Where Halal Foodie founder Salima Jivraj eats African and Indian food
We're going on the road with some of the city's top chefs, restaurateurs and foodies, to explore their favourite suburban restaurants. Salima Jivraj tells us what's good in the east end
East Yorker Salima Jivraj is one of the GTA’s foremost experts when it comes to halal cuisine. She created the website Halal Foodie after realizing that there was a lack of information about where to find certified halal meat. “I would go to restaurants and ask who their suppliers were, and I would follow that chain. Most times I’d get a proper answer, but other times it was ambiguous,” says Jivraj. Since launching her site in 2011, it’s become a go-to index of halal food in the GTA, and has also cultivated the Halal Food Festival, the largest of its kind in North America.
A Toronto-born Muslim, Jivraj identifies as Indian East-African. “My family is diverse,” she says. “We’re a reflection of our migration path from India to Tanzania to Canada.” Jivraj speaks Gujurati, and her parents speak both Gujurati and Swahili. She recently moved to Pickering but still calls East York her “foodie home.” “We regularly drive into the city for food because this is where the good stuff is,” says Jivraj. “This is all nostalgia for me.”
801 Gerrard St. E., 647-352-4040, hailed.ca
Jivraj frequents this Arabic-themed café near East Chinatown when she needs a caffeine fix. Hailed, open for a year and a half now, specializes in cardamom-flavoured espresso and tea drinks, but it also has a menu devoted to rare imported dates. “Most people don’t realize how versatile dates can be,” says owner Salim Bamakhrama.
Go-to item #1: Cardamom latte or Arabic coffee
Tasting notes: “I love anything cardamom,” says Jivraj. “It’s a nostalgic flavour for me, and I love how they incorporate it into their drinks here.” The Arabic coffee is made by gently toasting whole Ethiopian beans, and then boiling them. “We infuse the boil with cardamom, cloves and saffron. Every household back home has their own version,” Bamakhrama says, as he pours the translucent liquid from a traditional dallah (coffee pot).
Go-to item #2: Za’atar croissant
Tasting notes: This is one of Jivraj’s favourite pastries. It’s a Middle Eastern take on the French favourite, with an oregano-thyme spice mixture both inside and on top. It adds a very savoury layer to the buttery pastry.
Go-to item #3: Halloumi sandwich
Tasting notes: Unlike your traditional grilled cheese sandwich, this one’s a bit chewier, thanks to the semi-hard unripened cheese. There’s also some za’atar sprinkled on the cheese to give it an earthier flavour.
Go-to item #4: A date flight
Tasting notes: While dates are widely available at most grocery stores, Bamakhrama says most of the boxes you find on store shelves are generic. At Hailed, he wanted to showcase dates specifically from Saudi Arabia. “People that love dates, know that dates from Saudi are the best,” says Jivraj. Bamakhrama regularly carries three varieties, and each presents a distinct flavour profile: Mabroom dates are firm with notes of buckwheat, Sukkari dates are soft and sweet like caramel, and Ajwa dates—the most prized—have a gummy-bear mouthfeel and hints of licorice.
2 Thorncliffe Park Dr. #40, 416-421-0191, trupti.ca
Jivraj recalls that her parents would make regular trips to this shop for all of their spice needs. When she started cooking, she realized the importance of Trupti. “This is where people who really know their spices go to buy mixes.” Trupti, a family-run business, has been operating in Thorncliffe Park for 20 years, roasting and grinding a myriad of spices on-site. It’s Jivraj’s go-to whenever she needs spice blends or Indian snacks. She’ll occasionally ship bagfuls to her parents, who now live in Edmonton.
Go-to item #1: Spice blends
Tasting notes: Trupti has over 40 types of spice blends, from various curry style blends, to coatings you can put on meat or vegetables. If you’re looking for a coating mix for fried chicken, or East African-style garam masala that is heavy on cinnamon, or even fiery Sri Lankan curry powder, this is the place to go.
Go-to item #2: Chevdo corn
Tasting notes: This popular Indian snack may change how you feel about breakfast cereal. That’s because typically mundane corn flakes are tossed with peanuts, almonds and a generous dusting of chili. Its sweet, savoury, crunchy and spicy all in one bite—and best enjoyed with cold beer.
Go-to item #3: Dry-roast onions
Tasting notes: There are endless applications for these crisp and sweet onions, from topping your morning eggs with them or adding them to a salad or sandwich for some crunch.
377 Donlands Ave., 416-425-6685
Jivraj recalls spending many nights with her family at this tiny take-out and sweets shop. “We used to come here all the time because it was a popular meeting spot for the local Tanzanian community,” she says. “People would stop in for samosas and fried fish. But what I love most about this place is their donairs.” The owners have changed since Raj Kapuri opened over 30 years ago, but Jivraj still swears by them.
Go-to item #1: Spiced beef donair
Tasting notes: Ground beef is marinated with a house blend of African spices, cooked on spit and then shaved into open-faced pita. Add some house-made hot sauce for a little kick or some ambli (tamarind sauce) to offset the richness of the beef.
375 Donlands Ave., 416-429-6057, simbagrill.ca
For family gatherings and sit-down meals, this is where Jivraj and her family eat. She says the family owned restaurant does East African cuisine very well. “Many East-African dishes are labour intensive, and Simba Grill consistently produces some of the best home-style food I’ve had,” Jivraj said.
Go-to item #1: Coca-Cola with roasted peanuts
Tasting notes: Owner Sultan Jessani used to be the chef when he first opened the restaurant in 2002, but these days he plays host. He presents Jivraj with a bottle of Coke and a bag of roasted peanuts. “You know, Africans love to do this. We love roasted peanuts in Coke,” he says, carefully dropping each nut into the bottle. Jessani says the tradition of mixing salted peanuts with Coke goes back as far as he can remember. “I grew up with this. It’s this perfect symphony of sweetness and saltiness.”
Go-to item #2: Beef mishkaki with spicy fries and chutneys
Tasting notes: This is one of the signature plates at Simba Grill. It’s beef that has been marinated in a house blend of sauces, shaped into cubes and cooked over an open fire. It’s served with an assortment of house-made chutneys (tamarind, red chili, green chili, coconut). “I like the piece of fat on the kebab, the crunchy part. It’s addictive,” Jivraj says.
Go-to item #3: Ugali with spinach curry
Tasting notes: Simba Grill is one of the few places in the GTA that serves authentic ugali, a porridge made from a blend of flours, cooked to the point where it has a texture similar to polenta. It’s traditionally a vessel for stews, soups and curries. Jivraj suggests forming a ball of ugali in your palms, using your thumb to make an indent in the centre, and scoop up curry (or stew, or whatever) with it. Simba’s spinach curry is her favourite; it’s a sublime mixture enriched with herbs and coconut milk. For a finishing touch, she recommends adding a dollop of chutney to each bite.
1430 Gerrard St. E, 416-469-4466
“Whenever we were in Little India for a festival or event, we would stop here for kebabs. It’s been around forever,” Jivraj says. The restaurant is named after one of the busiest markets in Old Delhi, and has been operating for nearly 40 years. Today, it’s part of a handful of businesses that still remain open, reflective of a time when Little Pakistan saw its boom in ’70s. Today, its still run by the original owner and is revered for its vegetarian curries and biryanis.
Go-to item #1: Foot-long beef kebab
Tasting notes: “The flavour is intense and perfect. The beef is crunchy on the outside, moist on the instead and redolent with spice.”
Go-to item #2: Vegetarian curry
Tasting notes: A mixture of eggplant, potato, tomato, peppers and onion, are slow-cooked until they form a stew. It’s best enjoyed with some freshly baked naan.
1020 Danforth Ave., 416-406-2056.
When she was growing up, Jivraj and her family spent a lot of time eating on the Danforth, not for the Greek cuisine, but because of one the city’s oldest and most culturally significant mosques: the Madinah Masjid, built in 1974 by Donlands Avenue. “After going to the mosque, we always went to Makkah for a quick meal,” says Jivraj. The restaurant is an institution, known best for its halal grilled dishes. Opened by a pair Bangladeshi cooks nearly 25 years ago, the diner-style restaurant is regarded as one of the best places on the Danforth for Indian-Pakistani food.
Go-to item #1: Bihari kebab
Tasting notes: “If there’s one thing you must try here, and only one thing, it’s the bihari kebab,” says Jivraj. The popular street-food item is made using tenderloin cuts of beef that are tossed in a ton of spices and left to marinate overnight. At Makkah, it’s cooked on a high-flame to form an outer crust, and served with two house-made chutneys (tamarind and green chili). Their chutneys should not be overlooked: Makkah is renowned for their dips.
City Fried Chicken
990 Danforth Ave., 416-645-1000
While Jivraj spent much of her childhood eating at African and Indian restaurants, she started frequenting this spot with her friends whenever she craved North American fast food. “I remember being so excited when I saw that this place was serving Canadian fast food that was also halal,” says Jivraj.
Go-to item #1: Steak on fries
Tasting notes: This monstrous plate starts off with fries, slices of seasoned steak, peppers and cheese. It’s then liberally coated with a variety of sauces: mayo, barbecue sauce and house hot sauce. “Think of it as poutine, but the Toronto-halal version,” says Jivraj.
1328 Danforth Ave., 416-465-4224, almandirestauranttoronto.com
For formal sit-down meals near the mosque, Jivraj and family preferred Al-Mandi. “It’s well-known in the community for the traditional Yemeni dishes,” she says.
Go-to item #1: Mendi chicken
Tasting notes: Traditional mendi consists of three key elements: rice, meat and a layering of spices. Rice is cooked with meat stock and a plethora of spices, then topped with half-portions of oven-roasted chicken. Eating it is a communal affair.