The Sumptuous 905
First-time visitors wandering into the T & T Supermarket
located in Thornhill's Promenade mall have some tough decisions to make. Is it a good strategy to rush to the extensive and varied hot food station, with its BBQ duck, pork, and dim sum? Or how about visiting that smiling, aproned lady beckoning customers to sample crispy seaweed snacks and freshly grilled sausage? There is also the aisle stacked with many flavours of Pocky to contend with too.
Those who walk past these various delights to the back of the store are rewarded with T & T's pièce de résistance
: its extraordinary seafood section. There, white-costumed attendants dip tongs into oversized tanks bristling with live lobsters, king crabs, prawns, and eels. Customers not used to the sensory overload of a T & T Supermarket could be forgiven for wondering whether they are in a grocery store or a gastronomic amusement park. At the Promenade, the store seems like an odd neighbour for Club Monaco, H&M, and The Pickle Barrel - at first, that is.
Until recently local aficionados of Asian cooking used to feel lucky if they could find a single, dusty jar of oyster sauce on the shelf of their local grocery store. T & T, and the many other sleek Asian markets that have appeared across the GTA over the past ten years, have changed that.
Manufacturer Shi Long Wang, who alternated between Shanghai and Toronto for years before moving to Philadelphia in August, misses the GTA's Asian markets as they provided the ingredients necessary to make Shanghainese delicacies. Shanghai cuisine is typically sweeter and is cooked differently than Cantonese fare, which has traditionally been prominent in Toronto's Chinese restaurants.
"For Chinese people, living in Toronto is more easy (than elsewhere)," says Wang. He says that although T & T's selection of vegetables is mostly Cantonese, they also carry the Shanghainese varieties that remind him of home.
"Vegetables in Philadelphia are quite limited," he complains.
T & T have leveraged Toronto and Vancouver markets to produce strong sales. Last July, Loblaw Companies agreed to buy T & T for $225 million in cash and preferred shares. The success of the GTA's burgeoning Asian markets tell a story of our shifting populations, says Professor Valerie Preston, who studies Canadian immigration and urban geography at York University.
"The estimate is when we do the next census [of the] Toronto metropolitan area - which includes Durham, Peel, Halton as well as old Toronto - the majority [will be] foreign-born. It's up to 46 per cent now in the 2006 census."
The store also tells the tale of an Asian population whose own demographics have changed over time. Since the 1970s, it has moved increasingly to the suburbs (just as many other ethnicities have) and grand markets have emerged to serve it, from First Markham Place
to Pacific Mall
to the smaller shops along Kennedy north of Steeles Avenue. A massive chain like T & T was made possible in part by the wave of upwardly mobile immigrants from Hong Kong between 1986 and 1996, Preston adds. T & T itself was founded in 1993.
"Toronto's Chinese population is so diverse - they're from Mainland China, Hong Kong, Southeast Asia. We also have a Taiwanese population," Preston says, along with the Vietnamese community that helped establish Chinatown East at Gerrard and Broadview Aves.
"T & T is hybrid in that it's pan-Asian," she says. "At the Promenade it's [a place] for Filipino food and South Asian food because of the growing pan-Asian population. It also sells halal meat."
Its seamless integration of specialty Asian goods and a western-style supermarket layout also illustrates the way immigrant populations have adapted to a North American, mall-centric lifestyle.
"People come from elsewhere and want particular foods, but have adapted to our lifestyle," says Preston. "They may no longer shop every other day, which they may have done earlier."
One thing all T & Ts have in common appears to be the fact that you largely need a car to get to them. This includes its only downtown location in Toronto's port lands, which is hard to access using public transit. This car-centric quality has arguably been a barrier to Torontonians dependent on transit, many of whom may never have heard of the store.
The vibrancy of the GTA's Asian market culture tends to challenge the traditional notions we apply to the suburbs - that they're bland, white, or culturally static.
"Our ideas about cities and suburbs are influenced by American culture," argues Preston. "American suburbs are marked by black-white differences and the attempt to keep blacks out of the suburbs."
"Many GTA suburbs started off as very working-class…before World War Two. They've always been more diverse in terms of people's social class than we've paid attention to."
It all provides quite a bit of food for thought for the next trip to T & T's aisles of brown Jasmine rice and bulk dried mushrooms, reasons alone to venture north of Steeles.Sarah Barmak is a freelance journalist who writes frequently about entertainment and culture for the Toronto Star.