While the low points of British colonialism are legion -- slavery, disease, the royal family -- the opportunity for exchange that the empire made possible has resulted in the culinary diversity we experience today.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the foods of the Caribbean, truly the world's first fusion cooking.
The West Indies have been a hotbed of hybrid fare for over 500 years. Besides the Brits, the Spanish and the Portuguese have also left their mark on the territory. Throw in dishes and foodstuffs from India, the Middle East and China brought to the islands by waves of indentured workers, and you get a cultural cross-pollination that's cause for celebration: Caribana!
Hot spots And if dancing in the street's not your thing, a few hot spots serve up parties every day -- places like Wong's, a 27-year-old Chinese-slash-Jamaican eatery on Bathurst that serves up callaloo 'n' codfish alongside chicken egg foo yong.
An anonymous-looking space on an Annex strip that's defiantly ungentrified, Wong's more than makes up for its modest appearance with its substantial JA grub. Slow-braised oxtail ($6.95) and curried goat ($5.95) both come with a mound of dirty rice and red kidney beans. Forget about Colonel Sanders style when ordering fried chicken ($5.95), because it's actually three pieces of pan-fried bird in a thyme-spiced gravy. Quite tasty.
The Chinese side of the short menu harks back to the 50s -- the 1850s. No restaurant in China sells chop suey, because it's not really a Chinese recipe at all.
A stir-fry of whatever was on hand, chop suey was invented by Asian chefs cooking in camps during the California gold rush. It became a standard of New World Chinese joints for the next 100 years, and Jamaica's no exception.
Bad rep Chop suey has a bad rep -- well, my mother's version, which includes macaroni, ground beef and canned tomatoes does -- but Wong's dish doesn't deserve it. OK, I'm sure it won't be on Susur Lee's next lineup of edgy gastronomy, but the special chop suey ($6.75) features shrimp, chicken, pork and veggies mixed in a slight soy-cornstarch sauce.
The most striking aspect of Wong's decor is its 11-songs-for-a-dollar analog jukebox stocked with everything from oldies by Bob Marley to contemporary dancehall hits by Beenie Man. But it's broken. I tell the woman behind the counter that they should get it fixed, because it's a very unique machine.
"Wanna buy it?" she laughs.
Am I the only one who thought the "dutchie" that Musical Youth "pass on the left-hand side" had to do with a cigarette of an exotic nature? Imagine my embarrassment when I discovered that dutchie means dutchpot, a communal casserole. In hindsight, those kids did seem rather young to be toking....
Leslieville's Caribbean Dutchpot (1560 Queen East, 405-8944) takes its name from that pot. Alongside the expected mains -- a first-rate jerk pork dinner with contrasting vinegary cabbage slaw and coconut-rich rice and beans ($8) -- this bright, tropical room also serves up some of the best rotis on the east side. Mixed with cubes of curried potato, cabbage and carrot, the veggie version ($5) makes a very filling meal.
Now with a second location in Village by the Grange (109 McCaul, 599-9339), Island Foods (1182 King West, 532-6298) is a favourite with dot-com types in the King and Dufferin warehouse district. Despite the finesse displayed in their Trinidadian curries and stews, the place has all the atmosphere of McDonald's, with staff wearing matching green polyester uniforms and caps.
While the rotis on its roster don't have fillings as diverse as Ali's on Queen West, Island Foods knocks out an extremely satisfying snack, especially when spiked with its homemade hot sauce.
But the jerk chicken dinner is truly exceptional. Served on nutty rice studded with pigeon peas and sided with curried cabbage, six thick slices of chicken breast arrive still on the bone, skin glazed with jerk seasoning. Easily one of the best jerk dishes in town.
At the other end of the gastro scale, the Rosedale set can opt for the not-very-island vibe of Hazelton Gourmet (55 Avenue Road, 921-9636), a tony takeout spot. While most of its upmarket grub doesn't veer far from the middle of the road, the curried chicken salad merits some repute.
A one-cup serving costs an exorbitant eight bucks (salads sell for $2.50/100 gram). It's a smooth mix of chicken breast, walnuts, pineapple chunks and apple pieces, and if its mayonnaise dressing weren't yellow one would have no idea that curry was involved.
Fiery condiment Stay-at-home chefs, hot-sauce fanatics and masochists alike will want to check out Aunt May's Bajan Pepper Sauce, a fiery mustard-and-pimento condiment to push dishes into the stratosphere. Most Caribbean grocers carry it -- including Fullworth (1371 Queen West, 533-5880), Tropical Treets (130 Bermondsey, 759-8777) and Lively Life (93 Front East, 362-1464) -- but even more alarming is the clear 26er rum bottle it's packed into. Surely enough to create your own Caribana all year round!
(930 Bathurst, 532-8135)
Funky little shack on the fringe of the Annex serves a cross-colonial jumble of Jamaican standards and oddball retro JA-stylee Chinese grub. Complete meals for $12 per person, including all taxes, tip and an imported Red Stripe stubby. Open Monday to Thursday noon to 11 pm and Friday and Saturday noon to midnight. Closed Sunday. Fully licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: Funky little shack on the fringe of the Annex serves a cross-colonial jumble of Jamaican standards and oddball retro JA-stylee Chinese grub. Complete meals for $12 per person, including all taxes, tip and an imported Red Stripe stubby. Open Monday to Thursday noon to 11 pm and Friday and Saturday noon to midnight. Closed Sunday. Fully licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN