Every time I walk into Swatow – a Chinatown mainstay on Spadina Avenue – one of the owners greets me with a big smile.
“Happy to see you again!” he said to me in Cantonese, looking behind me. “But where is your mother?
That friendly face, Guang Bai, also known to many as the Man with Photogenic Memory, has registered thousands of faces and customer names in 42 years of running the restaurant.
One of those faces is my mother, who first walked through those doors as a student at the University of Toronto.
“It was one of the only places I found that cured my homesickness,” she told me. “Canada were incredibly alone, but one taste of their noodle soup immediately brought tears to my eyes.”
Four decades after its opening, the restaurant continues to be a bustling hub of the city, serving over 200 dishes (not including off-menu items). Whether it’s a quick and affordable lunch of wonton soup under $10 or late-night sweet and sour pork with friends, most who enter the place cash-only come back for more.
For my mother and I, it’s a place we’ve been to hundreds of times.
While my mother grew up in Hong Kong with many of the most popular dishes like beef and broccoli or chow mein, Swatow is one of the few restaurants that offers cuisine from Chiuchow, the region of China in which my grandparents -parents were born and from whom they eventually escaped during war. Dishes like fishball noodle soup, soy-braised duck, and fried tofu stuffed with fish paste are regular dishes whose numbers we note on the paper orders Swatow still uses to this day.
For us it is a place where we feel a connection even though much of our history has been lost due to migration and war.
“The cooks are Chiuchow, but you know, in Canada you also have to cook more popular dishes,” Bai told my mom and me. “That’s how we were able to survive for so long.”
Swatow is also a place where huge portions cost half the price of a dish elsewhere in the city. Swatow was heaven for my mom, a single mom who worked three times and did her best to make ends meet, where she could have a nice meal (and leftovers) with us without worrying too much about the bill.
“There are many reasons I’m grateful for this place,” she said. “Through food, I can learn more about my story. It’s nostalgic for me.
Returning to my roots is also important to me, a second generation Chinese Canadian who grew up in Toronto. When I was young, I felt pressure to assimilate to fit in, and in doing so, I forgot a lot about my cultural roots. At 28, I’m still searching for reconnection, and since many of our records were destroyed or lost during my family’s trip to Canada, one of the few ways I can do that is through food.
As Swatow connects my mother and I for generations to our ancestors, cha chaan teng, or the cafes of Hong Kong, we are also nostalgic. Our favorite spot, Tasty Delight, is located in a mini-mall (like many of the city’s foodie gems) on Leslie Street and Finch Avenue.
At Tasty Delight, there are also hundreds of dishes on the menu, but the star dishes are dishes that emerged from the British rule of Hong Kong.
During this time, cheese and dairy products were introduced to the island region, along with different cooking methods like convection baking. This is why when you go to a cha chaan tengyou’ll see that the food is a fusion between these worlds – something the cooks have pioneered and which is not just a staple in Hong Kong, but around the world.
Some of our favorites? Pork chop baked with cheese and tomatoes on your choice of rice or spaghetti. Or the thick French toast with a slab of butter and syrup. Or the popular instant noodle breakfast with Spam, an American product popularized during and after World War II. All of these items carry both traditional styles and ingredients from southern Chinese cuisine fused with western influences – the result of a post-war world.
In particular, the lai chaor milk tea, is a remarkable reminder of home for my mother.
It reminds me of growing up on Hong Kong Island with nine siblings and my grandfather waking them all up at 5am every Saturday to climb up The Peak (now a tourist mountain you can take a bus or a tram) to see the sunrise. Coming back down the mountain, they knew they were in for a treat – visiting Grandma straining tea leaves in a stocking at a corner stall for a cup of hot milk tea made with condensed milk.
“When you taste it, made with that kind of love and care, it takes me back to when I was a kid in Hong Kong,” my mother said. “The one (at Tasty Delight) reminds me of that.”
The best part of Swatow and Tasty Delight is not just how they connect us to the past, but how they allow others to experience our culture through cuisine.
Despite the gentrification in Toronto, one thing that we will always have in a city where over 50% of the population identifies as a visible minority is those cultural institutions–the places that don’t seek a Michelin star, that don’t seek no media coverage, but survive and thrive. And most importantly, connecting together like they do for me and my mom.