These 'short eats' pack a big taste of home for Sri Lankans in Scarborough
Applespice Restaurant is at 3341 Markham Rd, Unit #112 in Scarborough
Over the last year — and 49 episodes — I've covered a lot of culinary ground. From Scarborough to St. Catharine's, this series has given me the opportunity to share just how great the international food options are in the GTA and beyond.
Writing this 50th episode, I realize I've just scratched the surface of all the food options out there. Moving forward, I hope to take readers to more parts of the GTA — Newmarket, Milton, Pickering and Oshawa to name a few — with the hopes of proving that there's great food waiting in every corner.
For this special episode, I wanted to share a personal recommendation of a restaurant that serves food from my homeland. This place has been my own personal secret for some time, a place I've never shared anywhere online.
When I think of Sri Lankan food, the first thing that comes to mind is a "short eat."
That's Sri Lankan for snacks or quick bites.
Short eats is an entire category that is ubiquitous in all corners of that tropical island. Think of it as hors d'oeuvres, or tapas.
What is a 'short eat'?
There are a few requisites for what makes a short eat. It has to be a hand held, bite-sized snack, it can be deep fried or baked, and there's usually some sort of stuffing — either veggie or beef.
Growing up in Sri Lanka, short eats were a snack that you would pick up on the way home from school or during the commute home from work. Its sole purpose was to tide you over until the main meal, which usually doesn't arrive for another few hours.
In Sri Lanka, the main roadways are dotted with spots you can walk into and grab one, or a dozen varieties of short eats: fish patties, mutton rolls, egg rolls or vadai (savoury doughnuts made with lentils, curry leaves, and an assortment of spices). You can also spot mobile short-eats vans, called tuk tuks, emblazoned with descriptions of their short eats offerings.
Memories of Sri Lanka
I grew up during the midst of the Sri Lankan civil war, and that often meant I would be out of school for weeks or months.
Those days were usually spent at my dad's office, where he ran a tech school. We would frequently break with a quick walk to the nearest short eats spot. Then again on the ride home we would make a quick stop at another favourite spot.
On the weekends, when my mom approved, we would grab bags of short eats and head to the Galle Face Green, the ocean-side urban park in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo. There I would stare at the waves of the Indian Ocean while stuffing my face with fish patties.
When we moved to Canada in 1990, that food was the first thing I truly missed. To this day, a good short eat is like a key to the trunk of my childhood memories. When I met other Sri Lankan kids in high school, I found out it was the same for them.
Sri Lanka's national dish is widely considered to be rice and curry, but because of the memories it holds for those who have left the country, I think the national dish of the Sri Lankan diaspora here in Canada is the short eat.
In the early 1980s and 1990s, large waves of migrants were forced out of Sri Lanka because of the civil war. Many of them came to Canada and settled in places like Scarborough.
Around that time there was a boom of Sri Lankan food in the area. I witnessed dozens of places opening up in all corners of Scarborough, many of them takeout joints with little to no seating and barely a menu in sight.
These places were designed to feed a fast-growing community of newcomers who craved a taste of home. The diaspora were still treating short eats the same as they would back home — commuter food that provides some sustenance before the big meal at home.
Today, you'll find it on the menu at every Sri Lankan restaurant in the city.
Freshness makes all the difference
Short eats can be a great introduction to the fiery, spice-laced food of Sri Lanka. Before you get into the curries, start with the short eats. My favourite place for short eats is a small takeout spot at the edge of Scarborough.
Unlike other Sri Lankan short eats shops, here owner Suganthy Muthukumar makes everything a la minute. So don't be surprised if the display cases are empty. Muthukumar's short eats are superlative because the freshness means that the texture grades above what you'll find at other places.
Muthukumar's family hails from Jaffna, the northern most point of Sri Lanka, which has a large Tamil population.
Both her parents are doctors who were active during the civil war. It was the reason they fled the country.
"My dad was in a difficult position. He was trying to help everyone, help both sides of the conflict," she told me.
One day, after a gun was pointed at his head, he decided it was time to leave. With the help of family friends they hopped on a fishing boat headed toward India.
Muthukumar's dad eventually moved to Canada, and soon after his wife and kids followed.
Traditional meets modern
Muthukumar grew up in Scarborough and she says that she always knew she wanted to be a chef.
"Growing up, I spent a lot of time learning from my grandmother and great grandmother. I learned all the mother sauces and recipes," she remembers.
She trained at George Brown to become a chef, and moved to Alberta for seven years, cooking at a variety of establishments. Last year, she decided to move back and when a vacant spot opened up at the Tamil Plaza she decided it was time to open a Sri Lankan shop.
What I find so exceptional about Muthukumar's cooking is how she combines traditional recipes with modern cooking techniques to create better versions of classics.
"I'll cook things a little less, or I'll make sure the spicing is even throughout," she explains.
Here are my three favourite types of short eats:
The roll is probably the most popular short eat in the Tamil community. It is a fiery snack — a spiced meat, vegetable mixture or curry is cooked down to the point of being dry and gritty. It is then mixed with roughly mashed potatoes. The mixture is wrapped with a bean curd or wonton and flash fried.
A great roll should not feel greasy, and have a pleasing crunch on the outside. It should bring all the familiar flavours of a good curry on the inside.
A traditional mutton patty is made up of a spiced meat and vegetable mixture that is stuffed into a half-moon dumpling and either baked or fried.
Muthukumar goes a step further with hers. For the stuffing, she makes a traditional Jaffna-style mutton curry which she slowly cooks down.
"This is my great grandmother's recipe," she says.
While the meat can feel chewy and overcooked at most places, at Applespice Muthukumar's mutton flakes off like brisket.
Similar to mutton rolls, canned fish is mixed in with a vegetable mixture and slices of green or red chilis. It is then dunked in an egg wash, rolled in breadcrumbs and fried. A well-made fish cutlet should be equal parts spice and palatable fish flavour, and you should be able to see the chunks of fish as you bite into it.
Muthukumar's repertoire of Sri Lankan cooking extends well beyond short eats. If you want something more, I highly recommend you try her seafood kothu roti.
Kothu roti is an iconic late night Sri Lankan dish composed of day-old roti chopped up on a flat griddle and mixed with spices and curry. It's a fast-cooked Sri Lankan stir fry that coats the stomach after a night out on the town.
Muthukumar does a fantastic take on kothu roti with seafood. She mixes in shrimp, cuttlefish and scallops and then coats the kothu with a generous slathering of crab curry sauce.
There's nothing like it anywhere else. It is the best I've found.
Suresh Doss's weekly food segment premieres on Metro Morning Thursday. Watch for video of his jaunts across the city on CBC Toronto's Facebook page.
Do you know a GTA restaurant that Doss should visit? Tweet us @metromorning or send us a message on Facebook. And if you try any of the places he features, we want to see photos!