That is, I haven’t spent much time in any Chinatown – in New York or elsewhere. So when I discovered my hotel in Toronto was just a few blocks away from Spadina Avenue, the spine of this city’s Chinatown, I made time for an exploratory expedition.
Earlier in the week (before I realized the proximity) I'd been taxied to a work-related dim sum breakfast at The Bright Pearl Seafood Restaurant – an enormous, bustling dining hall at the top of a stairwell behind a tiny housewares shop. Well, there is a more conspicuous entrance on the cross street that I didn’t notice at first. But I much preferred the clandestine nature of passing through the cluttered shop and having the owner motion – silently – toward a back door. This is going to be good, I thought.
While I am in no way qualified to speak on the comparative quality of the dim sum here, I enjoyed most all the dumplings I plucked with chopsticks from the lazy Susan. Another New York writer at the table, who partakes in regular dim sum breakfasts with his seven-year-old son, declared that this was some of the best dim sum he’d eaten. The only dumpling he refused to touch was an unidentifiable blob of grayish, glutinous matter that no one at the table was eager to try. Well, except this NY Girl Eats World. Hey -- it's my job!
My colleagues gathered round breathlessly as I pushed my fork through the dumpling and brought the piece to my mouth. Now, I consider myself to have a pretty keen palate. But I could not identify one ingredient inside the lump. Nor was I enjoying it enough to pursue the investigation further. Besides, I knew better -- that one bite garnered great respect from my colleagues. One or two more would have tipped their feelings into apprehension and ultimately repulsion. No sense in going there -- I had a few more days left to spend with these new friends.
On my own a few days later, I set out on foot back to Chinatown. I had been in a dress and heels that first time – certainly not exploratory attire – and hadn’t brought my camera to breakfast (much to my dismay). Unfortunately the weather had taken a turn; the wind had kicked up and dark clouds were rolling in. But I continued on my mission, hoping people would still be out and about as they were on sunny Sunday, when there were colorful food stalls and eateries with their sandwich boards out and their doors wide open.
Fortunately, the potential for rain wasn’t stopping anyone. The sidewalk markets were bustling with people who picked over fruits – or vegetables? – that looked like spiny sea urchins, little hedgehogs and assorted reptilian species. Barbecued chickens and squids the size of my head hung in butcher shop windows. Barrels of ginseng were lined up outside the aptly-named “Ginseng King Co.” storefront, beneath red tasseled lanterns that hung from an awning.
I disconcerted an old woman who, I admit, I was stalking for a picture. She was a tiny thing in rubber Velcro-fastened sandals and a riotous pink-and-purple floral dress, holding on to her shopping satchel with both hands. She began mumbling and scowling at me so I finally surrendered and walked on.
I retreated into the Furama Cake and Desserts Garden, which caught my attention. Through its glass doors I could see neat rows of buns and cakes. I walked in and observed the patrons – a pair of Aussie students, a Caucasian man in a suit, and, darn it, here comes that old lady again! – who were loading up cafeteria-style trays using enormous tongs.
I followed their example, choosing a mixture of sweet and savory buns according to translated descriptions. I passed on the ones that seemed especially suited to American tastes – ham and cheese, sausage, etc – and chose six: one with barbecued pork, one with curried beef, one with pineapple and red bean, one sesame ball with lotus paste filling, one sponge cake and one sugar twist. No, I didn't intend to eat them all, but each bun cost a dollar or less. I could at least afford to sample. The girl at the cash register packaged them in a bakery box, tied it up with string, and I was on my way – much to the old woman’s delight, I’m sure.
Back in my hotel room it was time for a very scientific taste test. I placed each on a tissue and lined them up on the window sill (it was the best I could do). The barbecued pork bun was very tasty but disappointedly lacking in filling. It was cavernous inside – only a few flecks of meat at the bottom there. The curried beef bun was made of flaky pastry, but it was the blandest pastry I’d ever tasted. So unappealing in fact that I ate two bites and abandoned it. The sesame ball wasn’t very crispy on the outside and was fairly greasy to the touch. The lotus paste inside was quite sweet and I couldn’t understand if this was meant to be a savory item or a dessert. The sponge cake was also bland, and the twist… the same.
The surprise winner in this taste-test was the pineapple and red bean bun. Honestly I didn’t expect it to be tasty – I’d bought it because it sounded absolutely perverse. But the flavors worked well together – in a similar fashion, I think, to the way brown sugar works in baked beans. The top of the bun was covered in a sweet, canary-yellow, pineapple-flavored crust. The bun dough was a little viscous – not unpleasantly so – and the mashed red beans inside were subtle. I wouldn't walk all the way to Chinatown for it; but it was the only bun that begged more than a few bites.
It turns out that Furama is a Micky-D version of a really good bun bakery -- which seems appropriate for my first visit to Chinatown. When you're a toddler discovering the edible world, you don't sit down to foie gras or scallop carpaccio. You start off with Chicken McNuggets and Hi-C. So, I got the fast food version of Chinatown. Now I'm ready for the real thing.