TORONTO — At a corner vegetable stand, bins overflowed with huge, orange carrots, red new potatoes and giant bouquets of cauliflower. Down the street a small grocery store displayed fresh coconut, ripe papaya and stalks of sugar cane. In the next block, the front of the Perola Supermarket was festooned with garlands of peppers, tomatoes, mushrooms, even pineapples, all strung up to dry. And around the corner, the long counter at Global Cheese was piled high with gruyere cheese (from Sweden), Saint Pauli cheese from Brazil, asiago from Italy.
It was a dazzling display of diverse digestibles, but to the citizens of Toronto, it was just another day at Kensington Market, a neighborhood stretching several blocks and filled with vegetable stands, fish markets and family-owned grocery stores.
"The best cream cheese in the whole world," boasted a sign outside Mandel's Dairy, a small shop vending cottage cheese, sour cream and other dairy items. The owner scooped a dollop of cream cheese onto a piece of brown paper for us to taste. Fresh with the flavor of sweet cream, yet with a slightly sour undertone, it was totally unlike the foil-wrapped bricks sold in supermarket dairy cases.
"Kensington Market reflects the ethnic diversity of Toronto," said our friend Philippe Pichlak, a student at the University of Toronto and as such, a self-proclaimed expert in eating well on a budget. We decided to test out his expertise.
We passed the House of Spice with its displays of Indian pappadums (crisp lentil wafers), Moroccan couscous (a semolina made from wheat grain) and basmati rice.
"In the middle of the last century," Pichlak was explaining, "this area was settled by immigrants from Eastern Europe. Many of the families started vegetable gardens in their front yards. The whole neighborhood became the Kensington Market. Today you'll see foods from South America, India and Asia, as well as fruits and vegetables from Ontario farms. The St. Lawrence Market, in a restored Victorian building near the waterfront, is bigger, but that's where the Yuppies shop. The real people come here."
Kensington Market is the logical starting place for a culinary tour of culturally-diverse Toronto.
Fifty-five percent of the city's 3.5 million population was born outside the country, according to government statistics. In greater Toronto, there are 500,000 Italians, 100,000 Greeks, 250,000 Chinese, 150,000 Portuguese.
This ethnic variety has led to an abundance of good, affordable dining. As we discovered on a recent trip, it is possible to eat your way around the world without ever leaving Toronto.
For lunch we drove out to the Greek neighborhood, about 15 minutes east of downtown. All along Danforth Street are restaurants serving Greek food. We tried the Astoria.
A cook was grilling skewers of beef and lamb in the window as we entered and were shown to a table in the crowded room. Hanging plants, widely spaced tables and a low noise level made us feel instantly comfortable.
We began with a Greek salad of feta cheese, fresh tomatoes and onions and briny Calamata olives. At the waiter's suggestion we split a small salad ($4.30). The salad was plenty for two, especially when followed by the souvlakia platter ($11). A large skewer of grilled lamb, rich with smoky flavor from the grill, came with roasted potatoes crisp on the outside and tender and moist on the inside and tzatziki, a yogurt and garlic mixture used for dipping anything from lamb to bread.
Stuffed though we were, we couldn't resist the baklava for desert ($2.20). In Greece, this multilayered pastry is often so hard you can stand on it, but here it was made with a light touch so that the pastry layers crunched lightly when cut. It was drenched in a flower-scented honey and filled with walnuts. Only once, in Istanbul, did we have baklava this good. We counted four other Greek restaurants within a block along this stretch of Danforth.
For Italian food, head for Little Italy along College Street and just browse through the shops. Be sure to stop at Porco Brothers for a taste of locally-made prosciutto. The shop also stocks a variety of sausages and cheeses. Sliced prosciutto is $12.10 a pound. A visit to Porco Brothers can provide the basis for a great picnic.
Stop for coffee and a pastry or sandwich at Cafe Diplomatico just down the street. You'll swear this is a local hangout in Florence. "All the students at the university come here," Pichlak told us as we sat at a small marble-topped table and ordered cappuccino ($1.65). Owner Paulo Mastrangelo brought it, brimming with the frothed milk that is the mark of good cappuccino. As in Italy, it came with paper tubes of sugar and small glasses of drinking water without ice.