It’s like a layer cake, was the thought that reverberated in my mind as I went in for my next bite on a food tour with Toronto-based food writer Suresh Doss.
I wasn’t eating a layer cake, of course; one bite was a coconut milk-laden Sri Lankan rice-batter hopper — similar to a thin, crispy pancake — the next bite was a sweet, flaky, nutty Syrian baklava, followed by mouthfuls of a crisp, juicy halal chicken shawarma. The analogy Suresh used for how these foods fit together in the container of Canadian cuisine was that of a layer cake: how the micro-neighbourhoods that transport you — culturally and culinarily — exist intact while thriving next to each other.
Ever since moving to Canada about a year and a half ago, I’ve joined the legions of writers and cultural analysts who have grappled with defining Canadian cuisine. There have been thought pieces published on this topic that underscore how the waves of migration to Canada have shaped the cuisine in the absence of a strong unifying culinary character (partially due to the way that Canada’s wild game has been legislated out of the commercial kitchen’s repertoire), but I have still struggled to put my finger on what my food experience in Canada has been, compared to other places I’ve lived.
I grew up in the USA but was living in Italy when my husband and I decided to relocate to Toronto. Italy is a country that shouts its culinary history, opinions and preferences loudly and proudly. Although it is far from uniform — each Italian region has its own unique dishes and traditions — it feels more cohesive: when you’re eating in Italy, you know you’re eating in Italy. My experience in Canada, however, has been that when I’m eating in Toronto (or Vancouver or Winnipeg or Montreal) I feel like I could be somewhere else in the world aside from Canada.
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