When asked about my favorite place in Toronto, I answered with a straight face & without a second thought , “Kensington Market!”. The thought that immediately followed this proclamation, was hardly nonchalant in character. It was one of surprise laced by curiosity. The answer, I had assumed, would be a tad different; Perhaps the speckless boardwalk paralleling the serene waters of Lake Ontario, maybe the hygge-ligt coffee shop that offers safe haven in the boisterous winter months, even possibly the grey-stoned castle, Casa Loma. Despite these choices, I had chosen one of the most crowded, loudest markets on the fringes of Spadina Avenue as my favorite spot in the city.
Why? I write this as an answer to you and and to myself.
It was the early days of spring 2016 when the husband and me first ambled along the streets of Kensington Market. The said weekday morning was engulfed in grey and bereft of color. However, as we strolled along the narrow lanes for the next hour, all shades from the grey scale seemed to have evaporated into thin air. Walls flanking these alleys spoke their own arcane language, some in a mellow peach, some in an enchanting scarlet red, some in a fierce orange, others in a somber blue and most times in a jumbled jargon. Like a town submerged in colour, the color-wheel has been spun and every hue extracted, saturated & splashed in every nook. A wild, beautiful disarray, much like my watercolor palette. I will confess, much of the art is indecipherable to me, mostly abstract but, that doesn’t mean the art doesn’t command attention & appreciation. This market has in its arsenal, a plethora of colors and a walk in these streets, in the midst of such rampant art was ostensibly all that gloomy morning demanded.
Kensington Market at its heart is a multicultural community with a littering of diverse shops. While an artist crafts modern, string jewelry on a little table plopped on the street , behind him, a front yard is ornate with traditional embroidered clothing from India; its entrance hosting a painting of our very own Elephant God. A little store houses Jamaican souvenirs, a quaint shop carries blocks of guava jelly from Brazil while another hosts a fragrant turmeric-coconut paste. I scoured the entire city for a Lebanese Pomegranate Molasses when all I had to do was spend a few seconds in one of the blessed stores here. Like all regulars, I too have a few that hold a special place in my heart.
First, the fromagerie. Oui! Blocks of artisanal cheese sit here in shared silence, some, works of art brimming with mystery. But more importantly, a far cry from my childhood’s concept of cheese: a little square block of Amul, hidden within the secure confines of a silver foil.( Unwrapped, grated and generously tucked into a sandwich. Always a pleasant, comforting sight in the lunch box). This on the other hand is akin to walking into a room full of unknown people. (Ironically, I’m mildly acquainted with creamy chunks of Goat Cheese, greasy melts of Mozzarella, soft spheres of bocconccini, salty shavings of parmesan, buttery cuts of brie). I am thoroughly buoyed by this find, but mostly overwhelmed, a tad intimidated. But the answer can be mindlessly simple, isn’t it? All I need is to foray into that unknown more often, ask more questions, haul back more loot, eat more cheese, eat lots of cheese. C’est Bon!
And second, the book shop. Here, a sea of books are crammed and corralled in the an old hidden nook, almost clandestine. The nook itself, tiny, one that is discovered by curiosity alone & one, where night is same as day. The books, blanketed by dust and waiting to spill a million stories. The air more heavy with tumbling words than anything else.
A serendipitous tryst with ‘Vellichor'( meaning= the strange wistfulness of used bookshops).
And thirdly, the vegetable and fruit market. Admittedly, the bounteous fresh produce flaunting water droplets shimmering from a recent spray, has a perpetual effect on my hunger. I hop around the serpentine store with a mind on overdrive and a mangle of recipes as I glean to possess the most vibrant of seasonal harvest. The five kinds of squashes showstopping in their fall themed hues and the table masked by the verdant leafy family only encouraging me to harness my greed and take more than what I need.
Not that I don’t value a burgeoning diversity, although, it tends to become all the more special when it envelopes food. I do hope you’re hungry!
Few escape the charm that churros exude. Hardly a surprise. They unleash sweet, deep-fried, cinnamon-coated goodness. For the ones yearning a few more spoonfuls of sugar, the chocolate sauce and condensed milk do the needful.(I apologize for the lack of a picture. I’m so drawn by this sweet escape that it completely slips my mind.)
An organic curry and salad outlet with its sunshine soaked patio seats and an intent for simplicity allows us to guiltlessly give in to lazy summer weekends. A cardboard box carries in its enclosure: brown rice, a smattering of quinoa and ladles of chickpea-rajma curry. There is a certain comfort lent by stirring rice and its liquid accompaniment, then savoring a warm morsel, even under a blazing sun. I refrain from using my hands but only if I did, home would be a lot closer than I thought.
If one favors steamed Indian modaks, the Japanese Mochi isn’t too different. They both generously lend similar textures and wholesome fillings. What does differ though is the bite of fresh summer fruits and a hint of sweet from the red bean paste in the mochi. They parley into fun( to put it bluntly) summer foods, all the while heeding to that forever starved sweet tooth.
We’re not ones to every deny a good gelato and while Kensington Market boasts of more than a handful of these summer essentials, a little something called a Mexican Paleta has rightfully taken its place in our lives. While essentially being fruit popsicles, their snazzy flavor profiles like Mango-chilli & Tamarind-chilli attract a strong temptation.
Of course, waffles and popcorn and juice bars and peanut-butter-banana sandwiches and a motley crew of food can keep one company too.
Under the bonhomie summer sun, the warm air , ebullient colours and faces agleam with smiles, life appears a tad bit more cheerful. The poetic riot of colours, the hustle-bustle, the need to cleverly snake through berserk crowds, the high-pitched conversations: all oddly part of the joie de vivre moment. And you know where else that happens? The chaotic markets of Bangalore, the loud bazaars back home. Looks like I found my answer.