‘We Like Your Food But Not Your People’: Unpacking The Myth Of Toronto's Diverse Food Scene
‘We Like Your Food But Not Your People’: Unpacking The Myth Of Toronto's Diverse Food Scene

‘We Like Your Food But Not Your People’: Unpacking The Myth Of Toronto's Diverse Food Scene

COMMENTS

In January, 2014, Whole Foods launched one of their largest food campaigns to date: “Collards Are The New Kale.” Cashiers fastened buttons to their aprons, Whole Foods bloggers scrambled to publish collards-based recipes, and the whole produce aisle buzzed with anticipation. Kale’s understudy had finally ascended into the spotlight.

“Have you heard the siren call of collards yet?” wrote resident blogger Alana Sugar.1 Given the droves of people who swarmed the registry for Whole Foods’ collard cooking classes, it seems people heard the sirens loud and clear.

While I’m almost certain Whole Foods didn’t intend to imply that collards are a beautiful, alluring vegetable with sinister ramifications, much like the sirens of Greek mythology, that is exactly what they became. Cue: food gentrification.

Collard greens have held staple status in the diets of working class Black and white Southern Americans for centuries. Divorcing this vegetable from its roots in these communities to rebrand it for the affluent shoppers of Whole Foods caused prices to soar, rendering collards less affordable for people who relied on it for many of their dishes.

Black feminist and writer Mikki Kendall (@Karnythia) drew attention to the parallels between this food market colonialism and gentrification when she tweeted:

“When we talk about #foodgentrification we’re talking about the impact of a traditionally low income food becoming trendy.”

“Now, once-affordable ingredients have been discovered by trendy chefs, and have been transformed into haute cuisine,” Kendall wrote. “Food is facing gentrification that may well put traditional meals out of reach for those who created the recipes.”


1 I want to make a note that crediting Alana Sugar doesn’t mean I intend to villainize her, because everyone’s just trying to make a living and working as a Whole Foods blogger doesn’t mean she created the campaign. It’s systematic, okay?!

...

Illustration by Sara Peters (c) 2017

I live in Toronto. By demographical standards, it is one of the most multicultural cities in the world. Of 6.1 million residents in the Greater Toronto Area, 45.7% were born outside of Canada.

49.1% are racialized minorities. According to the City of Toronto website, we boast the highest per capita immigration rate in the world.

When it comes to food, Toronto is a city lauded equally for the diversity of its cuisines as it is its people. But are we truly worthy of this claim? For some, Toronto’s food diversity is less a reflection of its diverse population than its structural inequalities.

Take local Toronto business “Chaiwala Chai” for example.

You may recall the term Chaiwala from 2008 movie Slumdog Millionaire. Jamal, the protagonist, is an orphaned Indian boy who works as a Chaiwala (tea server) at a call centre. When Jamal lands on India’s “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” the show host refers to Jamal as a Chaiwala several times throughout the episode. In this case, the host uses the term “Chaiwala” as an insult; a synonym for “poor, uneducated and lesser than.” Jamal is then arrested on suspicion of cheating, because “surely a Chaiwala couldn’t be this smart.” The job of a Chaiwala is highly stigmatized, deeply entrenched in caste system culture.

Which is why “Chaiwala Chai” makes a particularly surprising title for the chai company in Toronto, founded by Eamon and Becca – two, young white entrepreneurs. On their website, Eamon and Becca refer to themselves as “Canadian Chaiwalas”. They share their story, where they toured “the chai drinking nations of Asia” before returning home to present their “perfect blend” to the people of Toronto.

...

Illustration by Sara Peters (c) 2017

Chaiwala Chai supplies over 47 cafes across Toronto with masala chai, including locales such as Jimmy’s coffee, Wanda’s Pie in the Sky, The Green Beanery, and more. What does it mean that this many cafes bypassed dozens of Indian food suppliers in the GTA to source their products from two white people with enough disposable income to traipse the entire continent of Asia, two people who have no apparent connection to the culture? 2

I spoke with Chinese-Canadian writer and activist Lorraine Chuen, who recently penned the piece “Food, Race, and Power: Who gets to be an authority on 'ethnic' cuisines?” on her blog, Intersectional Analyst.

“I’m not saying white people can’t eat or cook foods from other cultures, but there’s a structural pattern where white people are more likely to profit from other cultures than the people from those cultures themselves.”

There are countless examples of the authority that white people (primarily affluent white people) are granted in Toronto’s food market, especially in the media. A recent interview with Rose & Sons chef Anthony Rose on their new “Chinatown Sundays” menu described Rose’s take on Chinese food as “elevated”. The interviewer has since apologized for their wording, but the question remains: why don’t people want to eat their Chinese food at a Chinese-owned restaurant?

“When white people want to eat non-Western food but they don’t want to be in the presence of other racialized people, I think that’s when these specialized 'ethnic' menus by white chefs become so popular. That’s my hypothesis” said Lorraine. “It’s white people being served by other white people, with food that’s made by white people and it’s like, ‘We like everything about this culture except for the people, like we just want to have the experience without any attachment.’ That’s what makes me uncomfortable. As usual, people of colour are left out of the story.”


2 Yes, this is an assumption, but a pretty educated one based on their company name.

...

Illustration by Sara Peters (c) 2017

While Lorraine illustrates the erasure of people, history and culture, Nabeel Shakeel Ahmed, a Pakistani-Canadian who came to Toronto in 2009, fears that even the most basic essence of his cultural cuisine has gone missing… taste.

When Nabeel moved to Toronto, he sought to share an important part of his culture and identity with new friends: Pakistani food.

“When I think of culture, I think of three things: language, art, and food,” said Nabeel. “It’s an integral part of culture. Food is part of identity.”

Despite dozens of Pakistani restaurants in Toronto, Nabeel found that most weren’t doing justice to Pakistani cuisine.

“I don’t go out to eat food from India or Pakistan. I’m not going to enjoy it because it’s usually a watered down version. It’s hard for me to share my culture, experiences, and identity with others. It’s harder for me to connect.”

One driving force behind the distortion of ethnic cuisines in Toronto is commercialization.

“In order to set up shop in certain high income areas, the rents are so high that only the big brands with standardized, commercial versions of foods can be there.”

Small restaurants, or those without a commercial edge, flee to periphery areas for their pared down rents – areas fewer people are willing to trek out to.

“Big brand restaurants cater to people who have enough disposable income to eat out on a regular basis, which is mostly white people.”

So, when Nabeel ventures out for Indian or Pakistani food, once-familiar cuisines have been altered to suit the palates of white customers.

“To make a masala daal, I would use turmeric, red chili pepper, coriander powder, cumin, garlic, and ginger,” Nabeel said. He spoke slowly, deliberately, so I could note each ingredient. “In the commercial version of daal there might be something like salt, crushed red pepper, maybe some bits of ginger, and that’s it.”


...

Illustration by Sara Peters (c) 2017

“What makes a city like Toronto great is that we have so many cultures, but ideally we want the culture as it is, not a watered down version. We want to preserve that long term.”

Nabeel offered a potential solution: “Ethnic food producers need more opportunities to share their food with a broader audience; to share what they feel the best version of that food is, not what they feel the audience will most respond to. That kind of diversity is really important.”

I wondered if there were further benefits to cheaper dishes. Could it be plausible that some of these restaurants were interested in serving simplified versions of their cuisines just to save money? After all, less complex recipes could mean cheaper product.

I didn’t have to look far for answers, because Krishnendu Ray, chair of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University recently tackled this topic in a recent interview by Roberto A. Ferdman. According to Ray, even restaurants that want to serve authentic versions of their dishes are often unable to due to the low price ceiling imposed on many cultural cuisines in North America. Torontonians tend to regard ethnic cuisines as inferior, and expect prices to match.

Feldman writes, “Despite complex ingredients and labor-intensive cooking methods that rival or even eclipse those associated with some of the most celebrated cuisines — think French, Spanish and Italian — we want our Indian food fast, and we want it cheap.”

Businesses must make sacrifices to food quality when customers demand dishes at a fraction of their value. Especially when many of the complex spices and ingredients in ethnic foods aren’t as widely available as traditionally Western ingredients.

If Toronto’s food diversity is a reflection of its people, what does it say that restaurant goers are unwilling to value certain cuisines? What does it mean that the majority of these “undervalued cuisines” belong to people of colour?

...

Illustration by Sara Peters (c) 2017

Andrew and Sadi, two food lovers in Toronto, considered these power dynamics and decided to start 6ixspots: a blog that highlights human stories behind small-scale, immigrant-owned restaurants or restaurants with a transnational legacy.

As children of immigrants and avid lovers of cultural cuisines, they noticed their favourite immigrant-owned ethnic restaurants were rarely featured in Toronto’s media.

“It’s always the downtown core, mainly the West End restaurants that have a big social media presence, that get featured,” Andrew said. “Certain chefs are interviewed constantly. They know how to get press.”

And even when cultural cuisines are highlighted in popular media, it is often a story told by someone else.

“Owners aren’t really the owners of the stories,” Sadi said.

Andrew joined in, “Stories of ethnic cuisines are usually told on behalf of the the people making it. Like in the case of Matty Matheson or Anthony Bourdain. As interviewers, we try to step back and let them tell the story.”

Sadi capped off our conversation: “Our culture has become more about criticizing food than enjoying it. We tend to forget that there are people pouring their lives into serving us these dishes. My hope is that people can appreciate the human story behind it all.”

Just this week, Tourism Toronto released its newest ad for the city – a video titled “The Views Are Different Here”. It accentuates the vibrant, colourful landscape of Toronto, its people, and its food. It highlights inclusivity. Moments from the end, as the camera pans through Chinatown, the text on the screen reads: All flavours are welcome.

Toronto, if we want this to be true, let’s put our money where our mouth is. Literally.

...

Illustration by Sara Peters (c) 2017

If you would like to learn more about food politics in Toronto or become a more critical diner, here are some places to start:

Use this article as a conversation point with friends and family
Read Lorraine Chuen’s experience with race, food, and power on Intersectional Analyst
Read human-centred profiles of small-scale, immigrant-owned restaurants at 6ixSpots
Listen to Racist Sandwich, a podcast on food and race politics here
Contact your favourite cafe on this list and ask them to source their chai more ethically
Going out to eat? Why not try one of the restaurants highlighted on Black Foodie or Halal Foodie.
Get excited for the opening of Nish Dish, a new Indigenous restaurant focusing on Anishinaabe recipes, as well as products from First Nations and Metis producers.
Looking to book your next caterers? Check out the Afghan Women’s Catering Group.
Volunteer or Donate to Newcomer Kitchen, a project that supports Syrian refugee women in making traditional Syrian food in a fun, social setting.

If you would like to get in contact, you can catch me on Twitter or Instagram!

----

Special thanks to Safah, Lorraine Chuen of Intersectional Analyst, Andrew and Sadi at 6ixSpots, Nabeel Shakeel Ahmed, Matthew Ha, Toula Nikas, Jess Shane, Dave Karrel, Robyn Simon and all the people who added to this conversation on Bunz Helping Zone and Young Urbanists League.

Have your say