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Your Local Chinese Grocer Is a Paradise of Pig Snouts and Tofu

Toronto's Chinese grocers aren't just catering to the Chinese anymore. With an ever-diversifying clientele, you can find Filipino desserts and halal meat.

If you want to find offal, soy-based proteins, miracle teas, and even agar agar for your Alinea-inspired boysenberry fluid gel all in one place, head to a Chinese supermarket in Toronto. They are truly cornucopias of the culinary world's rarest offerings.

You will be hard-pressed to find shoppers as diverse as the ones at these groceries. In a city of 2.6 million representing more than 230 ethnicities, half of its people were born outside Canada and consider themselves a visible minority.


You'll see that fact reflected when walking up and down the aisles of my neighbourhood grocer, Tone Tai Supermarket in the suburb of North York, where in a single aisle you can find more than a dozen kinds of tofu, half a dozen varieties of longanisa, frozen roti, and further down, oxtail at the meat counter and jerk spice in the spice section. It's a Chinese supermarket in the strictest definition, but along with Mandarin and Cantonese-speaking parents trying to stop their kids from messing around with the bin of live blue crabs in the seafood department, you'll also hear Tagalog, Hindi, and West Indian grandmas ordering pork at the butcher.

It wasn't always like this. When I was growing up in North York, Chinese supermarkets used to cater mainly to Chinese consumers and you'd rarely find people of other ethnicities there. Things changed dramatically in the last decade with the arrival of T&T, a British Colombia-based Chinese supermarket. Its wide, brightly lit aisles kept in laboratory-levels of cleanliness were the complete opposite of the grimy and cramped image of grocery stores in Chinatown. Chinese ingredients became accessible and non-intimidating to the masses. Soon, shoppers from many cultures were coming here for everyday groceries and chefs would poke around in the aisles for inspiration. Seeing this growing demand, Loblaws, the largest supermarket chain in Canada, purchased T&T for $225 million in 2009. The grocery giant also purchased Toronto Middle Eastern grocer Arz Fine Foods a year ago, citing a growing demand for Middle Eastern food across the country.


Foody Mart, the company that owns Tone Tai, was founded in 2001 and followed a similar model to T&T's goal of making Asian grocers more accessible: smiley sample ladies handing out marinated seitan at the end of the aisles, a seafood section that's sealed off in its own room to keep the fishy smell at bay, and an English-friendly website. South of Tone Tai is another perpetually packed Asian grocer, Sunny Supermarket, where you'll find a halal meat counter and a staff that can speak ten languages including Arabic, Urdu, Punjabi, and Bengali to cater to North York's growing Muslim community.

The Chinese supermarket is also a place to find the food for the trend diet du jour, only here it was never a trend. For vegans, there's a whole aisle devoted to tofu in all textures (soft, firm, silken), flavours (banana, coconut, almond), sizes (portioned individually or in giant tubs), and preparations (fresh, dried, fried, noodles). There's also black soy milk in addition to the regular sweetened and unsweetened kinds. It's like a soy bomb went off in aisle one.


Further down is the meat section where every cut of the cow, pig, and chicken is wrapped and neatly presented on styrofoam trays for all your offal needs. There are chicken and duck feet; duck tongues; cow tongues as big and heavy as a brick; whole rabbits; pig ears; cubes of cow's blood; goat stomachs; gizzards, kidneys, and livers; tripe and tendons; and pigs feet and snouts that are either fresh or salted in the plastic bucket next to the Chinese sausage.


Bone broth-heads have limitless options, but I haven't seen many places cook with Silkie chicken, which has pouffy white feathers and black skin underneath. It doesn't have much meat, but it makes a very flavourful stock when boiled with ginger and orange peel.


Farmers may lament that there's a disconnect between the farm and the consumer when the meat arrives in the form of boneless, skinless, and faceless cutlets on the shelves. Not here. Just take a look at the goat heads. If you lean in you can still hear them scream. Or maybe that was my sister on the other side of town when I texted her a picture of the skinless faces.


Along with agar agar, the dessert section is home to jars of nata de coco, sugar palm fruit, ube paste, and mongo beans in wonderfully fake hues of fire engine red, Power Ranger green, and Grimace purple syrups that will make your halo-halo even more saccharine than a sundae.


I like to think it's a strategic move on the part of the managers to put the tea in the adjacent aisle after filling your cart with fruit that's been submersed in colours that don't exist in nature. To cure the sugar high, how about some "anti-diabetes" tea, "antihypersensitive tea", or my favourite, "blood-fat reducing tea".

Regardless, Chinese supermarkets in Toronto are stocking more products to reflect its growing and diversifying surroundings. To that, I raise a mug of anti-diabetes tea.