For as long as I can remember grocery shopping with my parents has never been about the “one stop shop” approach.
Unlike me — where I generally lean on the side of convenience and go to one place to get everything I need — they spend an entire weekend morning or afternoon traversing between three or four of their favourite food shops.
They have their choice store for meat or fish, another for produce or fruit and one for spices or restocking the pantry. And speaking with other children of immigrants about their parents’ habits, it seems they are not alone.
In the early ’90s when we first moved to Canada, long before the import economy boom of the past decade, my parents’ shopping approach was borne out of necessity. As my mom said, “You couldn’t look anything up online.”
They would spend many weeknights driving around Scarborough with us kids in the back chasing recommendations from family members or neighbours. We passed countless low-slung plazas, and studied their pylon signs for recognizable business names. My mother would rejoice when she spotted signage with Tamil writing.
“You would drive halfway across the city to get one specific ingredient,” she said.
One of these shops was in the neighourhood of L’amoreaux, a Tamil-owned comestibles shop called Siva’s that was packed to the ceiling with all sorts of imported goods. There was a small section for produce, an even smaller section for food. Most of the space was dedicated to spice blends, specialty coffee and rice.
My parents were obsessed with this shop and they would visit regularly. A few years later, we moved into the neighbourhood a few streets over. My parents insist this was a coincidence, but I think the store, a cornerstone for the Tamil community at the time, played a role. In that crowded corner store they felt a sense of belonging. The business closed a few years ago, Amirtha Supermarket, a pan Asian grocery store now stands in its place.
As they continued to explore the city for other South Asian stores over the years, it became a sport for them. It’s like a culinary jigsaw puzzle in their minds, that they try to piece together with nostalgic ingredients and brands.
Through trial and error over the years, they amassed a list of specialty shops, mostly in Scarborough, that they would visit for key ingredients.
Now, despite the fact that there are specialty stores at every turn, and imported foodstuffs from around the world are much easier to find, they continue to shop in this way.
I think this is partially because of subjective taste — my parents know what brands they prefer — or who is handling their foodstuffs. For example, “We always go to the butcher at Super Bazaar because we find that he gives us the exact type of cuts we like,” my mom said.
But also, I think this is because as immigrants looking to satiate their culinary desires, there was a time when all the ingredients you needed were at different addresses. This has changed quite drastically over the years, but their firm preference for certain things remains.
And even though their methods haven’t quite rubbed off on me, anytime I’m missing a specialty ingredient I can’t find on my weekly shopping run I know I can call my mom and ask her where to find said ingredient, and she’ll be my culinary compass.
Here are three of my parents’ favourite places to shop and why.
New Ocean Supermarket (5635 Finch Ave. E.)
The Tamil-owned grocery store has grown into a large complex where you will find a large variety of South Asian and Sri Lankan food brands.
It’s a primary destination for my parents. They visit weekly for the store’s wide variety of vegetables and groceries.
“I get all my greens here,” my mom said.
New Ocean is also where she buys some of her spice blends.
“They also have a lot of Sinhalese spice blends which are pretty rare,” she added.
Super Bazaar (1505 Birchmount Road)
My father introduced me to Super Bazaar a number of years ago.
It is a small convenience store in a lonely strip mall that is known for bringing in high quality seasonal mangos from India and Pakistan.
My father, a self-proclaimed mango hunter, scouted the shop. Soon after my parents found that Super Bazaar is known within the community for high quality meat — chicken and beef and custom orders.
My mom also visits the spot for its selection of North Indian spices and pickles.
S.P. Importers Inc. (2863 Lawrence Ave. E.)
This is another large grocery store that is known for its wide selection of imported spices.
S.P. carries a wide variety of rice, and its produce selection is famed for the seasonal greens and vegetables from South Asia.
My dad said that during peak mango season (April to August), you will be able to find a larger variety of mangos here.
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