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Why foodies, bloggers and scholars are turning to Scarborough

UTSC looks at why we grow, process, cook, consume, sell and share the food we do – and the impact that has on everything from culture and art to political economy and climate change

Kimchi ramen from Scarborough (photo by SteFou! via Flickr)

Scarborough, Ontario. That’s where to go if you’re interested in food, experts say.

“Scarborough is one of the most interesting, multicultural communities in the world – not just in Canada, and not just in North America,” Rick Halpern, dean of the University of Toronto Scarborough, said recently on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning.

“When you combine that kind of diversity with that kind of population density and various kinds of diasporic streams and pretty low commercial real estate, you have extraordinary entrepreneurs who turn to their culture and their communities and yes, there's an extraordinary richness of food offerings.”

Halpern was on Metro Morning to discuss the tasting tour he recently gave American economist and writer Tyler Cowen through Scarborough – a tour that resulted in a blog post from Cowen asking whether Scarborough might be the dining capital of the world. That reaction, coming from the author of An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies, caught the attention of food-lovers from Reddit to The Toronto Star.

“In a given evening you can only make so many stops so we started with Filipino and moved on to South Asian,” Halpern said. “From there we went to regional Chinese. What we wanted to do was give him and some of our other guests a sense of the cultural richness of Scarborough.

“Most of these establishments are located in strip malls or some of the really great finds are in what we call back of mall not facing Sheppard or Finch but in the back of the mall and these are establishments that are catering to their own communities. They don't particularly make an effort to attract outsiders.”

Research into nutrition and health has long played an important role at U of T, from the invention of Pablum or Dr. Stanley Zlotkin’s micronutrient sprinkles to the salt content in restaurant meals. Studies by University Professor David Jenkins, creator of the low glycemic index, are closely followed around the world and U of T experts in global health and entrepreneurship are working to develop cleaner cooking technology for developing countries.

But food studies is a relatively new field. So UTSC is teaming up with institutions and experts in four other diverse cities around the world – Delhi, New York, Sydney and Singapore – to explore the discipline. At the centre of UTSC’s efforts is Culinaria, a multidisciplinary project that blends research with community engagement and student (graduate and undergraduate) research experience.

Through Culinaria, UTSC is co-organizing a fall workshop at New York University, including a roundtable on street food with representatives from India and Singapore. And, here at home, faculty and students are working closely with people in the Scarborough community in tracing local food stories, including oral histories and videos of chefs, restaurateurs and home cooks talking about their lives (including as guests in UTSC’s own kitchen).

It’s a diverse initiative that has forged partnerships with Malvern Action for Neighbourhood Change and its urban farm project, as well as the East Scarborough Storefront. Scholars are already mapping Chinese restaurants in Agincourt malls based on an archive of 1980s photos and there are plans to digitize and analyze a trove of 10,000 Chinese restaurant menus acquired from a U.S. collector.

photo of Professor Jeffrey Pilcher with beerMore than 20 faculty members across the three campuses of U of T do work that intersects with the study of food – among them UTSC’s Jeffrey Pilcher (pictured at right), a professor of food history, who has explored how European beer has traveled the world over the last 200 years. And, earlier this year, Canadian food writer, ethnographer and photographer Naomi Duguid joined Culinaria as food writer in residence.

“Really my job is to make people comfortable,” said Duguid. “People feel terrible pressure in the kitchen to get things right. We need a little reassurance.”

The co-author of six cookbooks and author of Burma: Rivers of Flavor, Duguid has hosted a panel on food writing and hopes to help students who want to get better at making their own meals. She has planned a shopping assignment called Strategies for Eating Well on a Student Budget.

Students will go out in pairs to buy one assigned ingredient and one that interests them. The students will gather in the kitchen and talk about ways to use the ingredients.

“This is how people actually cook in villages. They’ve figured it out there,” she says, adding. “I hope to help people have eyes to see everyday things. We can fall into patterns and not see things. But food is a way we can talk about things like social justice and culture.”

Daniel Bender, Canada Research Chair in Global Culture, says having a writer-in-residence focused on food is unique in higher education. This year, the program is paid through research funds, though he hopes to make it a regular part of Culinaria’s offerings.

“Naomi is an organic intellectual. We are lucky to have a writer of her calibre,” says Bender. “She has a keen interest in people and communities, and her work here will help generate the kinds of conversations that help connect communities with the university.”

Some of Duguid’s programming will be held in Culinaria’s kitchen lab, which Bender points to as something else that’s unique to UTSC and its scholarly work in food studies.

“I can’t think of any other place that has one,” he says. “People are starting to realize how groundbreaking that space is.”