Foodie Districts: Kensington Market

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Whenever anyone from out of town asks me what they should do or see when they come to Toronto, I direct them to Kensington Market.  Aside from the Distillery District, Kensington is my favourite part of the city, second to none.  I’ve fallen in love with so many different neighbourhoods over the years and although all of them hold special memories and are wonderfully unique in their own ways, Kensington will always win my heart.  One of the things I love most about Kensington is its accessibility.  Sitting snuggly within Chinatown, it’s literally just steps off the Spadina streetcar line and it’s easy peasy getting to other neighbourhoods such as Queen West, the Annex, Little Italy, and Little Portugal.

I can never get enough.  I can come here day in and day out and never be bored of wandering around because I am always finding something new to explore and take photos of (the photo up top is just one example of the unexpected mobility of artisitic expression that weaves in and out of the market; here today, gone tomorrow) and the culinary options available could last me a lifetime!  While many of the markets and food shops are mainstays, the foodie terrain is constantly evolving and changing with new businesses setting up shop in the neighbourhood.  There are so many choices and I think Kensington is especially amazing for 6 different things:

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Foodie Childhood Memories – Crackers, Vanilla Creams, and Deb’s Favourite Chinese and Asian Candies and Snacks!

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I know going to the supermarket may not be up everyone’s alley (“do we have to go near the smelly fish tank?”; “why are people fighting over the corn over there?”; “why is this line-up moving so freakin’ slow?!”), but I bet you the one thing that gets everyone off their bums and into the store are the snacks!  A lot of us may be all grown up now, leading hectic lives with schedules all over the place.  But that doesn’t mean we forget the simplest pleasures in life.  For me, one of the most nostalgic, happy food pleasures is walking down the candy and snack aisles at the Chinese grocery store, or looking up at the dizzying array of sweets and crunchy munchies before me in the candy stores in Chinatown or in Pacific Mall, Market Village, and First Markham Place in Markham. 

I don’t go the Chinese grocery store as often as I used to.  For one thing, as I grew older, many of my weekends were spent staying at home doing homework as opposed to accompanying my parents during outings.  And for another, a lot of my childhood was centered around doing things with my grandparents and my aunt and uncle, so after my aunt and uncle moved to Australia and after my family and I moved further away from my grandparents, the time spent with them inevitably shrank.  And so did my time going to Chinese supermarkets.

A few weeks ago, I sat around pondering about a new series to introduce on the blog.  Something fun and something to ignite the childhood memories and experiences with food we all adored so much.  During a trip to Pacific Mall and Market Village, I thought, “why not do a Chinese and Asian candy and snack series?”  The idea got me all in a tizzy.  I hadn’t done anything like it on the blog yet, I knew a lot of people would enjoy it, and hell, it would give me and excuse to buy and eat all the snacks I used to love (and still love) so much!  We’re talking about the infamous Pocky, Hello Panda chocolate-filled biscuits, Yan-Yan, Hello Kitty candies, gummies, jellies, chocolates, crackers, and all that good stuff.

One of my earliest memories of eating Chinese snacks was from kindergarten.  My mum gave me these Bin-Bin rice crackers to take with me to school (I don’t have a photo of them right now, but Google them and you’ll see which ones I’m referring to) along with my Vita-Soy drink box, and Teddy Grahams – how’s that for east meets west?  I remember my dad picking up some fruit gummy snacks for me when I was 5 (the ones shown in the first photo) during his trips to pick up Chinese “copy books” for me at the convenience store (little books that helped me practise my handwriting), and I’ll always remember the yummy dry seaweed packs I’d eat during recess at school and the chocolate and strawberry Yan-Yans that were so fun to dunk and eat. 

I love the feeling I get looking at all these snacks I used to enjoy so much.  And that’s not to say that I don’t enjoy them now.  Sure, I’ll snatch up a little box of Pocky every once in awhile, or I’ll stop to quickly look at a few things while I’m passing by an aisle or store.  A few months ago I even tried the new mango Yan-Yan just for kicks!  But those isolated incidents are just that – isolated.  It isn’t until you fully immerse yourself in it again that you remember what a happy part of your life it used to be.  So I hunted down some of my favourites to share with you guys – and of course, stuff my face in!  I have plenty more where this came from, so we’ll start with two of my favourite snacks, one of which is savoury and the other, sweet.  Behold, the shrimp crackers and vanilla cream Collon biscuits!

Oh man.  These shrimp crackers are even better than most types of potato chips.  I know it’s a bit of a misnomer considering they don’t look like the typical rectangular, square, or circular cracker, but they’re a savoury snack that crunches just the same!  They look like little corkscrew fries and they melt in your mouth like butter.  Is the shrimp flavour really that pronounced?  Not really, but it’s subtle, it’s in there and damn, are these shrimp crackers ever good. 

And my vanilla cream Collon biscuits!  I don’t know if the manufacturers have just stopped shipping out as many, but these were a little harder to find which made me sad because I love them so much.  The vanilla ones are just slightly easier to get your hands on than other flavours like chocolate and the vanilla with chocolate varieties.  But they are amazing.  These are tiny vanilla cream filled wafers that are thimble-sized and look like little cyclindrical logs.  The outer layer is crunchy vanilla wafer while the inside is super smooth and creamy vanilla.  The filling tastes like frosting and if you think eating bar nuts or popcorn is bad once you get started, you need to eat these.  You will hug them.  And love them.  And want more.  I’ve been saving my box for a cozy, rainy, lounging-on-the-couch-watching-tv kind of day.  And whaddya know, this whole weekend is supposed to be rainy!  It looks like I have a yummy companion for the next few days – no promises that the box won’t be finished before Monday.