Toronto·Suresh Doss

Ceylon Spice's traditional cuisine 'takes you immediately to Sri Lanka'

Ceylon Spice is a sit-down Sri Lankan restaurant that serves up traditional mulligatawny soup and string hoppers in downtown Toronto. Suresh Doss says the mulligatawny reminds him of home.

Ceylon Spice is located in Cumberland Terrace Mall at 2 Bloor St. W. in Toronto

Ceylon Spice serves traditional Sri Lankan dishes like string hoppers, mulligatawny soup and fish curry. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

In a fast-growing city where upscale food halls and markets are taking over, there are few food courts left like the one in Cumberland Terrace Mall at Bloor and Bay streets.

It was the first one I visited when I started my adult working career in the city, and the first where I had mulligatawny, a very traditional Sri Lankan soup made with curry spice and rice. 

It reminded me of home.

"The mulligatawny soup has been on the menus since I first opened over 20 years ago," said Esther Joseph, owner of Esther Queen, a corner stand at Cumberland Terrace, and Ceylon Spice, a sit-down restaurant located downstairs.

At Esther Queen, Joseph has been serving soups for lunch since the 1990s. It is a miniature space, designed for takeout with close to 30 soups on rotation. 

"I have no cooking background, but I learned from my mother and grandmother. The soup idea seemed obvious because Canada is a cold country and everyone loves soup," Joseph said.

Since opening, Esther Queen has become a hit. I rarely see this kind of loyalty to a lunch stand in the city; many of Joseph's customers visit her multiple times a week and they've been doing so for many years.

"It's really because of them that I decided to open a traditional Sri Lankan restaurant downstairs," Joseph said.

Ceylon Spice, which is located on the bottom floor of the mall, opened two years ago and in my opinion it is a rare gem in the city. With a large diaspora of Sri Lankans in the GTA, we still seem to lack Sri Lankan restaurants downtown where you can sit and enjoy a traditional meal.

Ceylon spice makes traditional string hoppers. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

Joseph's Ceylon Spice achieves that.

"I get to show more of my culture in this restaurant than the soup place upstairs," Joseph said.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Ceylon Spice makes a number of my favourite traditional Sri Lankan dishes — like string hoppers, which are rare to find without committing to a drive to Brampton or Scarborough.

At Ceylon Spice, Joseph has enlisted one of her cooks to make it daily.

"The string hoppers is a careful dish to get right because the texture has to be perfect," she said.

String hoppers are made with this wooden tool to create the thin pieces of dough. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

String hoppers are light puce-coloured noodles which are made by pushing a soft dough through a mould to create what looks like really thin, delicate noodles.

The process is mesmerizing, gently pressing out circlets of whole wheat dough on to wicker mats.

"The noodles are too delicate to touch. It's important to cook them right away," Joseph said as one of her cooks quickly transferred the mat to a steamer.

Suresh Doss says the best way to enjoy Ceylon Spice's string hoppers is with its fish curry. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

The mats are then cooked over vapour for a few minutes.

String hoppers is a very versatile Sri Lankan dish, I remember as a kid having it for breakfast, with freshly grated coconut, coconut milk, and some sugar.

As an adult I regularly enjoy plates of it at my parents' home with an assortment of dips, curries and pol sambol, which is made by mixing freshly grated coconut with chili and onions.

The best way to enjoy string hoppers at Ceylon Spice is with the fish curry. Joseph's take on fish curry brings back every bit of coastal Sri Lankan nostalgia for me. 

It is reminiscent of small seaside fishing towns throughout the island where you would find fish served in a gravy alongside rice or occasionally, string hoppers.

Joseph slow cooks bass in a house blend of spices, red onions and tomatoes until it has the "right thickness, perfect for dipping."

Using your hands, tear some string hopper, pluck a piece of fish and liberally run it through the sauce.

"For me it is one of the simplest pleasures," Joseph said. 

"Just string hoppers and fish curry. Takes you immediately to Sri Lanka."

About the Author

Suresh Doss is a Toronto-based food writer. He joins CBC Radio's Metro Morning as a weekly food columnist. Currently, Doss is the print editor for Foodism Toronto magazine and regularly contributes to Toronto Life, the Globe and Mail and Eater National. Doss regularly runs food tours throughout the GTA, aimed at highlighting its multicultural pockets.

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