Food, Immigration & Toronto’s Kensington Market

Posted by Jolie Peters
(@Jolie Peters)

Kensington Market at Dusk

I stood at the crossroads of Kensington ave. From the left, I could hear the heartbeat of Afro-Caribbean music, from my right a reggae rendition of What a Wonderful World blared down the block.

Belts at a Thrift Store Blowing in the Wind

Studded between the rows of thrift shops selling beaten-leather boots and accessory stores with belts blowing in the wind were restaurants. Dozens of them. Serving food from all around the world.

Dorian at an Asian Market

As I made my way up the avenue I found myself hypnotised by bins of spiky Dorian outside an Asian market, spellbound by rows of hot sauce outside a Jamaican grocery store, and embraced by the pungent umami odors coming from the Global Cheese Shop. I felt as though I had traveled the world within a one-block radius, but really I had just entered the Kensington Market.

Global Cheese, a staple in Kensington Market

It should come as no surprise that this Canadian nook is so diverse. The Kensington Market was built on immigrants, and has continuously evolved as immigrant groups made their homes here. All of which have left a piece of their culture behind through the food they serve.


1930-1940: Jewish Immigration

Bagels & Schmear at Shmaltz Appetizing

Before 1910, Jews fleeing poverty and Pogrom in Europe found refuge in Toronto’s area dubbed The Ward. But as the Denisons, an anglo-saxon group in Canada, looked from Kensington Market to westward Toronto for larger parts of land, the Jewish community moved in. With them came their entrepreneurial spirit, and Jewish institutions from restaurants to synagogues. At first, individuals were selling goods like kosher meats from pushcarts or their home. As business increased and the community grew, people moved to the second floor of their apartments, and transformed the downstairs into store fronts. Now, you can find the remnants of the Jewish communities from the mid-1900’s at spots like Shmaltz Appetising, where bagels, latkes and cream soda reign supreme.


1950-1960: Portuguese & Afro-Canadians 

Jamaican Patties steaming in a hot box

Thanks to lenient immigration policies, this cultural hub saw great shifts in the early 50’s as Portuguese and Afro-Canadians began moving in and re-inventing the Kensington Market. The presence of these groups is still wildy felt in the area today. Churrasqueiras serve snappy sausages cooked table-side in clay pots, giant plates of sticky injera are stacked with shiro at spots like Shiba Ethiopian Restaurant, and Jamaican Patties steam hot boxes in the windows of Jamaican restaurants. Some of the most exciting food in this area was introduced during this decade.


1970-1980: Diverse Expansion 

Cold Cuts Banh Mi for $2.50 at Nguyen Huong Food

Keeping with true Kensington Market fashion, the early 70’s continued to welcome immigrant groups from around the world. Indians, Koreans, Vietnamese, Filipinos, and Latin American newcomers settled in both the residential and commercial areas of the Market. In the early 80’s, an influx of Bohemian merchants moved to the area as well. This is when the scope of food options truly exploded to make the Kensington Market what it is today. Snack on Indian Samosas or sizzling Korean Bulgogi. Slurp steaming Vietnamese Pho or Filipino Sinigang. Or, dive into stacks of tortillas, tamales and tacos at one of the many Mexican or Latin spots along your way.

1990-Present: The Millennials

The Kensington Market murals

From the early 80’s on the Kensington Market represented areas from all around the world through food and fashion. The biggest change during the later years was the influx of younger generations. Today, you’d be hard pressed to find a restaurant or shop without a college student baring a backpack, a 20-something-hipster in a beanie, or a millennial tourist snapping selfies in front of one the giant murals that now decorate many of the walls. From the Jewish to the Filipino, the Portuguese to the Mexican, the Italian to the Indian, the Gen Z’s to the first Kensington Market settlers – we are all able to experience the history of this remarkable area gastronomically. It is through salty latkes and spicy Feijoada that the roots of the Kensington Market are not forgotten. In an area that has experienced so much change, culinary exploration remains a much-needed constant.