'Toronto used to be a roast beef and chicken city," said Lillian Smith somewhere between the cheese strudel and the mango ice cream. Toronto's 11th Metro Caravan, which is North America's largest annual cultural festival, was into its 2,000th shish kebab, and people were lining up to taste cevapcici and olie bollen, haggis and witloof. The Slovenians had been making cabbage rolls for four months in anticipation of the hungry millions expected to descend on Toronto's churches and community centers in June to satisfy their cravings. With air fares rising as rapidly as Concorde jets, seeing the world in one city had become an increasingly attractive possibility for North American vacationers.

Toronto, like Washington, is an international city, with everything from a smattering to a torrent of the wortd's ethnic populations. But 11 years ago and B.C. (Before Caravan), Toronto was just a big city full of insular ethnic communities, including an Italian population that rivaled Naples'. It had substantial numbers of Ukrainians, Armenians and Indians, while its Latin American and Southeast Asian populations were rapidly increasing. But the cultural -- and gustatory -- benefit of this diversity was secluded in homes and private community activities.

Lena Kossar saw this cultural richness when she accompanied her reporter husband, Leon, on his assignments for the Toronto Telegram, and she began to pour her energy into staging shows of ethnic dance and music. This scratch on the surface of Toronto's ethnicity hit an artery which, within a few years, was gushing forth a nine-day annual festival of music, dancing, decorative arts and food that now takes a year-round planning staff of a half-dozen people plus 200 students hired for the crucial summer weeks, with 50 pavilions that are showcases for their communities. From cities such as Cincinnati, Detroit and Flint, representatives come to learn from Caravan how to run city festivals. And within Toronto, this decade of festivals has been accompanied by an explosion of ethnic restaurants and a flourishing of talent that has turned professional after its Caravan beginnings. Dancers from Caravan appear on TV and travel around the world to perform. And as haphazard dance teams developed into professionals, home cooks opened successful restaurants, artists made their reputations, and tiny community halls were elevated, like Yerevan's, into $2 million ethnic centers. More important, according to Caravan boosters, has been the festival's effect on humanizing Toronto.

From the beginning, Caravan has operated through existing organizations -- churches and community centers -- contracted to fulfill the festival's requirements. More apply than are accepted, for the requirements are rigorous. Only nonprofit groups are accepted, and each must guarantee sufficient staff to attend to the crowds, plus meet the codes of city fire, health and traffic departments. Maintaining a pavilion is costly, because each is required to provide arts displays, decorations, music, a show and food. A mayor -- in red cape -- and a princess -- in authentic costume she makes herself -- are expected to be on duty for the duration to discuss their heritage and act as hosts. Pavilions are not allowed to advertise, but they may sell cookbooks and raffle tickets along with food and crafts. While some pavilions lose money, successful ones have been known to clear $10,000 from the nine-day effort.

Profit is not the only incentive for the pavilions; Caravan awards prizes each year for outside decorations, for the best "visa" stamp for the souvenir passports and for the best overall pavilion. The grapevine reputation is a similar source of pride. Manila's dances -- coconuts, bamboo poles, candlelight and all -- are so famous that seats are as prized as tickets to Redskins games are here. Tokyo has more space in its outdoor theater, but crowds fill the immense parking facilities of this suburban pavilion to watch human butterflies, women and small children wrapped in flower-colored kimonos with twirling parasols that are distillations of spring. Valhalla's vanilla buns remain legends year after year. Vilnus has taught Toronto about ragoulis, a cake that takes a week to bake.

Tickets to Caravan cost $6 per adult for the entire nine days, with accompanied children free.(This year's Caravan will be June 20-28. Tickets may be ordered through Metro International Caravan, 263 Adelaide St. West, 5th Floor, Toronto, Ontario, M5H 1Y2.)

The price includes a passport book that serves as a souvenir as well as a guide, with maps, descriptions of pavilions and pages for visa stamps from each pavilion.

Crucial to the operation of the Caravan is 50-cent bus service between pavilions. Buses run every half hour and are scheduled to hit pavilions in time for their shows. Problems arise, however, when buses become overcrowded at peak hours; and the bus routes limit flexibility of visitors in choosing the sequence of their visits. For these reasons, and to avoid excessive traffic and parking problems, Caravan prefers pavilions be downtown, clustered within walking distance. parking is a problem, but even more burdensome are the long waits -- up to two hours -- to see the shows at the most popular pavilions. Food and crafts lines are considerably shorter, particularly when people can walk over to another, less-crowed pavilion and return when the crush thins. With pavilions open 6 to 11 p.m. weekdays, 3 to 11 p.m. weekends (plus a few late-night pavilions), there is enough time to sample several pavilions in an evening.

Even if you've never heard of Vardar, you already know something about it when you enter its pavilion, for the smell of green peppers and sausages greets you even before the slow beat of its music. You start with sujik -- that homemade sausage you smelled -- served with bread for 75 cents, and wash it down with a Macedonian Mulesky, an unbelievable draught of vodka, slivovitz, ginger beer and lime. Every pavilion has its special drink usually vodka based, and one more outlandish than the other, from Rasputin's Revenge to Mississippi Mudd. Except for those liquid explosions, the food is from authentic old recipes and priced reasonably so that dinner averages $3 to $4.

While the music at the Yerevan pavilion may be modernized with electric guitars and amplifiers, the kitchen is an age-old scene, with 25 cooks nudged from their homes to work 6-hour shitft producing nearly 1,000 kebabs a day, 300 cheese turnovers, two to three quarts of stuffed grape leaves. At the Tokyo pavilion, tables under a tent accommodate 4,000 diners a day, ready to gnaw three tons of charcoal-grilled chicken teriyaki and 800 pounds of shrimp tempura.

Not all the pavilions are so polished and colorful. Delhi's plastic tablecloths were ordered removed by the fire department, so the bhaturai (puffed pancakes) and samosas (vegetable fritters) were spread on raw wooden tables, the mango juice poured from a McDonald's cooler. Amsterdam, in contrast, is a village-worth of store-fronts right out of a Hans Brinker story, each shop selling food rarely seen on this continent. Roly-poly pancakes and waffles are turned out in a steady stream at one shop. In another, Indonesian sates are grilling. Herrings are held by their tails for nibbling, while tarter steak and roast pork are stuffed into fat little broodjie rolls. One shop sells chocolates, another sells boozy snow cones, and at a third and you may buy a post card to be mailed from Amsterdam. Meanwhile, in the middle an oompa band and the most aggressvie social directors on dry land draw visitors into folk dances. The evening crescendos into a disco.

Food and entertainment provide an unending chain. Accordian and saxophone accompany the liver paste smoorebrod at the Valhalla pavilion, but once the open-face sandwich is consumed, you face the imperative of joining the polka.

The vodka, grenadine and brandy Rasputin's Revenge is not the only incentive at the Volga pavilion to sway along with the balalaika music. The princess in a fantasy of purple satin and pearl-encrusted lace, the urging by mother figures to try more blinchiki and golubze are enough reason to gather at this late-night pavilion.

Each community vies for Toronto fame in a different arena. Jerusalem is known for its shashliks and salads, but even more because they are prepared by an Arab cool under rabbinical supervision.

Budapest's dancers are international prize winners in a crescendo of foot-stomping and whirling, but that pavilion's bean soup with ham hocks is no lesser a pleasure.

With no regard to geography, politics or climate, visitors meander from Seoul -- eating charcoal-grilled bul gogi decorated with carrot flowers, drinking ginger cinnamon punch with pine nuts -- to Port-of-Spain -- listening to a steel band -- to Lvov -- eating veal on a stick and meat dumplings. Some pavilions are small and disorganized, nearly empty. Others are ornately decorated and smoothly professional. But even the shabbiest has something -- handmade dolls or a melodic stringed instrument -- to capture a moment's fancy.

Always there is something to learn -- stretching strudel dough, carving icons. Visitors constantly ask mayors and staffs about their country's customs. But nothing gets so serious as to neglect fun. At the Kiev pavilion the loudspeaker announces, "The bar closes in two and a half hours." Observers are nudged and yanked into folk dances.

Cafe-sitting and garden-strolling are major pastimes. And the staffs enjoy the show along with the visitors, using their time off to see other pavilions. The communities show their best: Their best dancers in their best costumes, their best art treasures, their best cooks making old family recipes.

Community pride is so strong there is no lack of volunteers; and the youth of the city who have grown up in Caravan years are beginning to run the pavilions. Caravan is what Toronto's mayor called "a celebration that pays its own way. The admission charge covers administration, buses and a ball for workers after the festival. No public money or grants have been used since the first years when the city helped pay for buses and concerts. Caravan is an urban welcome mat for new immigrants and a chance for neighbors to get to know each other.It is also an informal political network; thus, local politicians make the rounds to bid for the ethnic vote. And, at the very least, Caravan is an immeasurable improvement on the old political chicken dinner.