Where chef Johnne Phinehas eats Sri Lankan food in the burbs

Where chef Johnne Phinehas eats Sri Lankan food in the burbs

We're going on the road with some of the city's top chefs to explore their favourite suburban restaurants. Johnne Phinehas, chef and co-owner of Saffron Spice Kitchen in Queen West, tells us what's good in Scarborough

Johnne Phinehas. Photograph by Suresh Dosh

Johnne Phinehas and his wife own and operate Saffron Spice Kitchen, a Sri Lankan takeout shop on Queen West. “I use my mother’s recipes to make the curries on my menu, but the kothu roti is what I’m most passionate about,” says Phinehas. “People line up for it every day.”

Phinehas was born in 1980 to Tamil parents, in Sri Lanka’s northern province of Jaffna. He distinctly remembers what happened after the Sri Lankan Civil War began in 1983. “The war tore apart the province—everyone started to evacuate,” says Pinehas. His family travelled to India by boat, ending up in Chennai, the capital of India’s Tamil Nadu state. Over the next 10 years, Phinehas and his siblings started school and his father operated the cafeteria at a hostel. “We were really lucky. Most families that left Jaffna ended up in camps, where they went hungry.”

In 1994, like many other Tamils, the Phinehas family migrated to Canada, settling in Scarborough. “Our first home was on Tuxedo Court—that’s where all the Tamils were settling in the ’90s.” It was around this time that Phinehas started cooking. “I developed a passion for making Sri Lankan food for my high school peers,” says Phinehas. “It was a way for me to remember my home country.”

Phinehas now lives in Mississauga but visits Scarborough regularly for Sri Lankan food. “Scarborough and Markham are the best when it comes to Lankan food. No other areas come close.”

Quality Bakery

1221 Markham Rd., 416-431-9829, no website

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This was where Phinehas had his first Sri Lankan food experience in Canada. He passed by the bakery on his way home from school every day. “We would stop in for fish buns and rotis. Back then the fish buns were only 25 cents!”

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Go-to item: Meat roti
Tasting notes: This “short eat” (the Sri Lankan term for snack) is spicy dried mutton stuffed into a plain roti. The roti acts as a cooling buffer for the fiery meat.
 
 

Poorani Vilaas

6055 Steeles Ave E., 416-335-7775, pooranivilaas.ca

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He visits this takeout counter for its wide variety of snacks. “The short eats here are the best.”

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Go-to item: Kolukattai
Tasting notes: The steamed dumplings (bottom centre) are made of brown rice, dhal, coconut and sugar. Phinehas loves to finish his meal with this sweet treat.
 
 

Kottu Kadai

3351 Markham Rd., 416-298-3555, no website

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Phinehas discovered this brand-new takeout counter during a recent trip. “There are some Sri Lankan snacks here that you can’t find anywhere else.”

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Go-to item #1: Fried chili manioc
Tasting notes: Chopped cassava is flash-fried and tossed with spices. It’s like the Sri Lankan version of spicy potato wedges.
 
 
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Go-to item #2: Isso vadai
Tasting notes: This fritter-like snack is a popular street food in Colombo. Patties are made with red lentils, masoor dhal, onions, ginger and a host of spices, stuffed with prawns, and then deep fried.
 
 

Martin’s Bakery

2761 Markham Rd, Unit #15, 416-535-2323, no website

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Phinehas loves kothu roti (he’s the star of the upcoming KothuFest), and this is his favourite place to get it.

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Go-to item: Mutton kothu roti
Tasting notes: Day-old godamba roti (crispy flat bread) is chopped up and thrown onto a flat-top grill with spicy mutton curry, chilies and onions. The mixture is tossed and then chopped with two blunt metal blades.
 
 

Hopper Hut

880 Ellesmere Rd., 416-299-4311, facebook.com/HopperHut

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There are few sit-down Sri Lankan restaurants in Scarborough. Hopper Hut has been around for more than 25 years and is very popular with families.

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Go-to item #1: Appam with pol sambola and seeni sambol
Tasting notes: Appam (a.k.a. hoppers), are eaten in Sri Lanka eaten at various times of the day. They’re fermented rice flour pancakes that are cooked in a small wok and sometimes filled with coconut or egg. Classic side dishes include pol sambola (coconut cooked with onion, chilies, fish, lime and spices) and seeni sambol (onions cooked with sugar, chilies, fish, tamarind and cinnamon). The idea is to tear off a bit of the hopper and dip it in the sambol.
 
 
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Go-to item #2: Watalappam
Tasting notes: Similar to a Portuguese flan, it’s a rich pudding made with jaggery (cane sugar), coconut milk, eggs and cardamom. The name literally translates to cup (wattal) cake (appam), and it’s a hugely popular dessert in Sri Lanka, often served during special occasions and events.
 
 

Kairali Restaurant

1210 Kennedy Rd., 416-909-0994, no website

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When Phinehas misses South Indian food, he visits this restaurant operated by a Sri Lankan family.

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Go-to item #1: Fish biryani
Tasting notes: This dish of rice tossed with spices and curried white fish is one of the restaurant’s specialties. It’s like Chinese fried rice, but with more delicate flavours. You won’t find this anywhere else in Toronto.
 
 
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Go-to item #2: Meen pollichalhu
Tasting notes: Whole fish is curried and cooked in a banana leaf. It’s best enjoyed with roti or rice to soak up the juices.
 
 

Lingan Cream House

6055 Steeles Ave E., 416-292-5464, no website

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This is Phinehas’s go-to for Sri Lankan frozen desserts.

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Go-to item #1: Sherbet ice cream float
Tasting notes: The super-sweet sherbet drink is made from a mix of cream, fruit juice and vanilla ice cream.
 
 
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Go-to item #2: Mega sundae
Tasting notes: Phinehas’s favourite dessert is a mix of ice cream, jelly and cashews, topped with a wafer.

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