Episode 02

Bao and Belonging with Suresh Doss

Erika, Eunice, and Lauren take the subway north on the longest street in the world for Part 1 of an ethnoburb food tour with acclaimed Toronto food writer Suresh Doss. They start with lattes at a cozy third-wave coffeeshop on what urban planners call a “soft site.” Then they go for juicy Shanghai baos at a complex on Yonge Street where developers have made growth AND cultural preservation possible. Also: Grandmas.

Show Notes

This season, most of our recordings and interviews take place in Toronto, whose name originates from the Mohawk word Tkaronto, meaning “the place in the water where the trees are standing”.

We acknowledge the land we are meeting on is the traditional territory of many nations including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat peoples and is now home to many diverse First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. We also acknowledge that Toronto is covered by Treaty 13 with the Mississaugas of the Credit.

Three reasons why Toronto is the focus of this Inhabit series:

  1. Diversity of people. Toronto has been named the most diverse city in the world. Over 50% of the population is born outside of Canada, with over 250 ethnicities represented—so Toronto is a great case study for how this diversity plays out from our public spaces to our access to different cuisines.
  2. Diversity of spaces. Large condo towers, endless rows of single-family houses, parks, and most beautiful and lush ravine systems.
  3. Diversity of There’s room in this conversation for everyone—non-profits, local grassroots activists, academics…

Watch Pixar’s Turning Red to see another representation of Toronto.

Canada experienced an overhaul on immigration and population policies, starting with the Immigration Act of 1976, which included the promotion of Canada’s demographic, economic, social, and cultural goals – including prioritizing family reunion, diversity, and non-discrimination.

In 1988, the Canadian Multiculturalism Act was passed, the first of its kind in the world. It reflected the commitment to promote and maintain a diverse society – in law!

Suresh Doss is a Toronto-based food writer. He is a weekly food columnist on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning, the print editor for Foodism Toronto magazine and regularly contributes to Toronto Life, the Globe and Mail and Eater National. Doss regularly runs food tours throughout the GTA, aimed at highlighting its multicultural pockets.

Check out this New York Times article featuring Suresh, titled The Story of Multicultural Canada, Told in Humble Strip Mall Eateries. To learn more about Suresh, check out his website for published work, photography and food guides to Toronto.

Left to right: Erika, Suresh, Eunice, and Lauren

Along Yonge Street, the longest street in the world, you can see its history as a commercial and cultural hub.

In Eunice’s words… when we cross Highway 401, we’ve really left Downtown in our search for something delicious. Suresh was taking us to North York, a suburb of Toronto. I actually spent a lot of my childhood living in North York, so I was no stranger to the caliber of food we were about to partake in. Michelin stars are great and all, but that’s only one kind of excellence. When we talk about culture and placemaking, we’re talking about the excellence that lives in the recipes that get passed down and tweaked by every generation. And Suresh knew we would find what we were looking for on the longest street in the world: Yonge Street. 

To learn more about the history, check out:

Another Land Coffee and More’s Mission: “Every time we make and serve a drink that we love, we feel absolute joy. This is something we know we can do to make the world a better place to live. It’s coffee… and more!” Check out regular specials on their beautiful Instagram.

  • Visit Hong Dai at Another Land Coffee And More Inc, 4714 Yonge Street, NORTH YORK, Ontario M2N5M4

According to blogTO, “Sang-ji is apparently the slang term for the stuffed soup buns in Shanghai”.

Be transported to Sang-Ji Fried Bao through the delectable descriptions Suresh Doss shares in this CBC News article from 2022. Follow Sang-Ji Bao on Instagram.

  • Visit John Xue at Sang-ji Bao,5461 Yonge St, North York, ON M2N 5S1, Canada

Producer Lauren spots the power of food and belonging in a few unlikely places:

This episode features music courtesy of Epidemic Sound

  • “Dime a Dozen” by Esme Cruz


Inhabit Series 3 Episode 2: “Bao and Belonging with Suresh Doss”

Erika Eitland: Recap. [Low rumble under finger snap echoing into a large empty room.] Eunice Wong invited producer Lauren and me to their hometown of Toronto. In the last episode, Zahra Ebrahim said we should just be talking about public space as anything that isn’t home or work. These are the social and cultural places where we can just be uniquely ourselves. Our religious centers, or coffee shops, our libraries, parks, bars, hair salons. You see where I’m going…

Eunice Wong: But you can’t start to understand the culture of a city without talking about the food it has to offer.

[Outdoor soundscape cues in.]

So naturally, we started our crash course with a food tour.

Lauren Neefe: We just walked up to where we are meeting Suresh—

[Studio voiceover.]

Suresh Doss: My name is Suresh Doss. I am a food writer based out of Toronto. And I’ve been writing about food for now… 20 years. And when I’m not writing about food, I’m trying to build micro communities by taking people on food tours. When someone wants to go on a tour, I try to think of what I want to show them in a short amount of time. When you emailed me, I immediately thought, OK, to show you this idea of how gentrification can be a good thing, but also a bad thing at the same time, I immediately thought of Yonge Street. 

[Previous outdoor soundscape cues back in: birds, truck engine revs, and beeps in reverse.]

Lauren Neefe: Erika was saying that she did not expect this when we got off the train, and I was like, not expecting this when I thought we were going to a coffee shop. What are we seeing here?

Eunice Wong: This is— Where we’re standing right now, we’re on Yonge Street, facing the Another Land coffee shop.

Lauren Neefe: Wait, we’re on Yonge Street? The same street we were on—

Eunice Wong: —street in North America.

Lauren Neefe: We were just on the subway for at least half an hour and th—, got off, and we’re still on the same street.

Eunice Wong: Half an hour outside of downtown. But what’s interesting is when we look around us, there’s this mega, maybe 50-storey tower next to this quite typical suburban Toronto condition. We’ve got this kind of two-storey retail strip plaza—

[Brakes squeak. Engine revs. Traffic passing.]

Erika Eitland: The brick is crumbling off—

Eunice Wong: Yeah. 

Erika Eitland: —the walls 

Eunice Wong: It is— It’s, like, small scale. There’s shops upstairs and downstairs. There’s parking right in the front. 

Lauren Neefe: It’s like eight parking spots.

Erika Eitland: Eight parking spots.

Eunice Wong: Eight parking spots but then the building beside us probably has an underground garage for like 500 cars. So, developers are probably looking at this lot being like, Mmmm, yummy. Can’t wait to densify… 

Erika Eitland: But this is doing a lot like right? Within this, there’s eight locations. You got two that are spas. You have My Pet Shop you got a Super Chicken Place: “Your favourite fried chicken” with a U in the favourite, fine Mexican burritos by Burrito Boyz, a Smoke and Variety Shop, and Eat in Bangkok. And then is the coffee shop tucked in with this, like, beautiful turquoise paint and just coffee in this pink sign. And it’s really, like, contrasting with all these, like, big signs sort of that light up and little blinky lights. 

[Soundscape fades. Studio voiceover cues in.]

Eunice Wong: Suresh took us to North York, a suburb of Toronto. And I actually spent a lot of my childhood growing up in North York. Lucky me, because I was no stranger to this caliber of food we were about to partake in. 

Erika Eitland: So jealous. 

Eunice Wong: Not to rub it in. You know, Michelin stars are great and all, but that’s only one kind of excellence, right? When we talk about culture and placemaking, we’re talking about the excellence that lives in the recipes that get passed down and tweaked by every generation. And Suresh really knew that we would find what we were looking for on Yonge Street, which—fact check me—but I’m pretty sure it’s the longest street in the world. 

Erika Eitland: It is! I had to double check.

Eunice Wong: Yeaaahhhh.

Erika Eitland: You know, we cite our facts on Inhabit. 

Eunice Wong: Just to add to this and share in our love language of policy, I want to give you a bit of context. In 1967, there was this progressive shift in how we dealt with immigration in Canada. Canada actually became the first country to pass a national multiculturalism law in 1988 that responded to this growing number of immigrants from Asia, from Africa, and the Middle East. The Act says: “Multiculturalism is a fundamental characteristic of the Canadian heritage and identity, and it provides an invaluable resource in the shaping of Canada’s future.” 

[Coffeeshop interview cues in.]

Suresh Doss: Well, I mean, where we are in North York now—so Yonge Street north of the 401—it feels like you’re downtown, but you’re uptown because of those, the condos and density, and all these buildings. But for me, like, it’s indicative of, like, I guess even downtown or other parts of the city, where it’s this, it’s this layer cake of culture, right? Over the last five, six decades, you’ve had people from different parts of the world coming here, in most cases, forced migration, in most cases, because of war because of displacement, whatever it is. So they’re bringing with them nostalgia, right? And when you are— As, as a species, when you are forced to move from one place to the next, then one of the things you can cling to the most is food. 

Erika Eitland: Mm-hmm. 

Suresh Doss: Because it reminds you of something. It reminds you of the time you had lunch with your grandma when you were a kid or she made something for you for the first time. Or the first time you cooked with your grandma, right? So you carry all that with you. So when, when you have a city like in North York, for example, I when I when I’m driving up and down the street, I see that layering. 

[Return to studio voiceover.]

Erika Eitland: OK. Let’s talk about grandmas, OK? 

Eunice Wong: [Laughs] Let’s. 

Erika Eitland: I call. I call mine didibhai, because I’m Bengali. And this date of 1967 actually really impacted me. Like, in talking to my grandmother, they moved to the United States in 1967. 

Eunice Wong: Oh wow! 

Erika Eitland: And I had often thought that, like, I had this unique intergenerational experience. 

Eunice Wong: Mmm. 

Erika Eitland: And then I went to Toronto and realized, Oh my god! So many people share this evolution with me. I told you I like started crying when I rolled up into this neighborhood because everybody else looked like me. So to see how that policy really has transformed an entire city and not just an individual experience— I get emotional even now thinking about it. It really is kind of what David Favela was sharing in Summer Jam. Like, you are cool. Your culture is cool— 

Eunice Wong: Love that. 

Erika Eitland: —but they were just saying it 35 years ago. 

Eunice Wong: Oh my god. That gave me, like, the warm fuzzies. 

Erika Eitland: You know I’m gonna move to Toronto at some point. 

Eunice Wong: Yeah, you’re gonna move in with me. 

Erika Eitland: Get the guest bed ready. Yeah, mmhmm.

[Eunice laughs.]

But, you know, as soon as we hopped off the subway, it really became clear to me why Toronto was perfect for this place-based season. And I’m curious, Eunice, what are your reasons for a season dedicated to your hometown? 

Eunice Wong: Where to start? Well, on top of Toronto being my favorite city and being totally super-biased— 

Erika Eitland: Surprise, surprise. 

Eunice Wong: Because I live here. I think Toronto is diverse in so many ways. First is the diversity of people, and you probably saw this while you’re here. But Toronto has actually been named the most diverse city in the world. Over 50 percent of the population is born outside of Canada, with over 250 different ethnicities represented. 

Erika Eitland: Holy cow. Wooow.

Eunice Wong: Right? Crazy. So Toronto is just a really great study for diversity across all scales. Secondly, speaking of scales, there’s this diversity of spaces. Just within a couple blocks of Downtown if you’re walking around, on one side of the street you could have a 90-something story condo tower. 

Erika Eitland: Crazy. 

Eunice Wong: And then on the other side, a row of single-family houses. But also, like, stitched throughout this are some of the most beautiful and lush ravine systems. 

Erika Eitland: [snickers] Just casual. Just a little ravine, you know? 

Eunice Wong: And then I think lastly, Toronto has a really great diversity of experts. It kind of pushes us out from working in a silo and only talking to the capital-P professionals, the capital-A architects. There’s really room in this conversation for everyone. We’re talking nonprofits, local grassroots activists, or academics… 

Erika Eitland: See, I knew you were gonna have a good answer to this. [Eunice giggles.] But to your last point, this tour we had with Suresh told us so much about design—even if we were eating for four straight hours. I think that is just the magic of culture. And I’m really curious—because I feel like movies can teach us so much, because we had “ratatouille moments” last season—have you seen Turning Red

Eunice Wong: Oh my god. Yes. [Laughs] 

Erika Eitland: I should have known. 

Eunice Wong: I thought you’d never ask! But obviously. The movie is directed by an Asian-Canadian filmmaker, so shout out to Domee Shi. 

Erika Eitland: Oh, you just got all the deets. OK, keep going. [Laughs]

Eunice Wong: It’s set in Toronto, as you know, and it’s through the eyes of a 13-year-old boy-band-crazy kid navigating her teenage emotions. So Teenager Eunice can totally relate. 

Erika Eitland: —To turning into a giant red panda midway through the film. OK! 

Eunice Wong: Exactly. 

Erika Eitland: Cool. Glad we know this about you now, 

Eunice Wong: True to life. [giggles] What I actually really love about this movie is the design. You know, the animation, the storyline, but ultimately what, like, really touched me about this movie is the representation of space in the city through a cultural lens. I never had anything like that growing up. 

Erika Eitland: Honestly, it’s still remarkable to be a thirtysomething and to feel emotionally moved when that representation is there. So I’m like completely with you. But, Pixar, if you are listening, Inhabit would love to hang out with you for a day to, like, understand how you build these worlds. But I digress. Anyway, that is how we found ourselves on a half-day food tour with Toronto icon Suresh Doss. 

[Return to parking lot outside Another Land Coffee.]

Eunice Wong: Alright, it’s 10am. I think we gotta roll on in. 

Erika Eitland: Alright, let’s do this.

[Sound of footsteps in snow.]

Inhabit Chorus: Inhabit. [Over low umble and echoing finger snap.]

Suresh Doss: So we’re on Yonge Street today. [Back room voiceover over sounds of Erika, Eunice, and Lauren entering the shop: bell chimes as the door swings open.] We are taking a food tour from the 401 to Finch and maybe beyond. 

[Footsteps tromp up the stairs. Sound of people greeting each other. Squeals of delight. Then studio voiceover.]

Eunice Wong: The first stop on our tour was Another Land Coffee. 

[Back room interview with Hong.]

Hong Dai: Uh, yeah, my name is Hong, and my shop is called Another Land Coffee and More, because we have a lot more than coffee. 

[Inhabit team arrives in the coffeeshop and meets Suresh and Hong.]

Lauren Neefe: [Gasps] Smells delicious. Good morning. Suresh, nice to meet you. 

Suresh Doss: Nice to meet you. 

Lauren Neefe: I’m Lauren. 

Suresh Doss: Lauren. Pleasure. Hong, can you recommend a latte for me? 

[Creedence Clearwater Revival‘s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?”  plays in the coffeeshop.]

Hong Dai: Yeah, sure. Like, you want a regular latte? Or we’ve recently introduced a lychee rose latte that’s really nice. 

Suresh Doss: Oh man, lychee twice. 

Hong Dai: Or our tiramisu latte is almost like a dessert and a coffee together. 

Suresh Doss: Is it sweet? 

[Studio voiceover.]

Erika Eitland: Boy, did I feel like Barbara Walters. We met in the back room around a coffee table of stunning lattes, and maybe perhaps I felt a little bit more like Padma Lakshmi, but you, you get the scene. 

[Back room interview begins.]

Suresh Doss: Your cafe’s how old now? 

Hong Dai: Three and a half years now. 

Suresh Doss: Yeah, pandemic baby—almost, right? 

Erika Eitland: You made it through the pandemic, though? 

Hong Dai: Yeah, luckily. 

Erika Eitland: That’s huge. 

Suresh Doss: Which is really challenging for a coffee shop in this area. 

[Studio voiceover comes in over back room chatter.]

Erika Eitland: Hong Dai, she rents a small shop and throughout the pandemic, her faithful local customers were committed to supporting her. And Eunice if I lived in Toronto, I would too. 

[Back room interview continues.]

Lauren Neefe: Can you tell me about the neighborhood? 

Hong Dai: Yeah, so, like North York in particular is very multicultural. So I come here, like, 13 years ago as an international student. I went to York, and this is where I live. And there’s a lot of home-like restaurants, and like bubble-tea shops. But the thing I really love since I was, like, really young is coffee. So when I came to Canada, like, I’m still in love with a coffee culture. So I always go downtown to, like, independent coffee shops, and in there I feel like I— like I belong here, like, someone recognized me as a person, and like as a regular customer and we become friends. And that made— like, really touched me. Yeah. So when when I finally got my permanent residency and when I decided to open a coffee shop, I wanted to be in this area, because I think there’s a lot of people similar to my culture and my background. And I feel like if I’m longing for something like this, there must be other people wanting the same thing. 

[Studio voiceover cues in.]

Eunice Wong: I’m wondering, Is Hong an anomaly? You know, what did it take to transform her longing into this thriving business? Hong’s coffee excellence is part of what Suresh calls the “third wave” of coffee. It didn’t happen by accident. It took decades to create. 

[Cafe chat over coffee grinder and espresso machine coming on and off. CCR continues in background.]

Suresh Doss: Hong is one of the very, very few owners, baristas that is doing what, you know, we’re gonna have here, which is essentially like “third wave coffee.” 

Erika Eitland: What is “third wave”? I’m so sorry. 

Suresh Doss: So the idea of like, if first wave was, like, your basic brew— 

Lauren Neefe: Starbucks. 

Suresh Doss: Actually, first wave would be a basic brew, like your Nescafe. Second wave would be Starbucks. And third wave is this kind of like this hyper-regional but consciously sourced beans and the right type of machinery. So I mean, while we have amazing options in the city, when you leave the city, you don’t really have a lot of options for good coffee fare if you’re a coffee connoisseur, right? 

Erika Eitland: OK. Yeah. 

Suresh Doss: There are Starbucks everywhere, sure, fine, but nothing like what Hong is doing here. So, like, I mean, if I had to describe the menu—and it kind of sets the theme for today—there’s two things happening here, where it’s like, you have the third-wave coffee approach. But then the other thing is, there’s a playfulness with the menu of drinks you would not find at your typical third-wave coffee place. 

Erika Eitland: Yeah yeah yeah. 

Suresh Doss: You go to a really amazing coffee shop downtown, you’re not going to get a hojicha latte. [Dishes clatter.] You’re not going to get a lychee, you know, latte. 

Erika Eitland: No. 

Suresh Doss: So but that really is what uptown’s about. This idea of second-generation, third-generation perspective where, like, they’re respecting a tradition or a trend, but they’re also having some fun with it. I would not call it “fusion.” I would call it, like, it actually makes sense. 

[Studio voiceover cues back in.]

Erika Eitland: Suresh sets the stage for our food tour with these two main themes. First, there’s excellence: the excellence of the craft behind what makes great coffee. Each detail is cared for. Second, there’s room for playfulness, which comes from an authentic personal and emotional side that makes Another Land Coffee so special. 

Eunice Wong: That’s why this comes back to design, right? We talk about design excellence all the time and what that means, but do we actually leave room for that second part, that playfulness? Is there room in design for emotion or culture? And we touched on this a little bit from our last season where we talked about gentrification. Can culture still thrive with the forces of gentrification? 

[Back room interview cues back in.]

Erika Eitland: This feels different than gentrification, though, or is it a form of gentrification? 

Suresh Doss: It’s a combination of the two. There’s a reason why I wanted to take you on this tour. I feel like oftentimes when we talk about gentrification, we talk about losing something more than, you know, how we can kind of preserve and keep things. For, for me, it’s like, you know, as a person that does food tours and writes about small mom-and-pop shops, when I think of gentrification, I think of plazas disappearing and condos going up. And then when those condos go up, we lose a lot of the culture that was there before, because our priority is to not bring the culture back. We don’t value what those, those spaces—those third spaces—did to the surrounding community. However, in North York, there is this hybridized version of it—which I want, I want to show you—that there is a way to achieve both. There’s a way to get density in terms of maybe housing, maybe affordable housing, but by the same token, preserving the culture that made up the neighborhood over decades. 

Erika Eitland: Wow. 

Suresh Doss: Yeah, there’s a way to do it. Yeah. 

[Cut to good-byes n the cafe out front.]

Lauren Neefe: Thank you. 

Suresh Doss: Talk to you soon. You can connect us? 

Excuse the mess. We have a toddler. 

[Footsteps cascade down the stairs as the bell chimes when they leave. Car doors open and close as Suresh and Inhabit crew drive to next stop on tour.]

[Inside the car]

So yeah, the highway is right there to your right, just I would say beyond that last building, the last condo. Those columns are brand-new, less than 10 years old. Hong’s partner, Jackie, actually owns a Northern Chinese restaurant behind the gas station there. Really, really interesting. So we’re heading north now. [Engines rev outside.] Again, like, it just feels like you’re in the city like downtown, because of all these buildings. And I mean, like, 20 years ago this was maybe a couple of buildings here and there. Nestle is over here on the left. OK, so this is Sheppard, our first major intersection as you’re crossing the 401. And this is where you start to see the signage kind of change. I mean, you have the glitz and glamour of like some of the commercial chains of restaurants, but then you also have these low-slung buildings with restaurants that have been here forever, nestled next door to like bars that have been here forever next to the noodle house next to the new Korean fried chicken place. So the story of the Greater Toronto Area in terms of food are these low-slung plazas. And when you’re driving on Yonge Street, this is the past because that building is going to disappear in the next year or two for sure. 

Erika Eitland: Yeah.

[Studio voiceover cues in.]

Eunice Wong: It’s actually kind of terrifying to think about the future of so many other plazas and malls and other coffeeshops like Hong’s that are just so well loved in that community.

Erika Eitland: Just gone.

Eunice Wong: And this tension exists in not just Toronto. This happens all over the place in a lot of other cities. In planning, we call these sites “soft sites.” So properties that might be lower density or underutilized that can fit new development, right? Like this plaza could fit hundreds of new much-needed homes, especially during a housing crisis. At the same time, we need to figure out where these important community spaces like the coffeeshops fit into that future. 

[Car interview continues.]

Suresh Doss: I want to show you this one particular complex that really tells the story of North York and how gentrification may not always be bad. Owl of Minerva is the oldest Korean restaurant in Toronto. Walking through there is like walking through a time machine. It’s actually kind of cool, because—[blinker sounds] I’m just going to reverse here— you can see it’s up for gentrification. There is a proposal sign. That sign is, like, the bane of food culture in Toronto, because whenever you see that notice sign—and you see that the diagram, right? Like you see the illustration—it kind of shows you this monstrosity that is the future, that is going to just kind of demolish all that culture. So when that building goes up, will Owl of Minerva come back? Most likely not. Because when condo developers build buildings, they think of triple-A tenants for the main floor, right? So that will be like a bank or a money exchange or like a Starbucks. 

Erika Eitland: Oh so none of this will actually get to sort of fill in that first floor again? They will probably be lost.

Suresh Doss: They’ll be lost. Yeah, except there are some exceptions. Very, very few exceptions. [Seatbelt clicks and fasten-seatbelt beep begins. Car doors slam shut.] I’m going to show you one of them right now. Very, very few exceptions.

[Cars whizzing by.]

So we’re still on Yonge Street. We’re now almost at Finch. [Snow crunches underfoot.] And this is a fine example—this complex, the Tridel complex—of how you can gentrify but still preserve a lot of culture. So what you’re seeing right now is a four-, five-building complex where the entire façade, the entire front-facing façade, are all independent businesses. They’re all cubicle-size restaurants or cafes where you can maybe seat 10 people— maybe—with highly specific menus, a lot of edited menus, curated menus, all speaking to a certain kind of cuisine from a certain place. We rarely see this in Toronto, where a network of buildings go up, but then independent businesses are invited back with approachable lease agreements and rents, right? So, in this particular complex, there are about 50 businesses. 

[Studio voiceover cues in.]

Erika Eitland: At our next stop, we went to a place that used to be one of those 50 cubicle-size businesses that got its start in that complex. 

Suresh Doss: OK, so we’re going to a restaurant that’s gonna open in two minutes. This restaurant, Sang-Ji Bao, is a really special restaurant to me. It’s one of my favorite places to eat. It started off as a little cubicle restaurant right there. So we’re gonna go to this second version of it, and then we’re gonna go to the place that took its spot. 

[Now inside the restaurant.]

Lauren Neefe: What do you see when you walk into this space? 

Suresh Doss: Well, I mean, Sang-Ji Bao now, in its second version, it’s a bit like more modernist looking. This is kind of like looks like a, a nicer restaurant than it did before. Because before it was quite rustic, and there were just four walls and the heat of the kitchen was inches away from your face. But now it looks like it’s, it’s a bit more refined in terms of, like, the wood and the painting on the wall and the open kitchen. So if I found this place now, I wouldn’t have the same context I did before. But before if I found a place that only had three items on the menu and I was wondering why only three items—because that’s rare in a city, in a metropolitan city, where everyone wants to do everything and have like, you know, bibles for menus—so that allured me to the place. And then understanding that there was a reason for it—it’s because it’s highly edited and concentrated to just three interpretations of his favorite dishes growing up. And now, as I come into this place, seeing the second version, now he’s gotten more comfortable and confident that he’s able to add a few more of the special things that he grew up with back in Shanghai. So both restaurants are an ode to his upbringing, which he probably misses. But at the same time, he’s probably at a point where he’s showing his version of things, right? So it’s kind of adding to our identity in a city. But it is a very different looking restaurant. 

[Studio voiceover cues in.]

Erika Eitland: We also got to speak with the owner, John.

[Back inside the echoey restaurant.]

So I have a question for you, because Suresh was saying that these are things that you grew up eating? Like how does it feel to be also now making someone else’s sort of little child memories of coming in and eating at your restaurant? How does that feel, having that ripple effect? 

John Xue: To be honest, it feels really great. Because this neighborhood, I grew up in this neighborhood, I’ve been here for 20 years. And since the first store opened, and it’s our fifth year, you see a lot of, a lot of family that come in with kids. Now the kids grew up, it just feels happy. It feels like, they feel like this is their home, like their go-to kitchen. I feel like, oh, I’m getting recognized by the people from little guy to, to when they grow up. 

Erika Eitland: You’re like an honorary family member. 

[Laughs; door swings open]

Suresh Doss: And he’s probably introducing the sheng jian bao to a lot of people for the first time, right? I mean, like, we are in a very multicultural city, but for a very long time, you couldn’t even find a xiao long bao or a sheng jian bao. So I feel like now people know, Oh yeah, now let’s go have it. A lot of people probably ate it for the first time here. 

John Xue: Yeah… bringing new stuff to the city, just let everyone try different variety of foods. So feels great. Alright, guys, enjoy. 

Lauren Neefe: Eunice, will you tell me the instructions for eating the bao properly? 

[Chop sticks click and clack.]

Eunice Wong: Yes, I was just saying I’m glad to have like a visual 123 here for everyone. But it’s usually poke a hole, kinda let the steam out. It’s gonna be very, very, very hot. Might be a rite of passage to kind of burn your mouth the first time. Drink the soup that comes out of it. And then you can kind of enjoy the entire bao. 

[Utensils and plates click.]

Lauren Neefe: And do you drink the soup out of the spoon? 

Eunice Wong: Yes, I usually put it in there. Kind of poke it. Let it come out a bit so you can really taste the broth. 

Suresh Doss: I have friends that just kind of pop the entire thing in the mouth.

Eunice Wong: Yeah, that’s bold. [Laughs]

Suresh Doss: With the gushing. I always like, I worry I’m telling you exactly how to eat it. So this is great, this, this sign here. At the previous restaurant, this was like a poster on the wall and people were like, Why are you telling us how to eat it? And then you eat and you’re like, Oh, yeah, I’ve burnt the roof of my mouth. I totally respect John. OK.

Eunice Wong: OK, so these dumplings have got me inspired. And I’m gonna make this kind of a stretch of an analogy about design, as always.

Erika Eitland: OK. Alright.

Eunice Wong: These spots so far were not unlike these soup dumplings. They’re these shops that are unassuming from the outside, you know, nothing swanky, kind of a if-you-know-you-know kind of place. But inside, they each have this juicy story. Are you following? A connection to the neighborhood, a piece of history, a dedication to excellence or nostalgia. And it’s all super clear if you take the time to savor it. 

Erika Eitland: MMM. OK, alright. So listen, I’m here for this. I mean, it reminds me of when we were on the subway on the way there and we were talking about how almost every culture or country has a version of a dumpling. And we can talk about our buildings or public spaces as that wrapper or dough on the outside—so clearly I’m picking up this metaphor—but the special sauce, or the juicy morsel, is about what you fill it with?

Eunice Wong: Mm-hmm.

Erika Eitland: How does it make you feel? What memories does it bring up? And what feelings can it create? 

Eunice Wong: Yes, I’m glad you picked up what I was putting down. [giggles] And for me, I think eating that dumpling, it felt like home. Like I could taste what home feels like, and I ate this food growing up in Toronto. This was the way my parents taught me about my culture—through food. 

Erika Eitland: I think this is such a great transition into this next part of the food tour with Suresh because as we were waiting to go into the next shop, we went back to the difference between fusion versus all this stuff that “just makes sense.” And so I’m really excited to be in Suresh’s car out of the cold. 

[Back inside the close quarters of the car. Jackets swish.]

Suresh Doss: I think it’s really obvious when you notice something that it’s fusion, and it’s forced. And it’s this idea of a plus b will produce something far superior. Like Oh, so like I can take French techniques and I can apply them directly to Indian cooking and it’s going to be better. But for me, what I’m seeing now is— We went through this fusion era in the eighties and nineties where you had just a tremendous amount of like creative forces, but oftentimes not executing it properly. Now what you’re seeing, I think, is this natural evolution, as you said, of when people move from place to place and they stay in a place long enough that there is this cultural osmosis. There is an absorption of the influences that surround you, whether it’s people or whether it’s ingredients. So for example, when my mom moved from Sri Lanka to Toronto in 1990, the first challenge she had was trying to find spices—and spices that spoke to a specific flavor profile of the cooking back home. Back then it was really hard to find garam masala. Now it’s like, garam masala? Like the corner store will have it. So she had to drive around to find things. But more importantly, she had to adapt. She had to figure out a way to make her own spices, tweak things so that the scallions are now being used instead of the cipollini onions or whatever it is. So her cuisine just naturally evolved. And we were like front row to experience that because now she was making curries that were, like, a little different from what we remember. But she was trying so hard to cling on to it. Now if you fast forward that, if I was a second-generation kid growing up, now I’m living in Toronto, where my neighbor to the left is Jamaican, my neighbor to the right is Italian. So now in my cuisine, I’m seeing habanero peppers and Scotch bonnet peppers kind of like by osmosis seep into my cooking—and tomatoes as tomato base or like the idea of soffritto. So that to me is not fusion. That to me is this idea that as a species, when we move, if we stay in a place long enough, there is a cultural and culinary osmosis that naturally takes effect. And in that process when it takes effect—because those adaptations are sort of minuscule and they’re supposed to be complimentary—they make sense. So I think that now we’re at a time in 2023 in Toronto where we’ve got all these generations coexisting. They’ve been beside each other for so long that you’re starting to see that osmosis. 

[Studio voiceover cues in.]

Erika Eitland: OK, I am really inspired by the term “cultural osmosis,” the idea of absorbing the influences around us, whether it’s people or whether it’s the ingredients. 

Eunice Wong: And this ties back to our last episode where we talked about what context means, what the ingredients of a good public space are. It’s not taking a fancy European example of a plaza or park and fusing it into North York, but evolving North York in a way that absorbs all of these different histories and cultures. 

Erika Eitland: To wrap up part one of this food tour—and this is probably my favorite story from the whole tour—Suresh gives a clear example of what evolution looks like. 

[Back inside the car.]

Suresh Doss: There’s one story that I tell repeatedly, is the story of this Jamaican restaurant in Scarborough. There was this gentleman, he was a long aspiring chef. He wanted to open a Jamaican jerk chicken, oxtail gravy, curry goat restaurant. He finds this space that was occupied by a restaurant before. That restaurant happened to be a shawarma joint. So he takes over the space and he sees a vertical spit in the kitchen. And he’s like, Well, let’s try using that. So what he does is instead of, like, whole quarter sections of chicken that are marinated and smoked in a smoker. He takes it, debones the chicken, layers it on this vertical spit, cooks it that way, tries it, finds that he’s got something that is superior to bone-in chicken served on a bed of rice. So now you’d walk into this restaurant, and you’d have two options. You can get your jerk chicken the Jamaican way, or you can get jerk-chicken shawarma, where he will slice the jerk chicken onto a plate of rice and peas. And if you think about it now scientifically, I’m like, that’s, that’s gonna be a far superior product. Because that, the idea of vertical spit is it’s rotating around a hot furnace. So it’s charring the exact right amount of skin on the protein. So when you slice it— I mean, the best shawarma is the shawarma where one side is charred and the one side is tender, right? Because the internal part of the spit acts as an oven, a slow-cooker oven, right? It’s not burning. So when you have jerk chicken that way, you’re like, Of course this makes sense. It’s sliced, and then he pours a gravy on it. And you’re like, now that you have it that way— For me, personally, I can’t go back to the original version. I mean, like, I love bone-in stuff. I think bone-in anything is great for flavoring. But it’s also incredibly overhyped, because everyone feels like if it’s bone-in,  it’s like a rite of passage. You did it properly. The bone is, you know, generational trauma, and I have to eat around it, right? You know? Just because it’s harder, right?

[Erika and Eunice giggle]

But once you have it this way, you’re like, Oh my god, that was osmosis.

Eunice Wong: It makes sense!

Suresh Doss: Like, this guy grew up, and now his neighbor happens to be Italian. So there’s like tomato sauce coming into the picture here and there. 

[“Dime a Dozen” by Esme Cruz fades in.]

Erika Eitland: So what I take away from it is that fusion is just an average, where the evolution part of it is multiplicative. 

Suresh Doss: Yep, yep. And you need time. 

[Studio voiceover cues in.]

Erika Eitland: Immigration results in changing food landscapes, and these environments are just as important as built and natural landscapes. In our pursuit of equity and justice, food can be an indicator of community preservation and restoration. The diversity of flavors, affordability, access are all proxy measures for how we are meeting the needs of the existing community. 

Eunice Wong: This episode was all about the past, how history has shaped the food and the built environments around us. 

Erika Eitland: Next episode, we’ll look towards the future. And as always, we’ll be asking questions: Whose stories aren’t being told, and whose voices are we not listening to? How has technology already started to change our food and city landscapes? What tools do we need to help unlock inclusion and representation in the public-space design process? And lastly, why does this conversation about culture make us so damn emotional? 

Eunice Wong: We’ll continue eating our way through Toronto with Suresh and invite new guests and nerds into this evolving conversation. You, are listening to Inhabit. I’m Eunice Wong. 

Erika Eitland: I’m Dr. Erika Eitland. Check out our website at inhabit.perkinswill.com. There are notes, pictures, and links to all the resources and references we mentioned in the show. And a heartfelt and full-tummied thank you to Suresh Doss for his time, wisdom and recommendations. 

Eunice Wong: Check out our amazing illustrations by Julio Brenes. And we have our very own Instagram account! Follow us @inhabit.podcast and tell us what places get you emotional. 

Erika Eitland: This season, you’ll be hearing Dr. Lauren Neefe behind the mic from time to time. She produces and edits the show. Our music is from Epidemic Sound. 

Eunice Wong: Inhabit is now a member of the Surround Podcast Network, some of the best architecture and design podcasts around. We’re all on surroundpodcast.com. Check out a recent episode of Barriers to Entry, featuring our very own advisory board member Yehia Madkour. 

Erika Eitland: Speaking of advisory board, thank you to our full nerd team: Mide Akinsade, Yanel de Angel, Casey Jones, Paul Kulig, Yehia Madkour, Angela Miller, Rachel rose, Kimberly Seigel, Gautam Sundaram, and Stephanie Wolfgang. 

Inhabit Chorus: Inhabit. [Over finger snap echoing into an empty room.]

Eunice Wong: Yum yum yum yum yum… eating baos! 

[“Dime a Dozen” fades out.]

Lauren Neefe: A Perkins&Will Podcast.

[SURROUND mnemonic: three tones mid, high, low, then static.]