I’ve eaten a lot of noodles in my day but up until last week, had never tried any Filipino varieties. Despite Toronto’s large Filipino community, the archipelago’s cuisine – a combination of Chinese, Malay, Spanish and American influences – hasn’t really gained widespread popularity. While there are many places to get Filipino food, they’re mostly scattered outside the downtown area and are mostly take-out places where you choose your meal from a hot table. It appears that trend is gradually changing though. A few months ago, Lamesa Filipino Kitchen opened on Queen Street West, serving contemporary renditions of traditional Fiipino dishes in a trendy dining room. I haven’t been but my friend Laura had their prix-fixe and says you have to try the pork belly. And there’s also Kanto by Tita Flips, a food stand at Dundas and Bathurst serving made-to-order Filipino street food.
Kanto is one of several international food stands at Market 707, an outdoor marketplace at the Scadding Court Community Centre comprised entirely out of refurbished shipping containers. It’s a pretty cool project. In an effort to revive the bleak corner of its central downtown intersection, the community centre set up a row of shipping containers, spruced them up with some paint and electricity, and now offers the spaces to burgeoning entrepreneurs for very low rent. Currently, most of the businesses that have taken up shop there are food vendors and so there are also some tables and chairs set up along the wide sidewalk for customers to eat their meals. I get pretty excited every time I go there as there are lots and lots of good options – Central American pupusas, Korean bulgogi, European crepes, Ontario grilled cheese, Japanese curry, Chinese dim sum, West Indian roti, South American ceviche, and even North African camel burgers (yes, like Alice – try it, it’s good). If you know me, you know that so many appealing food options are usually a double-edged sword as I have a really hard time deciding what to order – restaurants with 15-page long menus are a bit of a nightmare for me, and I adore dining companions that are into sharing. There’s only one noodle dish currently on offer at Market 707 though, so on my first visit, the decision was pretty simple.
There’s an unsurprisingly large variety of Filipino noodle dishes and Kanto serves up one of the most popular among them, pancit palabok, literally noodles with garnishing. It’s often made with thin rice noodles/vermicelli, one of the most common types of noodle in Filipino cuisine. However, it can also be made with cornstarch noodles, which is what Kanto uses for their version. Apparently unique to the Philippines, I had never heard of cornstarch noodles before and was curious to try them. They’re similar in texture to glass noodles/mung bean noodles, although slightly thicker, and a bit firmer and springier. For pancit palabok, they’re simply soaked in water and then quickly boiled. The noodles themselves don’t have much flavour so the success of the dish really rests on its toppings. The main and most complex feature of pancit palabok is the shrimp gravy that’s poured over the noodles. It typically consists of a rich shrimp stock – made by boiling down shrimp heads and shells – mixed with the extract of annatto seeds, a mild flavoured seed with an intense yellow-orange pigment. The two liquids are simmered together with some seasoning, including fish sauce, and then thickened with cornstarch or flour. The resulting gravy is then tossed up with the noodles, along with some pieces of tofu and slices of chicken. The final step of the dish is its garnishing. I’m sure there are some variations but, as served up at Kanto, it typically includes slices of hard-boiled egg, fried shrimp, green onion, chicharron (pork crackling), fried garlic pieces (my favourite part – yum), and a slice of citrus (calamansi, lemon or lime) to squirt on top. It’s warm and comforting, and full of complementary textures and flavours. And at Kanto by Tita Flips, it’s just $5 a plate. I’m happy this place is downtown so I can slowly work my way through their menu. The Japanese curry place is lookin’ pretty good as well, though I might have to suggest they start serving some udon.