Hot Wok restaurant in Scarborough serves the dynamic, mash-up cuisine of a nomad people.
As you enter the Hot Wok restaurant in Scarborough, near Kennedy and the 401, you’ll pass a giant photograph of the leaning tower of Pisa on your way into the small dining room. The owner, Simon Hsieh (pronounced shea), who is Chinese, welcomes you in an accented English that’s equal parts Calcutta (where he was born), Austria (where he lived for a dozen years), and Guangdong (where his family’s ethnic group, the Hakka, originate from). The menu reads like a mash-up of Sunday takeout specials: fish pakoras, Manchurian paneer, Singapore noodles. Hsieh places a jar of homemade hot-chili vinegar on the table next to the soy sauce, and puts down a plate with a fork and spoon, not chopsticks. The customers are largely Indian, the owners and staff Chinese, and the food something in between. The air smells of ginger, garlic, coriander, and chili. You are part confused, part delighted.
At a time when we’ve become obsessed with seeking out “authentic” ethnic food—whether via strip-mall expeditions or high-end reproductions—we sometimes forget that these cuisines aren’t always the product of a single, identifiable place. Sure, the VPN Neapolitan pizzeria designation at Pizzeria Libretto draws a straight line to the ovens of Napoli, but for many cultures, food is shaped by the constant flux of migration—as much a product of the homeland the chefs came from as the one they’re in.
The food at Hot Wok, which is ostensibly Hakka Chinese, is a case in point. The Hakka are a linguistic subset of the Chinese Han ethnic majority who largely populate southeastern China. Over the past century, Hakka have emigrated in great numbers to countries around the world, forming communities in Taiwan, Indonesia, Jamaica, America, Britain, India, and others. India is where Hsieh’s family ended up four generations ago, where they worked in Calcutta’s leather tanneries, a trade dominated by Hakkas.
Traditionally, Hakka food in China includes dishes such as salt-baked chicken and deboned duck stuffed with sticky rice, but Hsieh explains that the Hakka tend to shape their cooking around local ingredients and tastes. “Hakka are the nomads of [the] Chinese,” Hsieh explains with a smile. “We move around and have to adapt to where we go. I don’t even know traditional Hakka cuisine. Each Hakka community cooks to suit the local cuisine.” When Hsieh ran a restaurant in Austria, for example, he dialed back the spice, added more breaded dishes, and upped the sugar quotient to conform to the Austrian palate.
In recent years, around 5,000 Hakka Chinese have moved to Toronto from India, with many going into the restaurant business. Hsieh opened Hot Wok six years ago, and the style of food he cooks is typical to the Hakka of Calcutta and other Indian cities: Chinese food with aggressive Indian spicing, halal meats, and no pork.
What you get is a savoury, full-bodied hybrid of both cooking styles that makes the case for multiculturalism better than any CBC radio special. Fish pakoras come in a pile of crisp, moist, fiery-red filets, smelling of tandoor spices like allspice and cumin. Fried lengths of chewy, salty Manchurian squid are tossed in a garlic-chili sauce, while a small hill of chicken fried rice lights up every part of the tongue with generous doses of coriander, ginger, garlic, and cayenne that leave a smouldering burn minutes after the last bite.
Some dishes, such as Gan Ben crispy beef, which consists of marinated slices of semi-dry beef, deep fried and tossed in a sweet-and-sour ginger sauce, lean more towards the restaurant’s Chinese roots, while Manchurian paneer features fried cubes of salted cheese in a thick sauce made of coriander, garlic, and chili that’s so slick with the buttery current of ghee, it could have emerged from the Ganges.
Though Hsieh identifies more closely with the Chinese community in Toronto than the Indian one, over half his clients are Indian and South Asian, with the rest made up of Filipinos, Afghanis, Koreans, and, surprisingly, only a small percentage of Chinese. He claims that Hakka restaurants are now opening at the rate of two per month in the GTA (his brothers own three, his aunt one), and it’s easy to see why they’re succeeding. “This food is Chinese food with more spicy, more flavourful dishes,” Hsieh says. This cuisine may not come from one place on a map, but it certainly feels right at home.
Hot Wok, 7 Progress Ave., 416-293-5342.