There’s a new night market in Toronto — superfresh — that aims to bring a fresh cultural experience and create a safe space for people to celebrate and discover Asian cuisine.
Night markets have been a tradition in parts of Asia where it gets so hot during the day that people prefer shopping and dining in the evenings.
Superfresh, which is located in the former Annex Food Hall at 384 Bloor St. West, pays homage to those spaces as an all-day night market that includes multiple vendors that center Asian street food, a bar, a bodega and a speakeasy.
“Being children of immigrant parents from Asia, we grew up a certain way, but never really felt the inclination or the comfort of sharing a lot of things that we love. This space is really about bringing it all together,” said Trevor Lui, local restaurateur and partner of superfresh.
A fresh idea
The idea for superfresh started last spring when Annex Food Hall co-owner and partner James Lee reached out to Lui.
Lee tells CBC News he and his business were struggling as many others were with the pandemic, lockdowns and losses in the food and hospitality industry. Add to that the rise of anti-Asian hate. The time off gave him the space to reflect on changes he wanted to see.
“I think it was a bit of a crisis of conscience. When Trevor and I spoke we said, you know, something doesn’t feel right. Let’s make some changes and then we said, ‘Yes, we want to make something that’s unapologetically Asian. Something that we can feel proud of.'”
In that time Lui and Lee came together to partner with other restaurateurs Jae Pak and Dave Choi to help create their vision for superfresh.
The partners say their ideas expanded from just a shop to a venue that was representative of their cultures, lived experiences and most importantly — the people.
“We talked about making one whole space as a community hub, as opposed to having to go to different places for a nice cocktail, different types of Asian food, shopping and community programming,” Lui said.
Between five lockdowns, supply chain issues and a lack of labour, Lee says the small team had to take on a lot of work themselves that they normally wouldn’t, designing and constructing the space from scratch.
One of the ways the team behind superfresh wanted to bridge that gap was by finding vendors that fit different needs, especially Asian women.
Christina Pack was one such person. She owns Auntie’s Supply, a small Asian owned market based in downtown Toronto that curates snacks and ingredients for Asian millennials.
Pack initially moved from California to Toronto during the pandemic for work and decided to open her business because she couldn’t find many of the Asian ingredients she needed to cook at stores in her local neighborhood.
“I saw very small sections of shelves at Sobeys and Loblaws but nothing that really was curated for being a first or second generation immigrant kid. So, I wanted to feature a lot of those new brands that people from my generation are making and also tie in traditional ingredients I grew up with,” Pack said.
‘No more chicken balls, no more just Korean barbecue’
That targeted community first approach is what Lui says they chose to have with all the food, vendors and initiatives at superfresh.
He says they want to break the mold of what people think mainstream Asian food is.
“No more chicken balls, no more just Korean barbecue. What we want to do is bring things to a community that people don’t have to go search for like Indonesian street food. When it came to Japanese food, we didn’t want to just do sushi and ramen. Let’s do katsu sandwiches and shokupan milk bread,” Lui said.
While May is recognized as Asian Heritage Month in Canada, Lui says the launch of their space is meant to go further than just 31 days to represent multiple diasporas.
“We struggle sometimes to have a unified voice, even as vendors, because of the way Asian food has been perceived through the years, even from pricing and the size,” Lui said. “So, the perspective of building a space that is safe, in Asian Heritage Month, is to uplift who we are, and know that we deserve to serve and sell the things that we believe it’s worth.”
Lui says superfresh will also promote Asian culture in the GTA by partnering with Asian community members and hosting live events that feature local art, music, sports, and more.
He says that although Asians have been in North America for a couple of centuries, going as far back as the gold rush and the building of Canada’s railway, it took a long time for the Asian community to find a voice.
Lui says he’s hoping to use that voice to help people understand aspects of Asian culture, community and cuisine with their space while also reconnecting folks to their roots.
“We want this to be a space where everyone can come and learn about all the other things they don’t know about Asian culture, including the fact that Asian just doesn’t mean Korean, Japanese or Chinese, and that there’s 41 countries in Asia, including the foods and the cultures and the people behind it.”