Photo by amy_b.
This past weekend, Toronto’s 24th annual Vegetarian Food Fair, a veritable food festival presenting an array of edible options for strict vegans and wavering vegetarians alike, took over the Harbourfront Centre. The fair is touted as the largest event of its kind on the continent, so we, being the ravenous sometimes-soybean journalists, in need of a break from Al the Hot Dog Man’s mediocre veggie dogs, forged the fair’s classes for newbie cooks and on-sale veggie books in favour of the welcoming, ready-made grub. We went armed with our reusable plates and cutlery, digital camera, and healthy appetites to the harbour to taste-test the food, and veg-out by the water. Although we admittedly first became interested in vegetarianism for monetary reasons (the price of prime cut versus the pocket change for a penny loaf), we were especially intrigued this weekend after listeria forced us to throw out all the discounted meat we mist(e)akenly bought a few weeks ago. Oh, and there was something about the environment, too.
Joking aside, we’re gung-ho about sustainable living and the reduction of carbon footprints with a meat-free lifestyle (after all, we are unofficially ranked as a top veg-friendly city). Ever the diplomats, we decided to tackle the vendors as a team―assembling a full three-plus-course meal complete with appetizers, a thirst-quenching beverage, the entree, and of course, a dessert (well, three, just ’cause they’re that healthy. Kind of like those 100-calorie cookie packs, where you end up eating a box in one sitting, ’cause they’re so light, and won’t do anything to you…right?).
We steered our starved selves straight for the World Cafe, bellies bare and ready to be filled with the finest herbivorous cuisine the city has to offer. Among the vendors were Magic Oven (unfortunately we skipped out on this one solely because we’re well aware of its delectableness), King’s Cafe, Mirch Masala Indian Bistro (Brampton), Green Earth Vegetarian Cuisine, and, though it was a little out of the way of the food tent, Ying Ying Soy Food, which we recognized as a soy staple from the south St. Lawrence Market.
The mango milkshake at Mirch Masala (above, top left) was an obvious choice for $3. Though it’s not vegan (when we inquired about soy milk, the vendor shook his head and muttered something about cow’s milk only), it’s not like they’re killing the cow to deliver us this fresh-fruit and cold dairy concoction. Blended together and served on ice, it’s like a mango frappucino, just without all the guilt and gentrification.
Next, we whet our appetites with a one-dollar sweet & spicy organic soybean tofu kebab (phew!) from Ying Ying (above, top right). Let’s talk about tofu. Most tofu is to soy milk as cheese is to cow’s milk (unless, of course, it’s goat’s cheese). The soy stuff can also come from, say, almonds or other kinds of beans. Some people just don’t like tofu―we get it. But Ying Ying claims to make the caviar of the curds, gourmet grub, selling themselves as the best in North America―after all, they make it today, just the same as the Chinese first did 2,000 years ago. So when we took the first whiff, and first bite of the kebob, satisfaction was found. Sweet and spicy as promised, the soy stuff served us right. But then there was the texture. One thing we’ve learned from past experience? If your food jiggles and it’s not Jell-O, beware. Moving on…
The veggie-stuffed, pan-fried dumplings from King’s Cafe (bottom two images) were certainly an easy crowd-pleaser, scrumtalescent when served with soy sauce. Sure, you can always go for more stuffing, but you can only ask so much of a single dumpling. The pan-fried pockets were accompanied by two soybean-sheet-wrapped, sorta-seafood-stuffed, ends-crimped-so-it-looks-like-shrimp hors d’oeuvres . A dousing of plum sauce disguised the un-fishy taste, but sans condiments, they were a touch tough to swallow. Together, the two appys cost three bucks.
The naan bread with butter “chicken” and curried chickpeas (above, top left) was an eloquently-crafted combo for $6 from Mirch Masala, although the grain tasted more bread than it did naan. But the mild, perfectly-textured tofu and spicy chickpeas pulled through as perfectly complimentary flavours to spice up the boring bread. Next, the curried tofu half-wrap from Ying Ying (top right) was a cheap treat at $2, resembling somewhat of a standard shwarma. Unfortunately, when it came to the first chomp, the wrap seemed soggy, and the lettuce wasn’t the culprit. Perhaps an alright snack for a strict vegetarian, but the topsy-turvy texture made us crave chicken.
On to the burgers. We admit, we did favour Mirch Masala’s mains, but nothing looked or smelled as redolent as their burgers. And you can’t blame a healthy aroma. The Bollywood Burger (bottom left) and the Tandoori Burger (bottom right), each at $4, were surely the standouts of the food fair stands. The Tandoori was made up of a colourful, chunky soy-veggie patty, topped up with mango chutney, red onions, cukes and tomato. The patty provided the perfect amount of heat, offset by the tangy fruit glaze. This was by far the favorite plate for our palates. And finally, we have the Bollywood Burger. At first glance, all was well―structured and set like the Tandoori, yet substituted with a straight soy patty and the addition of artichoke. Three big bites in, and the burger was all glitz and glam. However, when we passed the burger around for sharing, we found a little surprise. Call it Bollywood magic, but the gnarly, fuzzy blue mould spotted on the bun halfway through our meal activated the instinct to toss the bad-news bread rather than to snap an incriminating photo. While Mirch Masala was quick and willing to replace the bottom piece of bun, no apologetic gestures, sympathies, or even freebies were supplied! Later, after we’d regained our appetites, we did indulge in a few savoury date-and-fig-based desserts, but were too all-consumed with devouring them than to take photos or note their creator.
As much of an open-minded effort we made to enjoy the smorgasbord of cattle-free, eco-friendly food, the following conclusion must be drawn: while there were a few brief shining moments, on the whole, the provisions were far more paramount at the Ex. More variety, better texture, and—dare we say—fresher fare? Better luck next year.
All photos, unless otherwise noted, by Kasandra Bracken.