S3, E14: Unpacking One of the World’s Most Diverse Cities

On this week’s episode of Unpacked, we explore one of the world’s most diverse cities—which didn’t really start out that way.

This week on Unpacked, we travel north to Toronto, Ontario, one of the world’s most diverse cities to explore what’s made it that way—and how we as travelers can best engage with it.


Bruce Bell, tour guide: Toronto never used to be a diverse city. Toronto was, you know—like America at one time—was ruled by the British. And Britain controlled our immigration so there wasn’t much immigration at all. And that really didn’t happen until the end of the Second World War, when Canada started to control its own immigration, and we opened the doors to the world. And this market was very much at the center of that.

Aislyn Greene, host: I’m standing in the entryway to the St. Lawrence Market. It’s huge with high arched ceilings and produce, fresh meat and fish, and food vendors everywhere. And that gentleman you just heard, he’s kind of like the history king of the market.

Bruce: Hello, I am Bruce Bell. I am the historian and tour guide here at St. Lawrence Market in downtown Toronto for the last 25 years now, I’ve been doing this.

Aislyn: And I’m Aislyn Greene and this is Unpacked, the podcast that unpacks one tricky topic in travel each week. And this week as part of our “Unpacking” series, we are in Toronto, one of the most diverse cities of the world. At least 180 languages are spoken here.

But it wasn’t always like that. Bruce grew up in northern Ontario and has lived in Toronto for almost 50 years, and he tells me that when he was a kid in the 1960s, even something as innocent as garlic was viewed as something unseemly.

Bruce: You know, it wasn’t British. And, uh, you know, my mother’s British, my dad’s British, they came over after the war. My mother never even heard of garlic. And the only thing she heard was, “Don’t have your kitchen have these strong smells.” But she started to cook and she loved cooking and I remember the first time I smelled garlic in the house and she said, “Don’t tell anybody,” you know. So the market, you couldn’t even buy garlic here, but as the city started to really grow and more people from other countries were coming in, you know, the market really took on a different flair and now, yes, there are many different groups, different ethnic groups that have stalls here.

Aislyn: The market is electrifying. We pass a stand called Family Food Market, where asparagus and carrots and, yes, garlic are bundled in tidy rows. We check out oysters and fresh British Columbia salmon at Seafront Fish Market, whose yellow sign is in the shape of a sail. Bruce also introduces me to Carousel Bakery, a must stop if this is your first visit to Toronto.

Bruce: The signature sandwich of Toronto is a peameal bacon sandwich. That’s what everyone comes to this market for. It’s five pieces of this Canadian peameal. Uh, they fry it up. And you get five slices on a bun and a little bit of mustard. And it’s a wonder—it’s very tasty.

Aislyn: I asked Bruce, what on earth is peameal bacon?

Bruce: Peameal bacon was invented here at the market in about 1880, 1885. A butcher named William Davies, they needed to, you know, preserve pork. They used to dip it in a brine of salt, take it out and then roll it in crushed peas. And that kind of kept it together. Today they use corn. Corn holds it together even better. But they kept the name peameal bacon. So when you walk through the market, you’ll see everyone at lunchtime eating a peameal bacon sandwich; it’s very tasty.

Aislyn: Next, Bruce guides me downstairs. And this is where the real lunch options are.

Bruce: One of my favorite places we’re passing—this is all, uh, Eastern European, Hungarian, uh, Russian, Polish food, uh, true comfort food.

Aislyn: They have pierogies.

Bruce: Oh, and known for their pierogies. Oh my God, I just love this so much. I have the hardest job in the world. And right here is a French crêpe place. Crêpes are very popular here in Toronto. They’re everywhere.

Aislyn: But we’re not eating yet. There’s still more to see. For a short time, the market served as City Hall and there are certain . . . reminders left.

Bruce: We’re now in the basement of the old City Hall. We’re looking at an old jail. The one wall left from the old prison from colonial times, where men were chained to the wall.

Aislyn: We leave the former prison behind and turn to a more positive scene.

Bruce: There is a mural on this wall. And, uh, they wanted to paint this mural, to, um, show how fun Toronto’s become. It’s a massive mural of people having fun, and the market is painted in there, as you can see. And, you know, this was unheard of 50 years ago.

Aislyn: And that’s because Bruce tells me that 50-plus years ago, this was a rather serious city.

Bruce: In the 1950s, they made sure you couldn’t even play baseball on a Sunday in Toronto, let alone go to the movies, any of that. It was a very, very pious, dull city, but it was an easy place to do business.

Aislyn: Bruce says that began to change in the 1950s. Movie theaters and theater-theaters, and other forms of entertainment that the city is now so well-known for began to open. It took a while though for it to really take off. And then in the early 1960s, two iconic cultural events took place.

Bruce: It wasn’t until 1964, March 15th, with the arrival of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. And they were the hot couple at the time. And they came to our city, but they weren’t married to each other, and they were sleeping in the same bed. And there were people protesting outside the hotel, the King Edward Hotel.

But there were also a lot of supporters, too. And that was the turning point, was the arrival of Liz and Dick, that people started to say, “You know, we want to start having a bit more fun.” And a few months after that, the Beatles came. Stayed in the same room as Liz and Dick. So those are the bookends. That was truly the beginning of a very modern, uh, Toronto. It was Liz, Dick, and the Beatles. All in the same year.

Aislyn: So the mural represents Toronto’s growth and transformation. The city’s entertainment district, where all of the nightclubs are located and fantastic restaurants, is now a huge draw for locals and travelers alike. The mural also has a little Easter egg for sharp-eyed visitors.

Bruce: But what makes this famous? There’s a picture of me in there.

Aislyn: Oh my goodness, you’re in the mural.

Bruce: I am in the mural. I’ve been writing for a newspaper now for over 25 years. I have a monthly column. And 20 years ago they put me in the mural.

Aislyn: That’s amazing.

Bruce: I’m still there.

Aislyn: The mural is bright and vivid with people singing and dancing and eating. And I see that there’s a woman holding a newspaper that features a giant photo of Bruce Bell’s face.

Aislyn [in interview]: You look kind of like, um, who’s the actor that I’m thinking of?

Bruce: Wayne Newton?

Aislyn: [laughs] Maybe.

Bruce: I do get—I get Elvis, Wayne Newton, and Clark Gable.

Aislyn: I mean, [it’s a] very handsome, very handsome mural here.

As you may have guessed in today’s episode, you’ll get to tag along with me as I revel in Toronto’s diverse and surprising fun. But let’s be honest. The city is 244 square miles and that’s not even counting all the suburbs. And it’s home to 3 million people. So this is in no way a comprehensive overview of Toronto. At first, I was a little overwhelmed by that fact on my trip. Like how could I possibly see or do everything?

And then I, I realized that this is one of those cities that you should really develop a relationship with and visit again and again, and explore different pockets each time and let its mysteries unfold over those visits.

I’m on a ferry. The wind is ruffling my hair. And as we push back from the mainland, I begin to see the CN Tower, one of the city’s main landmarks, appear from behind skyscrapers. The ferry is taking me to the Toronto Islands, a series of three islands that are just 15 minutes from the mainland. They’re one of the many places that Matthew Jordan might talk about on one of his Hidden Rivers walking tours.

Matthew Jordan: I mean, I get emotional even just thinking about, like, walking around downtown, walking around the waterfront, seeing, seeing the island. It’s really, really beautiful.

Aislyn: Because this is a travel podcast, we’re going to refer to Matthew today as a tour guide, but he does a whole lot more.

Matthew: I am a historian of science and technology. I’m a teacher. I’m an educator. I’ve taught at universities. I’ve taught young technology entrepreneurs and engineers in Silicon Valley about the history and philosophy of technology.

Currently, I am in Cambridge, Massachusetts, helping teach a course at Harvard University about Taylor Swift. So I’ve taught a great many subjects in a great many geographies. Toronto is my home.

Aislyn: I had so many questions about his Taylor Swift class, but that’s not what this is about. So back to his tour company. He launched it during the pandemic, during what was a pretty dismal time.

Matthew: I found it really, really hard to be in Toronto because, partially because I think that I thought of Toronto as being about concerts and sports games and tall buildings and events and big city stuff. And so that was my—if that’s your conception of a city, of course, being locked down and unable to do any of that is going to, you’re going to feel what’s even the point of being in a city like that.

Aislyn: Developing his tour was like a mental 180.

Matthew: Those things are really wonderful. The CN Tower is great. Toronto skyscrapers are great. We have a wonderful, you know, downtown. But that’s not what Toronto is about. What Toronto, to me, is about is something that actually is summarized on all of the parks in the city. All of the names of the parks, on the signs, when you go to any park, there’s a motto at the top of the sign that says, “A city within a park.” To me, that’s what Toronto is about.

Aislyn: On his tour, he takes people through those natural spaces and explains how the city was formed. And he starts wayyyy back in history.

Matthew: My tour starts at the end of the last ice age, approximately 12,000 years ago, when much of what we now call Toronto and indeed much of Canada, Ontario, was covered in a gigantic glacier. And that glacier began to melt as the Earth heated up. Hundreds of years of, of fast moving water carves out the ground, right? And in so doing, it carves out huge ravines, big indentations in the ground, oftentimes leaving behind, you know, a legacy of a, of a river that runs the course of that glacial trajectory.

Aislyn: This shaped the city’s geography.

Matthew: The city of Toronto has a very unique feature of, of being kind of on an angle. All of the city slopes downward into Lake Ontario. Like I mentioned, these melting glaciers defined the shape of the city. So the glaciers melt downhill, so to speak. And so all this river flows into Lake Ontario. The city has a kind of natural compass. Now this makes it very easy to navigate in Toronto actually, because south is always downhill and south is facing towards, you know, the waterfront towards the CN Tower, um, towards the, towards the lakeshore. Whereas north, so if you’re going downtown, you’re literally going downhill.

Aislyn: As Matthew continued to explore, he stumbled upon a surprising fact.

Matthew: So Toronto, um, is the city with the largest ravine system in the entire world, was one of the first things that I learned in my research. That was not something that I had ever been told.

Aislyn: Many of those ravines became the city’s best parks like Trinity Bellwoods, a grassy tree-filled space in a neighborhood that shares the same name.

Matthew: Many of these parks are huge indentations in the ground. They, they have very interesting topological features, but you don’t really think about it like that. It’s just a beautiful park that you can sit, have a picnic lying on a slope. Where did all those slopes come from? Right? Where did the geography of the city come from? And how has it come to be the way it is now? That’s what started obsessing me.

Aislyn: He gets into all of this on his tours. And this is how a tour might start.

Matthew: The main walking route that I would do took us through the Tattle Creek, which is one of these buried underground waterways. It’s called philosopher’s walk. It’s a part of the campus of the University of Toronto, And it’s a beautiful kind of walkway and I, you know, I’d walked that a lot during my childhood. My grandparents lived right around the corner and I never knew that you’re walking above a river the whole time, right?

And so that’s where we would start. And so I could kind of start with, with a bang, you know, blow people’s minds a little bit right from the jump.

Aislyn: He would also take people to Nordheimer Ravine, a kind of hidden spot north of downtown. Many years ago, the ravine wasn’t really anything special.

Matthew: And then over the course of the last 75 years, largely through volunteer work, the people of Toronto have planted a ton of trees, done a ton of like regenerative forestry and, and flowers and, and working of the soil and this kind of thing. And Nordheimer Ravine is now, is now beautiful, uh, because of the, the, like, very concerted, very deliberate effort of a great many nature-friendly Torontonians.

Aislyn: He hopes that these tours will inspire people to take care of their own cities.

Matthew: It’s part of the geological ecological heritage of the city. And so I feel very lucky to be showcasing it and also showcasing that, like, this is only so beautiful and so nice because, like, you know, a lot of work went into it, right. And a lot of volunteer work. So part of my goal is to, like, inspire that sense of, I don’t know, civic action on the part of, um, on the part of the people.

Aislyn: Matthew’s tours begin in May. And this year he’s changing things up a bit.

Matthew: This summer, I am going to be doing things in a way that looks a bit more, like, kind of drops every week or every other week. I might do like a Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, one area of the city or one set of areas. For instance, I might do a waterfront tour. I’m going to do a Garrison Creek tour, an East End tour, Don Valley, so different themes. I’m going to move around the city.

Aislyn: Because Toronto is such a rapidly growing city, there is a lot of construction happening at all times. But if Matthew ever feels a sense of loss, he focuses back on what he teaches in his tours.

Matthew: What that led me to understand is that there is one thing that they can never take away. They can never take away the ravines, right? They can never take away the stuff that has been here for hundreds of thousands of millions of years. There’s a permanency when you’re standing on the, the ground at Prince Edward Viaduct looking over the Don Valley, when you’re looking at the Humber River, when you’re looking at the Scarborough Bluffs. There’s a sense that “OK, this is, this is something that’s, that’s forever. This is what the city is about. Buildings will come up and buildings will come down, but this is the real heart of the city.”

Aislyn: I’m staying in the city center, surrounded by the hustle and bustle. I hear languages and music and bonus, it’s just a five-minute walk from one of the most surprising museums I’ve ever visited.

Elizabeth Semmelhack: Well, we are the only shoe museum in North America. We have the world’s most comprehensive collection of international shoes in the world.

Aislyn: That is Elizabeth Semmelhack. She’s the director and senior curator for the Bata Shoe Museum. As I walk up to the museum, there is a giant white and neon ’80s athletic sneaker emblazoned on the side of the four-story museum. Because, yes, there is an exhibition on ’80s footwear, and it is killer. We’ll get to that shortly, but first, why a shoe museum?

Elizabeth: It was started by Mrs. Sonja Bata and she started collecting shoes after she married Mr. Bata. The Bata shoe company was rebuilding after World War II, and she began to travel the world with her husband and she made an astute observation, which is, “People’s feet are basically the same no matter where you go, but what they have traditionally put on them can be remarkably different.” And so she thought, “What, what were the causes for those differences?”

Aislyn: So Mrs Bata began to collect footwear, lots of footwear. As of 2024, there are more than 15,000 artifacts housed here.

Elizabeth: The oldest piece we have is 4,500 years old. The most contemporary are some NFT sneakers for the metaverse. In 1995, she had this museum built by Raymond Moriyama, and we opened our doors to the public and we have been an actively collecting institution and research center ever since.

Aislyn: The museum has three temporary exhibition spaces and a permanent gallery that hints at the stories that shoes hold. The museum also conserves footwear, although Elizabeth is quick to say that they don’t restore.

Elizabeth: One of the things that actually is important to us is to preserve evidence of wear. We have a pair of Elvis Presley shoes, and so you can see sort of how he’s dancing on stage by looking at the wear pattern. So we want to make sure to preserve evidence of wear. But we want to also ensure that things are conserved. So if something, let’s say it’s beautifully beaded, but the bead string has come loose and the beads are starting to fall off, those beads that have fallen off will be returned and then the bead string will be secured, but we won’t make things look brand new again.

Aislyn: Elizabeth’s background is in art history. And while she didn’t set out to steward a shoe museum, she loves her work. We’re now sitting in her office. She has a mug that says, “Warning, I may start talking about shoes at any time.” And on her walls are dozens and dozens of pictures. I see a Peter Max illustration, a photo of a can of acrylic spray that looks like it’s from the 1950s, and many, many shoes.

Elizabeth: What I saw was that shoes are everywhere, really always have been, and that the core questions that drive me, which is, looking at the intersections of gender and economics and fashion and things that are mass consumed, I could ask those questions of shoes.

And what I have found over the years is that any question I have about society, culture, I can find a pair of shoes that will help me sort of start going down that path.

Aislyn: She takes me through some of the current exhibits and, yes, of course, I ask her about her own footwear.

Aislyn [in interview]: In every interview, do people ask you what you’re wearing on your feet?

Elizabeth: No, but that does happen quite a bit, and that is the biggest hazard of the job.

Aislyn: Yeah. Well, because I imagine—

Elizabeth: I don’t have time to shoe shop!

Aislyn: Exactly! I mean, the shoes that you shop for, I would imagine, are, like, the shoes that we’re seeing here, you know? It’s a different kind of shoe shopping.

Elizabeth: Yes. I mean, I’m constantly looking to acquire for the museum, but what will actually fit me?

Aislyn: We’re now in the 1980s exhibit, called Dress to Impress, an Exploration of Footwear and Consumerism in the 1980s. And it will be there until March 2025.

Elizabeth: I did not curate this exhibition. Nishi Bassi did, our curator. And she wanted to look at what was happening with consumerism in the 1980s. The rise of the mall, the rise of multiple different sort of personalities you could take on through how you dressed.

It was a very, uh, eclectic moment, but what unified it, which was reflected in the title here, is that everyone was dressing to impress. And so, the exhibition is laid out like a 1980s mall. It’s very nostalgic. And then each of the shops, um, deals with a different topic.

Aislyn: One of those topics is Dress for Success. It’s all about women entering the white-collar workplace and the pressures put on what was “appropriate” for them to wear.

Elizabeth: One of the more overlooked set of shoes would be this, this trio here of what feel like very conservative shoes, but they reflect that when women entered the white-collar workplace, they did not have the man’s suit, which had already been for over a century a signifier of male authority. So how were women to be taken seriously? What were they to wear?

Aislyn: Elizabeth says that there were books written about how women should wear men’s inspired blazers and modest skirts. So kind of a feminine take on the classic male power suit. But then the question was, what do you wear on your feet?

Elizabeth: Flats were considered unattractive. Super high heels were too sexy. So the power heel, and this was when the term starts to be used, the power heel of the 1980s was a low, modest heel that suggested that you were all business.

Aislyn: We move to a shoe that makes me laugh. Which isn’t really fair to this shoe, which was quite revolutionary in its time.

Elizabeth: So, the rarest shoe in the, in the gallery is this one, number one. This is called the RS Computer Shoe. It was made by Puma in 1986.

Aislyn: Here’s the part that makes me laugh.

Elizabeth: This had, uh, a microchip in it, and so after you ran, you could—it came with a plug, came with a floppy disk, you plugged the plug into the back of the sneaker, and the other part you plugged into your recommended Commodore 64, and it told you how far you’d run, how many calories you’d burned.

Aislyn: Sadly, it did not do well in the marketplace.

Elizabeth: It was not a hot seller. It’s a little clunky.

Aislyn: But it laid the groundwork for all the wearable tech that we use to track our heart rates and steps today. So, that Apple watch that you wear, you have this hefty ’80s shoe to thank.

Elizabeth: Yep. And so, but, but it’s this technology, right? That has now been transformed into something that’s a part of our everyday lives.

Aislyn [in interview]: It’s easy to kind of laugh at, like—

Elizabeth: I know, but truly—well, you know, the personal computer was becoming a part of our lives in the mid-1980s. These are cutting edge materials, things that are going to have ramifications well into the future.

Aislyn: Elizabeth says that the museum doesn’t specifically focus on Canadian footwear, but the newest exhibit called Exhibit A has a Canadian spin. It’s all about crime and footwear forensics and the concepts of criminality.

Elizabeth: And in that exhibition, we feature two famous, um, Canadian crimes. And then we actually end the exhibition by looking at the Kingston Penitentiary, which used shoemaking as a form of prisoner reform.

Aislyn: The exhibit, which will run through the summer, focuses on a classic aspect of forensics.

Elizabeth: You know, a footprint is left. How do you find the killer though? And so, it actually opens with a pair of butler shoes. Yeah, the butler did it, right? The whodunit. Um, and yet, what is that trope about?

You know, butlers are supposed to move around silently. And so, the butler’s shoes that we happen to have in the collection have the smooth sole so that the butler doesn’t make any noise. And a butler is allowed, because of his silent service, allowed access to the, the house owners’ most personal areas and so they are both prized for their ability to serve silently and stealthily. But when a crime occurs, did the butler do it?

And so this brings up issues of class, it brings up issues of assumptions about crime. The, the owner of the house might be the person who’s a robber baron from, you know, doing, doing huge cultural crimes, and is not considered a criminal. So the, the exhibition, as all our exhibitions do, tries to complicate these concepts.

Aislyn: The museum is just one more way to experience Toronto’s vastness.

Elizabeth: I mean, Toronto itself is so diverse and there’s so many—if we think of diversity as the opportunity to consider things from many different viewpoints, the fact that we have a collection that allows us to do that, it dovetails nicely with what Toronto does and is famous for.

Aislyn: The Bata Shoe Museum is one of more than 50 museums in the city. But there are hundreds of smaller galleries as well. Places like BAND.

Karen: My name is Karen Carter. I’m a cofounder and E. D. for an arts organization called Black Artists Networks and Dialogue. BAND is an art service organization that runs an art gallery.

Aislyn: Karen and I are sitting at a table outside of the organization’s temporary space in the 401 Richmond building; 401 Richmond is a restored industrial building that has been turned into an arts and culture hub. It also has these wonderfully creaky wood floors, and as we chat, I can hear footsteps of visitors above us.

Karen says that she founded BAND in 2010 because she saw that there wasn’t a pathway for emerging Black and other racialized artists.

Karen: When you looked at the cultural landscape, it felt like dance had something going on, theater had something going on, music, and so the gap was really the visual arts. And that was one of the reasons for wanting to start the organization and have space. Our interest was helping emerging artists because we wanted to help folks. So a lot of it was just about their careers.

Aislyn: BAND’s business model is different from other organizations because it’s not a commercial gallery that splits consignment fees with the artist. And it’s not an artist-run gallery. One of the coolest parts about BAND, it’s that they will go and see any artist’s work.

Karen: As long as you came by and asked, we would go see the work. And then if the work was saying something and had clear, obviously, um, skill and, which again, I hate the words “skill” and “talent” because I feel like art is so subjective. And a lot of that, again, as subjective as it is, is about, is there a large enough body of work that’s saying something that you should present in the gallery?

Aislyn: And once an artist is selected, BAND pays them nearly three times what the average emerging visual artists will make for their work. Which hasn’t always gone over well.

Karen: I remember some artists criticizing us saying, we were giving artists an unrealistic sense of the sector because of giving too much. But for me, that wasn’t a reason to not do what we were doing. We were doing what we’re doing. And frankly, we were getting corporate support to do what we were doing because it helped the artists.

Aislyn: As we talk, I discovered that Karen has had a sizeable impact on Toronto’s art scene. She helped build Myseum, now called the Museum of Toronto. And the idea was that the museum would tell the city’s story.

Karen is very interested in community cultural practice, she says, and Toronto is a city of very diverse neighborhoods.

Karen: That neighborhood diversity is reflected by cultural diversity. So a lot of the neighborhoods, like the Danforth was Greek town. St. Clair was Little Italy. Little Jamaica is Eglinton West. So often it was, there were culturally specific communities that kind of cleaved together in their migration to the city and found and made place together.

Aislyn: Karen says, as the city grows, people move in and out. And so these neighborhoods’ characters are shifting.

Karen: So Myseum was built thinking about, um, the fact that there’s a diverse cultural community association for almost every racialized or cultural group in the city. And so the ethos was that you connected with those community groups who are really the keepers of their own stories. They’re holding their artifacts and records, usually in cultural associations and that since the city hadn’t been accessioning and deaccessioning and collecting all that, like traditional museums would that you had to partner with them in order to have a museum for the city that was representative of the city’s diversity.

Aislyn: She’s also the founder and creative director of C-Art, a Caribbean art fair. But a lot of her current focus is on BAND, which is in the middle of a remodel of what will be its permanent space. It’s an old Victorian house in Parkdale. And the renovation should be complete by the end of 2024. As they get closer to opening, Karen wants to make sure that people know that BAND is about more than just an art gallery. And she wants to broaden the kind of work that they show.

Karen: Even do things that are more about the African Canadian history and culture, which helps with that broader understanding about the presence of Blacks in this country.

Aislyn: She wants BAND to be a space for everyone.

Karen: You never want things to feel like, “Oh, that, that’s a Black cultural space only for Black people.” You want it to be actually, the reason this space is here is to make sure, frankly, sometimes more than us, that everybody else knows about us.

It’s how you can use—I think it’s important to use culture, frankly, as a way to create safe spaces for difficult conversations. It’s about that you might see something that leads to a discussion with someone else, or may lead literally to a conversation with yourself in your head about something that you probably wouldn’t speak because of a particular cultural bias position that you may hold.

Aislyn: Karen still has high ideals about the role of art in society.

Karen: I work in the sector I work because I still believe that art and culture is the way to help to find the best of us as human beings.

Aislyn: On my way out, I stop at BAND Offsite, their pop-up gallery, to see the current Afrophelia: Beloved exhibition. The artist is Frantz Brent-Harris, a Jamaican sculptor who now lives in Toronto. In his mission statement, Frantz says that the exhibit is a love letter to Black people and Black ancestors. And there’s a wall emblazoned with red and gold illustrations of masked faces and in front of that are several red busts surrounding a central figure draped in strips of bright fabrics. It’s beautiful and arresting and I stand for several minutes taking it all in.

Aislyn: We’re going to end this episode with more talk about food, because one of the best possible things to do in the city is eat. There’s Afghan food, Tibetan food, Russian food—any culinary dream you have can come through here. And when it comes to Thai food, there is one person who has had an outsized impact.

Chef Nuit Regular: Sawasdee Kha. Hello, my name is Chef Nui Regular. I’m [the] executive chef and co-owner of Pai restaurants, Kiin restaurants, Chaiyo by Pai, Sukhothai restaurants, and Events and Catering by Chef Nui in Toronto, Canada.

Aislyn: She now has 11 restaurants in Toronto, including Kiin where I have a phenomenal 12-course Royal Thai food dinner.

Chef Nuit: Royal Thai cuisine is a cuisine that, um, [was] once cooked and served in the Royal Thai family. So one of the dishes that I, um, cooked, it’s, uh, for example, like Khanom Jeab Nok, or bird-like dumpling that, uh, [was] created in 220 years ago by the sister of King Rama II.

Aislyn: We start with what I thought was a sculptural wood centerpiece. It looks almost like a tree that’s covered in delicate flowers. But I discovered that those flowers are edible.

Restaurant server: Um, we have taro chips. Tom yum paste straight in the middle, homemade, topped with a red pepper. And then the purple leaves are purple yams, dusted with tom yum powder. Those are edible. Avoid the tree.

Aislyn: We’re tasting chef Nuit’s spring menu. And each course is like a little work of art. There are tom yum oysters and a salad that the chef zests with a special kind of citrus at the table.

Chef Nuit: So this one for—it’s, uh, not every day that you can find in the market in Thailand, like very rare to find in the street markets. So specifically used for Royal Thai cuisine. And, uh, we like to use the zest and the, uh, the juice for this dish called Yum Mee Klong, or crispy vermicelli rice noodles.

Aislyn: We end with several dishes to share, including crab fried rice, a to-die-for piece of wagyu steak, and a banana leaf–wrapped dish that the chef’s mom once made. The flavors are somewhat familiar, but completely unlike any Thai food I’ve had before.

Chef Nuit: The difference between the Royal Thai cuisine and Thai cuisine is—to me it’s very much the same thing, just, uh, some, some more refined, some more of the presentations, level of the skill and also with the balance of the flavors that’s very different from regular day that we [are] eating at home.

For example, from [the] northern region where I came from, so our food doesn’t add a lot of sugar. So we pretty much have the flavor of, uh, a little bit salty and, uh, sourness and, a little bit of the bitterness. But for Royal Cuisine, there will be the balance of sweet, sour, salty, and spicy.

Aislyn: This is all part of chef Nuit’s mission to change the way people see Thai food. She was born in Thailand where she worked as a nurse for many years. Her husband, Jeff, is from Toronto and was backpacking in Thailand when they met. They opened a simple restaurant there, but eventually moved to Toronto and uninspired by the Thai food she encountered, she opened her first restaurant, Sukhothai. But it did not go very well at first.

Chef Nuit: I remember that, uh, when I got a call from one of the customers. And right off the bat the, the customer was like, “You don’t know how to cook pad thai.” And I was like, like, for a second [I] paused and [was] quite shocked. And I was like, “I know how to cook pad thai, because I’m from Thailand.”

Aislyn: Yep. That’s what people told chef Nuit, a chef from Thailand. And that’s because at the time Toronto Thai food used some, let’s say, untraditional ingredients.

Chef Nuit: When I moved over to Canada, I decided to go out and check on Thai food. And that time was very, uh, much different because the food that I tasted, [was] not the same that I had in Thailand or I cooked for myself. I was surprised. I was like, ”Oh, why is all the food become like this?” And even the color, the flavors, it’s slightly like, not the same. So by not the same, it’s like the pad thai that I tried back then was a little bit pinky, not, not the dark brown or the light brown like we have back home. And then, uh, Jeff was like, “Um, they, they put ketchup in pad thai.”

So that’s why I was like, “OK, I can see that very much the, the Thai food scene back then. It’s, uh, they use whatever local [ingredients they] have.”

Aislyn: But chef Nuit persevered. She imported Thai ingredients like tamarind paste. And she slowly began to change hearts, minds, and palates. She also added restaurants, such as Pai and Silva. And in 2017, she opened Kiin, a radical departure for her. She’s now celebrated as the person who changed Thai food culture in the city. And people flock to her restaurants in droves eager for some of her iconic dishes.

Chef Nuit: I would say Chef Nuit Pad Thai: no ketchup, guarantee, that’s, that’s one pad thai that uses the tamarind paste base. And the next one will be pad kra pao or holy basil stir fry. And the other one I would say, uh, khao soi, which I think, um, [is] one of the dish that I from northern Thai very proud to be able to bring to Canada and now one of the favorite dish uh, for most of people.

Aislyn: Now she finds that the city’s diners are much more open-minded and curious. They want her to take them on a journey.

Chef Nuit: Very much, I think, Torontonians is very open minded. And that’s one great thing about our city is like because of the diversity of the culture, you know, it’s already have like a prep the Torontonian to be more open to different type of cuisine.

Aislyn: The following day, I make my way to one of the city’s most fascinating food spots, Kensington Market. It’s not an actual market like St. Lawrence, but a colorful, bustling neighborhood with incredible food. And lucky for me, I have a guide.

Jusep: OK, so my name is Jusep Sim, and I am the founder and the chief epicurean officer of Chopsticks and Forks, a Toronto walking food tour company. And we are currently at Nu Bügel, which is the first stop of our international food tour. And, uh, it’s kind of a staple bagel shop here in Kensington Market.

Aislyn: The neighborhood has been here for hundreds of years.

Jusep: So it got established technically in 1815, uh, when it was actually owned by one family. And then from there it grew from that humble beginnings over the last 200-plus years.

Aislyn: And it’s evolved over the decades.

Jusep: This neighborhood was called the Jewish Market. If you walked up and down the street in the ’60s, you would see live chickens in cages in front of the kosher butcher.

Aislyn: Jusep tells me that in the 1970s, American hippies escaping the draft and Jamaican Rastafarians began to settle here.

Jusep: So you got these two groups that really helped shape the neighborhood and influence their love of art, music, and infiltrated the neighborhood and preserved it. On my tour, I explain how the Rastafarians and the, and the, and the hippies from America really kind of helped build the foundation of the culture that we enjoy today.

Aislyn: Jusep and I sit down at a table near a fridge filled with beverages. It’s actually that thing making the loud buzzing you’re hearing when he’s talking.

And he orders me his favorite bagels. The first is a smoked trout sandwich on a sesame bagel. And the second is almost like dessert, a toasted coconut bagel filled with melty Nutella.

Jusep: So there many, many flavors that are inside of this, so chew slowly and the different flavors will hit your tongue at different times. There’s arugula, a gourmet horseradish jam, and seeded mustard.

Aislyn: OK, I saw the jam and I was like, “What is that?”

Jusep: It’s a horseradish jam. And you get the textures of the bagel. The arugula kind of mellows a little bit down. Then you get the sharp sweet from the horseradish jam. The earthiness of the mustard.

Aislyn: I am now obsessed with the smoked trout sandwich. Even now as I record this, I remember that spicy sweet jam and the perfectly chewy bagel. Jusep says he feels the same way.

Jusep: So when I tried it, I’m like, “Where’s this been all my life?”

Aislyn: As I eat, Jusep tells me that Kensington Market is the only ungentrified neighborhood left in the downtown Toronto area. And a lot of that credit is due to a TV show of all things.

Jusep: Back in the late ’70s and ’80s, uh, there was a very popular sitcom called The King of Kensington. And, yeah, and back then, if you had a television, you only had five channels. And so when the show was on, the whole country was watching it and got to learn about this neighborhood. And so when the mass gentrification started to happen in the ’80s and ’90s all over North America, this neighborhood got spared because it became part of the Canadian culture. And for them to, say, announce that they were going to tear this place down for shopping malls and condos, Canadians would have lost their minds.

Aislyn: Now the neighborhood is protected by a trust. And one of the things that Jusep loves most about the market is that all the shops here are family-owned and many have been for generations.

Jusep: So, one of the attributes I note that is very distinct about this particular neighborhood, and why I’m quite fond of it, is that 99 percent of all the shops here are family-owned businesses. It’s the only real neighborhood where you can visibly see the history. And the food that is tasted on my food tour, the vast majority is made by people from that country. So the Chilean tasting is made by a Chilean grandma. The Tibetan momos and butter tea are made by a Tibetan mom. And so that is an attribute of our city that I really love showcasing.

Aislyn: Nu Bügel is one of six stops on Jusep’s signature international food tour focused on the Kensington Market. His goal is to push people outside of their culinary comfort zones.

Jusep: And so, my menu is designed that people, uh, get tastings of foods that maybe would not be in their radar and I purposely picked places that would be kind of uncommon. I take people to a Chilean restaurant. And for most people, they don’t even know what Chileans eat, never mind what kind of food might be across their path. And so, that’s my Latin American stop. My Asia stop is unique in that it’s easy to go Korean, Chinese, Japanese. But how many people know, even know where Tibet is? Never mind food from that region. And my European tasting is Swedish. And of course, most people aren’t aware that bagels were invented in Poland. And food history, when you start digging into it, can actually be quite entertaining, and how certain dishes came about.

Aislyn: The tours are about two and a half hours long, and he also offers a second tour with a slightly different spin.

Jusep: And it’s a 100 percent fusion food tour. So, one of the tastings we start with is a Japanese coconut curry poutine. It’s a Japanese curry poutine. Cheese curds, bacon bits, sriracha mayo, scallions. Oh, yeah, that’s the first tasting on that tour. Complemented with butter, butter coffee. Yeah, but we, again, tell the story of the cultures, then how they merged, and why maybe sometimes the flavors kind of, uh, complement each other.

Aislyn: Jusep says the food scene continues to evolve as new groups immigrate to the city.

Jusep: The evolution really is dictated by the number of immigrants from one region. And that usually gets a little bit of an uptick in the food scene. So during, during the Afghan war, we had a huge influx of Afghan refugees and now the Afghan food scene is off the hook. After 9/11, we saw a massive influx of, of, uh, Muslim immigrants that completely changed the food scene. So now halal meat is everywhere. And Popeyes was the first, uh, chain to adopt halal meat.

Aislyn: Jusep says that right now, they’re seeing an influx of people from Mexico and that has elevated the city’s taco game. These constant changes mean that his job is always changing too, as he keeps up with Toronto’s ever-growing diversity. And he loves that about the city.

Jusep: Every wave brings their own texture. We’re a multi-layered cake. But it’s got more ingredients and nuances than most cities ever, to ever existed.

Aislyn: We’re heading into the summer season. And everyone I talked to said that this is the time to visit. The sun is shining. The islands are gleaming and the food, well, it’s just waiting for you to dive in. So I’ll include links in the show notes to everything we talked about today. As well as the link to AFAR’s Toronto travel guide, it’s a great resource. Happy travels.

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This has been Unpacked, a production of AFAR Media. The podcast is produced by Aislyn Greene and Nikki Galteland. Music composition by Chris Colin. And remember: The world is complicated. We’re here to help you unpack it.