It was the early 1950’s and Toronto was in the middle of a post-war boom. Like our neighbours to the south, the idea of suburban neighbourhoods was just beginning to take off and Don Mills was one of the first. Little boxes (made of ticky tacky) went up and Toronto had its first suburb.
Today, the city hasn’t fully grown out to meet Don Mills. But the big arteries – Don Mills Road, the Don Valley Parkway and others funnel people in and out of the city. The inner suburbs are not so quiet now with heavy and fast moving traffic cutting through.
We live about half way between the city and the Don Mills library branch. So this trip is easy for me. I simply step outside of my building, wait about a minute for a bus to come, and 15 minutes later it drops me off near the library.
But because I was busy with work in the morning, I’m ravenously hungry. There will be no library visit until I find something to eat. I stop in a shopping plaza nearby and check my options:
I’ve been to other branches of Pho 88 and their Chicken Satay Pho is to die for. But I want to try somewhere I haven’t been before. It is between Asian Legend and Congee Star. In the end I choose the latter.
Today is a good day for congee – it’s cold and damp outside, and the idea of warm rice porridge sounds really good. But then I see another favourite of mine: ma po tofu as a lunch special. I order that. It comes with hot and sour soup and a vegetable egg roll. Both are decent but nothing to write home about. As I eat I remember that this dish, hot and sour soup, is one of the first things I ever ate that was not considered American food. It was different enough from what I’d eaten before that I was hooked. From then on my mind was opened – you could find really delicious things to eat if you’re willing to try them.
Apparently ma po tofu means “pockmarked old woman’s tofu” when translated literally. An apocryphal story says that its name comes from the old woman, its creator, who used to sell it in a restaurant in Chengdu. It has medium-firm tofu, fermented bean paste, and ground pork. A common North American addition is green peas.
It is OK but it was missing two very important things, in my opinion. The first were chillies – this should be a spicy dish. Not only that, it was missing Sichuan pepper that gives a bit of a numbing sensation in the mouth (imagine the feeling of breathing in after a wintergreen candy). I am able to spice it up a little with the ground chillies in oil at the table but there is no fixing the lack of Sichuan pepper. It still tastes good – just not what I’d hoped for.
Once I finish I head across the parking lot where a new Asian supermarket has just opened. As it’s close to our house by transit, I want to check it out.
The inside is pretty huge with large produce, meat, bakery, and seafood sections.
A recent trend in Asian markets in Toronto is to have clear English labels on the shelves. It makes finding ingredients so much easier. For example, one dish I love is called Dan Dan Mian (Dan Dan Noodles) and has noodles with ground meat in a numbing-spicy sauce. One of the things that is served on the noodles is a pickle called zha cai – pickled mustard stem. I’ve rarely been able to find it. One time I even went to Wikipedia, printed out the Chinese characters and asked someone in Chinatown to bring me to it. He took me to the bean sprouts because, sadly, the characters are the same. But today I find a jar on a clearly labelled shelf:
I love wandering through markets with food from other parts of the world. If I could, I would crack open every container and take a taste. I couldn’t do that, but I can share some of them with you:
Mochi is a rice cake, often flavoured, made from glutinous rice which is beaten until it gets chewy.
Banh Mi, Vietnamese subs, are one of the great cheap meals of Toronto (and many other parts of the world). A baguette either buttered or with mayonnaise (likely the influence of the French colonization of Vietnam) is filled with meats (pork, sausage, pickled carrot, pickled daikon (मूली), hot peppers and coriander). The ones here are $3, there are places where you can still find them for $1.50-2.00
These tarts look really good. They have a nice selection of patisserie and cakes also.
I am intrigued by this “Taiwan Chocolate French Bun” but the colour is not so appetizing and I can’t buy everything.
I love this display of drinks. Just in this one frame are drinks from Peru, Bolivia, Italy, and China. That’s Toronto for you.
I am intrigued but a little afraid of this one: white fungus and birds nest – an ingredient in birds nest soup. I read that part of the flavour of the nest comes from the saliva of the bird making the nest. I’m adventurous but I’m not sure I am that adventurous.
Kiss burn spicy meat jerky. What an intriguing name!
I almost buy this tofu with fish snack. I love the picture of the tofu slice just relaxing and fishing.
Spicy jerky is a big thing – there’s a whole second of the store devoted to it. This packaging almost gets me.
As does the warning on this package: “Dare to try at your own risk!”
Not everything will blow your head off with chillies. I have to look it up to find out exactly what it is. It appears to be a corn snack (maybe like a corn chip or Cheeto?) flavoured with strawberry and condensed milk.
I have never heard of white coffee but look it up online. It appears to be very lightly-roasted coffee. Can my friends in Malaysia / Singapore confirm and let me know how this is? I’m intrigued but this is a massive package for over $25. It would be a shame to pay that and not like it.
The chip section alone is worth checking out. So many flavours of chips available.
SO many different flavours. I’m not sure what “Italian red meat” or “Mexican tomato chicken” is but I’m very curious.
I have so much fun I almost forget to go to the library! I leave, but not without buying a few different things to try. Read to the end to find how they were.
I take the bus two more stops north and walk toward the library. It’s a pretty busy street. These sorts of streets are some of the most unpleasant in the city. They’re big enough that they aren’t always choked with traffic and wide enough that drivers feel OK going far too fast on them. It makes it a bit risky to try to cross – or especially to ride a bike on them.
Finally I’m almost there!
This library was built in 1961 and still retains a lot of the architectural features of the time. This makes me very happy.
I particularly love these diamond-shapes along the roof line – and of course I’m a huge fan of big windows.
The library is an odd layout. You enter on the second floor and this is the most bustling part of the library.
I love the high ceilings and how bright it is inside. There are so many little details in there that say “1960’s-1970’s” also. The doors that remind me of the ones in my school, the fluorescent lights, and even the beautiful analog clock in the photo above. It’s very happy making.
Downstairs is most of the non-fiction section.
Overall I like it. There is a great selection of books – definitely worthy of browsing. But there is something about it that makes it feel less comfortable to stay in. I’m not sure if it is the fact that it is so quiet – like the libraries of my childhood, or what, but it doesn’t feel as welcoming. Compare that to the Toronto Reference Library. I’ve been there several times over the past few weeks and it’s just so comfortable. There are all sorts of comfortable spots to sit from loud and social, to quiet and from cushy chairs to upright desks. It’s a place that makes you feel like you want to sit and stay a while. Maybe it is the mood I am in but I don’t get that same feeling here. It feels more like a “Get in, get your books, and get going” sort of library – which is just what I do.
I pick up a few travel books and also a book on travel writing. I’m hoping to do more of that and build my audience in that sense but I need to create a task list of things to do to accomplish that and it’s time to learn where to start.
I head home and share my snacks with Sage. Here are what we got:
First up: Foxnuts. I had never heard of these until our last trip to India. Before we caught the double decker train from Delhi to Jaipur we stopped at a store and got a bunch of savoury snacks. Among them were foxnuts. I was surprised to find that these are similar in consistency to popcorn. Light and airy. The seasoning in these is OK, but certainly not “fiery”. A bit salty, a bit savoury, but definitely not spicy.
Who can pass up something called “Magic Chili”? I don’t even care what it is I have to have some. I open it and find lots of crispy fried red chillies. They’re delicious and spicy in a way similar to the fried chillies I’ve had on the side with lampries at a Sri Lankan restaurant. Addictive. I dig deeper and find peanuts. Together they make a combination that’s addictive as hell. This one is gobbled up quickly.
Do you want to talk addictive? The Lay’s wasabi (spicy Japanese horseradish) chips were so addictive that the package was eaten and tossed out before I could even photograph it. The funny thing is that the first bite leaves all three of us asking ourselves “Wait, do I like this?” And then we have a second bite and get completely hooked. And so, I am left sharing only a photo bowl with the last few chips. I’m lucky I got those.
This package of chips really got me. It is huge – double the height of a normal bag of chips but narrow. The “police cat” theme (you can tell it’s a police cat from the red light on its head after all!) is delightfully surreal. They’re meant to be spicy also but aren’t. On the other hand there’s something really strange about them. It takes me a few bites to realize why. The texture of them says “potato chips” but the flavour says aamai vadai – a South Indian savoury. there must be some spice that’s shared between the two foods that makes the connection for me but I can’t identify it. For me these are the most addictive.
I’m a coffee addict as you all likely know, and so a couple of the coffee beverages catch my eye. The first is simply black coffee in a can. Because dairy and I are not the best of friends anymore, I tend to drink my coffee black so this was my choice. I hoped for strong cold coffee like ca phe den da – Vietnamese iced coffee without milk. Instead, Sage describes it perfectly: “You know when you leave a cup of coffee on your desk overnight and in the morning you go to the kitchen, pour a coffee and forget to bring it to your room? And then you drink the old coffee accidentally? That’s what this coffee tastes like.” I agree, Sage. That’s exactly what it tastes like.
I’m a sucker for creative packaging, and the “Caffe Latte” package that looks like a take-out coffee gets me also. Attached to the cup is a small, telescoping straw with a pointy tip that you can use to puncture the plastic on top of the cup. This is definitely better than the black coffee. It is actually tastes like a passable ca phe sua da – Vietnamese iced coffee with condensed milk. It’s a little too milky and not great but much more drinkable. Still, not tasty enough for me to buy it again.
And now, sitting at home after this trip, I’m beginning to get excited as work is gradually working its way to an end. As that ramps down I hope to be able to speed up my library visits. Watch for more library visits soon.
And if you’d like to read about more of Toronto’s awesome libraries and the neighbourhoods they’re in, visit the Toronto by Library page.