By Bhairavi Thanki
Ask a true Torontonian to recommend a Hakka restaurant and you’ll be met with one of two responses. They'll either list off all the places they love, or tell you to grab your coat because they’re taking you there right now. That’s the beauty of Hakka food, a garlicky, spicy blanket that cozily wraps people together from East through West Toronto.
The Hakka people are originally from Southeast China, where they eat dishes like salt-baked chicken and long-pickled vegetables to make up for the area's short growing season and lack of fresh produce. But in most parts of Toronto, what we call "Hakka" is actually a mashup of Cantonese and Indian foods, brought here by Hakka immigrants who spent some time in and around Calcutta, where they learned about chili chicken, pakoras and the like. My taste buds can tell you that both styles of Hakka cooking are delicious, but my nostalgia for eating "Chinese Bhel" off a cart in India will tell you there's nothing like that deliciously interwoven mix of Chinese culinary chops and Indian herbs and spices.
There’s a common understanding among admirers of Hakka cuisine in Toronto: you can’t get the good stuff downtown. And at Ethnic Aisle, we’re not just admirers – we’re worshippers, here to recommend to you some of our favourite places to fry your tongue off.
Here's where we think you should go to get your next Hakka fix:
Faley is a cozy, family run Hakka restaurant in the heart of Thorncliffe Park. The mixed pakora arrive crunchy fried and the bright red batter gives way to reveal a variety of meat and vegetable interiors. Crispy beef is a standout entrée, as the deep fried crunch juxtaposes with the tender strips of meat, dusted in spice and honey. Chicken satay is less well received, as chunks of fried chicken drown sadly in quick-to-congeal yellow gravy. The screaming hot house special fried rice is a great side, with just a hint of cumin plus chicken, shrimp and vegetables. With more hits than misses, and a menu that includes many Toronto Hakka staples such as neon red Manchurian noodles, it’s no surprise the 25-seat Faley has its fair share of regulars. - Simon Yau
Tangerine is now a mini-chain so, first, an important note: the one in Markham is the best. Go north, as north as you can, even if Scarborough or Whitby are closer. Tangerine is the best place to introduce snobby downtowners to Hakka, if for some reason you want to do that – the lights aren't fluorescent and the beer selection is mediocre as opposed to shitty. Everything is good but some things are amaaaaaazing like the fish pakoras, which are soft and studded with pickled chilies, and the red Manchurian noodles, which are scattered with coriander. The ginger fish is also an excellent choice; order it dry with the sauce cooked down to almost nothing. Expect a line on weekend nights. - Denise Balkissoon
Eddie’s Wok n Roll
After my best friend got sick of my constant whining about how much I miss home, she brought me to this Mississauga gem, which instantly became a favourite. Filled to the brim with happy customers, Eddie’s has a pretty decent atmosphere, but you best speak up if you want to grab a server’s attention. The food comes out piping hot and quick. The sweet corn soup is steamy and on point, with bits of corn and a slight hint of soy sauce. My favourite, the vegetable pakora style in Manchurian sauce, is spicy and crispy and should come with a ‘May Cause Gluttony’ warning. The noodles are just the right amount of greasy (Hakka is nothing without a little bit of grease). The prices are also just right and the portions are large enough to warrant a doggie bag. Bonus: Eddie’s serves halal! - Bhairavi Thanki
Chopsticks is a mid-Scarborough veteran that offers very fresh food cooked with love by the owners. The tom yum soup is perfectly viscous, with alternate sweet, sour and spicy hits – truly a contender for best in the GTA. The crispy eggplant is sweet and crunchy on the outside, soft and melting on the inside. The crispy beef cooked the same way is chewy, but you learn to like it. Chopsticks’ Indian-influenced dishes are better than what's on the Szechuan menu: the owners are from Calcutta themselves and speak Hindi as their first language. It's usually empty inside as more people get take-out than sit down to eat. It's ooollld school, i.e. no website - get thee to 1163 Ellesmere Road (416-755-4655), as soon as you can. - Denise Balkissoon
Manchurian fries – yes, MANCHURIAN FRIES – are served hot and spicy, an excellent snack while enjoying a mix of instrumental Bollywood hits from the 90s. Tofu in Szechuan sauce is super spicy and, when paired with their Mumbai Hakka noodles, is a delicious party in my mouth. My orders at Hakka restaurants tend to be pretty standard but China Cottage’s menu always makes me want to experiment. I’ve never left China Cottage without ordering a few things to go: all of it is just as good the next day, eaten straight out of take-out containers while watching Netflix in my sweats. - Bhairavi Thanki
THE WINNER: Heather’s Father's Cooking
My Hakka Chinese dad grew up in Calcutta (now Kolkata), India and his Hakka food is unlike the codified dishes you'll see at restaurants. Years before Chinese and Indian food became common in places like Loblaws, my dad made paratha and steamed buns from scratch on the weekends. Pork dumplings, saffron-yellow beef curries and chili chicken were weekday dinner staples. As soon as you enter the house, your nose knows what's on menu that night. He cooks with bold spices, fresh and cheap meats and veggies, skill, creativity and, of course, the secret ingredient – love for his children. - Heather Li