We're calling it: Scarborough, food capital of the world

Donna Paris
Illustration of people eating on U of T Scarborough campus

When Tyler Cowen came for a visit, three U of T Scarborough history professors knew exactly where to take him for dinner. The food was such a hit that it prompted the American author and economist to give Scarborough top praise in a subsequent blog post. Scarborough, Cowen wrote, is the best ethnic food suburb he has ever visited. In his life. Ever. Then he wondered if it could even be the “the dining capital of the world.” Seriously. The world.

That’s a big deal, when it comes from the author of An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies. But Scarborough is more than just a place to get some of the best pho, roti, lamb kabobs, shawarma, veggie curries, lahmajoun and dim sum on the planet. It is home to many thousands of immigrants who have put down new roots and created one of the world’s most diverse cultural urban regions.

“A large proportion of the population in Scarborough is newcomers and their children and grandchildren,” says History Professor Donna Gabaccia. “Cultural difference always expresses itself in food. New groups are adapting to new foodways, and they’re trying to maintain the foodways of their original culture.”

Food isn’t just sustenance, then. It’s a connector, too, and a tangible way for first and succeeding generations in Canada to hold on to their cultural identity. “We learn which food tastes good, even before we speak,” says Daniel Bender, history professor and Canada Research Chair in Cultural History and Analysis. “And we never lose the emotion. Every immigrant group tries to replicate its culture from the homeland.”

Bender, who directs the Culinaria Research Centre, adds that, “food is the one activity external to the body that you have to do. You have to eat and you have to drink. Everything else—getting out of bed, finding a job, sex—is optional.”

People who don’t live in Scarborough may not realize how much the area has been shaped by immigrants in just the past few decades. “The diversity of the immigrants who have come to Scarborough since the 1950s has made it one of the leading immigrant recipients in North America,” says Jeffrey Pilcher, a UTSC professor and leading figure in the emerging scholarly field of food history.

“New immigrants set up food businesses,” says Pilcher. “It’s a source of entrepreneurship for people starting in the economy.” They may not have some of the opportunities they had at home, he adds. So the food business may be all immigrants can do—and it’s a step into the economy.

Bender says this is a good thing for immigrants. “Food is a key source of employment for people who have left behind families and have degrees that may not be recognized here.” He goes further, emphasizing that Ontario is one of the world’s largest food hubs, with Scarborough as one of the hub’s epicentres. “There are more jobs in the food and food processing centres here than in New York City.” He says only Los Angeles has more.

It is no surprise that such a diverse population would create a dynamic and varied food industry. “It only takes a little drive to see the restaurants and supermarkets,” says Bender. “But behind that it is even more expansive.” He describes a vast infrastructure of food buyers, processors and vendors supporting independent import markets.

Gabaccia adds that you can get just about any type of cuisine or the ingredients you need to make it at home. “There are East Asian, South Asian and Pan Asian grocery stores, many started by Asian entrepreneurs with limited capital,” she says.

“Think of the packaged sauces you can buy from Indonesia, or canned ackee or saltfi in Guyanese supermarkets,” says Bender. “You can probably buy six or seven varieties in Scarborough.” And think of the food we take for granted today, from beer to German-style hot dogs, which can be traced back to immigrant businesses. “Those little businesses starting up in Scarborough now are selling things that will be on everybody’s shopping list in five to 10 years,” Bender adds.

That’s already noticeable. “Large Canadian food chains are competing and adapting. Look at halal and other specialty food aisles,” says Gabaccia. “In Toronto, even older Canadians are eating Greek and Italian food now, from earlier migrations of the ’50s and ’60s.”

What’s more, she adds, is that in the ’80s food started to become a cosmopolitan symbol of foodies and the middle class. “As a result of global travel, this interest in food came about for long-time Canadians interested in experiencing immigrant foods.”

People have many reasons for choosing particular foods, not the least of which is location. “If you live downtown, there is a real problem going to eat in Scarborough. It’s a lot of work,” says Pilcher. “But if you’re already living in the suburbs, it’s not a big leap.”

And here, nestled in this unique part of the world, is U of T Scarborough, with a committed connection to the community. Moreover, part of the university’s strategic plan is to focus on the strengths of its location within one of the most culturally diverse communities in the world. Witness the popularity of initiatives such as the UTSC Farmers’ Market. It is organized by students and faculty, with local vendors selling everything from maple syrup and chutneys to fresh produce and baked goods.

Witness also the Culinaria Research Centre bringing students and faculty together in partnership with community organizations and other institutions. “In a way, Culinaria was possible at this location for a reason,” says Pilcher. “Many times innovative work gets done in less central locations.”

Pilcher’s current research project, City Food, is a collaboration with partners on six continents, including academic institutions, vendor organizations, non-profi groups and museums. The research is comparative, looking at migrant marketplaces, gendered labour, culinary infrastructure, regulation and sensory studies. Says Pilcher, “City Food starts with the premise that we can learn from migrant people by documenting immigrant foodways, and [by] looking at infrastructure that contributes to successful food businesses and at government regulations.”

In June, Culinaria hosted Scarborough Fare: Global Foodways and Local Foods in a Transnational City. It was the joint annual meetings and conference of the Association for the Study of Food and Society; the Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society; and the Canadian Association for Food Studies—the first time these organizations have ever met together. The conference featured international speakers, cultural events, kitchen demos and field trips to rooftop gardens, community food centres and urban beekeeping hives.

Research at Culinaria employs a range of methodologies and approaches—field work, archival work, oral history, GIS mapping, digital humanities, etc.—to trace the foodways of multi-ethnic neighbourhoods. For example, a project called Scarborough Chinatown collects and maps details about Scarborough restaurants, offering an interactive map. Viewers can investigate the evolution of Scarborough’s Chinatown and discover new restaurants and takeout places.

So maybe that’s why Tyler Cowen sees Scarborough as the place to go—the next big thing. As an economist, Cowen champions the suburbs as the place to enjoy ethnic food because that’s where it’s cheap and innovative.

“And there’s a wealth of crossover eating,” says Pilcher, “with people who are eager to discover new foods.”

Why? Immigrants are serving other immigrants and prices tend to be on the low side. “So it’s easy to feed people’s interest in new foods and feed the culinary tourism that seeks to experience the ethnic foods of others.”

Pilcher adds that foods also start to migrate between cultures. “In the U.S., one of the trends now is Korean taco trucks serving up Korean barbecued short ribs in a taco. It’s a way for them to Americanize their food.”

This all sounds very positive, of course. And Gabaccia says curiosity about other foods is culturally positive. But it doesn’t always transfer to other areas. “We do have crossover multicultural eating, but that doesn’t mean the battle is won and that we all accept each other,” she explains. “Accepting an immigrant’s food is not the same as accepting an immigrant.”

However, she adds “Scarborough is a good start because that willingness to try other foods is there. This is hopefully the first step toward a social and economic acceptance that develops over time.”

A first for Culinaria

She’s an assistant professor of history at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.—and the first postdoctoral  fellow  at the Culinaria Research Centre. Elizabeth Zanoni’s research areas include international migration, and food and mobility studies. Her current book project, Migrant Marketplaces of the Americas: Migration and Trade between Italy, the United States, and Argentina, 1880-1940, examines the connection between Italian migration and trade goods, particularly food products, during the age of mass migration.

Zanoni was over the moon to be studying at U of T Scarborough in 2015-2016, where she gathered information from papers and workshops with students. “For someone like me, writing a book about migrant foodways, there is no better place than Scarborough,” she says. “It’s just an amazing multicultural city and a rich location in relation to how recent migrations from China and Southeast Asia have shaped the food culture in Scarborough and the GTA.”

Cuisines are ever-evolving and food evolves as it migrates, catering to a larger audience. In Scarborough’s case, notes Zanoni, this can mean catering not only to traditional Canadian diets, but also to people who have migrated here from other regions. She adds, though, that in Scarborough you can find both national and regional cuisines that “aren’t watered down.” 

For example, “You can explore the South Asian restaurant dining scene to find Bengali, Tamil and Goan dishes. You can’t get that everywhere,” she adds. “There’s only one Indian restaurant where I live in Norfolk.”

Zanoni describes the Culinaria Research Centre as “passionate about engaging the community. That’s very different,” she says, “from research institutes that stay cordoned in their own silos.”

We're not so different after all

Pranave Premakumar is a fresh UTSC grad with an Honours BSc in Biochemistry and Mental Health. One course on the road to that degree was in Global Asian Studies, looking at diasporas in the past and present. “I had no idea that this field even existed,” says Premakumar.

One assignment was to interview an immigrant; Premakumar was paired with a volunteer from the Malvern Family Resource Centre.

“Migration is more than just movement of our physical bodies; with migration comes movement and change of identity, traditions, modernity, beliefs, foodways, and several other key aspects of our lives.” This is what Premakumar wrote in her paper. But she had no idea of the revelation that was about to come.

“I realized the person I was interviewing had a lot in common with my life as well. So I decided to interview my mom, too.” She knew they spoke the same language (her mother is from Sri Lanka and the other woman from Chennai in India). “What I didn’t expect to find,” she says, “was that they prepared and ate similar foods and had a lot in common culturally.”

This gave Premakumar a new appreciation of Scarborough—her home. “People in Scarborough are so lucky.” She describes it as a diverse community where people can keep their identities. “We can embrace the difference. Even when we go out to eat with other people and try different things. That unites us, too.”

People aren’t afraid to show their culture here, she says. “They have stores and restaurants, and they don’t have to change the names of the foods. They call it what it is.”

What do you feel like eating? SALT!

It’s a mobile app and website initiative of the Culinaria Research Centre and The Hub, UTSC’s innovation and business incubator.

SALT is all about getting a little taste—or big taste—of what Scarborough restaurants offer.

Think authentic dishes from China, Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines, to name a few.

Here’s how it works: SALT offers information on different cuisines and descriptions of specific dishes, then identifies restaurants and locations in the area. It’s easy. Just choose a cuisine, pick a dish, then select a restaurant.

The site, maintained by Culinaria, also offers recipes and links to YouTube videos about the dishes. “SALT is a real window into the many different cuisines and restaurants in Scarborough,” says Gray Graffam, director of The Hub. “There’s a lot to explore.” 

The Urban Farm  Project

U of T Scarborough prides itself on community outreach, and the Urban Farm Project promises to be a fine example. A collaboration between the University and the Malvern Family Resource Centre, the project is still in the approval process. “There’s a lot of work behind the scenes, but we’re expected to break ground this fall,” says Juneeja Varghese, a co-ordinator at Malvern.

Scarborough already has community gardens, says Varghese, but this project is different. “This will give people an opportunity to connect, and to supplement income as well. They will be able to sell the produce.”

A Toronto Public Health food strategy team, local agencies and stakeholders are working together to get the project off the ground in different parts of the city. The proposed North Scarborough farm will be located at a hydro corridor near Morningside and McNicoll avenues.

“We did soil testing in 2014 and had a positive outcome. Then we started door-to-door outreach in the community to inform people and answer questions.” Now, UTSC students are sifting through applications for the 2,000 to 3,000-square-foot plots, and helping to organize sessions where farmers from other areas will share information about crop planning and how to access markets.

“Many people only have experience with small personal plots,” says Varghese. “But here they will have the ability to learn things from others—such as which crops grow the quickest to get them to market faster. Everything grown here will be for sale.”

She says the Urban Farm Project “will be a great opportunity to produce goodwill in the community, offering fresh, healthy produce at an affordable price.”