Our neighbours, originally from Hong Kong, typically walk to Chinatown on Spadina Avenue to do their shopping. In recent years, they have invited us for dim sum and for a tour of their haunts. I have walked on Spadina Avenue for years, admired the variety of the exotic fruits on offer in the sidewalk stands and assumed that’s all there be. How wrong I was!! Teresa and Nelson led the way and showed us past the fruit stands, down the narrow steps lined with shelves of packaged products, and into the vast food emporium that is the Kai Wei Supermarket at 253 – 259 Spadina. The address should have given away the size of the food store, but who notices those things? Once inside, the range and variety of foodstuffs on offer is astounding… a veritable supermarket in the heart of the Toronto’s Spadina Chinatown. (There are now several Chinatowns in Toronto. This is the second; the original was further east on Dundas Street, behind what is now the New City Hall.)
At the back of the store, beyond the frozen food counters, is a large fresh fish market. Apart from the usual salmon, mackerel, snapper and tibia that one would find elsewhere, there is perch, pickerel, baby red grouper, fluke, moon fish, milk fish, skate, shark fish, sea smelts, sea bass, sea bream, fresh squid or calamari (what is the difference?), fish I have never heard of like golden pomfret and bonito, and tanks with swimming eels and catfish. If it is shellfish you want, there are clams (fresh or frozen, Manila, brown, white, cooked, “pasta” or “cherrystone”, whatever those are), oysters (fresh or frozen), live Vancouver crab or frozen chopped crab from Vietnam, live lobster or frozen lobster meat, scallops, mussels (including greenshell mussels from New Zealand), prawns and shrimp (white and tiger, shelled or not, fresh or frozen) and fresh snails. With such a choice, one wonders why we continue to shop at our local mainstream supermarkets. At the fresh meat counter opposite, there is a full range of meat and poultry products including cuts of lamb, goat leg and shoulder, pork kidney, “old chicken (for soup)”, fresh duck, and cooked egg yolks. Old chicken for soup and duck I understand, but how does one use cooked egg yolks?
The produce department is equally fresh and exotic: different types of choi and other greens with no English labels (Chinese broccoli tips is an exception), taro, fresh ginger, an astonishing array of mushrooms (King Oyster, brown, white, portabella, enoki, shimeji), lotus roots, bright purple eggplant, fresh sugar cane. There is a corner with a huge collection of teas, whatever kind or flavour you fancy… green tea, almond tea with hazelnut, ginger tea. And fresh nuts, beans, dried fruit, and spices, just like Bulk Barn. Bean curd and tamarind; how are they classified? Asian sweets abound: all those dried fruit candies, peanut and sesame bars, rice cookies and cakes which are delicious but probably not the greatest, at least for my diet (although dried sea weed has few calories and comes in cheap snack-sized packages.) And those Asian fruit drinks which cost a fortune elsewhere; here they sell in multiples. Leaving the store, we explore more closely the variety of oriental fruits on display outside: sweet dragonfruit (white and red), sapodillas, lanzones, mango, persimmons, pomegranates, chestnuts, sugarapples, passion fruit, guavas, papaya, cactus pears, pomelos. With more experimenting, we will eventually know what they all taste like.
Teresa and Nelson took us to another supermarket, a bakery, a Chinese mall, and the Sky Dragon Chinese Restaurant for dim sum. It was a wonderful venture into a different world. Clearly, those who cook Chinese cuisine have all they need right at hand, with no reason to use mainstream supermarkets, nor to venture to the Asian superstores elsewhere in the city. Now that we know what is available, maybe we will shop there ourselves. The choices are fantastic and the prices are right. Who would know better than our neighbours?