Wanda Beaver outside her comfort food.
WELCOME TO OUR CULINARY CHARACTER SERIES, A DYNAMIC LOOK AT THE CULINARY ARTISANS, CHEFS, BUTCHERS, BAKERS, PRODUCERS, FARMERS AND FOOD ENTREPRENEURS WHO DEFINE EATING IN CANADA. GO ON A CULINARY ADVENTURE WITH THEM AS THEY SHARE THEIR SIGHTS, DELIGHTS AND INSIGHTS.
Take one lifelong baker, add a dynamic Canadian neighbourhood and mix in a passionate entrepreneurial family, and you have the recipe for an afternoon of surprising lessons and delicious memories. We led Wanda a few blocks north of her comfort zone to experience unique desserts in Toronto’s original Koreatown on Bloor West.
“There’s no fish in a fish waffle!” the sign at Kevin’s Taiyaki proclaims. Good news for our friend Wanda, as a longtime vegetarian, she indulges in fish rarely. What you will find featured in these Japanese fish-shaped waffles is your choice of a rich vanilla custard or an East Asian red bean filling.
... Hot cast-iron grills filled with wet Taiyaki batter topped with vanilla custard filling.
The baker fills the molds in the waffle press a precise amount of a thick batter. After eight minutes, it’s set enough to add filling. After the filling warms and sets, she pinches the two sides of the waffle iron together, like closing a book, it takes a total of fifteen minutes for a crunchy, golden fish waffle.
“These are really crispy. That’s so much filling! How do they keep it from spilling out?” Wanda can’t believe how loaded these things are.
A Fishy Tail
But the question must be asked - why is it shaped like a fish? Specifically, the dessert mold is modeled after a Red Sea Bream or madai. Ma means “common” and dai/tai is “bream.” Yaki is to cook with any kind of dry heat (think teppanyaki and yaki udon.) Taiyaki literally translates to “grilled bream.”
When, precisely, the first madai-shaped waffle appeared has been obscured by history. The Red Sea Bream has enjoyed an emblematic status in Japan however, at least since the Edo period (1600’s to 1800’s) when the shogun himself would be gifted with the fish. It’s popularity remains unabated to this day, lending its likeness to home and altar decorations as well as the beloved street snack.
A few unique qualities feed into the popularity of the Red Sea Bream in Japan. First, the red colour is believed to ward off evil. Second, the name is a near homonym for medetai, meaning auspicious, prosperous or happy. Finally, the fishing season corresponds with the blooming of the beloved Cherry Blossoms, earning the fish the nickname “Cherry Blossom Bream.”
Top of the Pops
The humble fish waffle once topped Japan’s pop charts. With “Oyoge Taiyaki-kun” (Swim, little taiyaki!) a melancholic folk song about a fish waffle who escapes to the ocean only to be caught by a fisherman, the fish waffle got more than its fifteen minutes of fame. In 1976, the song became the all-time highest selling single in Japan.
... For Wanda, the custard version of the dessert hits all the right notes. “This is huge. I don’t know if I can eat a whole one.”
Eating your way through Canada’s multicultural mosaic, you will find chefs, artisans and bakers who have, impressively, surpassed the original item they began replicating from their country of origin. While the humble walnut cake was born in Korea, the Lee family at Hodo Kwaja on Bloor West have perfected it.
Soft, pillowy and mildly sweet, these walnut-shaped “cakes” are cooked in a similar way as the Taiyaki, but his time on preformed cast-iron molds that are linked together and move by like a determined train.
Biting inside, it’s either red bean, walnut or almond. The latter two are stuffed full with a sweetened mashed potato filling. It’s a dream to eat - a perfect two bite snack waiting to melt in your mouth.
“I like this. I’m actually a big fan of these. I’ve been here a few times. Though it’s been a few years,” Wanda admits and pops a walnut cake into her mouth.
The walnut cakes come hot off the presses from a custom machine with interchangeable plates that makes every dessert in the shop. The machine is an import from Korea and has been dutifully serving the Lee family for 19 years.
The business itself is now 27 years old. Suki Lee, proud daughter, shop manager and lead storyteller for the family business, has been working under her father’s tutelage since she was just 4 years old.
When we got Wanda and Suki to sit down together, Suki needed a quick moment to get over her excitement of meeting “the real Wanda” before the two of them discovered just how much common ground they shared.
Only the Best Local Ingredients
One of the things that always impressed us about Wanda’s Pie in the Sky and Hodo Kwaja is the commitment to top quality local ingredients. A deeper dive into Hodo Kwaja’s pantry revealed the extent of the ingredient obsession for the Lee family.
“My dad only bakes with Canadian eggs, butter, flour - even sugar!” Suki tell us.
Whole eggs and whole milk are the base of their batter, and this explains why Hodo Kwaja’s walnut cakes are so fluffy, rich and satisfying.
Even the adzuki beans for the red bean filling are sourced from a local Ontario producer. Hensall Co-op, a Huron County growers association primarily selling to the Japanese market, supplies Hodo Kwaja a metric tonne shipment of dry adzuki beans, 40 bags each weighing 25 Kg, each year.
“Watching my father over the years in the bakery, it’s not about being what’s hot or what’s trendy, it’s about good quality. Torontonians, love, LOVE, businesses that have been around a long time,” Suki shares.
“Sure do, they appreciate it.” Wanda adds.
“They love businesses that use local ingredients. They love businesses that take really good care of their product and take really good care of their customers,” Suki finishes.
And the proof is in the batter. For both Wanda and the Lee family, leading their businesses for over 25 years has earned them that level of love.
A Sweet Revelation
“Our place is like a warm blanket when you walk in,” offers Wanda.
We’re back in the sunlit coziness of Wanda’s Pie in the Sky to sit down to a warm slice of her favourite dessert of all - Ontario Sour Cherry pie.
“The key to making pastry is cold, cold fat. Our pie is mostly butter with some vegetable shortening - the shortening gives it flakiness.
Working in just enough water to make it cohesive, the dough is formed into a long thin sheet by a her well used dough-sheeter.
“We roll a large slab. It’s very delicate; it can tear and rip because it’s not over mixed. Then you cut circles of pastry, pop them into the pie tins and then everything is finished by hand.”
The pie shell is filled with whole individually quick frozen sour cherries. Working with them almost from frozen, the cherries remains intact in the finished pie. Wanda’s secret, is a touch of almond extract, to highlight the distinctive bright cherry filling.
“Because we don’t cook the filling first, our guests get that individual sour cherry in each bit - still sour in the middle, but it’s surrounded by the sugar. So, you still have a very tart taste. We don’t over-sweeten anything.”
“I’ve been told that I’ve converted people to cherry pie. If you haven’t had a real fruit cherry pie, you get that red glop out of a can, it’s mostly cornstarch and sugar - the cherries, you kind of have to look for them - that’s what people think cherry pie is. And when you get the real thing - it’s a revelation. And so cherry pie has become our most popular pie because it’s my favourite and we’ve convinced people to try it.”
Taking Time Out for Culinary Adventures
Usually, Wanda’s the one playing host, offering a warm greeting to our guests on one of our food tours through Toronto’s must-experience food destinations, Kensington Market and neighbouring Chinatown.
“I like to meet the people who come because you get to meet people from all over the world,” she explains.
The opportunity to sit in Wanda’s shop, hearing her story, eating her recipes, is one that our guests cherish. We’re delighted she gave us the chance to create a moment of discovery for her, tasting taiyaki and hodo kwaja and spending time with the Lee family.
“There’s such a wealth of diversity and so many stories in Toronto. You can never run out,” Wanda offers.