For a small city on the East Coast, Halifax is home to big international flavours. Hole-in-the-wall strip mall joints, surprisingly delicious food court stalls, small cafés, and sandwich shops tucked into polished condo buildings and corporate offices. Even mainstream, large Canadian restaurants are dabbling in fusion and international ingredients, so there’s something new to taste in every corner of the city. A combination of talented immigrant workers in the culinary sector and Canadian-born chefs who have worked internationally, or are passionate about international flavours, have come together to create the current food scene in Halifax and beyond. We wanted to celebrate a few of the many exciting dishes from far-flung regions found right here in our city (and just down the road).
The Orient Chinese Cuisine
227 Bedford Highway, Halifax $$-$$$ Dinner
SALT & PEPPER SQUID – $18.85
“It’s one of those common dishes that’s hard to get right,” says Ivan Chan, chef and owner of The Orient Chinese restaurant. “There are some dishes I can typically use to gauge how good the chef is.” And this is one—Chan is talking about the classic Cantonese dish salt and pepper squid. In its simplest iteration, Chan says salt and pepper squid is made with salt, sugar, and five-spice, then battered and fried crispy. Tossed with some combination of sautéed garlic, onions, and peppers from the wok and topped with sliced green onion. “That would be the most basic one you see 99% of the time,” says Chan.
While it might have originated in China’s Canton (the dish’s precise history is hard to track down), salt and pepper squid is now a truly international dish. Boasted as one of Australia’s most popular dishes, salt and pepper squid is found in pubs and restaurants worldwide. Here in Halifax, at The Orient, Chan says it’s one of his top three best-selling dishes, loved by his Chinese expat and Canadian customers alike. So I had to stop in and see what the fuss is.
One thing I really like about Chan’s version of salt and pepper squid is the shape of the squid. He doesn’t slice it into rings; instead, he cuts them lengthwise and scores them with a knife in a criss-cross pattern, batters and deep-fries them (not with a timer, either—the oil tells him when they’re done), then beautifully plates the pieces of crispy squid, stacked.
“I think it’s elevated,” says Chan of the dish. The batter must be substantial enough to get crispy without overcooking the meat inside. As a Nova Scotian, I’ve tasted my fair share of calamari, and (unfortunately) I know how easy it is to overcook squid in the deep-fryer. These pieces of squid are substantial and very meaty. For batter, Chan uses corn starch and a little bit of potato starch—no wheat flour. The potato starch gives it a slightly harder shell, but, according to Chan, it’s his spice mixture that makes all the difference, and it’s “totally out of leftfield”—something he’s been perfecting since opening The Orient. Without giving up too many secrets,
I manage to glean that there’s cinnamon, garlic powder, and ground Szechuan peppercorns that he roasts himself.
The batter is fried perfectly crispy, and the squid is beautifully tender. The hint of cinnamon and sweetness in Chan’s spice mixture balances the salt. The bright and zingy red onion, peppers, and chilli flakes from the wok, along with sliced green onion, help lighten the richness of the meat and batter. It’s a fantastic dish—and huge. “It’s a really nice dish that offers something different,” says Chan, who takes pride in having developed the dish over so many years, making it his own. I wash it down with a Lake City Cider District 5 (great pairing!) and pack up the leftovers for home.
Verano Food Purveyors
1871 Hollis Street, Halifax $-$$ Lunch (GF)
CHILAQUILES VERDES – $14
“When I first came to Canada in 2011, the first dish that I craved from back home for months were chilaquiles,” says chef and owner at Verano Food Purveyors, Eduardo Jaber. “Chilaquiles are traditional to Mexican cuisine; they are the perfect dish for any time of the day—but mostly enjoyed as a breakfast or lunch item.” Says Jaber. As with many traditional dishes, there are several regional variations of chilaquiles. The basic ingredients always include totopos (what Canadians call tortilla chips), made in-house by deep-frying soft corn tortillas cut into quarters. The totopos are then warmed or simmered in red or green salsa with shredded meat, and topped with crema, crumbled fresh cheese, sliced onion, and cilantro. Chilaquiles are a practical use of yesterday’s totopos or tortillas, often topped with sunny-side-up fried eggs. Already being a huge fan of the chilaquiles I’ve had in both Mexico and Canada, I was very excited to head to Verano to have the chilaquiles verdes with chicken for lunch.
“My wife Adriana is from Venezuela, and I am from Mexico. That is why we are very passionate about Latin food. We love making as much of it as possible,” says Jaber, who has built up a healthy offering of Latin foods on the menu at their café on Hollis Street in downtown Halifax. Freshly made guacamole, tortilla soup, empanadas, tacos, and arepas are all part of the daily offering, along with classic Canadian breakfast and lunch items like breakfast sandwiches, grilled paninis, soups, and baked goods. “We make our own totopos from corn tortillas, and we make our own green tomatillo sauce from scratch,” says Jaber. Spicy green tomatillo sauce is called salsa verde, while the spicy red tomato-based sauce is called salsa roja (fun fact: the word salsa is just Spanish for “sauce”). So when ordering chilaquiles, you will often have the option of chilaquiles verdes (green) or chilaquiles rojos (red). While both are delicious, I prefer the bright green tomatillo sauce, and I am partial to shredded chicken—although, at Verano, there is the option of two other shredded meats: 16-hour braised beef and 16-hour braised pork.
Plated traditionally in a large shallow bowl, the chilaquiles verdes with chicken at Verano are presented without fuss, a big bowl of delicious, sunny Mexican flavours. “We fry onions and garlic in a pan, and then add our own totopos and the green tomatillo sauce, then we add havarti cheese so it will melt when tossing the hot sauce and totopos together.” The warm, saucy totopos are added to the bowl, topped with shredded chicken, crema, crumbled feta cheese, thinly sliced onion, and cilantro. The totopos still have a little crunch left in them, which is how I like them—in some regions, the chips simmer until they become soft and thick, bloated from the sauce. This style of chilaquiles is both refreshing (from the vibrant salsa verde) and incredibly filling. It’s a fantastic taste of the bright, satisfying flavours of a Mexican breakfast—eating them, you can almost feel the sun on your face.
Indochine Banh Mi
1551 South Park Street, Halifax $-$$ Lunch/Dinner (GF/V)
TERIYAKI CHICK’N BANH MI SANDWICH – $9.95
Although they’re celebrating 11 years in business this spring, Indochine Banh Mi is somehow, mostly, still flying under the radar. A hidden gem, Indochine offers up authentic-as-possible Vietnamese flavours along with plenty of fun fusion dishes. The banh mi sandwiches are as delicious and flavourful as ever, and the shop has invested in unique, thoughtful vegetarian and vegan options to meet growing customer demands. Recently, owner Liz Smith started sourcing baguettes from Arthur’s Urban Market—always striving to get as close as possible to the French-Vietnamese mash-up that’s half rice flour, half wheat flour banh mi they use in Vietnam.
Banh mi is actually the Vietnamese word for bread and also refers to the light, airy baguettes, crispy on the outside and soft on the inside used to make banh mi sandwiches; the word also refers to the sandwich itself. The filone (Italian style baguette) from Arthur’s is about as close to authentic banh mi that Smith has managed to find in Halifax for her sandwich shop. Originating in Saigon as street food, authentic banh mi can have various protein fillings, but a common one is a fatty cut of pork, or pork sausage, sometimes along with liver pâté. The rest of the ingredients are pickled carrot and daikon, fresh slivered cucumber, cilantro, fiery bird’s eye chilies, and mayonnaise. Curious about the new-ish plethora of vegan options at Indochine, I stopped in to try the teriyaki chick’n banh mi.
“Our banh mi can be fully vegan,” says Smith. “Every time we introduce a new menu item, we introduce a vegan option. That’s my philosophy.” Since about fifty percent of her customers are vegetarian or entirely plant-based, that only makes sense. Smith recommends I try the teriyaki chick’n, which is one of six vegan options for banh mi, and she promises I won’t even know it’s not real chicken (not that I was worried). Made with teriyaki-marinated soy curls, the “meat’s” texture is tender like thinly sliced chicken, and the sauce is a little sweet and a little tangy—an excellent match for the rest of the crunchy, zingy ingredients. And I agree, the baguette is almost spot-on. Smith uses a citrus mayo on her banh mi sandwiches, and they are now making a vegan version of that as well.
Other new plant-based options on the menu include lemongrass marinated and grilled organic tofu and grilled king oyster mushrooms—but it’s the Korean BBQ tofu option that’s really hit the mark. “It’s a huge hit. I can’t believe how big it is. We toss the tofu in cornstarch and fry it, then it gets tossed in the gochujang sauce that we make,” says Smith. “People love that.” Never shying away from fusion flavours at the shop, Smith has long offered Korean BBQ and Thai peanut tacos, and a few years ago introduced the “phorrito” which is essentially a burrito with the fillings of pho—a very traditional Vietnamese soup. The expanded food menu, along with newly offered Vietnamese coffee (available vegan with coconut cream), means there’s truly something for everyone at Indochine Banh Mi—stop by, and bring your friends.
Gahan House Nova Centre
5239 Sackville Street, Halifax $$-$$$ Brunch/Lunch/Dinner (GF/V)
STREET FOOD STYLE CHILLI CHICKEN – $16
“When the cooks eat it daily—you know it’s a great dish,” says Dave McLachlan, chef at Gahan House Nova Centre. Recently the restaurant participated in Curated Magazine’s international food festival called Around the World in 80 Plates, choosing an Indo-Chinese dish called street-food style chilli chicken. “We are really lucky to have a few team members here, who are from India and have cooking experience there as well as around Canada,” says McLachlan. After thoroughly enjoying the staff meals that his Indian colleagues would make for everyone, McLachlan thought it would make sense to have staff design the festival dish. “In my opinion, the street food scene in India is often overlooked and not generally talked about as much as the street food scene in other countries,” says McLachlan.
I swung by Gahan House for lunch on a busy Saturday to try the dish and was not disappointed.
The Gahan team’s take on street-food style chilli chicken is delicious, with an impressive depth of flavour; it is an intensely savoury dish with a fantastic balance of spicy heat and sweetness. The dish starts with a marinade for the chicken made with Kashmiri chilli powder, giving the sauce its deep red colour. The chicken is incredibly tender. I get lots of sweet notes from the caramelization of the sautéed onions, zing from ginger and garlic, bright heat and flavour from a blend of soy sauce, chilli sauce, and sweet, tangy tomato sauce. Served on top of basmati rice scented with cumin seeds and garlic, the toasted cumin seeds add a wonderful crunch to every bite. The dish comes with warm naan bread, cilantro, and a wedge of lemon.
“Something that I never realized about Indian food is the heavy influence that many other cultures have borrowed,” says McLachlan. Indo-Chinese cuisine is a fusion of Indian and Chinese flavours, and chilli chicken is said to have been invented by Nelson Wang in 1975, an Indian restaurateur of Chinese descent. While working at the Cricket Club of India as a cook, he was asked to create an off-menu, original dish. He made a chicken dish where he subbed out garam masala with soy sauce, plus used common Indian ingredients like ginger, garlic, and green chiles. The dish was named Chicken Manchurian. Today there are many variations, including the street-food style iteration that the culinary team at Gahan chose to highlight for the festival.
“Our customers have all really been enjoying the dish,” says McLachlan, who admits part of the reason he chose it was he wanted to eat it regularly. When every cook in the kitchen is that excited about a dish, that’s a pretty sure sign that it’s going to be good. While the chilli chicken has a bunch of ingredients, thoughtful preparation, and complex flavours, at its core, it’s an unpretentious street-food style meal that everyone will enjoy.
I agree; I could eat this all the time.
43 Water Street, Windsor $$ Brunch/Lunch/Dinner (GF)
BOBOTIE – $15
Robert Buranello and Astrid Friedrich are former academics who realized their dream of opening a wine bar by launching Winegrunt in downtown Windsor in 2018. Inspired by living in South Africa for five years, when asked to participate in Curated Magazine’s international food festival Around the World in 80 Plates, the couple excitedly discussed with Winegrunt’s chef Kevin Brown about recreating one of their favourite dishes from their time in Cape Town—Bobotie. Customers have loved it so much, it’s becoming a regular part of their rotating menu.
“It is exceptionally tasty with all kinds of wonderful ingredients that really express its place of origin,” says Buranello. “It is an ancient dish adapted by the Cape Malay community that lives in the Bo-Kaap part of Cape Town.” Bobotie is a ground meat-based dish made with beef, lamb, or pork (and historically, mutton), flavoured with curry powder, milk-soaked breadcrumbs, sweet dried fruit like apricot or raisins, and sliced almonds. It’s baked in the oven with an egg-based topping and is served with rice and chutney. I headed into Windsor on a rainy Friday afternoon to meet with Buranello, Friedrich and Brown, to taste the dish and chat about why they were so excited to introduce it to their customers.
Brown’s take on Bobotie uses local ground beef, almonds, raisins, milk-soaked breadcrumbs, grated carrot and apple, apricot jam, and a curry powder he makes fresh in house by toasting whole spices. The mixture is baked in a pan with a custard-like topping. “While this dish is usually served with peach chutney, we use a base of red pepper since peaches are not currently in season,” says Buranello. The dish’s meaty base is pleasantly savoury and comforting, with a bit of heat from the curry, and the raisins offer a touch of sweetness and satisfying texture. It is accompanied by mild yellow rice and peas and a bright, zingy, sweet chutney that lightens the heavier flavours, made from roasted red peppers, raisins, tomatoes, onion, apricot jam, and lemon juice. Slivered toasted almonds are scattered on the plate, a crunchy complement to the meat’s soft texture. It is garnished with a slice of lime. Friedrich pours me a wonderful South African Pinotage from Kanonkop Wine Estate, which is about an hour outside Cape Town, to pair with my Bobotie.
“There is much fascination about this exotic dish,” says Buranello, who is happy to report how much customers have enjoyed it. “We also brought in a few other South African dishes to keep it company on the menu.” Throughout March, they’ve introduced peri-peri chicken livers, Bunny Chow (curry-filled white bread), Malva pudding, and melktert (milk tart) to their rotating menu, piquing even more interest in South African cuisine. “Given its popularity, Bobotie is destined to become one of our trademark dishes,” says Buranello. The menu is typically seasonally inspired and changed up by Brown every two weeks—and luckily, Bobotie will be making a regular appearance.