LIKE ANY BIG CITY, Toronto offers a cornucopia of wonderful culinary choices. Ethiopian food is among them, and while the city has Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurants sprinkled all over the busiest commercial areas, two clusters especially stand out.
Both of these clusters are on the same street, more or less: On the west side of the city it’s called Bloor Street, and when Bloor crosses the viaduct, it turns into Danforth Avenue. The Bloor side has a number of Eritrean restaurants along with its Ethiopian ones; the Danforth side leans more heavily toward Ethiopian. But only the most sensitive palate stands even the slightest chance of distinguishing the two.
On West Bloor Street, from about the 800 block up to the 1400s, you’ll find nearly a dozen restaurants and markets, one every block or two, along with some other businesses owned by Ethiopians and Eritreans. A few miles away – it’s an easy ride on the subway’s Bloor-Danforth line – nearly two dozen restaurants, groceries and other shops line Danforth from about 800 to 1600, with the occasional shop or café hidden on the side streets, no more than a block from the main drag.
Some of these restaurants are large and lavishly decorated, and some are homey diners. The restaurant business is a risky one, so naturally, they come and go. But the neighborhoods remain bedrocks of the Ethiopian and Eritrean diaspora in Canada.
Queen Street West, south of Bloor, has a mini-cluster of restaurants, and about half a dozen other restaurants stand alone around the city. One of the more established places is Addis Ababa on Queen Street West: It’s owned by Aster Ketsela Belayneh, who’s written a big colorful Ethiopian cookbook called The Recipe of Love. The city’s best-stocked Ethiopian market is located on Baldwin Street in Chinatown: It has all the spices you’ll need to cook a meal, plus dozens of mesobs – big colorful straw baskets that serve as a dinner table – along with other kitchen and household supplies.
With so many choices facing a tourist, how do you know which one to choose? I got a little help from a local resident when I visited Toronto in 2010.
I was strolling Bloor, looking for a place to eat, and wearing my “Little Ethiopia Los Angeles” t-shirt, which is a great icebreaker and conversation starter in an Ethiopian neighborhood. A middle-aged woman began to chat with me, so I asked her for a restaurant suggestion. She named a nearby place where I’d stopped about 15 minutes earlier to look at the menu. So I took her suggestion, and as we walked toward the restaurant, I said, “Now you’re sure this place is good.” And she said: “It’s the best: I own it!” Her restaurant, African Palace, was delicious. The next night, I had a generous, nicely priced, equally fine meal at Nazareth just a few blocks away.
Outside of Toronto, you have fewer choices. Montreal has around half a dozen restaurants, and you’ll find from one to several in such cities as Windsor, Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Halifax and Winnipeg.
The one thing you won’t find in any of these restaurants is t’ej, the Ethiopian honey wine. It’s abundant in American restaurants and made by numerous wineries around the United States. Some time ago, London Winery Ltd. of London, Ontario, made a brand called Gondar Tej. I can find no trace of it now, nor of any other Canadian winery that makes it, and no Ethiopian restaurant in Toronto imports it from the U.S. In fact, when I asked restaurant owners about it, they seemed to think it was simply impossible to get: You can’t make and sell your own, they would tell me – voices lowered in fear – because the law strictly forbids it, and the thought of getting it from U.S. wineries seems not to have occurred to anyone.
I think we should work out a trade: Canadian beer for American-made Ethiopian honey wine. If that’s not win-win, then nothing is.
You can read more about Ethiopian restaurants in America and the 2,000-year history of Ethiopian cuisine in my book, Mesob Across America: Ethiopian Food in the U.S.A.
University of Pittsburgh