When I was younger, the Danforth was Toronto. As a twelve-year-old growing up in Northern Ontario, I didn’t know anything about the city. All I knew was that my childhood best friend, Hannah, lived in Greektown. Every once in a while, I would take a Greyhound bus to the city to visit her. The trip was very stressful for me—the bus station at Bay and Dundas was always packed and disorienting, and the subway map was anything but straightforward.
But when I arrived at the Danforth, everything became familiar and comforting. I loved Hannah’s house, which was a tall and skinny building with lots of windows. As a kid who was just entering her Greek mythology phase, I loved the Greek street names and artwork. And, most of all, I loved the Greek food I ate when I visited.
Spanakopita (spinach pie), tiropita (cheese pie), souvlaki (skewered meat), gyros (meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie), tirokroketes (fried cheese balls), and loukoumades (honey balls)—I loved it all. Especially the honey balls, which are fried dough balls soaked in honey. Hannah and I would go to the same café to buy a dozen of them when I arrived and again when I left so I could take them with me on the bus home.
Once Hannah and I went to university, there was no reason to visit each other at her parents’ house. And when I did visit Toronto, there was never any reason to go to the Danforth.
That is, until I entered a program at Centennial College. The campus is about a block from Hannah’s house. Although everything was virtual due to the pandemic, I wanted to go see what the campus looked like. One Saturday, I took a forty-minute subway ride to Greektown with two goals in mind: 1) to see my college campus, and 2) to eat as many honey balls as possible.
When I got to the Danforth it was not as familiar as I remembered—my memory was hazy, after so many years away. I wandered the streets for a long time, hoping I would recognize the old café I used to visit. Eventually, I Googled “Honey balls Danforth” and it was the first café that popped up: Athens Pastries. It had the same yellow storefront with green and blue tiles around the windows. And the honey balls were absolutely out of this world.
Honey balls—or loukoumades—are fried balls of dough, about the same size as a Tim Hortons Timbit, traditionally drizzled with honey and cinnamon. Loukoumades don’t take much to make. All you need is all-purpose flour, dry active yeast, salt, and water. And, of course, honey.
In Greece, they are the oldest recorded dessert, with the Greek-Sicilian poet Archestratus describing deep fried donuts soaked in Enkrides (a honey syrup) in the 4th century BCE. The dessert also appeared at the first Olympic Games in 776 BCE. Winners were served what were called “honey tokens,” which match the description of the loukoumades we know today.
Loukoumades also have roots in Turkey, Persia, and Egypt. The Arabic version of honey balls are called lukaimat, the difference being that the fried dough balls are soaked in a sugar syrup, instead of honey. In Italy, the popular dessert struffoli are also loukoumades look-alikes. They are fried dough balls about the size of marbles, which also are soaked in a sugar syrup—struffoli, however, add honey to their syrup mixture.
In case you’re curious to try them—and I highly suggest you do—here are two places you can find loukoumades on the Danforth. My absolute favourite, Athens Pastries, and Lukumum, which puts a twist on the classic Greek dessert.
Athens Pastries opened in 1978, in what is now the heart of Greektown. Today, they also have locations on Victoria Park Avenue in Scarborough, and Coxwell Avenue in Toronto. When they first opened, Athens Pastries set out to provide Toronto with authentic Greek street food by way of pastries made with light, flaky phyllo dough. The café uses original Greek recipes which have their roots in Northern Greece. All products are made from scratch, using fresh ingredients that are locally sourced as often as possible. Athens Pastries provides you with the classic loukoumades (spelled “loukoumathes” on their menu) with no frills attached. And, in my opinion, they are still the best loukoumades on the Danforth.
If you’re looking for a twist on the old classic recipe, then Lukumum might be the place for you. Lukumum is a café that primarily advertises its Leonidas chocolates, which are Belgian sweets. But they are also well-known for their dressed up loukoumades, which they fry up right in front of you, so they are fresh and hot as you eat them. There are dozens of options for loukoumades toppings, including Nutella, apple crumble, double chocolate, lemon raspberry, hazelnut, toasted sesame, s’mores, sugar and spice, and more.
Athens Pastries and its loukoumades feature in some of my earliest and best memories of Toronto. Even when I taste them today, I remember exploring the unfamiliar city with honey-coated fingers and my best friend.
Greek food and Greektown have incredible history, cuisine, and culture to offer—whether to those exploring the city for the first time or to regulars of the Danforth. Next time you’re in Greektown, try the loukoumades and remember the rich and impressive history behind the rich and delicious treat.