Kensington Market food tour: Toronto's most vibrant neighbourhood perfect for foodies

It's strange to think how many of the world's truly extraordinary inventions started life as something so ordinary. Take the lightbulb, popularised by Thomas Edison. Just a simple filament isolated from oxygen until zapped with an electrical current at which point it can enable the world's great cities to be seen from space.

Or poutine. The humble french fry, bland and unappealing until slathered with a generous dollop of hot cheese curd and gravy to become one of the world's truly inspired (drunken) comfort foods.

Sat in a leather booth inside Fresco's, a restaurant in Toronto's Kensington Market area, I'm discussing the finer points of Canada's unofficial national dish with tour guide, Leo Moncel.

"There are a few rules to getting this dish just right," says Moncel as we stare at a mound of glistening fries served atop red-and-white chequered paper in a plastic basket.

"I mean, good fries are a given, but you must have real cheese curds and quality gravy hot enough to begin melting the curds to give that gooey texture and squeak. I'm not a purist but if you see a place using grated cheese, just walk right out. And never eat this anywhere with a white dining cloth, it isn't fine dining."

Moncel is leading us on the Made in Canada food tour, a celebration of Canada's culinary icons in the Kensington Market district, the most ethnically diverse area in the country's most ethnically diverse city.

Settled by waves of European immigrants starting from the 1850s, it was initially an unwelcoming spot for outsiders, with many struggling to find employment. Consequently, some began opening simple businesses selling food and wares from a table in front of their homes, many of which gradually morphed into shops and more substantial enterprises.

By the 1960s, the area had become an established launch pad for immigrants, from Cantonese to Caribbean, Jewish, Latin American and more, with each wave leaving its cultural mark. Today, in an area of just a few square blocks, it's thought 87 different cultural groups are represented.

Having already sampled a sumptuous breakfast roll at nearby cafe, Egg Bae – a hedonistic melange of soft scrambled eggs, sweet and spicy bacon, Muenster cheese, tomato, arugula, pickled shallots and chilli sauce – I'm already having to loosen the belt buckle a notch so we take time out to stroll in the biting winter air.

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Kensington Market is the sort of place that no longer exists in many of the world's cities. Its residents have remained staunchly opposed to big business and so it retains an appealingly ramshackle charm with anything from vintage clothing stores to an Ethiopian spice market sandwiched between some of the best grab-and-go lunch options in the city. There's also a bohemian air about it with art installations, such as rusted cars filled with plants, on street corners and good-natured block parties thrown regularly throughout summer.

Our next stop is Cheese Magic on Baldwin Street. From the outside it looks a little like a 1960s New York City bodega, a faded yellow sign above a wooden door with a matching yellow and red paint job. Inside, a pungent waft of cheese hits ... it's a squeezy space with a wooden floor and high counters rammed to the hilt with every conceivable blend of delectable cheese. We sample three hand-picked by Moncel, each wrapped in cloth on the counter. The first, Riopelle from Quebec, is thermalised – a gentler process than pasteurising – and retains a distinctly milky characteristic, a hint of funkiness but beautifully balanced. The Five Brothers is an alpine style Appenzeller with a satisfying, salty crunch while the last, the Avonlea Clothbound Cheddar from Prince Edward Island, is a harder, crumbly affair with a musty fungal flavour conjuring scenes of a dusty cellar with old beams but … in a good way.

On Augusta Avenue, Nu Bugel is owned by two Venezuelans of Jewish ancestry. They opened shop around 15 years ago with a mission to bring back the authentic Jewish bagel of the type their grandparents made. Inside, the bagels hang on wooden poles having baked for around 15 minutes in the adjacent flickering wood-fired hearth. We order hot smoked trout served on a poppyseed bagel with arugula, sweet horseradish jelly and Pommery mustard. It's a winning combination, the smokiness of the trout jousting perfectly with the sweetness of the jelly.

No food tour would be complete without dessert and our final stop, Wanda's Pie in the Sky, has become a beloved Toronto institution. Founded by Wanda Beaver (yep, her surname really is that Canadian), the business grew from humble origins. Beaver grew up in the Niagara region, picking fruit on her family's farm and baked her first pie aged nine. A lifelong obsession was born and as a student she began baking pies to supplement her income, personally delivering door-to-door on public transit. "I often say the original Uber Eats was a one-woman operation, climbing aboard a street car with a towering stack of pies with addresses scribbled on the side," says Moncel.

Eventually Beaver's loyal client base persuaded her to open shop in a permanent location and for the last 15 years, it has been right here in the heart of Kensington Market.

The smell of pastry and fresh coffee inside is somehow powerful enough to persuade me to eat more, so we order Beaver's personal favourite, the Ontario sour cherry pie. The business has a strong commitment to local product and even though sour cherries may only be in season for a month or two, the shop buys in bulk and freezes them to ensure customers can enjoy local ingredients year-round.

With the sour cherries offsetting the sweetness and the melt in your mouth crust, the pie is like simultaneously getting a massage, smoking a fine Cuban cigar and sipping a rare Scottish single Malt on the pleasure scale.

Beyond the ridiculous stereotypes, I honestly hadn't really known what to expect of Canadian, or indeed Toronto cuisine. "People often ask me what a classic Canadian dish is," says Moncel. "We have a lot of them, but you can find an authentic version of almost anything here, so I often flip the question back, 'What can't you get at home?' Chances are, you can try it here."

FIVE KENSINGTON MARKET HOT SPOTS

Rasta Pasta

Excellent fusion of traditional Jamaican and Italian recipes. Known for its dreadlock lasagne and Dutch pot oxtail among others. See eatrastapasta.ca

Kensington Brewing Co

A craft brewery born out of a desire to pair beer with an eclectic array of cooking styles. Try the Temper Temper stout. See kensingtonbrewingcompany.com

Pow Wow Cafe

Serving brunch daily 11am-3pm, specialities include fried chicken, chilli beef and a dizzying pancake stack with all the trimmings. See facebook.com/CafePowWow

Sanagan's Meat Locker

A renowned butcher and deli counter which serves cured meats and excellent grab-and-go sandwiches. See sanagansmeatlocker.com

Seven Lives Tacos Y Mariscos

An authentic taqueria renowned for its Baja-style seafood tacos and ceviche with cold beer and salty tortilla chips. See facebook.com/SevenLivesTacosYMariscos

TRIP NOTES

Guy Wilkinson was a guest of Culinary Adventure Co. Toronto.

MORE

traveller.com.au/canada

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FLY

Air Canada flies between Sydney and Vancouver with connections to Toronto. See aircanada.com

STAY

The InterContinental Yorkville is a four-star hotel located in The Annex, near Royal Ontario Museum and University of Toronto. See ihg.com

TOUR

The Kensington Market Made in Canada Food Tour runs every Sunday from 11am, lasts two hours and costs CA$69 for each adult, CA$64 for children and seniors. See culinaryadventureco.com

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