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At the year-old Maeli Market, a Taiwanese food emporium in North York, there are shelves devoted to bubble tea ingredients and fruit flavoured vinegars and tables of salty and spicy prunes.
The kitchen is just as big as the retail space where there is a sizable takeout menu that includes Taiwanese poutine topped with braised minced pork and shiitake, a popcorn chicken bento box (tofu version also available) and a veggie bao.
Maeli is one of several specialty food shops that opened in Toronto during the pandemic, highlighting regional ingredients and meeting the growing appetite for international snacks. The goal isn’t necessarily to compete with one-stop mega-grocers, but rather to narrow down the selection for those trying to replicate mom’s cooking or confused cooks trying a new cuisine.
“It’s like a cultural hub. We want customers to have a sense of the island,” said Alice Chung, co-founder of Maeli.
The takeout, which highlights classic and modern Taiwanese cooking, uses a lot of the products carried in the store. “This way we can showcase the ingredients we bring in and (customers) can have a taste of it first,” said Chung.
Other retail and takeout hybrids have opened across the city in the last year.
Japanese and Korean food spot Hanamaru Market on Pape Avenue sells house-made sushi rolls and onigiri. At Pepper’s Food and Drink on Wallace Avenue, a takeout menu leans into Asian-American cooking, complementing a retail space for alcohol and snacks. A second location of Mattachioni opened on Gerrard Street East, selling Italian groceries, bread loaves and baked-to-order pizzas. High-end Yorkville Japanese restaurant Yuzuki opened Yuzuki Fish Market on Spadina Avenue with a takeout sushi counter, grocery section and fridges stocked with raw fish and fresh wasabi root.
In addition to regional cooking, these businesses are also catering to generational cooking.
“We’re trying to create a space for Asian millennials to recreate their fondest food memories and make new ones,” said Christina Pack, owner of Auntie’s Supply, an online retailer with a small storefront in the Stackt Market that sells Asian snacks and pantry items.
While Pack’s store stocks staples typically found at a Chinatown grocer, what sets it apart are the shelves of condiments and snacks from food startups founded by young Asian Americans and Canadians, who grew up with different flavour profiles than their parents.
There are chili oils and a hot pot soup base from Chinese-American brand Fly By Jing and cans of yuzu-ginger soda from Filipino-American wellness company Droplet. From Toronto, bottles of Korean-inspired hot sauce from MaMa Joo’s and chai concentrate from Spice Girl Eats.
Many of the products are also marked vegan, gluten free or dairy free.
The shop also holds pop-ups with other food startups. It recently sold mini-custard cakes from Filipino-Canadian bakery Asukal and daifuku mochi from Chubbi Rice.
“The pop-ups are to amplify local businesses and with the foot traffic we get, it helps showcase different cuisines,” said Pack.
The local angle is what many of the stores push. At East York’s Latin American grocer Tienda Movil, owner Gabriela Flores says she feels a sense of duty to help others get a foothold into the food business.
Flores started the shop on Woodbine Avenue after she was laid off during the pandemic. Her mother is a wholesaler in Leamington, selling imported Mexican goods to restaurants and shops in surrounding towns, and encouraged Flores to do the same as more people cooked at home.
Flores started selling tortillas and tostadas in Facebook and WhatsApp groups. While making deliveries, customers asked if she also had Mexican mole, chocolates, salsas, cheese and snacks.
Her inventory grew and eventually she rented a storefront.
Among the thousand-plus kinds of products are imported cookies and candies (the spicy Pulparindo tamarind fruit leather is a top seller), fresh cactus and pantry items, along with salsas, taco kits and papusas made by locals, who often use the store to launch their products.
“When I was making deliveries, a lot of moms were home too, and saying they needed a job. I was like, sure make your own product and I can sell it,” said Flores. “We were all learning how to start a business and follow the rules like having to cook in a commercial kitchen and get the licences and permits … These are the stories that make me feel good because we’re helping and supporting each other.
“(Customers) don’t just like my products,” Flores added. “They like my story.”
What to buy from Auntie’s Supply, Maeli Market and Tienda Movil
Whether for yourself or a gift, this holiday head to these neighbourhood shops for treats you’ll be hard pressed to find elsewhere.
Auntie’s Supply (28 Bathurst St. at the Stackt Market)
Pandan Kaya from Auria’s Malaysian Kitchen ($14)
This condiment company takes kaya, a traditional coconut jam and flavours it with pandan leaves for an extra herbal aroma. Spreading kaya on toast is the most traditional way to enjoy it, but you can also add it to ice cream or granola, mix it with cereal milk, or slather it on pancakes.
Okazu Curry Miso from Abokichi ($13)
These sesame condiments from the Toronto-based Japanese food company have a cult following because their sweet-salty and slightly spicy profile go great drizzled on top of everything: eggs, rice, cooked vegetables, fish, tofu, noodles, salads.
Maeli Market (18 William Sylvester Dr.)
Hello Kitty Pineapple Cakes from Red Sakura ($6.50)
Next to bubble tea, pineapple cakes are the most famous foodstuff to come out of Taiwan (pineapple is one of its major crops). These two-bite cakes are filled with pineapple that has been cooked down to a consistency that’s similar to a very thick jam without being overly sweet.
Dried Salted Plums from Plumaster ($4.80)
Part of Maeli’s mandate is to highlight some of the smaller producers coming out of Taiwan. One of them is Plumaster, which only uses plums from the Nanxi region where its founder grew up. Salted prunes are a popular East Asian snack — just pop one into your mouth and let them melt (they contain pits, so they’re not for chewing).
Tienda Movil (1237C Woodbine Ave.)
Ponche Mexicano from D’canci ($10)
Typically consumed during the holidays, this centuries-old Mexican punch contains dried guava, pear, apple, raisins, sugar cane, hibiscus, raw sugar and cinnamon. Simply boil the dried fruit in water, add more sugar if desired (or a splash of booze). Serve chilled or hot.
Cocoa Paste from Juquilita ($9.50)
Tienda Movil stocks a lot of items from Oaxaca, one of the most widely known culinary regions in Mexico. One being Mexican drinking chocolate, which unlike hot chocolate relies less on sugar and cream, and more on the rich, bittersweet aromas of roasted cacao. Dissolve two balls of chocolate into a litre of hot water or milk to enjoy on a cold night.
Read all of the stories in this week’s Toronto food coverage:
Three locally made chili oils you need to stock your pantry with
This tiny shop on the Danforth has hundreds of specialty finds from Spain, Mexico
Correction — Dec. 2, 2021: This article has been updated from a previous version that incorrectly spelled the name of Asukal bakery.
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