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TORONTO CHINATOWN WALKING TOUR

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"Fifty million dollars," says David Ko, clutching a fistful of bills. "It will buy the best cars, homes, jewelry, food and clothing."

David Ko with $50 million in paper money for ritual burnings
David Ko with $50 million in paper money for ritual burnings
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

There's only one catch. The money can only be used in the hereafter. And only after it's been sent skyward in a cloud of smoke, after your departure from Mother Earth. No wonder it costs only 79 cents — plus tax.

The ritual burning of paper money is only one of the fascinating facts that we encounter on a walking tour of Toronto's Chinatown with David Ko, a Toronto resident and former chef, who knows the area well.

Healthy tofu

Beginning at Dundas and McCaul, near the Art Gallery of Ontario, we stroll to a tofu-maker's shop. As Ko shows us squares of fresh and deep-fried soybean cakes, he explains that making tofu is similar to making cheese. "Soybeans are soaked, ground, boiled and filtered. The curds are used to make tofu, while the waste soy meal is given to farmers for livestock feed.

According to Ko, tofu is the perfect health food. "It's high in protein, low in calories and fat, and free of cholesterol. And it is so versatile. Besides using tofu in soups, stir-fries and even burgers, you can drink the soy milk, or make it into Jello or puddings."

Supermarkets with shrines

We sniff a sweet aroma. It is incense, wafting up from a red and gold shrine. "Most homes and businesses have an altar to the Chinese General," remarks Ko. "He keeps an eye on the place, makes sure there are no evil spirits coming in, and protects people from slipping and falling, especially on wet floors."

There is another incense-shrouded god guarding a supermarket on Dundas Street, our next stop. Ko picks up a can of locally-made Campbell's soup, with its familiar red and white label sporting Chinese characters. "There are still lots of Chinese people living here who can't read English," he claims.

David Ko holds straw-covered thousand-year-old egg and clay-covered salty egg.
David Ko holds straw-covered thousand-year-old egg and clay-covered salty egg.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Thousand-year-old eggs

We walk past buckets of peanuts and gingko nuts, bottles of oyster sauce and tins of straw mushrooms to a box filled with black, clay-covered, salty eggs. "You wrap duck eggs with a mixture of salt and clay. After 30 days, the salt penetrates the shell, and the yolk becomes solid," he explains. "The yolks are used in small pastries, while the whites can be used to make noodles.

"Now, these thousand-year-old eggs don't have to be cooked," he says, picking one up from another box. "They're preserved with a coating of chopped straw, salt, coriander and ashes for three months. The alkali penetrates the shell and turns the white a deep amber color and the yolk green. You eat them with ginger pickles as appetizers, or in soups and pastries."

In the freezer, Ko shows us some Chinese convenience foods — frozen egg rolls, pork dumplings and red bean buns. "Just defrost and steam for five minutes and they're ready," he says.

Forbidden durian

Outside, shoppers bustle around produce stands, loading their shopping bags with emerald snow peas, grape-like dragon's eyes, and spiky football-sized durians. "These fruits are imported from Thailand," says Ko. "Their strong odor is so bad that, in Asia, people are forbidden to bring them on buses or into hotels." Perhaps it's the reputation of these taste-like-heaven, smell-like-hell fruits for being aphrodisiacs, that accounts for their popularity.

Shopping in Chinatown
Shopping in Chinatown
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Looking around at the Chinese street and shop signs and Oriental shoppers, we could easily imagine ourselves in Hong Kong, Taiwan or China — if it weren't for the CN Tower looming above us and the red and yellow street cars rumbling past.

Reading our thoughts, Ko remarks, "There are 400,000 Chinese people living in Toronto — not just downtown where we are now, but in five other Chinatowns, north, east and west of us."

BBQ duck and roast suckling pig

The impression is reinforced at the many barbeque shops, where sides of pork and glistening glazed ducks and chickens hang from hooks by the entranceway. "They all have their heads left on," says Ko. "At a Chinese banquet, the head always faces the guest of honor — and guess who pays for the feast?"

He offers us samples. The shopkeeper wields a cleaver, the size of a guillotine, and presents us with the chunks of tasty barbecued pork, with its sweet crispy skin.

We eye a dish of chicken feet. "When my young son wants to suck his thumb, I always hand him a chicken foot instead," says Ko, as he buys us a sample. "They're boiled in a sugar solution, deep-fried, then stewed in a black bean sauce," he says. And they're surprisingly tasty, we might add.

Two waiters carry out a glazed, roasted pig which a customer purchased for a birthday party. As they decorate it with colored flowers, Ko explains that the head and tail are always left on, according to Chinese tradition. "It symbolizes happiness from head to tail."

Chinese tea

Crossing Huron Street, we enter Ten Ren Tea Company. "Tea time for the Chinese is anytime," quips Ko as we scan shelves lined with gold containers of black, green, oolong and herbal teas.

"Ginseng tea is the specialty here," he adds. "It's the king of herbs, keeping women young and beautiful and enhancing men's virility. It worked for me," he says, grinning. "I have three kids!"

Ko explains the rituals of a Chinese tea ceremony, as we sit at a small table. He pours us thimble-size cups of sweet plum tea, followed by cups of bitter ginseng tea and finally, King's Tea, the most expensive brew in the shop, selling for $160 a pound. The most interesting tea, however, is "monkey-pick," — a tea grown on bushes, perched on cliffs so inaccessible, that only trained monkeys can harvest it.

Chinatown stores
Chinatown stores
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Chinese newspapers

Back in the street, we pass several dim sum (snack) restaurants. "To order dim sum the traditional way, you request dishes that you want from a trolley that's wheeled past your table." explains Ko. "At the end of the meal, the waiter calculates your bill by the size of the steamers and color of the plates left on your table."

Outside the restaurant, we spot a vendor selling newspapers. "We have four daily Chinese newspapers in Toronto," says Ko. "They run seven days a week and even provide home delivery. On Sundays, they offer color centerfolds of popular movie stars and singers," he observes, opening up the Sing Tao Daily to show us.

Just past a stand piled high with bags of dried shrimp, scallops, mussels and live crabs, we find a Chinese bakery. "The cakes with the red characters stamped on them are wedding pastries," points out Ko. "Brides and grooms give coupons to their family and friends so they can redeem them here for Chinese or Western cakes."

Chinese medicine

We then walk by a theatre showing Chinese films with English subtitles, and enter a ginseng and herb wholesaler. "The Chinese have used medicinal plants for over 3,000 years," notes Ko, as we watch the herbalist weighing leaves, barks and roots and piling them on squares of white paper on the counter. "You boil them in a clay pot with water to make a dark and bitter tea.

"When my son had a fever that wouldn't go away with Tylenol, I brought him to the herbal doctor who prescribed a mixture that cured his fever in five hours."

But how did he get his 1.5-year-old son to drink the foul-tasting brew? "I put it in a glass with two straws and pretended to drink from one while offering him the other. I told him it was Coke, so he drank the whole thing!"

David Ko holds jar of deer tendons.
David Ko holds jar of deer tendons.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Ko shows us a jar of deer tendons which he bought to make a soup. "It had me running rather than walking!" He also vouches for the benefits of acupuncture as we study a model marked with 360 red and black dots, and a box of ominous-looking needles. "I once had a sore shoulder, and it relieved the pain."

Seahorses, snake skins and joss sticks

The shop is endlessly fascinating, with its glass cases of dried seahorses, snake skins and tiger's milk, and colorful boxes of heart-calming pills, genital tonic and other exotic remedies.

Equally interesting is a Spadina Avenue shop filled with housewares ranging from woks and chopsticks, to tea sets and rice-steamers, as well as religious items like joss sticks. "You make a wish, then shake the cup until a stick falls out," says Ko. "The number on it corresponds to a poem which a scholar in the temple will decipher."

Amid meter-wide Chinese fans, tasseled-lanterns and statues of Buddha, Ko shows us a large porcelain fish bowl. "The Chinese are very superstitious," he admits. "Businessmen will put goldfish in a bowl, like this, near the main door. The fish swimming around and around, symbolize money coming in — but if they die, so will your fortune!"

Vendor at fast food stand Dragon City Mall
Vendor at fast food stand in Dragon City Mall
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Chinese fast food

We continue our stroll, stopping briefly to watch a man make rice noodles, flavored with dried shrimp and green onions. At a nearby noodle restaurant, we see a cook boil egg noodles in a huge cauldron of steaming broth. By the time we reach Dragon City Mall, our stomachs are rumbling with hunger.

We bypass the prestigious Mandarin Club, stroll past the Chinese video and fashion shops on the main floor, and head for the Chinese fast-food court in the basement.

While the aromas and delectable offerings tempt us to eat — especially when we can order a huge plate of food for less than a Big Mac and French fries — we save our appetites for lunch at the end of the tour.

Delicious dim sum

At the restaurant, Ko gives us tips on how to order the delicious little appetizers called dim sum. We sample everything from crispy spring rolls to pork and shrimp-stuffed jao tze (Chinese ravioli). All are delectable.

Lunch doesn't end here, though. We traipse over to a Chinese bakery, where Ko invites us to select a dessert from the coconut tarts, almond cookies, sesame bars and other delectable pastries on display.

Ko explains that he began his cooking career by working in his father's Yung Sing Pastry Shop, which is no longer open.

The pastries are a sweet ending to our culinary tour of Toronto's Chinatown.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

Tourism Toronto: www.torontotourism.com

More things to see and do in Toronto:

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