In the year old Maeli Market, a Taiwanese food emporium in upstate York, there are shelves dedicated to the ingredients of bubble tea and fruit-flavored vinegars and tables of salty and spicy prunes.
The kitchen is as large as the retail space where there’s a sizeable takeout menu that includes Taiwanese poutine topped with braised minced pork and shiitake, a popcorn chicken bento box (tofu version also available), and a vegetable bath.
Maeli is one of several specialty food stores that opened in Toronto during the pandemic, highlighting regional ingredients and satisfying the growing appetite for international snacks. The goal isn’t necessarily to compete with one-stop mega-supermarkets, but rather to narrow down the selection for those trying to replicate Mom’s kitchen or confused cooks trying out a new kitchen.
“It is like a cultural center. We want clients to have an idea of the island ”, he said. Alice Chung, co-founder of Maeli.
The take-out, which highlights classic and modern Taiwanese cuisine, uses many of the products that are carried in the store. “This way we can show the ingredients that we bring and (customers) can taste them first,” Chung said.
Other retail and takeout hybrids have opened across the city in the last year.
Japanese and Korean food place Hanamaru Market on Pape Avenue he sells homemade sushi rolls and onigiri. TO Pepper Food and Drink On Wallace Avenue, a take-out menu leans toward Asian-American cuisine, complementing a retail space for spirits and snacks. A second location of Mattachioni opened on Gerrard Street East, selling Italian groceries, loaves of bread, and baked-to-order pizzas. High-end Japanese restaurant opened in Yorkville Yuzuki Yuzuki Fish Market on Spadina Avenue with a take-out sushi counter, a grocery section, and coolers with raw fish and fresh wasabi root.
In addition to regional cuisine, these businesses also cater to generational cuisine.
“We are trying to create a space for Asian millennials to recreate their best food memories and create new ones,” said Christina Pack, owner of Aunt supply, an online retailer with a small store in Stackt Market that sells Asian snacks and pantry items.
While Pack’s store has staples typically found in a Chinatown store, what sets it apart is the condiment and snack shelves of food startups founded by young Asian Americans and Canadians, who grew up with different flavor profiles than those of their parents.
There are chili oils and a Chinese-American brand hot pot soup base. Fly by jing and cans of yuzu-ginger soda from the Philippine-American wellness company Droplet. From Toronto, bottles of Korean-inspired hot sauce from MaMa Joo’s and concentrated chai of Spice Girl Eats.
Many of the products are also marked vegan, gluten-free, or dairy-free.
The store also has pop-ups with other food startups. You recently sold mini custard cakes from a Filipino-Canadian bakery. Asuka and daifuku mochi from Chubbi rice.
“Pop-ups are meant to amplify local businesses and with the foot traffic we get in, they help showcase different cuisines,” Pack said.
The local angle is what drives many of the stores. At the Latin American grocer in East York Mobile Store, owner Gabriela Flores says she has a sense of duty to help others get into the food business.
Flores opened the store on Woodbine Avenue after she was laid off during the pandemic. Her mother is a wholesaler in Leamington, selling imported Mexican products to restaurants and shops in surrounding towns, and she encouraged Flores to do the same thing that more people cook at home.
Flores began selling tortillas and tostadas on Facebook and WhatsApp groups. When making deliveries, customers asked him if he also had Mexican mole, chocolates, sauces, cheese, and sandwiches.
His inventory grew and eventually he rented a store.
Among the more than a thousand types of products are imported cookies and candies (the spicy tamarind fruit leather Pulparindo is one of the best sellers), fresh cacti and pantry items, along with sauces, taco kits and papusas made by the locals, who often use the store to launch their wares.
“When I was making deliveries, a lot of moms were also at home and said they needed a job. I was like, sure you make your own product and I can sell it, ”Flores said. “We were all learning how to start a business and follow rules like having to cook in a commercial kitchen and get licenses and permits… These are the stories that make me feel good because we help and support each other.
“(Customers) don’t just like my products,” Flores added. “They like my story.”
What to buy from Auntie’s Supply, Maeli Market and Mobile Shop
Whether it’s for yourself or a gift, head to these neighborhood stores this holiday for treats that will be hard to find elsewhere.
Aunt supply (28 Bathurst St. at Stackt Market)
Pandan Kaya by Malaysian cuisine of Auria ($ 14)
This seasoning company takes kaya, a traditional coconut jam, and flavors it with pandan leaves for an additional herbal aroma. Spreading kaya on toast is the most traditional way to enjoy it, but you can also add it to ice cream or granola, mix it with cereal milk, or spread it on pancakes.
Okazu Curry Miso by Abokichi ($ 13)
These sesame condiments from the Toronto-based Japanese food company have a cult following because their sweet-salty, slightly spicy profile is so nicely sprinkled on top of everything: eggs, rice, cooked veggies, fish, tofu, noodles, salads.
Maeli Market (18 William Sylvester Dr.)
Hello Kitty pineapple cakes from Red sakura ($ 6.50)
Along with bubble tea, pineapple cakes are Taiwan’s most famous food (pineapple is one of its main crops). These two-bite cakes are filled with pineapple that has been cooked to a very thick jam-like consistency without being too sweet.
Dried salted plums Plumaster ($ 4.80)
Part of Maeli’s mandate is to highlight some of the smaller producers who come from Taiwan. One of them is Plumaster, which only uses plums from the Nanxi region where its founder grew up. Salted prunes are a popular snack in East Asia; just pop one in your mouth and melt (they contain bones, so they are not for chewing).
Mobile Store (1237C Woodbine Ave.)
Mexican Ponche from D’canci ($ 10)
Typically consumed during the holidays, this centennial Mexican punch contains dried guava, pear, apple, raisins, sugar cane, hibiscus, raw sugar, and cinnamon. Just boil the nuts in water, add more sugar if you like (or a splash of alcohol). Serve hot or cold.
Cocoa paste Juquilita ($ 9.50)
Mobile Store has many items from Oaxaca, one of the best known culinary regions in Mexico. One of them is Mexican drinking chocolate, which unlike hot chocolate relies less on sugar and cream, and more on the rich, bittersweet aromas of roasted cocoa. Dissolve two chocolate balls in a liter of hot water or milk to enjoy on a cold night.
Read all the stories in this week’s Toronto food coverage:
Three Locally Made Chili Oils You Need To Stock Your Pantry
This little shop in Danforth has hundreds of special finds from Spain, Mexico