Explore Gerrard India Bazaar for South Asian arts, culture, food and more during these can’t-miss annual street festivals.
When the faint but unmistakable sound of Bollywood music punctuates the Toronto air and lures passersby like a mythological siren, it’s a definite sign a boisterous South Asian street festival is underway.
“The Festival of South Asia and the festival of lights are immersive experiences. People visit Toronto from all over Canada and North America just to witness South Asian culture come to life via performing and visual arts, food, fashion and more,” explains Tasneem Bandukwala, BIA coordinator of the neighbourhood’s Gerrard India Bazaar Business Improvement Area (GIBBIA).
THE TD FESTIVAL OF SOUTH ASIA
Visiting Little India during its annual street festivals is a rite of passage for South Asian newcomers to Canada, as well as many other Torontonians, says Puja Amin. The artistic director of Sanskriti Arts, a Toronto-based dance and fitness studio, has been performing at the TD Festival of South Asia since it was launched in 2002.
“Festival of South Asia is an experiential affair with a very infectious vibe. And when the festival gets going, you’ll see visitors dancing and singing alongside the performers… there are at least two or three small staging areas for the audience to interact or learn about South Asian culture,” says Amin.
The annual event—which marks its 19th anniversary in 2021—offers a snapshot of South Asian culture through art, cuisine, music, and dance.
The tantalizing smells of spice wafting from a variety of Indian, Pakistani, Nepalese and Sri Lankan restaurants will also urge visitors to go on gastronomic tours. Whether you prefer to dine-in, take out, or scarf down East Indian street food, the festivals offer the perfect excuse! (Keep reading for more on Indian food.)
During the five days of Diwali, Little India’s storefronts are ablaze with lights. This festival of lights is celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs and Jains each fall, and symbolizes the triumph of good over evil. In Toronto, contemporary, folk and classical dancers in elaborate costumes jostle for space as they perform a medley of acts during the annual Diwali street fest. Revellers spill into the streets and sidewalks to dance and celebrate with fireworks, food and entertainment.
During Diwali, clay lamps with oil are lit and garlands of fresh flowers are draped over idols or pictures of Hindu deities. The air is perfumed with fragrance from incense sticks, camphor, flowers and fruits—and food.
THE FLAVOURS OF INDIAN STREET FOOD
Street food is evocative of South Asian culture and is replicated here during festivals and throughout the year. Local eateries offer an array of fast-food options such as corn on the cob, samosas, the ever-popular chaats and dosas—crisp golden crepes made with rice flour.
If you’re looking for something new to you, try pani puri. Puris are deep fried hollow balls made from wheat flour, and pani refers to their accompanying chutney water dip. The assembly and consumption of the pani puri is intricate and fascinating. First, the puris are gently punctured with the tip of a finger and then stuffed with boiled potato, onion and chickpeas garnished with cilantro. Each puri is then dunked into pani, a sweet and tangy tamarind chutney water seasoned with mint and other spices—and then popped into the mouth in one swift move.
The variety of food at the festivals is astounding and includes vegetarian and vegan options. Those craving meat can enjoy tender kebabs, stuffed kathi rolls, and richly flavoured lamb curry with a side of naan and kulchas.
End your culinary journey with a kulfi, a South Asian frozen dessert, or warm gulab jamun, a deep-fried Indian sweet made of milk solids, flour and leavening agents, dipped in thick sugar syrup.
Getting to Little India:
• Take the Line 2 Bloor-Danforth subway to Coxwell station, then the 22 Coxwell bus southbound to Gerrard Street West
• Or, take the Line 1 Yonge-University subway to College, then the 506 Carlton streetcar to any stop between Greenwood and Coxwell avenues
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