Wandering Through Toronto's Kensington Market via Chopsticks + Forks' Great Canadian Food Tour

If you're planning a trip to Toronto, definitely make some time to wander around Kensington Market, a vibrant and diverse bohemian neighborhood that's a bit like San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury District. Translated: it's a great place to let your inner hippie roam free! The market is full of vintage clothing boutiques, discount and surplus stores, bakeries, spice and dry goods stores, cheese shops, coffee shops, dive bars, upscale cafés, restaurants, clubs and more. Open 7 days a week (excluding Christmas and New Year's Day), the optimal time to visit if you want to hit up some of the shops is between 11:00 and 7:00 pm, however bars and restaurants stay open until later in the evening and the food and vegetable shops generally open earlier.

Located just to the west of downtown Toronto and bordered by Spadina Avenue, Dundas Street, Bathurst Street and College Street, the best way to get to Kensington Market is to not drive there as parking is very limited and negotiating the narrow, crowded streets is not the best way to enjoy the neighborhood. Instead, you can easily walk there from downtown or take one of the four streetcar lines that provide direct access to the neighborhood.

Designated a National Historic Site of Canada in November 2006, the area was first settled in 1815 by Captain George Taylor Denison, a Canadian soldier and community leader who, at the time of his death in 1853, was one of the wealthiest landowners in Upper Canada. Following Denison's death, his 156-acre estate was sub-divided making way for houses constructed on small plots for Irish and Scottish immigrant laborers coming to Toronto.

During the early twentieth century, Kensington became populated by eastern European Jewish immigrants and the area became known as "the Jewish Market" with Jewish merchants operating small shops as tailors, furriers and bakers. Around 60,000 Jews lived in and around Kensington Market during the 1920s and 1930s and at that time, the neighborhood was home to over 30 local synagogues. Today there are only two remaining synagogues - the Kiever Synagogue which was completed in 1927 and the Anshei Minsk Synagogue  which is the last remaining downtown fully Orthodox shul in the area offering daily services. Founded in 1912 by poor Jewish immigrants from the part of the Russian Empire that is now Belarus, the congregation's Byzantine Revival-style building, pictured above, was built between 1922 and 1930.

Post-World War II, most of the Jewish population moved north to more prosperous uptown neighborhoods or to the suburbs, making room for the neighborhood's next wave of immigrants. During the 1950s, a large number of immigrants from the Azores, fleeing political conflict with the regime of António de Oliveira Salazar, moved into the area followed by waves of immigrants from the Caribbean and East Asia. The Vietnam War brought a number of American political refugees to the neighborhood while the 1980s and 1990s brought groups of immigrants from Central America, Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Iran, Vietnam, Chile and other global trouble spots to join the neighborhood's current largest ethnic group of Chinese peoples (Chinatown is located just east of Kensington.) Today the neighborhood is a noted tourist attraction and, as more artists and writers move into the area, a center of Toronto's cultural life.

Marking the main entryways to Kensington Market are four aluminum and steel sculptures created by David Hlynsky and Shirley Yanover in 1997 that aren't just a bit of whimsy, but also help to define the market. The globe with goods flying around it located at Baldwin and Spadina is called “To Market, To Market” with the orbiting images representing what we need to survive on this planet — all of which can be found in Kensington Market. "Home Again, Home Again" at St. Andrew and Spadina features a cat standing on a kitchen chair, the chair evokes the comforts of home while the cat represents its significant role in the lore of Kensington Market being that generations of felines have been constant residents of the community. "Jiggity Jig" at Dundas and Augusta again shows a cat, this time standing on a globe which symbolizes the fact that people come to Kensington from all over the world while “Piggity Big” at College and Augusta features a globe on a chair. The globe once again represents the immigrant population and the chair is again symbolic of home representing the fact that for years and years and to this day, immigrants have found a home-away-from-home in Kensington Market.

As you can see, the neighborhood is very eclectic and with so many great culinary choices in a relatively small area, it may be hard to decide where to eat while you're in Kensington Market but lucky for you - and for me! - there's a terrific way to let someone else make the decision while also giving you a chance to feast on delicious foods that are uniquely Canadian. No ... that doesn't mean you're going to be slurping down maple syrup with a Tim Horton's chaser (not that there's anything wrong with either of those things, mind you!) but if you book yourself a spot on the newly-launched Chopsticks+Forks Great Canadian Food Tour, you'll enjoy six dishes - four savory and two sweet - that are totally Canadian and totally delicious. How about that, eh?

The brainchild of Jusep Sim, Founder and CEO (Chief Epicurean Officer) of Chopsticks+Forks who began offering international food tours in Kensington Market approximately three years ago, the Great Canadian Food Tour, which made its debut this May, answers the questions of "what Canadian foods are there to eat and where the heck do I find them?"

Tours begin at 3:30 p.m. at the Pow Wow Café (213 Augusta Avenue) where you'll meet up with your guide and other tour participants before sitting down and digging into a Ojibway Taco, a dish that is older than Canada itself. Honoring the people who were in the country first, the tacos are built on Bannock bread - an Indigenous bread made in its most basic form using flour, lard, sugar, and eggs - then piled with meat chili, lettuce, cheddar cheese, tomatoes, cumin sour cream and edible flowers.

Made by owner and Chef Shawn Adler who traces his roots back to the Ojibway – a large Indigenous ethnic group spread out across much of the Ontario province - the Ojibway Taco combines both tradition and flavor and is a great start to the afternoon! Thankfully you don't get a full-size serving as there would be no room for any of the other great foods on the tour but the serving size is quite large giving your taste buds a chance to enjoy every nuance of the crunchy fry bread and the delicious ingredients that make up the rest of the taco.

A short walk later you'll be at Stop #2 on the tour - Moo Frites (178 Baldwin St) - a small take-out shop that specializes in Belgian-style frites. Based on the Belgian friteries that owner Ambrose Lee fell in love with when he was traveling through Brussels and Bruges, the shop serves up some of the best Poutine in Toronto. A dish that includes french fries and cheese curds topped with a brown gravy, Poutine originated in the late 1950s in the Centre-du-Québec area. If you've never had it, you're in for a real treat!

Made from high-starch russets that are hand-cut into thick strips, blanched, deep-fried and then frozen overnight before being deep-fried a second time, the frites that are the foundation of the Poutine are golden and crispy on the outside while light and fluffy on the inside which makes them the perfect base for the beef-fat gravy and melty cheese curds that complete this most delicious of Canadian dishes. Trust me, you're going to hate to see the bottom of the cup!

Bacon Nation - aka National Bacon Headquarters! - (249 Augusta Ave) is Stop #3 where you'll enjoy a Peameal Bacon Sandwich that is to die for! Peameal bacon is wet-cured pork loin from the back of the hog that has been trimmed of fat and rolled in cornmeal, creating a yellow crust. Both leaner and juicer than regular bacon, it was originally rolled in crushed yellow peas, hence the name peameal. Holding a spot in 1001 Foods You Must Taste Before You Die, peameal bacon is a uniquely Canadian product which is often confused with Canadian bacon, a smoked back bacon that’s popular in the U.S. and isn’t Canadian at all.

At Bacon Nation you'll sink your teeth into a delicious, flavor-filled classic Canadian sandwich that doesn't just feature a generous serving of peameal bacon but also includes provolone, fried egg, lettuce and tomato on a brioche bun. If by chance you've tried the Peameal Bacon Sandwich at the Carousel Bakery at Toronto's famed Saint Lawrence Market, you're going to find that it doesn't hold a candle to the one you'll try on the Great Canadian Food Tour. Oh, and just for the record, you get a whole sandwich to yourself as they don't skimp on the servings on this most awesome of food tours!

Getting full already? Don't be as there's lots more to come!

Next up, Stop #4 is NU Bügel (240 Agusta Avenue) where they create Montreal-style, handmade bagels in a 20,000-pound wood-burning oven right there on site. Whereas New York-style bagels are soft, chewy and doughy, Montreal-style bagels are smaller, thinner, denser and sweeter with a larger hole. Both are boiled before being baked but unlike New York-style, Montreal bagels are poached in water that has been sweetened with honey before being baked in a wood-burning oven which makes them crunchier with a deeper, richer crust flavor.

Montreal-style bagels aren't designed to be sliced, instead break them in half then break off pieces to dip in cream cheese or whatever spread you might want. They're apparently so popular that by the time we made it to NU Bügel on our tour, they were sold out but we were still able to enjoy the onion variety at the last stop on our tour as the owners were kind enough to send over a bagful along with lots of cream cheese for dipping. I'm glad they did as I really enjoyed them and - full disclosure - as a rule I don't like onion bagels!

Stop #5 - time for the sweets! Wanda's Pie in the Sky (287 Augusta Avenue) is owned by Wanda Beaver, a gal who baked her first pie at the age of 9 so definitely knows what she's doing! You can get lunch and reportedly some of the best coffee brewed in Toronto at Wanda's but we were there for a true taste of Canada in the form of a Butter Tart.

Considered one of Canada's quintessential treats, Butter Tarts were common in pioneer Canadian cooking and are highly regarded in Canadian cuisine. Though Butter Tarts date back to the 1600s, the earliest published recipe dates back to 1900 and can be found in The Women’s Auxiliary of the Royal Victoria Hospital Cookbook. The tarts consist of a filling of butter, sugar, syrup and egg baked in a pastry shell until the filling is semi-solid with a crunchy top. Recipes vary according to the families baking them; those at Wanda’s Pie in the Sky feature a rich butter filling with raisins and walnuts. They are oh, so good and nowhere near as sweet as one might think but that's probably because they're a smaller size and you don't get the chance to overindulge like we do with so many American desserts! That said, you could buy a batch of them and go town if you really like them!

Last stop after a bit of a walk around the neighborhood so that your guide can tell you some of the history of Kensington Market and you can make room for just one more sampling of Canadian cuisine, is the Moonbean Coffee Company (30 St. Andrew Street.) A micro-roaster of fabulous coffees where they also have a most impressive tea selection and other goodies, it was there we were presented with a plate of Nanaimo Bars. Granted, at this point I was so full I wasn't sure that I could eat anything else but how could I resist trying just one more thing, especially when it looked so good? I couldn't!

A bar dessert which requires no baking, this sweet Canadian treat is named after the city of Nanaimo located on the east coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia. It consists of three layers: a wafer and coconut crumb-base, a custard flavored butter icing in the middle and a layer of chocolate ganache on top. Unconfirmed references date the bar back to the 1930s while the earliest confirmed printed copy of the recipe using the name "Nanaimo Bars" appears in the Edith Adams' prize cookbook (14th edition) from 1953; a copy of the book is on view at the Nanaimo Museum in British Columbia should you ever find yourself on Canada's left coast. The dessert is so Canadian - and popular - that it was served at the 2016 US State Dinner in honor of Justin Trudeau! Again, the bars may look sweet but they really aren't and were the perfect ending to a food tour that offers one delicious food after another!

So there you have it ... a bit of Kensington Market - Toronto's most unique neighborhood - and a great way to spend some time exploring it with the good folks of Chopsticks+Forks and the Great Canadian Food Tour! It was one of the first things that we did on our visit to Toronto and it was great, setting the bar very high for the rest of the trip! Even though I had never been on a food tour before, I honestly can't think of a better way to get to know Toronto and Canada!

If you're interested in booking your own tour with Chopsticks+Forks - either their original Kensington Market  Signature International Food Tour or the brand-new Great Canadian Food Tour - visit their website and use their easy on-line booking. If you have food allergies or special dietary needs, they're able to accommodate some of them (one of our party has a dairy intolerance but didn't miss out on a thing as their foods were specially prepared to avoid dairy.) Both tours take approximately 2-1/2 hours and are an easy walk around the neighborhood. Though I can't vouch for the International Food Tour, I can tell you that if go on the Great Canadian Food Tour and leave hungry, it's your own darned fault!

In conclusion, a big shout-out to our tour guide Fenny who for sure did a fabulous job and to tour originator Jusep Sim for sitting and talking with us afterward while we enjoyed our Nanaimo Bars! You both put Toronto high on the list of my Favorite Cities and I'm already trying to figure out when I can wander up again!


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