Where to find unique dishes from around the world in Waterloo region: Andrew Coppolino

People still can't travel because of COVID-19 restrictions, but food columnist Andrew Coppolino says that doesn't mean people can't go on a food adventure. He looks at spots in Waterloo region to get everything from jeow mak keua to arepas to fetschepatze.

From jeow mak keua to arepas to fetschepatze, head out on a food adventure in this community

Chicken and beef arepa can be found at El Antojo in Kitchener. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

With the pandemic, travelling is complicated but you can discover foods from around the world in Waterloo region and surrounding areas.

Like most maps, perhaps the best way to approach the global cuisine available here on our doorstep is to follow the alphabet.

Here's the travelogue of tasty dishes you can find locally.

Asia, the world's largest and most populous continent, is well represented here by Chinese noodles, Korean bibimbap, Vietnamese soups and banh mi, sushi, Thai curries and more.

But Filipino restaurants like Sari-Sari and Nuestro 88 have gained popularity quickly, along with catering companies like Gayuma.

Established venues Loloan and Bhima's Warung have a reputation not only for southeast Asian cooking, but for developing cooks who stay in the region to add their skill to the food scene's diversity.

April 14 to 16 is Lao New Year. Laotian-style "tapas" pops up at Underground Food Group (UFG) this Saturday during their "Muang" (mango) event. The cooks are the brother and sister team of Sai and Lois Phounsavath, the latter a Bhima's sous chef who trained many a local cook.

Knife and Pestle operates out of the Wooden Boat kitchen in Kitchener. Check them out for their "Lao Box" dishes like jeow mak keua (roasted eggplant with sticky rice).

Next, head to the heights of Preston for Nepalese/Nepali dumplings from Momo House Indo-Chinese Restaurant and flavours that will put you on top of the world.

Knife and Pestle co-owners Mike Saengdala, front, and Kennedy Phounsiri, are seen in their kitchen in their Kitchener restaurant. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

From dhal to perogies

From there, travel south to the Indian sub-continent and Urwa's Waterloo for Pakistani haleem, a porridge-like beef stew with dhal, lentils, cashews and the spices of the region: it's delicious with naan.

While in India, take the train to Mumbai on the west coast (and the country's largest city) for a Bombay "Frankie" pocket, named for a famous cricketer. It's available at Exotica Fusion Kitchen and Café Pub in Waterloo. The Mumbai street food is meat, veg, sauces and seasonings wrapped in a tortilla shell made by a local Mennonite baker that's much like a roti (vegan version available).

This sopa de res can be found at America Latina Grocery and Eatery in Kitchener. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

Five-thousand miles to the northwest, you'll find Russian and Ukrainian dishes such as perogies and borscht at Teremok Café in Waterloo, a long-standing restaurant.

When it comes to Central American food in the region, you'll find a good selection in the grocery store settings of Mi Tienda Latina and Latinoamerica Unida (for good enchiladas).

While visiting America Latina Grocery and Eatery on Victoria Street Kitchener for pupusas, I noticed customers slurping big bowls of soup: I asked for some, but it was sold out.

Sopa de res, which I soon ate on a return journey, is a beef and vegetable soup that takes two days to prepare. Chock full of cassava, green beans, chayote, cabbage and a chunk of corn, it's available only on Saturday – and it sells out fast.

Nepali momo can be purchased at MoMo House in Cambridge. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

Delicious street food

Fly next to South America for the Passado Brasil pop-up at UFG (they have a food truck too) and sample their pasteis, a hand-pie with that's a cultural cross-over. Passado co-owner Claudio Perez says that Japanese and Chinese immigrants in Brazil sold gyoza and wontons at street markets.

"Brazilians used the wrappers and created the pasteis. Brazil is a big country with lots of regional dishes, but pasteis are recognized everywhere there," Perez says. Passado Brasil's are stuffed with meat and cheese, cheese and guava, and strawberries and white chocolate.

From Brazil, hop back on the plane and head northwest a few thousand kilometres to Bogota and you will find arepas; if you miss your connection, you can just travel to El Antojo Bakery & Café, a family business in Rockway Business Center (Weber Street at Montgomery). This Colombian version is a thick ground-corn "tortilla" loaded with ingredients like pulled beef or pulled chicken, stewed vegetables, cheese and sauces. Scrumptious and filling.

The Vegan Frankie Pocket can be found at Exotica Fusion Kitchen in Waterloo. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

You could then cross the Atlantic to the horn of Africa — or you could look for the several delicious Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurants here: Muya, East African Café and K-W African Cuisine are examples.

Based in Kitchener is food entrepreneur Bethlehem Alemu: she makes a crunchy and devil-pepper spicy Tefftastic Puffs snack with teff grain, an ancient grain of Ethiopia.

Digby Chicks are a salty herring snack found at T&J Seafoods in Kitchener. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

Then, trekking to South Africa need only be as far as Stratford, where Western Cape-born Anthony Jordaan has renovated his Braai Restaurant over the past couple of years despite the pandemic. In South Africa, braai is barbecue, and there's lots of smokey dishes and beef-jerky-like biltong served by chef Arron Carley.

Speaking of the chewy snack, Dayton Pereira's Steak Almighty, a Kitchener-based online meat purveyor, is currently developing his version of biltong.

Heading home

Get ready for some jet-lag because it's time to return to Canada — and to realize how vast the dishes are that define this nation's rich regional food heritage.

One that's an acquired taste, but which goes nicely with a cold beer on your sunny patio, is found at T & J Seafoods Kitchener: "Digby Chicks," named for the Nova Scotia town on the Annapolis Basin, are salty herring snacks.

"You can find them from the Gaspé through to Nova Scotia. They were a bar snack, like peanuts, though very smokey and very salty," says Brian Jardine, seafood manager.

Finally, back in this region, try a serving of fetschepatze, or "fat sparrows," from Stone Crock St. Jacobs. The deep-fried drop doughnuts evoke the "Waterloo County Fare" of a century ago and noted culinary historian and beloved writer Edna Staebler: it's said that Edna once ate nine of the morsels in a single sitting.

After such a long journey, a sweet or two — or nine — is a well-deserved finale.


Andrew Coppolino

Food columnist, CBC Kitchener-Waterloo

CBC-KW food columnist Andrew Coppolino is author of Farm to Table (Swan Parade Press) and co-author of Cooking with Shakespeare (Greenwood Press). He is the 2022 Joseph Hoare Gastronomic Writer-in-Residence at the Stratford Chefs School. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewcoppolino.