achuete) were always essential
    • Vegetables used are native to the Philippines (i.e. eggplants, string beans, squash and bok choy, from the bahay kubo song)
    • Unclear when bagoong became a must-have condiment, though it’s been recorded with written recipes as early as the 1910s
    • Relation to Malay/Indonesian curry open to further research (inter-island trade surely took place between the Philippines and neighbouring countries, but definitive research is hard to come by)

We brought Filipino recipe books that covered traditional takes of kare-kare (i.e. cooked in a clay pot called palayok), its status as “special” food (that most families would not make at home but go out to restaurants for) and modern-day variations (i.e. LASA’s kare-kare, a 48-hour sous-vide recipe).

Stop 2: Tito Ron’s

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Instagram-obsessed Filipino-Canadians know Tito Ron’s for their desserts – which admittedly look so damn good and make you want to eat them through your phone. Learning about how this sweet shop came to be makes you even prouder to be part of their story!

Tristen Petate and Michael McFarlane started Tito Ron’s in the summer of 2015, after a whirlwind season of pop-ups at food festivals across the city. While their original idea centred on savoury snacks, their signature ube turon sundae and other vibrantly hued desserts became so popular that Tito Ron’s eventually became known as the Toronto spot for “remixed Filipino desserts”.

From a tiny stall in Kensington Market to a residency at Death in Venice Gelato and Wong’s Ice Cream, Tristen and Michael have their thumb on what customers want – those customers largely being second-generation Filipinos who loved the Philippine sweets (exported to Canada) that they grew up eating, and now craved those fruity, milky tastes of their childhood in freshly baked cookies and handmade pies.

Topics discussed: Being driven by passion and fearlessness, success from truly connecting with (and listening to) your audience, how Filipinos today are very much woven into the colourful fabric of society in Toronto

We talked about:

  • Food as the centre of Filipino homes
    • Why gathering in the kitchen/dining area is a natural activity
    • How food traditions can be shaped continuously (and why adapting new traditions is the best!)
    • Recognizing the importance of family 
      • Who is “Tito Ron”?
  • Food as a catalyst for community building
    • Why baking draws people in
  • What sparked Tristen’s love for Philippine desserts
    • Was it a way to connect with cultural heritage/explore a hyphenated identity?
  • What’s so special about our desserts and baked goods?
    • Discussion on western-style baking techniques brought by the Spanish and Americans versus baking methods for native kakanin (rice cakes)
    • Talk about the history of panaderias and how Filipinos put their stamp on pastries with unique names, showed their ability to innovate and scale with regional flair

We asked Tristen and Michael:

  • What it’s like to run the business
    • Could you share a challenge that came with running your business full time?
    • Crowdsourcing ideas for desserts that will sell
    • Building a brand in Toronto
    • Best parts of the job
  • Lessons learned as a food entrepreneur
    • What’s it like marketing Filipino desserts to a wide audience?
    • Is Toronto ready for it?
      • Signs point to “yes”, there’s even a specialized Asian Pastry course at George Brown College available as an elective for culinary students
  • What feedback have you heard from Filipino patrons?
    • The older generation
      • Of note, largely the same as LASA’s
      • People agree that perhaps there’s a hesitation with spending hard-earned money on foods that can be made at home or, more often, “we can buy in a box of 12 for half the price”
      • How do such perceptions held by large segments of the diaspora affect the mainstream success of Filipino food producers? And what can we do about it
    • The younger generation
    • The broader community
      • Recognize the value of presence at neighbourhood events
      • Love their obsession with perfecting the ube pie (everyone loves pie)

On the menu: frozen dessert bars (mango tapioca, maja blanca, ube macapuno), signature ube polvoron pie

  • How did you come up with these desserts?
  • Do you have trouble looking for ingredients from the Philippines?

Stop 3: Dolly’shttps://i1.wp.com/playacabana.ca/assets/dollys/logo-home.png?resize=357%2C271

I’m a sucker for bars. Our third stop was at Dolly’s Mojito Bar, featuring a neon red sign that flashes “Filipino Fare” like a beacon of warmth on a wintry night as you exit the subway. Though it’s on one of Toronto’s busiest roads, this section of Bloor St. feels like you’re in a friend’s neighbourhood: people hang out in front of shops, get their bike fixed, pick up groceries, buy lottery cards. But it’s also quickly gentrifying; next door there’s a record store, a vegan cafe, a tattoo shop, and restaurants and bars serving Caribbean, Italian, Indian and Filipino food.

In 2011, owner Dave Sidhu spent everything he had on the concept for his first restaurant, Playa Cabana – a spot with an impressive tequila list, delicious tacos, and a bar you couldn’t resist. Six years later, he’s opened just as many successful restaurants. In a city with a scene like Toronto’s, that definitely says something. 

Topics discussed: Filipino drinking culture, the sheer variety bar snacks called pulutan, Filipino food “making it” in a highly competitive industry

We talked about:

  • How Filipino food paired with the concept for a mojito bar
    • Dave shared his vision for serving bar-friendly takes on the Filipino food he grew up with (“Dolly” is his mom)
    • Why it’s a natural fit with his ode of restaurants to Mexican cuisine
  • What makes drinking culture in the Philippines unique
    • Food is always paired with drink
    • Choice of drink (i.e. tuba from coconuts, rum from sugarcane, basi from rice) reflects regional taste and how people choose to celebrate, from large town fiestas to informal backyard drinking sessions
      • The significance of tagay as the Filipino way of creating a personal bond over drink, similar to toasting “kanpai” in Japanese or saying “skal” in Norwegian
      • On getting drunk at chilled out “inuman” sessions versus loud “keggers”
  • What is pulutan?
    • As food consumed with alcohol, an essential part of Filipino food culture
      • Its intensely savoury, fatty components are an excellent match with cold beer in hot weather
    • A great way of using odd bits from animals
      • Names such as PAL, Adidas and Walkman given to chicken wings, chicken feet and grilled pigs’ ears reflect Filipino humour
    • Run through of typical pulutan fare such as sizzling sisig (pork jowl), barbecue on a stick, adobong mani (garlic peanuts) and chicharon (deep-fried pork rinds)
      • Why did these become so popular?

We asked Gabe Baron, the head bartender at Dolly’s:

  • What it’s like to run the bar
    • Pick the right playlist, make sure people have a good time, have fun!
    • Keep that Filipino hospitality on point (it comes pretty naturally)
    • Make sure your guests leave happy
  • What makes a mojito (history in a glass)
    • Rum – the sweetest thing
      • How fermented, distilled sugarcane juice grew the world economy 
      • Demo of sugarcane press (attached to the bar)
      • Filipino rum producers today (from the ubiquitous Tanduay to artisanal Don Papa)
    • Citrus – traditionally limes, for acidity
      • The Filipino Mojito has calamansi – a great way to enjoy our native citrus 
    • Sugar – for muddling
      • A short history on sugarcane haciendas in the Philippines
    • Mint – the flavour punch
      • Fun of mixing drinks is in trying new things, from various types of mint to maybe lemongrass, shiso or other herbs

On the menu: Pancit, lumpia, adobo flake and lechon kawali tacos, longganisa and tocino sliders, San Miguel Beer

  • We sampled four types of pancit:
    • Pancit bihon (made with thin rice noodles)
    • Pancit pusit (made with squid ink)
    • Pancit guinataan (with a sauce made of coconut milk)
    • Pancit miki (made with thick wheat noodles)
  • A wonderful way of introducing Filipino food to non-Filipinos
    • Gave a short history of panciterias in the Philippines
  • Bar snacks give them room to experiment with non-traditional techniques and flavours
    • Like tocino stained blood red with Ontario beets, house-cured longganisa borrowing flavours from Portuguese sausages, adobong manok and lechon kawali served as taco fillings

 

I look forward to more food tours! 😀

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