Toronto·Suresh Doss

This Sri Lankan chef brings hoppers and curry to the downtown crowd

Jaffna-born Tamil chef Johnne Phinehas was on a mission to bring Sri Lankan food from the suburbs to downtown when he opened his pint-sized takeout counter, Saffron Spice Kitchen, on Queen West

Saffron Spice Kitchen is located at 459 Queen St. W.

Saffron Spice Kitchen offers up traditional hoppers, which are Sri Lankan savoury crepes cooked in tiny woks. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

Over the last two weeks, I've shared my favourite place for Sri Lankan short eats and we've taken a look at the impact the Sri Lankan immigrant community has on our dining scene in Toronto.

Like other international communities, Sri Lankans have added to the tapestry of food in the GTA. Since most Sri Lankans live outside the downtown core, many of the restaurants are located in areas like Brampton and Scarborough. Until recently, if you wanted good Sri Lankan food you had to drive out of the city.

Jaffna-born Tamil chef Johnne Phinehas was on a mission to change that when he opened his pint-sized takeout counter, Saffron Spice Kitchen, on Queen West in 2013.

Phinehas's family left Sri Lanka during the civil war. In 1983, they fled by boat to India and a decade later they made their way to Canada. Phinehas grew up in Scarborough and witnessed the rise of Sri Lankan eateries across the suburbs.

"There are so many takeout spots that have popped up everywhere in the last 20 years. But they are all uptown and far away from the city," he said.

Suresh Doss: Saffron Spice Kitchen

4 years ago
Duration 0:37
Metro Morning Food Guide Suresh Doss takes us inside Sri Lankan restaurant Saffron Spice Kitchen.

Phinehas also noticed that while this was great, few establishments were catering to non-Tamil speaking customers.

"Nothing would be written in English. It's difficult to tell people to go when there is a language barrier. I wanted to change that and make Sri Lankan food accessible to everyone."

'Push the flavour as much as possible'

We're in an exciting era with food in Toronto. The city is seeing the evolution of cuisine from Middle Eastern to Italian to Chinese. Young, second-generation restaurateurs and cooks are shedding some of the emotional baggage that their parents brought with them, and they're pushing traditional dishes in interesting ways.

Considering how big the Sri Lankan diaspora is here, I've long hoped for the same to happen with Sri Lankan food.

Phinehas wants the same.

"I knew that first I had to introduce non Sri-Lankans to what our food is — what it looks like and tastes like. My goal is to push the flavour as much as possible," he explained.

Chef Phinehas has nearly a dozen varieties of curries available daily, most of them vegetarian, many vegan. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

When Phinehas opened his shop in 2013, the menu highlighted many classic Indian dishes and just a few Sri Lankan staples. Quickly that changed when he noticed that his audience wanted more. He also noticed that Tamil cooks nearby would finish their shifts at various restaurants and stop by to pick up some kothu roti or short eats.

So he pushed the menu further to highlight the cooking of his mother and his homeland. The chef unearthed traditional recipes that he would tweak in order to bring the best out of the ingredients.

He reconsiders temperature and cooking time with some of the ancestral recipes, undercooking the dish a little bit to make sure it doesn't arrive overcooked and chewy.

The beauty of rice and curry

The best example of this is his signature dish of rice and curry, which also happens to be Sri Lanka's national dish.

On any given day, Phinehas will have nearly a dozen varieties of curries available, most of them vegetarian, many vegan.

A traditional rice and curry is composed as follows: there's a mound of plain rice at the centre of the plate, usually three to four vegetable preparations, a meat curry, pickled vegetables and a sambal or two.

You eat it by mixing the rice into each, or all, of the accoutrements. Each spoonful will taste different.

The signature dish at Saffron Spice Kitchen is rice and curry, which also happens to be Sri Lanka's national dish. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

The beauty of rice and curry is that it be different with each visit.

At Saffron Spice Kitchen there's a daily rotation of traditional vegetarian dishes, like stewed brinjal (eggplant) or daal (a stew of lentils), beetroot (cubed beets cooked with mustard and fenugreek seeds), cauliflower curry and stir-fried spicy beans with carrots.

I'm a meat lover, but I don't miss it at all when I have lunch here.

Recently, Phinehas has taken strides to present more classical Sri Lankan dishes that aren't generally found in Toronto. He's pulled from his childhood experiences of eating hoppers — savoury crepes cooked in tiny woks.

He soaks rice, grinds it, then adds active yeast to kick start the fermentation. The batter is left overnight to ferment and develop a slightly funky flavour.

Chef Phinehas has mastered the difficult technique behind making Sri Lankan crepes, or hoppers. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

The batter is then poured into a mini-wok and swirled around to coat the sides. After a couple of minutes, you end up with a bowl-shaped crepe with crisp edges and a pancake-like centre.

Hoppers are usually served with an assortment of sambals. Phinehas rotates his between coconut and chili sambals. 

Hoppers are labour intensive and the technique can take some time to master, but when done right they have a wonderful texture to them. Think of eating a crispy version of Ethiopian injera bread.

At Saffron Spice Kitchen my preferred method is to order two hoppers, get whatever sambals are on the menu, and add a curry to it. And the eggplant is great if you prefer to go meatless.

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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