For the last few months I’ve been a part of a small team involved in short-listing some of Toronto’s best Chinese dishes. Yesterday, that list was released from the Chinese Restaurant Awards. Mains, specialty items, stalls, restaurants, sweets, and savouries – anything and everything was game. We were aiming for 10 dishes that we could stand behind, and given the number of Chinese restaurants across the GTA, this should have been simple to do. Yet it wasn’t. But first, I needed to get over my initial hump of self-doubt.
The Chinese Restaurant Awards have been going strong for five years in Vancouver, and 2013 marks their Toronto debut. That I was asked to help steer and shape this inaugural list was an unexpected honour. And then panic set in. A series of “I have no idea what I’m doing” dogs dashed across my thoughts. I may be of Chinese descent, clinging on to traditions passed down by immigrant parents, but my Cantonese doesn’t muster at even toddler levels, never mind my reading comprehension. More importantly, I am Canadian as much as I am Chinese. Maybe even moreso.
But I do love my food. And I was raised by a family who loves food. Growing up, simple home-cooked Chinese meals were the norm. Eating out at Chinese restaurants was for special occasions. To this day, my mother’s cooking anchors the way I perceive and enjoy my meals, both Chinese and otherwise (love you, Mom). As I grew into my teens, I learned more about Hong Kong style meals, Taiwanese bubble teas, and Malaysian nonya desserts. It wasn’t until I was in my early 20’s that I began to class cuisines as anything more than Chinese, sushi, and everything else. Still, this probably applies to a lot of people, and qualifies them just as much. Still, right time, right place, I suppose.
Both Renee and I were asked due to our participation in another project, though we’ve been sharing eating adventures for years. But it wasn’t until I met the rest of my fellow committee members, that I felt like I might fit. Both Charles and I are active members of Chowhound. I also participate on Yelp, and there’s no one more prolific on Yelp in Toronto (if not internationally!) than Jennifer K. Each one (voracious eaters and nice people, all) represents a different style and perspective of dining for me. Having them all co-mingle, I knew, would be interesting. I was worried everyone was going to be a professional critic, and knowing that they weren’t made me feel that I maybe had a real perspective the CRA was seeking.
So, despite my doubts, I forged ahead. For some time, I despaired that we’d find ten dishes. Each week, we’d hit two or three restaurants. Nominated dishes that were once strong didn’t perform well for others (consistency is always an issue). And with each dismal showing, our list began to dwindle. Not to mention our worry of missing worthy plates from other restaurants, yet untasted; the GTA is a very large geographical area for four to cover. But somewhere, near the end, we managed to come to some kind of consensus, even if it wasn’t unanimous. Special mention goes to Silk Road’s handmade lamb noodle soup – of everything I tried, that was the most compelling of all the dishes proposed.
A lot of hours, a lot of driving, and a lot of eating. Though you may not agree with the entire list, I hope you find it helpful in discovering new pockets of Toronto to explore and taste. If anything, I hope that it sparks some debate over what tends to be a largely ignored (given the numbers) cuisine in Toronto.