Taste the world in St. Catharines

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It was celebrity chef Emeril Legasse who said ‘in order to really get to know a place and the people, you’ve got to eat the food.’

That’s a good rule to follow when travelling to a new a place. Food and the customs surrounding it, from gathering ingredients and preparing them to coming together to eat, offer a deep dive into the inner workings of a culture and the values of those within it.

But what happens when our flights to the corners of the world on our proverbial bucket lists are grounded because of a global health pandemic? When we’re stuck at home in the name of keeping ourselves and our community safe and healthy?

The silver lining is the opportunity to taste the world here in St. Catharines. The Garden City is home to restaurants offering cuisines reflective of dozens of countries and the cultures within them. So, when a pandemic keeps us from traversing the globe, we can still travel via takeout at our kitchen tables, and experience somewhere new through the lens of food.

Take the empanadas at Fiesta Empanada on St. Paul Street. The hand pies tell the history of Spanish and Filipino cultures meshing in Southeast Asia. There’s also traditional pork belly adobo rice bowls, and the Singaporean classic, poached Hainanese chicken. For a sweeter taste of the Philippines, Fiesta Empanada carries mamon sponge cake and ensaymada, which are brioche rolls with a layer of vanilla, ube and mango cream cheese studded with shredded cheese.

Down the street, Hewad Kabob and Shawarma is a gateway to Afghanistan, featuring kofta on rice with salad, kabuli palow (basmati rice with carrots and raisins) with lamb shank, and spicy ground beef patties called chapli kabob.

Cafés, including Mahtay, Fine Grind and Vulie’s Tea, provide an escape from the day-to-day with a cup of our favourite forms of caffeine.

And in the midst of it all, José Granados shows St. Catharines that Mexican food is fresh, simple and all-around beautiful. It’s a personal quest that came to be after Granados moved to Niagara about 20 yeas ago from Cancún and couldn’t find a familiar representation of the food that sustained him in his native Mexico.

His Eh José Taqueria, which he owns and operates with best friend Jesse Barraza, started as a St. Catharines Farmers Market stall and morphed into a bricks-and-mortar establishment based on the quick and casual eateries that are a staple in Mexico. Granados offers eight flavourful tacos at Eh José, many that come with vegetarian and vegan options, quesadillas , albondigas, tortas de papa, and his famous St. Catharines Farmers Market-meets-Mexico huevos rancheros.

“We were looking for Mexican food around Niagara but everything was Tex-Mex. I respect that, but I can cook, so why not make my own food?” Granados said. “I tried to show people real Mexican food. I think that was the beginning of Eh José.”

For many restaurateurs throughout the city, that’s all it takes — a desire to showcase the cuisine from a part of the world to which they’re intimately connected. Others find their culinary muses when they travel, returning home to recreate inspired dishes here.

Take Matty’s Hot Chicken, a pop-up in Lost + Found Taqueria. Aspiring 17-year-old chef Matty Cipollo borrows his father Michael Cipollo’s kitchen to cook and serve their spin on Nashville Hot Chicken, the flagship fare of Music City, USA.

Think fried chicken that’s been marinated, floured, deep fried, then brushed with a cayenne pepper paste or sauce.

The Cipollos offer a “north meets south hot chicken concept” based on their travels to the American south and sampling regional variations of a dish created by a woman  who tried to exact revenge on her cheating husband by feeding him his favourite fried chicken made fiery hot with cayenne.

Thanks to the cravings and passions of some talented culinarians who call St. Catharines home, we can bring Nashville — and other cities and countries — to our own tables, saving ourselves the airfare if not the napkins.

“We’re kind of on the edge of the movement where people are exploring something that was so basic for so long,” Michael Cipollo said. “Food is a poignant piece of everything that happens in the world.”