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Toronto's blossoming fusion food scene puts the world on your plate in a whole new way

Craig Wong of Patois.

Mark Lee crafting kimchi potstickers at Patois.

Aiden Tranquada prepping Patois' popular jerk chicken.

Sonia Mondino prepares fresh house-made chips.

“Canadian fusion food” used to mean one thing: a Chinese buffet that offered both onion rings and General Tso’s chicken. Fortunately for those of us with more adventurous tastes, Toronto has a thriving fusion food scene, and the intersecting cultures have moved beyond generic Chinese food and whatever Canadian cuisine was in the 1970s. The concept of fusion food isn’t new—think Tex-Mex or sushi pizza— but in this fusion 2.0 city, adventurous diners can stuff themselves with mash-up cuisines whose influences are all over the map.

A hungry Torontonian can eat her way across the city at restaurants specializing in remixed menus. Leslieville’s Chino Locos sells burritos stuffed with chow mein noodles. Steps away from the St. Lawrence Market, hungry diners can gorge on perogies topped with butter chicken or gingery, Thai-inspired steak at Loaded Pierogi. On Ossington, BQM offers a Hawaiian-style burger, complete with a sweet and sticky pineapple ring. At Rasta Pasta in Kensington Market, the lasagna is flavoured with Caribbean callaloo. Things really get wild at Bahn Mi Boys, which plays with multiple layers of fusion. Order a Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches filled with duck confit, a reminder of the Asian country’s colonial past under the French until 1945. Also on the menu are Chinese bao, Japanese panko tofu, and tacos. Add in kimchi fries, which plays off the classic Canadian poutine, and people can sample tastes and flavours from three different continents in one meal.

The recent surge in fusion-driven food is a reflection of Toronto’s own cultural identity. Toronto is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world, and nearly 45 percent of the city’s residents were born outside of Canada. It’s often the first stop for new immigrants, and it’s where their children grow up. We’re home to the fourth-largest Chinatown in North America, and dozens of other national and ethnic enclaves: Little Italy, Little Portugal, Koreatown, the Polish stronghold on Roncesvalles Avenue, the Jewish neighbourhood at Lawrence Avenue and Bathurst Street, the Greek community along the Danforth, and many more. But beyond these specific ethnic communities, there’s increasingly room for overlap and cultural cross-pollination.

Patois, which opened on Dundas Street in July 2014, is new outpost for globe-trotting cuisine. Chef Craig Wong’s Chinese-Jamaican menu features jerk chicken chow mein and “dirty fried rice” that combines sausage, soy sauce, and peas in a dish that riffs on both Asian and Caribbean staples. Wong, whose Hakka Chinese family lived in Jamaica for three generations before emigrating to Scarborough, explains that his influences are partially a product of his Toronto upbringing. “I don’t treat the restaurant any differently from my life. I listen to dancehall, sure, but I listen to rock and roll, funk, and hip hop.” For Wong, Toronto can be a laboratory for experimental cooks. “What I love about Toronto is the availability of truly great ingredients, and that it’s the perfect spot for a young chef to gain exposure to many different types of cuisine and big bold flavours. Other cities have that, but it’s not in their genes.”

For Loaded Pierogi’s Adam Dolley, including international flavours was a business decision. He started with pierogies, because “there were a few small Polish restaurants, but there was nobody specialising in them. It was a market that was just untapped.” Toppings like butter chicken or kimchi are there so that “someone from any background could come in and find something that caters to their tastes.” He’s part of a larger trend. “A lot of chefs are working with these flavours right now,” Dolley says.

As Dolley points out, “even if someone was born here, their parents might not have been, so that person grew up with Polish cooking or Asian cooking at home. They’ve grown up with the fusion of everything.” Local restaurants offer dishes that would be unthinkable in their countries of origin: despite an ongoing chilly relationship between Japan and Korea, it’s not uncommon to see sushi and bulgogi sharing a menu on this side of the world. It’s a freewheeling approach that favours taste buds and customer preference over national allegiance.

Fusion food isn’t always a perfect marriage of cultures. The Hungary Thai in Kensington Market offers a combo platter that seems made up mostly of rolls: spring rolls, cabbage rolls, and shrimp pastry rolls are served alongside wiener schnitzel and chicken pad thai, from a menu that doesn’t so much fuse two regional cuisines as it does broker an uneasy peace between them. Still, The Hungary Thai has been a staple of the area for fifteen years. At Martino’s Pizza and Asian Fusion Kitchen at Dupont Street and Saint George Street, the menu includes pizza, Italian classics like spaghetti, and Asian fusion. Their General Tao’s pizza is topped with the ubiquitous sweet-and-sour chicken dish, tomato sauce, and teriyaki sauce. It won’t replace a classic Margherita slice anytime soon, but it would make Marco Polo proud.

Fusion food will likely continue to grow in Toronto’s restaurants. Classically trained chefs are already comfortable incorporating diversity into their cooking. Food trucks have gone haute, local ingredients have been brought to the forefront, and a return to homey comfort food have been the big stories in the last decade. Fusion food is perfectly primed to reinforce and invigorate each of these trends. Adding a dash of international flavour to familiar dishes is a way of keeping diners on their toes, and upping the intrigue. In Toronto, this globally influenced flavour palate is well on its way to tasting like home. 

Kaitlyn Kochany is Yonge Street Media's Civic Impact editor and a freelance writer in Toronto. 
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