Article originally printed in The BIG 150. Get your copy of this special keepsake publication celebrating Ottawa’s place in the nation’s 150th birthday.
Back in the day, “ethnic” dining in Ottawa meant pizza and chop suey or some sort of gloppy Tex-Mex creation.
Today, new culinary trends in the capital include northern Chinese, West African, Cambodian, and South Indian. With any luck, Syrian will be next. As new groups arrive in Ottawa, many set up restaurants: small, humble places for the homesick to share food. Some gain wider appeal. Many quietly disappear.
As our modern palates become more adventurous — as we crave bigger and more exotic flavours — we look for diversity in dining, and we’ve developed an intimacy with previously unimaginable imported ingredients. The city has multicultural roots in many of the world’s great culinary cultures. Here, a few dishes to explore.
The torpedo-shaped Levantine treat of bulgur, onions, and finely-ground lamb or beef is studded with bronzed pine nuts and perfumed with a pantry of Middle Eastern spices. Truly one of the world’s great street foods.
Find it: Fairouz, Jericho, Les Grillades
Or simply bao or bau, is a filled soft yeast bun steamed in bamboo baskets. Common in various Chinese cuisines, find baozi filled with barbecued pork or sweet bean paste, vegetables, or eggs. A portable snack that fills you big and costs little.
Find them: Datsun, Gongfu Bao Cart, Jadeland, Mandarin Ogilvie
The national dish of Ethiopia, this is a brooding stew of chicken and hard-cooked eggs. They are joined by caramelized onions, garlic, ginger, berberé, and niter kibbeh — the spicy clarified butter as integral to Ethiopian cuisine as the sourdough-risen flatbread called injera.
Find it: Blue Nile, East African Village, Habesha, Hareg Café
I’m talking freshly pressed corn tortillas filled with grilled meats or crispy fish, served with onion and limes and cilantro, good guacamole, and an array of salsas. Hungry?
Find it: Ahora, Corazón de Maíz, El Camino, Sidedoor, Taqueria Kukulkan
Tom Kha Gai
When made well, a Tom Kha delivers rich and spicy, sour, salty, and sweet in every slurp. It can warm the cockles on the coldest winter day, rid you of a nasty cold, and completely restore your mood. Truly. I’ve tested it.
Find it: Aiyara, Pookie’s, Siam Bistro, Som Tum, Sukhothai, Wandee Thai
Ah, the irresistible whiff of a biryani! This classically comforting layered rice dish is found in many parts of India. Ingredients, aromatics, spices, and styles shift from region to region, but there’s no denying a well-made biryani is a marvellous thing.
Find it: Coconut Lagoon, East India Company, Haveli, Little India Café, Mia’s
A hot and hearty Korean rice dish that’s all about presentation, sizzle, and crunch. The rice is topped prettily with seasoned meat and julienned vegetables crowned with an egg and fired up with gochujang.
Find it: Alirang, Dolsot Café, Kochu, Korean Palace, Raon Kitchen food truck
Strictly speaking, pho (pronounced “fuh”) refers to the noodles, not the soup, but it has come to mean that student-essential, midnight meal-in-a-bowl, filled with noodles and bean sprouts, popping with greens and herbs, and with ample options for jazzing it up.
Find it: Asian Alley, @36Pho, Huong’s, Ox Head, Pho Thu Do, SEN