Toronto chefs collaborate for Lunar New Year menu

Alma is on 1194 Bloor St W, Toronto.

Alma is on 1194 Bloor St W, Toronto

Alma and Kojin in Toronto are collaborating on a two-week Lunar New Year menu. (Suresh Doss)

Food writer Suresh Doss, in conversation with CBC Metro Morning host Ismaila Alfa, has some interesting new ideas to share for Lunar New Year dining.

Suresh Doss: Around this time every year I get a lot of requests from listeners asking for Lunar New Year recommendations. In the past, I would join my friends who observe the holiday. We would head up to Richmond Hill for large multi-course feasts or we would go to downtown Chinatown for some Dimsum. But this year, the question is; how can you bring that home?

So I turned to a chef in Toronto, Anna Chen, who owns and runs Alma in Bloordale. Anna is from Calcutta, India, and she identifies as Hakka Chinese. Her culinary training is rooted in French and Italian cooking and she has worked in some of Toronto's best restaurants. Nearly two years ago she opened Alma, this small restaurant on Bloor West, but she had a very different vision back then.

"Honestly, we were going into the unknown. This is the first time I ever opened myself. It was a very eclectic restaurant. There was Chinese influence but it was very mild. We wanted to ease into the market." -Anna Chen

So Ismaila, Alma 1.0, if you will, saw inspiration and influences from French cooking, Italian and her heritage of Hakka Chinese. [

Anna Chen uses her chef's training to put her own twist on the traditional foods she grew up with. (Suresh Doss)

Ismaila Alfa: What changed?

Suresh Doss: COVID happened. And the underlying theme in the last year has been about how restaurants and the industry is coping with the pandemic in terms of changing, and adapting, with takeout, or cocktails to go. For Anna though, something more drastic needed to happen.

"I got to a point where I was like, if I'm going to close this restaurant because of COVID. If it happens, I'm going to go out with a bang. I'm going to do exactly what I want to do, the kind of food I was maybe afraid to do before. So I just went all out, I didn't hold back. It has been a very very positive experience." - Anna Chen 

Anna Chen pivoted to offering food she grew up with on her menu after the pandemic struck. She says it's food she 'was afraid to offer before.' (Suresh Doss)

Ismaila Alfa: So as I understand it, this new approach is more rooted in her Hakka Chinese heritage? 

Suresh Doss: Very much so. I would say, in my opinion, the menu is very different from before, and she describes it herself as "Modern Chinese." She's now taking dishes that she grew up with, dishes her mom used to make, and she's complementing them with her own experiences as a chef

Ismaila Alfa: What does that look like? 

Suresh Doss: So when you order takeout, you're presented with a wonderful scallion flatbread, for example, which is a take on green onion pancakes, but thicker. It's served with Stracciatella cheese, which is very different. It's actually a very good combination when you fold the cheese into the pancake.

There are steamed buns, stuffed with some sort of savoury custard cream.

They make their own Siu Mai, ground pork seasoned and steamed and served with their house chili oil. There is also this wonderful fried chicken, which is coated in soy and molasses, and then finished with black pepper and lime. 

Alma's regular menu is an homage to Anna Chen's Chinese Hakka heritage. (Suresh Doss)

Lunar New Year 2-week menu

Ismaila Alfa: That sounds like pure heaven, Suresh. What is Alma's offering for Lunar New Year? 

Suresh Doss: I recently learned that Anna is collaborating with Eva Chin, the chef at Kojin and they've both created this really wonderful menu to pay homage to Lunar New Year. It's this really colourful, bright eight-course tasting menu that really takes you on a roller coaster of tastes and smells. You start off with shrimp crackers that they make in-house.

Ismaila Alfa: Like the ones you find in the snack aisles?

Suresh Doss: But way better, you cant go back after this. There is a baos stuffed with a clementine custard. A colourful prosperity salad with pomelo, with preserved plums. There is this roasted duck that is stuffed with mushrooms. There's this really wonderful soy braised bean curd dish with winter mushrooms. And a couple of sweet things on the menu as well. You're presented with a box of sesame cookies and this really nice rice cakes steamed with palm sugar. It takes you on a wonderful journey of sense and smell and taste.

Ismaila Alfa: How do I order the whole menu? 

Suresh Doss: You can call Alma or Kojin, either restaurant. I'ts available starting this weekend and runs for two weeks. It's available for takeout; you can order and pick it up at either restaurant. It's a rare collaboration, especially in COVID times.

But also, aside from the Lunar New Year menu, I really think more people should pay attention to what Anna is doing with her take on Hakka Chinese cuisine. Not only is her food delicious, but her perspective is rare in this city, and it's showing us the way forward to where the cuisine will take us in Toronto.

Ismaila Alfa: Nothing about culture is static. Thank you, Suresh.