One of the coolest things about Toronto’s many cultural neighbourhoods is how they’ve evolved over the years. One group of immigrants moves out, another moves in to create their own community in their new home. During years of overlap, communities exist side by side and somewhat intertwined.
The most recent example of this cultural mosaic is Bloorcourt Village. This short stretch of Bloor Street West from Christie Pits park to Ossington Avenue was at first a predominantly Greek neighbourhood, pre-dating Greektown on the Danforth. Some vestiges of this still remain in the area today with restaurants such as Menalon (841 Bloor Street West) and Astoria Athens Restaurant (865 Bloor Street West) serving up traditional Greek cuisine and the quaint Greek Corner Grocery (859 Bloor Street West) still selling tins of olive oil from home.
As the Greek community mostly moved across town, the neighbourhood became a spillover for various folks from Central and South America. Tacos El Asador (690 Bloor Street West) just east of Christie Street, and Mexitaco (828 Bloor Street West) west of Christie Pits, have been recently joined by La Fogata (810 Bloor Street West), an Ecuadorian restaurant with a mighty meaty menu, and La Bella Managua (872 Bloor Street West), a Nicaraguan restaurant also serving stir-fry, pasta and some vegetarian dishes. Further west, El Jacal (1056 Bloor Street West), Sardinha BBQ Chicken (942 Bloor Street West) and O Nosso Talho Grocery (1034 Bloor Street West) keep the local Latin community well covered.
The biggest influx in recent years, however, has been from Africa, predominantly Ethiopia. Where once only one or two places including Queen of Sheba (1198 Bloor Street West) existed, the community is now big enough to host their own street festival featuring many local restaurants, and last weekend AfriVillage Fest filled the stretch between Ossington and Christie with the sights, sounds and smells of Africa.
Many of the local African restaurants took part, and all welcomed customers who might not have tried the food before. Places such as Lalibela (869 Bloor Street West), Dahlak (840 Bloor Street West) and Adam (875 Bloor Street West) joined neighbours Assah (814 Bloor Street West) and Pero (812 Bloor Street West) in opening their doors to people new to the flavours of Africa, particularly Ethiopia.
Ethiopian food is typically comprised of various stews, called “wats”, made from elements such as legumes and beans, meats such as beef, lamb or chicken, and greens like collards or kale. Wats range in spice level from mild to very hot. The main spices are a chili blend called berebere, a chili paste called awaze, and kibe, butter blended with spices. Despite all these spices, the heat level depends on the hand of the cook and during the AfriVillage Fest, we enjoyed a very mildly spiced meal at African Palace Restaurant (834 Bloor Street West). Some places even offer both a mild and spicy version, with the spicy option costing slightly more.
Kitfo, or Kifto, is another dish unique to Ethiopia. Their version of steak tartare, it is raw ground beef mixed with spices and melted butter. The trepidatious can order their kitfo cooked, but it’s really much better raw. Tibs is another meat based dish, basically sautéed beef, chicken or lamb with spices.
The most disconcerting aspect of Ethiopian food for many Caucasians is the lack of cutlery. The stews are laid out on a platter atop a large flat bread called injera. Made from teff, the tiniest cereal on earth, this spongy crepe is fermented and then cooked on a pan called a mitad. Diners tear off a hunk of injera and then use it to pick up bits of the various stews artfully arranged on top. Usually additional injera is provided. In North America, some places serve injera made from wheat – this is generally not as good as the teff version, and is likely to cause some stomach upset, as the teff is more easily digested. Until teff-based injera was available in Toronto (it can now be found in a lot of corner stores in the west end), I knew many people who were convinced that Ethiopian food just didn’t agree with them. Turns out, it was the wheat-based bread.
One other thing about the average Ethiopian meal that throws off newcomers is the aspect of sharing from the same platter. That’s right – you not only eat with your hands, but from the same plate as the other people at your table. There is a traditional Ethiopian saying that goes, “those who eat from the same plate will not betray each other…” Some places are sensitive to our North America hang-ups and will immediately offer separate platters for each diner, or even cutlery, but it’s far more fun to share.
No Ethiopian meal would be complete without the magnificent coffee and accompanying ceremony. As the birthplace of coffee and with some of the most sought-after varieties of beans coming from Ethiopia, it’s an experience that should not be passed up. First the beans are brought out during the roasting process. The hostess will walk around the room, filling it with the heavy aroma and smoke of the roasting beans. Then, a burner of frankincense is brought to the table, along with a ceremonial tray containing small espresso-sized cups, and sugar. The coffee itself arrives in a traditional clay pot and sits on a small woven holder.
This is not coffee for the weak of will. Ethiopian coffee is darkly roasted, thickly brewed and laced with cardamom. The pot typically holds the equivalent of three small cups per person, so it’s definitely not a treat for those planning on hitting the hay soon after. In some restaurants, popcorn may be offered to accompany the coffee, but Ethiopians traditionally do not eat desserts.
One of the most delightful aspects of visiting an Ethiopian restaurant is the atmosphere. I’ve yet to enter any Ethiopian restaurant where I was not made to feel like an honoured guest in someone’s home. In every case, restaurant staff have been welcoming and inviting; patient with newbies, happy to explain the dishes and customs, and both delighted and flattered when I was able to show even a limited knowledge of their dishes and their culture.
I’m sure in decades to come, this neighbourhood will become home to yet another group who will bring their own traditions and foods to the area. In the meantime, there’s a great selection of really wonderful African restaurants along this short strip with owners and staff who are happy to open their doors to anyone interested in trying the food and learning more about their culture.