Every time I walk into Swatow – a mainstay of Chinatown on Spadina Avenue – one of the owners greets me with a big smile.
“Welcome back!” he says to me in Cantonese, looking behind me. “But where is your mother?”
That friendly face, Guang Bai, known to many as the man with the photogenic memory, has recorded the faces and names of thousands of customers in the 42 years he has run the restaurant.
One of those faces is my mother, who first entered those doors as a student at the University of Toronto.
“It was one of the few places I found where I was homesick,” she told me. “Canada was incredibly lonely, but when I tasted their noodle soup, I immediately got tears in my eyes.”
Four decades after opening, the eatery is still a bustling hub in the city, serving over 200 items (excluding off-menu items). Whether for a quick and affordable lunch of under $10 wonton soup or for late-night sweet and sour pork with friends, most who enter cash only come back for more.
For my mom and me, it’s a place we’ve been to hundreds of times.
While my mother grew up in Hong Kong with many of the more popular dishes like beef and broccoli or chow mein, Swatow is one of the few restaurants serving dishes from Chiuchow, the region of China where my grandparents were born and eventually escaped during war. Dishes like noodle soup with fish balls, duck braised in soy and fried tofu filled with fish paste are regular items that we note on the paper orders to this day.
For us, it is a place where we feel connected, even if so much of our history has been lost through migration and war.
“The cooks are Chiuchow people, but you know you have to make more popular food in Canada too,” Bai told my mom and me. “That’s how we were able to keep it up for so long.”
Swatow is also a place where huge portions are half the price of an entree elsewhere in town. Swatow was a refuge for my mother, a single parent who worked three jobs and did her best to make ends meet, where she could enjoy a nice meal (and leftovers) with us without worrying too much about the account.
“There are many reasons why I am grateful for that place,” she said. “Through the food I can learn more about my history. It’s nostalgic for me.”
Connecting back to my roots is also important to me, a second-generation Chinese-Canadian who grew up in Toronto. When I was young, I felt the pressure to assimilate to fit in, forgetting many of my cultural roots. At 28, I’m still looking to reconnect, and since much of our data was destroyed or lost during my family’s trip to Canada, one of the few ways I can do that is through food.
As Swatow connects my mother and me generations back to our ancestors, cha chaan tengs, or Hong Kong cafes, are also nostalgic for us. Our go-to spot, Tasty Delight, is in a mini mall (like many of the city’s food gems) on Leslie Street and Finch Avenue.
Tasty Delight also has hundreds of items on the menu, but the highlights are dishes that came from the British rule of Hong Kong.
During this time, cheese and dairy were introduced to the island territory, as well as various cooking methods such as baking in a convection oven. It’s why when you go to a cha chaan tengyou’ll find the food is a fusion between those worlds – something that has been innovated through cooking and is a staple not just in Hong Kong, but all over the world.
Some of our favorites? The cheesy tomato fried pork chop over your choice of rice or spaghetti. Or the thick French toast with a knob of butter and syrup. Or even the popular instant noodle breakfast with Spam, an American product that became popular during and after World War II. All of these items incorporate both traditional styles and ingredients of Southern Chinese cuisine fused with Western influences – the result of a post-war world.
In particular the future fatheror milk tea, is a striking reminder of home for my mother.
It evokes memories of growing up on Hong Kong Island with nine siblings and my grandfather waking them up at 5am every Saturday to climb to The Peak (now a tourist mountain where you can catch a bus or tram) to see the sunrise. On the way back from the mountain, they knew they were in for a treat—to visit the grandmother who strained tea leaves into a stocking at a corner stall for a cup of piping hot milk tea made with condensed milk.
“When you taste it, made with that kind of love and care, it takes me back to when I was a kid in Hong Kong,” my mother said. “The one (at Tasty Delight) reminds me of that.”
The best thing about Swatow and Tasty Delight is not only how they connect us to the past, but also how they allow others to learn about our culture through cooking.
Despite Toronto’s gentrification, these cultural institutions are something we’ll always have in a city where more than 50 percent of the population identifies as a visible minority: the places that aren’t chasing a Michelin star, that don’t have coverage. seek, but survive and prosper. And most importantly, connecting us, just like they do for me and my mom.