Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A Spring Morning

In my opinion (though I'm certainly not an expert) Toronto is a gastronomic delight. Never have I been in a city that offers so much diversity, at so democratic a price point. You can, of course, frequent the posh bistros of Yorkville and spend a small fortune at the trendy restaurants and bars, but in my opinion the most satisfying food is found in more humble establishments. The authentic ethnic restaurants on Baldwin, for example, the great Cantonese places in Richmond Hill, or the excellent Indian and Italian restaurants dotted across the map.

And of course, no trip downtown is complete without a Toronto street dog. In my (admittedly biased) opinion, the Toronto street dog is to New York's as Dijon is to Heinz (please don't hate me). Today, however, I decided to forgo the meat on the street in favour of an "everything" bagel at Tim Horton's.

I know people who wouldn't be caught dead at a Tim Horton's. And, I know, it's true it's not the best quality food, but for $2.44 for a bagel and a coffee, who's gonna turn up their nose (that's Canadian dollars, by the way)? Plus the bagels are really not bad. Plus where's your Canadian pride? Yes, nevermind that there was a Hep A scare at the Timmie's near my house. NO food is immune from contamination these days (see this article). But I forgive you if you forgo Timmie's - at least you can visit the largest Canadian-owned specialty coffee retailer, Second Cup, my personal fave and Starbucks' stiffest competition in this country. Try their cranberry-apple muffin.

Anyway, after breakfast, I stopped at Whole Foods for some MSG-free bouillon cubes, organic cider vinegar, and chai tea. Then I walked nostalgically through the UofT campus, my alma mater, on my way to the charming Kensington market, where already someone had made the mistake of backing up on the narrow one-way street, traffic was at a dead-stop, and a Japanese fishmonger, a Mexican shop owner, and the Chinese truck driver were having a friendly argument about whose fault it was. I did pick up some Mexican hot sauce for Chris though, and spent some time admiring the fresh stalks of asparagus, ranging from grass-slim to chunky, boxes of fresh fiddleheads, and all sorts of exotic veggies (there was cassava in front of a Caribbean spice store).

I also took my time strolling through Chinatown and almost thought I was back in China again. Gleaming piles of cherries, gaudy dragonfruit, spiky lychees, exotic mangosteen and piles and piles of mangoes filled the fruit stalls, while at other storefronts, the pungent smells of Chinese medicine wafted out of doors and windows. I thought this sign was a cute symbol of how Chinese and Canadian culture manage to cooperate..."Lucky MOOSE Food Mart????"

After all, the diversity of our eating is a direct result of the diversity of our people, and the fact that we can enjoy so much delicious, reasonably priced food is due to the hard work of all the people who have made Canada their new home.

And I had all-you-can-eat Indian food for lunch.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Stocking Up

I'm writing this from the comfort of my parents' home in Toronto, Canada. That's right, I'm not in China! My sister is getting married and I'm here for a very short visit (2 weeks), leaving my beloved hubby at home in China to fend for himself. While I'm here, I've gone shopping several times, stocking up on goodies to bring back to the ol' Middle Kingdom. There are so many ingredients that are common in your average supermarket in Canada that are rarities in Xiamen. When we lived in Shanghai, many of these ingredients were available. But in our current location, a smaller city with a smaller expat population, many of these things are available only at Metro (a 1 hour trip each way on the bus for us), or not at all. So for those of you contemplating living abroad, or expats who are going home for a visit, here's a list of groceries to find and pack. Remember to try and find relatively "light" packaging as your abundance of delicious food may put you over the airline's weight limit!

  • vitamins and mineral supplements
  • dried cranberries (I use these in everything from salads to baked goods)
  • dried herbs and spices (oregano, thyme, basil, bay leaves, rosemary, nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, sage, paprika, cumin, curry powder, etc... These are often available in sturdy resealable bags, nice and light for your journey!)
  • flavourings (vanilla, almond, peppermint, anise, coconut extracts)
  • paper muffin cups
  • flavoured western teas
  • dried mexican black beans
  • sun-dried tomatoes (a little bit goes a long way)
  • steak seasoning
  • cream of tartar (in the absence of cream, this is useful for cake icings and whipped topping)
  • confectioner's sugar
  • active dry yeast
  • cheesecloth and parchment paper
  • food coloring (for icings), cake decorations
  • double acting baking powder (I think the local Chinese baking powder is single-acting)
  • red wine and sherry vinegars
  • a good quality whisk and silicone spatula
  • capers
  • MSG-free bouillon cubes, Knorr soup mixes, dressing mixes, etc...
  • poppy seeds, flax seeds
  • black peppercorns and sea salt with grinders
  • bulgur wheat, couscous, other specialty "grains"
  • ground coffee and a French press
Ok, I know that's a LOT. And when I think of more I'll add more in. When I came back to Canada this time, I brought a duffel bag and an extra suitcase just to put all the goodies in. I would also suggest buying a couple of thick thirsty towels for your bathroom (towels in China are paper thin). I'm also bringing home Dove shampoo and conditioner. While they do have those in Hong Kong, for some reason they don't have them in China, and Dove conditioner is the only thing that keeps my hair from becoming a parched mess.

Some of these things you can get at large international chain supermarkets such as Carrefour or Metro, depending on where you live in China, but unfortunately for us, Metro is far away and Carrefour doesn't stock much imported food. Once, I went to Carrefour, and they were out of both BUTTER and CHEESE. Sad, isn't it?