This is where to go for Tamil food from Sri Lanka in Toronto
It’s known as Toronto’s destination for Tamil food stuffs from Sri Lanka.
But for me, “Market East” is the place where I used to tag along with my parents on their regular visits for a one-two punch of groceries and takeout.
My mother would inspect her way through the produce aisle at New Spiceland Supermarket picking out bunches of vallarai (pennywort) and looking for the perfect brinjal (eggplant). I would follow her through the tight aisles of the grocer, which had an accompanying hot counter, as she looked for a specific type of chile powder or ground coffee from Sri Lanka spiced with coriander and black peppercorns.
When we’d visit, my dad would be in charge of food — usually it was a few boxes of idiyappam (string hoppers), some mithi vedi (fried patties stuffed with curry and boiled egg), and mutton varuval (mutton fry). They rarely left without a cup of masala (spiced) coffee in their hands.
We weren’t the only family by any means. Since its launch in 2009, many in the Tamil community would make regular trips to the network of low-slung plazas at the southeast corner of Markham Road and Steeles Avenue in Scarborough.
In my experience, Markham Road has always been known for Tamil-owned businesses, since the ’70s and ’80s. As retail and commercial development moved north of Finch over the past two decades, many of the newer plazas have become centres for Tamil-owned businesses.
I remember in the early days, a handful of businesses were scattered across the five buildings at Market East. There were a few textile shops, a foreign money exchange business and New Spiceland. Over the past decade, “Tamil Plaza” — what Market East is fondly referred to as — has blossomed, with over 50 Tamil-owned businesses opening, many of which offer delicious eats.
The plaza’s popularity and growth is no surprise given the Greater Toronto Area is home to a large diaspora of Tamil people, with many families residing in Scarborough, Markham and the nearby Durham region.
“This plaza is a meeting place for Tamils, and it has always been that way,” said Ajan Raj, owner of Wings n Bites.
Tastes from home
For the Tamil community, Market East is a vessel for cultural nostalgia — from keeping up with Tamil cinema and fashion to eating the foods of our homeland.
New Spiceland Supermarket
Since its inception, New Spiceland has been the place to shop for imported fruits and pantry staples. It’s also an opportunity to try regionally specific Tamil dishes cooked by a diaspora that immigrated from Jaffna, Sri Lanka.
The supermarket has evolved over the years though. It is now part grocer, fishmonger, movie rental business and takeout counter.
It is a bustling place that regulars frequent for the hyper seasonal selection of fruits like June plums (ambarella) and nelli.
Even busier is the hot counter next door where you will find a variety of regional foods from the island. There’s a section dedicated to short eats — an entire category of baked or fried snacks stuffed with spiced meats and vegetables.
Pick up the seeni sambol buns — fluffy brioche buns stuffed with caramelized onion filling and cinnamon. The soft bun gives way to a waft of cinnamon at first, followed by the sweetness from the cooked onions. Texturally it can be a sublime experience.
The fish cutlets are also popular here, canned fish is mixed with chilies and spices and stuffed into spice-bomb fritters. They make for a perfect drinking snack.