How a ‘made from scratch’ Toronto restaurant is preserving traditional Mexican cuisine.
Today we celebrate Cinco de Mayo, a joyous, annual commemoration of Mexico’s 1862 victory over the French Empire at the Battle of Puebla. Although Cinco de Mayo is mostly observed in Puebla rather than throughout Mexico, it was historically popularized by those with Mexican heritage who had emigrated from Mexico to the United States. So in honour of this holiday, we spoke to two inspiring Toronto entrepreneurs and business partners—Yasmen De León, owner of restaurant Comal y Canela, and Chef Yemin Hernandez. Both Yasmen and Yemin have roots in Mexico, and honouring this cultural heritage—while also embracing the country they live in—is at the heart of Comal y Canela.
The meaning in a name
As Yasmen explains, there’s no direct translation for “Comal y Canela,” but the restaurant’s name is rich in meaning for those familiar with the significance of certain ingredients in Mexican cuisine.
“‘Comal y’ is the traditional griddle that we use to cook our tortillas and our spices. . . not a lot of people know that “Canela” means cinnamon, and what people don't generally know is that we Mexicans eat cinnamon from the time we wake up to the time we go to sleep—it's in our hot drinks and our cold drinks, and in our main meals and our sauces in one way or another. There is always cinnamon in all of our meals, and everything that you eat and drink.”
Preserving a culinary heritage
A deep appreciation for his home country’s food also comes naturally for Yemin, who has fond memories of his own grandmother being a chef in a traditional Mexican restaurant. “So it’s part of me,” he explains. “Here in Canada, it is more about my love for Mexican food, because this is a little part of Mexico in Canada.”
This love has also led Yemin to work tirelessly to preserve Mexico’s original grains, avoid the use of transgenic seeds, and maintain traditional methods of nixtamalization and tortilla preparation to transmit their true value. Fittingly, he is regarded as a protective figure in Mexico, dubbed the “Guardian of the Corn.”
When Yasmen and Yemin first began discussing going into business together, preserving the integrity of these traditional ingredients was, naturally, a big consideration.
“Making Mexican food in Mexico is not that challenging,” Yasmen recalls Yemin saying, “But “making traditional Mexican food in Canada and having it taste like Mexico—that's a challenge!”
But by all accounts, Yasmen and Yemin’s dedication to authentic recipes and ingredients have paid off, and today Comal y Canela prides itself on being a ‘made from scratch’ kitchen based around the most authentic of Mexican ingredients.
Inspiration between generations
So where did the pair find the inspiration for their current menu? That, according to Yemin, is complicated. Since the restaurant first opened, multiple influences have shaped Comal y Canela’s offerings.
“Now it's a mix of different flavours in Canada because it's not only for the Mexican people, it's for all different cultures in Canada . . . For example, It’s less strong for different palates. So it's complicated now because it's a different culture, different people. But the feeling is the same: It’s Mexican.”
For Yasmen, a significant and personal influence behind the menu is her son.
“When we initially started, we were really, really dedicated and really hardcore for just making Mexican food. ‘It has to be Mexican and it has to be made this way. It has to be made with these ingredients. It has to taste like this.’ And at a certain point during the pandemic, my younger son came to help us. And he said to us, ‘ . . . I love your food, I love chef Yemin, he’s a great Chef! Mom, I love that you're about tradition. I love that I can eat the food Grandma makes at your restaurant, but I want to know what you're doing for us?’
And I'm like, ‘What do you mean for you?’ He's like, ‘I’m MexiCan, Mexican-Canadian. What do you have for me? What do you have for the other people of Canada?’
And that's where we came up with the birria poutine.” And just like that, “We married birria and poutine to create a dish for him.”
Opening up to a world of flavours
Yasmen reflects that while it’s good that Comal y Canela has introduced traditional Mexican food to the world, there is also an opportunity to be influenced and inspired as well.
“Let us bring in other cultures and other palates. Let us introduce Mexican food or the feel of Mexico or the taste of Mexico, the textures of Mexico, while incorporating other cultures and other ingredients. And that's the challenge for Yemin now. That's the menu that we have now, that is why we have a lot of Halal options. That's why we are educating ourselves in the culinary traditions or the dietary restrictions of other peoples . . . We've had to change the taste, the flavours, the intensities, and the ingredients to allow for a greater enjoyment of our food . . .
Mexicans come here and say “This tastes like Mexico!’ and other people from other cultures come and they're like, ‘Wow, this is amazing! This reminds me of…’ So they're eating Mexican food that Mexicans say is just like Mexico, but it will remind them of back home, whether it's in other parts of the world—India, or the Caribbean, or even Europe. So that, for us, has been quite interesting . . . That's the inspiration for the current menu.”
Part of this broader inspiration is even reflected in the restaurant’s approach to Cinco de Mayo, which Yasmen shares isn’t widely celebrated among Mexicans.
“It's not a big deal in Mexico. It's kind of like Labour Day? . . . If it gives people a reason to meet with family and have tacos, it's a good way to celebrate another culture. But back home, it's not. So we were quite shocked when customers would be upset with us because we weren’t open on Cinco De Mayo!”
But in the spirit of taking in new inspirations, Comal y Canela will be open this year on May 5th, even offering a special dish in honour of the holiday.
“In the region [Puebla] that Cinco De Mayo is supposed to signify or celebrate, mole is a big part of that region. So we will be doing our own mole in a combo with chicken pieces and rice . . . We’re all about the food. You can come to celebrate Cinco De Mayo.”
It all comes back to community
Ultimately for Yemin and Yasmen, food is integral to not only culture, but also the key relationships in their lives.
“It is really important, not just to create a great, traditional food scene. It's more to keep the family together,” says Yemin . . . “It's traditional to share time with family and with friends . . . It's not just about the food.”
“It's the strengthening of familial bonds,” Yasmen adds. “Bonds between not just family, but friends and neighbours. We sit around what brings us together.”
And by preserving traditions while welcoming outside influences, Comal y Canela also opens the door for others to create special bonds and memories around their kitchen tables.
For Cinco de Mayo (or any time of the year!) we invite you to learn more about Comal y Camela’s inspiring story and explore their menu.
What traditional food ingredients or recipes are important to you or your community? Share in the comments below!