Sampling Sri Lanka in Toronto

The cuisine of this tiny island nation packs some big flavours (and often big portions). But to try it in Toronto you have to know where to look.


Though Toronto is thought to be the city with the largest number of Sri Lankan Tamil residents in the world, Sri Lankan food is relatively tough to find here – especially when you compare it to some of South Asia’s other culinary imports. That’s a shame, since it means most of Toronto is missing out on some unique dishes and flavour profiles.

At first glance, the menu at a Sri Lankan spot might seem to feature a lot of familiar South Indian eats – curries, biryani, pappadums, dosas. Though South India may be the largest influence on Sri Lankan cuisine, the difference on the plate is clear: Sri Lankan food tends to feature elevated spice levels in terms of both complexity and, some say, heat. 

Curry dishes (staples include mutton and crab as well as beef, chicken and legumes) often have a looser consistency. Though flatbreads and rice (the latter both cooked and turned into flour for noodles and bread) are staples, you’ll also find liberal doses of coconut and coconut milk, particularly in desserts. 

But there are numerous specialties exclusive to the island nation – and, like any country with many distinct regions and ethnic subgroups, Sri Lankan cuisine often features multiple variations on the same dish. 

Around here, Sri Lankan food is concentrated mostly in Scarborough and Markham, with a few spots in Cabbagetown catering to St. James Town’s immigrant community. If you’d like to try some for yourself, here are a few places to start.

BABU EXPRESS 

4800 Sheppard East, at Shorting, 416-298-2228

Just two weeks away from opening a new and improved dining room in the Scarborough strip mall it’s long called home, this Tamil takeout counter hasn’t taken a breath – instead, the owners just rolled some hot tables into a tiny adjacent unit and kept on cookin’. 

The interim spot has no seating, no signage, no discernible atmosphere of any kind – but with delivery and catering their main raison d’être, who needs fancy extras? Meanwhile, Babu rakes in plenty of takeout business with a massive menu of Tamil eats, available in staggering portions for a few bucks. Crowd faves include the mutton kottu roti, salty-savoury mutton roast curry, spicy crab curry and rib-sticking lampries. 

Do you somehow have room for more? Load up on “short eats” – savoury fritters, samosas, roti rolls stuffed with veggies or meats – for as little as 50 cents a pop.

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Curry-stuffed buns and roti rolls are available all day at Absolute Bakery.

ABSOLUTE BAKERY 

589 Parliament, at Wellesley, 416-929-2700

Besides its counter piled with some of the finest pies east of Yonge, this super-narrow Cabbagetown bakery keeps a back shelf stacked with a selection of short eats. Here, that translates as roti rolls stuffed with potato-onion, chicken or beef curry filling, or malu paan (similar to a bready baked samosa) filled with curry fish (“fish buns”), veggies or meat. Each of these goes for $1.50 to $2.75 a pop – two of these and you’ll be set till dinner.

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The Hopper Hut’s namesake dish comes in three varieties.

HOPPER HUT 

880 Ellesmere, at Kennedy, 416-299-4311

The Hopper Hut is hidden around the back of a strip mall, but that doesn’t do a thing to slow the daily parade of locals in front of their takeout counter. 

The peckish should pick up the namesake dish, thin bowl-shaped crepes made from a fermented batter that lends a slight sourdough tang. Get ’em with a fresh egg or a drizzle of hot coconut milk, sprinkle them with bright, crumbly coconut sambol and down ’em while they’re hot. 

Should you be in the mood for a good 3 pounds of tastiness, go for the lampries. The dish is Sri Lanka’s reworking of the Indonesian rijsttafel – except instead of serving various dish on banana leaves, they wrap the whole dang feast (rice, eggplant, masala potatoes and collard greens, plus your choice of meat) inside the leaf, imbuing everything with stewy moistness and releasing an unearthly cloud of vapour when you unwrap it.

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Ulunthu vadai – lentil dumplings- are a great way to kick off a meal at Rashnaa.

RASHNAA 

307 Wellesley East, at Parliament, 416-929-2099

Still going strong after 26 years, this quiet spot in Cabbagetown bills its menu as “South Indian and Sri Lankan cuisine.” But, as owner Arun Poologasingam explains, “the only Indian dish on the menu is the butter chicken.” 

Everything else is true-blue Sri Lankan, albeit with the heat dialed back for a clientele of downtowners and tourists. (He’ll be happy to spice things up if you ask.) 

Start with ulunthu vadai, hearty donut-like lentil fritters. Try the string hoppers, either as bundles of red rice vermicelli served with an array of sauces or chopped and scrambled into a roundly spiced string hopper kottu roti with peppers, onion and spices. 

Moderate spice aficionados can opt for a burnt-orange chicken curry thick with potatoes and peas, or excellent veggie curries like a velvety lentil or coconut-laced spinach. Go for the chicken devil if you’re feeling daring.

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Steven Davey

Saffron Spice Kitchen does kottu roti for the Queen West lunch crowd.

SAFFRON SPICE KITCHEN 

459 Queen West, at Spadina, 416-203-0222

The only spot in Toronto currently doing a fast-casual spin on Sri Lankan specialties, Saffron Spice Kitchen recasts the kottu roti as a health-conscious cheap eat. 

Alongside salads, smoothies and wraps stuffed with curry lamb or tandoori chicken, you can get a big bowl of chopped roti done on a flat-top with a richly spiced sauce and heaps of fresh veggies, plus your choice of curry chicken, lamb, fish or egg, for $5 ($7.50 for a large). The flavour-packed, fiery scramble (look out for those green chilis!) rivals Banh Mi Boys’ unsinkable subs for the best dollar-to-fullness ratio on the block.

food@nowtoronto.com | @nataliamanzocco

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