That shouldn't be too hard I thought, after all I've lived here all my life. All I needed to do was think of something I liked and associated with being Canadian. Days passed without an answer, and eventually I realized that I couldn't really say what was Canadian to me, because I had never experienced anything else. Of course, it would be easy to say that things like maple syrup and ice wine are Canadian, because Canada is a leading producer of those products. But to figure out what Canadian food I would miss most if I were to move away and live in another country... that’s something only experience can answer.
And so for the past few days I’ve just been sitting here puzzled, twiddling my thumbs, and looking at everyone else’s impressive entries. I was troubled (and perhaps even a bit embarrassed) that my favourite foods I grew up with, Pillsbury croissants, Jell-O, and chocolate were all distinctly non-Canadian and were abundant in other parts of the world.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that for me, Canadian food is much more about the experience than about a particular type of food. For the past two years I’ve lived in the heart of downtown Toronto, about a two minute walk from the CN Tower. Each weekend I make the short trek to at least one of Toronto’s fine food markets.
A twenty minute walk east brings me to Toronto’s historic St. Lawrence Market, a large indoor market with about a hundred different vendors selling an array of fresh produce, meats, seafood, deli, and baked goods. I’ll try to go early (they open at 5:30), and start at the north farmer’s market where I’ll usually buy a dozen Friday-laid eggs, a head of lettuce, and whatever fruits and vegetables are in season. Then I’ll cross the street to the south market and pick up a small chicken or a pork tenderloin, some cold cuts, a loaf of bread (usually challah), and a small block of cheese (usually gruyère). Finally, I’ll pay a visit to the everyday Dominion supermarket to buy my dairy (lots of cream and butter in case you haven’t noticed), juice, and anything else that comes pre-packaged. A week’s worth of groceries for me usually weighs about 60 lbs., so I’ll normally take the streetcar home. But in the dozen or so times when I’ve spent every last cent I had, well, I’ll just say that the walk home took a lot longer.
During the summer months, I’ll often walk twenty minutes north of my home to Kensington Market. It’s much more of an outdoor street market compared to St. Lawrence. The streets are lined with small shops selling everything from organic ice cream and fruits, to spices and dried goods from around the world. On the way home I may stop by Chinatown to pick up some Chinese groceries and barbecue pork. There are two tropical fruit stores that sell a wonderful assortment of fruits at very reasonable prices. A few weeks ago I tried dragon fruit and mangosteens for the first time. The durians always look so tempting and exotic, but if I buy one, I’m afraid that I’ll forever be known as the guy with the smelly apartment.
Although St. Lawrence and Kensington both have an abundance fresh seafood and produce, when I need the best that I can possibly buy, I’ll take the subway north for six minutes to Summerhill to shop at the row of stores affectionately known as the Five Thieves (because everything there is that much more expensive).
It’s the place to go for meyer lemons, baby white carrots, baby pineapples, or just beautiful ingredients in general. Pisces Gourmet has some of the city’s freshest and most beautiful fish, so I’ll usually buy my fish for tartare and sashimi from there. On my way home, I’ll sometimes stop by the Cookbook Store to stare at gorgeous and expensive cookbooks. “Can I really afford to spend $300 on a cookbook today? No. I’ll just come back next week to stare some more.”
While I normally only visit one of these markets each week, there have been days when I’ve been to all three, in a mad rush the day before a dinner party, or on a fruitless search for something so rare as edible gold leaf (because it’s illegal in Canada). Each area has its own strengths, and although I visit them all quite regularly, I feel as though I’ve only scratched the surface in terms of what they have to offer.
I should also mention that there are a bunch of other small shops scattered around downtown I like to frequent. The well aged Canadian Prime rib eye and striploins at Grace Meat Market in Little Italy are wonderful and a bargain. Sanko in West Queen West is the place to go for Japanese ingredients downtown, and across the street, Clafouti Pâtisserie makes my favourite tarts.
And so that’s what Canada tastes like to me. Three wonderful markets located only a few minutes from my home. Each one unique in its own way. I am truly grateful to be living here, and I feel blessed to be Canadian.