Culinary Trends: In Search of the Exotic

Gone are the days when Thai and Indian cuisines were considered “exotic.” Diners are no longer looking for just the best [insert cuisine here]. “Where is the best Neopolitan pizza in Toronto?” or “What is an Egyptian breakfast?” are the kinds of questions people are now Googling on the Internet. This is a move towards “hyper ethnic cuisine” – foods from specific regions or made with specific regional ingredients.

This trend was largely pioneered by Millennials. According to Suresh Doss, leader of Toronto’s food truck movement and author of StreetEats, Millennials are “more open to trying different things.” Many Millennials are first generation Canadians from immigrant parents and grew up alongside children from various backgrounds (and whose parents made delicious food unlike what they ate at home). This is especially true in Toronto, where in the most recent census (2011), 80 different languages other than English or French were listed as being spoken by the city’s residents. How’s that for diversity?

“We’re at least open to looking at the visuals,” adds Doss. So perhaps we have chefs’ Instagram feeds to thank for introducing foreign and delicious cuisine – many of these chefs are going outside the core to eat and gather inspiration from mom and pop shops, borrowing some of the flavours along the way and interpreting them at their own restaurants.

So what’s going to be the next hottest cuisine? If restaurant openings and pop-ups are any indication, Southeast Asian cuisine is going to be the next mainstream. Little Sister, an Indonesian food bar in North York, has been drawing in crowds one babi pangang (roast pork belly) at a time, and Soos Restobar on the Ossington Strip, which serves up Malaysian street food, makes a mean laksa.

Though perhaps the prize for the cuisine de jour goes to the Philippines. “Filipino food has been making waves little by little,” Doss observes. That trend started as early as 2012 when Lamesa opened on Queen Street West; it was the only Filipino restaurant serving up “modern Filipino cuisine.” Ex-Lamesa chef Rudy Boquilla, who opened Lamesa, adds that Filipino cuisine is the “original fusion food.” The country was geographically situated “in the middle of the spice route, and its cuisine draws influences from China, India, Malaysia, Spain, and America.” Boquilla adds that “Filipino cuisine is very [similar] with other cuisines; it’s citrusy and acidic like Greek food,” for example. “It’s sweet, salty, fermented funkiness.”

Filipino chefs who were not previously cooking Filipino food recently started to go back to their roots. Robbie Hojilla, the executive chef of the short-lived Hudson Kitchen of 2013 TIFF fame, snuck adobo fried chicken and halo-halo onto the menu. Over at DaiLo, where they serve predominantly Chinese fare, hints of chef Dennis Tay’s Filipino roots are apparent in the sambal that’s listed in a few of the dishes on the menu.

Terry Mocherniak, U-Feast’s CEO (Chief Eating Officer), is capitalizing on the city’s food trends. The company, which hosts one-off pop-up dinners at some of the Toronto’s top restaurants, each featuring a different theme, has Indonesian and Filipino dinners in their fall events line-up. Mocherniak considers these events a way to integrate people from diverse backgrounds, adding, “food is the universal language that brings everyone together at the table.”

Yvonne Tsui is a Toronto-based freelance food and drink writer and editor in chief of her food blog th3hungrycat. She’s also the Director of Operations for U-Feast. For more information on U-Feast events, contact Yvonne at yvonne@ufeast.com or visit www.ufeast.com.

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