Chef Devan Rajkumar loves Guyanese food. He’s a bit biased though—his parents immigrated to Toronto from Guyana back in the ’70s, and although he wasn’t born there, he visits frequently. He still has vivid childhood memories of cooking with his grandmother, stone-grinding coconut on her living room floor. It’s one of the TV personality’s earliest food-related memories.
When Rajkumar’s feeling nostalgic, he’ll head out to Scarborough, which he says is the Guyanese hub because the area around Sheppard and Morningside is home to more than half a dozen excellent Guyanese restaurants. “Guyanese food doesn’t get the spotlight it deserves,” says Rajkumar, who describes the nation as a culinary melting pot where Caribbean, East Indian and Chinese cooking traditions meet.
Charley’s Caribbean Cuisine
1158 Morningside Ave., 416-282-8608, charliescaribbeancuisine.com
Charley’s is an unfussy hot table tucked away in a two-storey strip mall. Rajkumar ignores the meat here, as he thinks the veggie dishes are the stars of the buffet. “I was raised Hindu and this reminds me of the religious food we’d eat,” he says. “They have bora and okra!” Rajkumar gets really excited about food.
Go-to item #1: Veggie platter with pumpkin, okra and bora
Tasting notes: While Rajkumar likes the sautéed okra and bora (a long bean), he’s bonkers about the pumpkin, which he always saves for last. The pumpkin purée is silky and spiced with onion, garlic and brown sugar.
Go-to item #2: Dhalpuri roti
Tasting notes: Rajkumar doesn’t use cutlery at Charley’s. Instead, he uses this split pea-stuffed flatbread to scoop up the plate’s saucier elements. Dhalpuri roti is often eaten in the Caribbean with a meat-based curry, but is excellent with a chutney, or even just butter.
Go-to item #3: Dhal
Tasting notes: This yellow pea stew has just a whiff of heat and plenty of garlic. Rajkumar uses it as a gravy to moisten some of the drier elements of the plate, like the steamed veggies below.
Go-to item #4: Provisions
Tasting notes: “Cassava, eddoes, plantains: these are all Amazon vegetables that labourers would fuel up on before engaging in back-breaking work,” says Rajkumar. The cassava has a buttery texture, while the slightly firmer eddoes have a nutty flavour. The steamed plantains aren’t Rajkumar’s favourite—he thinks they’re too dry and starchy. He prefers his plantain fried.
1154 Morningside Ave., 647-341-3411, tropicalnights.ca
Tropical Nights is located directly on top of Charley’s. At noon on a Monday this place is deserted, but come Thursday night, the 150-seat patio will be slammed with locals knocking back potent rum punch. Rajkumar scoffs at the sign that reads “No swearing or loud noise.” Apparently on the weekends you can hear the bar’s live music from blocks away. Tropical Nights doesn’t just throw great parties, their kitchen churns out some great booze-sopping cutters, too. (“Cutters” is a Guyanese term for bar snacks.)
Go-to item #1: Black pudding
Tasting notes: This blood sausage can be ordered with either lamb’s blood or with a scotch bonnet–spiced cow’s blood. Rajkumar prefers the beef (it’s less gamy), which gets cooked down with thyme, coconut and celery before being mixed with a coarse-grain white rice and stuffed into a sausage casing. It hits the table with a side of sour mango dipping sauce.
Go-to item #2: Pepper lamb
Tasting notes: “You’ll see pepper shrimp all over the Caribbean, but here they’ve taken that concept and swapped out the shrimp for lamb, and they’re known for it,” says Rajkumar. Tropical Nights uses a lean cut of lamb leg, which the chef cuts into thin strips and quickly pan-fries on high heat so they stay super tender. The spice level on this is mild (it’s mostly bell peppers mixed with the meat), so Rajkumar adds some of the house-made scotch bonnet hot sauce to turn up the heat.
5743 Finch Ave. E., 416-332-8852, no website
Rajin’s is a roti takeout counter with a single table, a smattering of chairs, and some seriously thumping Guyanese tunes. “I hope we can order their salt fish and bake,” says Rajkumar. That’s a breakfast item that’s only served on weekends, and the cook, a feisty lady in her early 50s, scolds Rajkumar from behind the pass. “You know better! Next time, order ahead.” The cook and Rajkumar have never met before, but she speaks to him like a nephew—with affection and exasperation.
Go-to item #1: Bigan choka with sada roti
Tasting notes: They blister eggplant over an open flame, then scoop out the guts and cook it down into a velvety stew-like consistency. Rajkumar also orders a side of curried mango—the plate’s a bit one-note without the condiment—and the heat from the curry and the sugar from the mango compliment the smoky eggplant nicely.
Lucky Lin’s Restaurant
5633 Finch Ave. E.,416-298-1388, luckylins.ca
Guyana is a cultural melting pot, and their national anthem celebrates this. The line “one land of six people, united and free,” refers to the nation’s six founding nationalities, which include the Indigenous peoples, East Indians, Africans, Europeans and Chinese. Today there are fewer than 3,000 Chinese people who call Guyana home, but there’s a significant diaspora population, including a small Chinese Guyanese community here in Toronto. Since 1991, Lucky Lin’s has been making Caribbean-style fried rice, chow mein and lo mein at this Scarborough strip mall.
Go-to item #1: Caribbean-style mixed chow mein
Tasting notes: There’s nothing particularly Caribbean about the thick soya-flavoured noodles fried with chicken, rice, pork, shrimp and beef. The simple dish, which is studded with broccoli bits and some green onions, could have be ordered at just about any North American Chinese restaurant, but to Rajkumar it tastes like his childhood. “If you throw a party, there’s always a platter of this on the table,” he says.
Go-to item #2: Caribbean-style chicken fried rice
Tasting notes: “This rice is too good, it tastes like they’ve fried it in some kind of animal fat,” says Rajkumar to his pal Roshan Kanagarajah, who owns Kitchen Guerilla. Kanagarajah lives around the corner and has joined the food tour. “Pork lard, probably,” says Kanagarajah as he rips into a piece of the tender roast chicken with ultra-crispy skin.
4531 Sheppard Ave. E., 416-335-7013, no website
“This is a rum consumption facility,” says Rajkumar. His friend Kanagarajah nods like a man who has fostered too many hangovers in this balloon-festooned room. Although it’s named after Guyana’s biggest airport, the dishes being served at this 21-year-old restaurant are the antithesis of airline food. The kitchen churns out a mix of cutters, Chinese Caribbean plates (lo mein, fried rice, wontons) and West Indian dishes (curries, rotis).
Go-to item #1: Jerk chicken
Tasting notes: This super-juicy chicken is first marinated in a mix of scotch bonnet, allspice and thyme before it’s put on the grill. It’s then finished in the oven with what Rajkumar thinks is a bit of soya sauce, which both gives it some umami and keeps the meat tender. (The owners are tight-lipped about the jerk secrets, so we’re left to guess.)
Go-to item #2: Bangamary
Tasting notes: Bangamary is fresh coastal Caribbean fish that Timheri imports straight from Guyana. They batter and fry the fillets, which are best eaten with a squirt of lime and a drop of wiri-wiri hot sauce. When deep fried, the flesh has a flaky texture and sweet flavour.
Go-to item #3: Pepper shrimp
Tasting notes: This is a classic across the Caribbean nations. The shrimp are lightly battered and deep fried before they’re tossed with a mix of dried chilies and green onions. After only a few bites the heat begins to climb, which is when it’s time to wash it down with some cold beer. Timheri doesn’t carry any Guyanese beers, but a bottle of Trinidad-imported Stag will do in a pinch.