Journalist Sarah Efron explores strip malls and hole-in-the-wall restaurants in search of the city's best ethnic food

Sunday, November 6, 2011

A visit to Toronto's Persian Plaza

Food lovers be warned: A first walk through North York's Persian Plaza is overwhelming. Every shop is brimming with familiar and not-so-familiar Iranian hot food, baked goods and meats.

The Persian Plaza is located at Yonge Street in North York, just south of Steeles. It was originally a multi-ethnic plaza, but in the mid-1990s, it morphed into what it is today: one stop shopping for members of the nearby Persian community who want to make use of tailors, video shops, travel agencies and money transfer services run by their compatriots.

The Iranian businesses are not contained to this one strip mall. Both sides of the street of the surrounding blocks are dotted with Middle Eastern speciality stores.

All the food shops sell similar fare, and competition amongst them keeps quality high. Super Zamani (above), a meat shop across from the plaza at 6120 Yonge Street, is a refreshingly clean and organized shop with Iranian groceries, breads an a take-out counter serving kebabs. 

In Persian Plaza, Arzon Food Market (below) is a maze of tiny aisles packed with giant tubs of silky Persian-style feta, and jars of cedrate jam (a citrus fruit) and carrot jam (yep, Iranians eat this on toast apparently). Arzon has a take-out counter where kebabs are grilled over charcoal. The juicy, salty taste of the beef kebab ($6.99) did not disappoint. It was served on a bed or rice that was punctuated with lentils and tiny raisins. 

Pars Food, also in the plaza, is a family business run by Pouria Khoshkhou (below), who is originally from Tehran. His shop sells dozens of kinds of picture-perfect Persian sweets—delicate sugary pastries made with saffron, pistachios and walnuts.

The store also has a wide selection of Persian breads, most of which are made at Pars Food's other location at 365 John Street in Thornhill. "Our breads are all hand made, with no chemicals or preservatives," says Pouria. "They're made of flour, salt and yeast—that's all."

My favourite of the breads is sangak, a whole wheat sour dough topped with sesame seeds. It has a tangy tart taste and is wonderfully chewy and stretchy. The shop also has lavash (a super thin bread) and barbari (a thick, textured flat bread), as well as sweet breads made with fresh dates, walnuts, cinnamon and vanilla. 

The hot food counter in the back serves a wide selection of Persian stews made with eggplant, spinach, lentils, and coriander. They are served with rice flavoured with dill, parsley and fava beans. However, the koobideh kebab seems to be the most coveted menu item by the clientele: it's a marinated meat kebab that sells for just $3.99 with rice. 
You won't go wrong with a kebab in the Persian Plaza, but if you're in the mood for risk, there's no shortage of novel products to try. Hookahs for smoking tobacco and herbal mixtures are on display, as well as herb waters, such as cumin water, that are supposed to help you with a stomach ache, kidney pain or to lose or gain weight. The Persian ice cream (faloodeh, below) is another oddity for Western palates: it's a seemingly alien concoction made of saffron, rosewater, pistachio and thin vermicelli noodles. 

Thanks to Ruth of the Toronto Multicultural Calendar blog for the tip. 

Pars Food is located at 6089 Yonge Street;  telephone 416-223-0020. Super Arzon is located at 6103 Yonge Street, telephone 416 222 4726. Super Zamani is located 6120 Yonge Street, telephone 416 250-7314. 

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