Toronto, we often hear, has a dearth of the exciting street food that helps turn other great cities into culinary tourist destinations. Where are the dosas, biryanis, chaats, satays or tacos that crowd sidewalks everywhere from New York to Delhi to Mexico City?
It turns out there is street food in Toronto—it’s just indoors, in restaurants, and especially in Scarborough.
At Gourmet Malaysia, the sticks of satay so popular in southeast Asian markets and streets are served as an appetizer—a delicious one at that. Aromas of lemon grass mingle with peanuts and the tang of chiles on meat still sizzling from the grill.
Outside on Sheppard Avenue cars rush past strip-mall parking lots, but it’s easy to imagine Singapore’s open-air hawker centres that agglomerate hundreds of small-scale food vendors on so many of the city’s corners.
Farther south, where Ellesmere approaches McCowan, Canbe Foods serves up extraordinarily spiced take-out delicacies that one would find on the streets of Colombo, Jaffna or any other Sri Lankan city. Cardamom-infused mutton rolls and coconut-filled susiyam—sweet golden spheres with an impossibly light crust—are enticing inside glass cases. They would be just as appealing displayed on a cart or sidewalk stall.
Street food is more than delicious. It is also the way most of the globe eats. Far more so than restaurants, open-air markets and food carts and trucks feed ordinary people around the world—people with limited time, long journeys from home to work, and small kitchens.
Equally, these informal and often mobile establishments are one crucial way for people, from Mexico to Malaysia, to seek economic autonomy. Street vending is especially important to women as a means of independent entrepreneurship. But it comes with problems. Street vendors are often vulnerable to police harassment, fluctuations in food-staple prices, and challenges with health and safety regulations.
When street eats travel across the world to become restaurant appetizers, they lose none of their taste. But they do lose a measure of their social significance and history. The move indoors also increases the burden on cooks and owners, who pay more rent and utilities, and often scramble to invest scarce capital.
When we move food inside, we change its place in the life and economics of the city itself. The spice-marinated meat cooled by crisp cucumbers reminds us that street eats are more than a tourist attraction; they are also about creative use of city space. And they’re also about safe, equitable access to healthy food, and the creative potential of entrepreneurship.
Dan Bender is the Canada Research Chair in cultural history and analysis at UTSC. Rick Halpern is Dean & Vice-Principal, Academic.
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