Original article written for The Vancouver Sun.
It’s not news that Vancouver has been — and still is — a concentrated hub for food inspired by far-flung places. Generations of diversity carry along with them flavours from those countries blended with those of the Pacific Northwest: at times by necessity, at times with surprising creativity, and at other times birthing deviations I’d rather never eat again (Miso cream cheese?).
Even for myself, the inspiration behind Beaucoup Bakery came not only from my time in Paris, but also from childhood summers spent in Hong Kong, working behind the counter of my uncle’s bakeshop selling coconut buns and egg tarts. I absorbed flavours from my family dinner table like the smell of the kitchen on my grandmother’s apron, and it spawned desserts such as black sesame religieuse, a union of my favourite Chinese dessert dumpling and the ornate pastry I first learned to make in school.
A Chinese home kitchen is also where Angus An, chef and owner of Maenam, Fat Mao, Freebird and Longtail Kitchen, started weaving his way through culinary cultures, learning to make ketchup fried rice at the age of seven years old and, as if a rite of passage, working as a busboy at a Chinese buffet through high school.
An’s passion for cooking led him to attend the International Culinary Center in New York City and to work under chefs such as Normand Laprise of Toqué in Montreal. After years in the world of French cuisine, he thirsted for more and travelled to London, dining one night at Nahm, one of David Thompson’s Thai restaurants. There, he tasted for the first time the complex dance between salty, sweet, sour and bitter, and being so utterly humbled, he simply said, “I know so little.” It inspired him to spend more than a year learning from Thompson, meeting his wife in the very same kitchen, and leaving with an understanding of how to “season with texture and layer with flavours,” which he now applies to his restaurants today.
For Berenice Balbuena, chef and co-owner of Molli Café, her culinary education began similarly in a home kitchen, but instead of dumplings and noodles, her grandmother’s table in Mexico held chiles en nogada and romeritos.
Balbuena recalls whole salted cod and legs of Spanish Serrano ham hanging from the rafters and slicing off thin slices as after school snacks, influencing her to explore Spain after culinary school, and to learn under Martin Berasategui of the Michelin-starred Lasarte-Oria in the Basque region. There she tasted perfection, both at its highest level and in the simplest tapas. She applied her knowledge back home at restaurants such as Pujol and El Celler de can Roca, where Mexican and Spanish cuisines married as harmoniously as they did in her childhood home. Years later, lamb barbacoa soup and tacos were delivered to me along with short instructions: “Try this.” The delightful contrast between rich lamb, fresh lime, cilantro and crisp onions surprised me. But not more than the mere hot plates with which she now cooks in the unassuming café that she and her partner, Rafael Flores, built with their own hands.
It’s this passion for food that has touched us which drives us to feed others, and, in turn, ourselves. Takeo Sato, chef and owner of Shibuyatei, makes some of the best ramen in town and an even better scallop gyoza.
Having worked in an array of businesses, from architecture to manufacturing doors, only one thing remained consistent during these decades: Sato’s love of food. He kept one foot in the kitchen despite his day jobs, and eventually threw himself into the search for perfect ramen and gyoza, researching in Hong Kong and Taiwan, testing his creations on any chef that would taste them. When a well-respected sushi chef gave him an approving nod, he went on to open small ramen shops in Tokyo and Narita, with a dream of sharing his food with Canadians. And so he did, settling on Vancouver like An and Balbuena. Why? Because according to Sato, we are a city of open-minded gourmets with “good tongues to eat (with).”
So, after all my culinary travels, my head full of new flavours and cultures, I landed home in Vancouver, and I smelled the lamb tacos and curry udon that had been filling the air while I was away. I had tasted the hams in Madrid, smelled the spices in Istanbul, became a fixture at hip restaurants in New York City, feasted on spot prawns straight from the glacial waters of Bella Coola, and still I was enamoured by the diversity that has made food in my home city so delicious. And naturally I stayed a while longer to eat before I moved on.
Black Pepper Crab
Photo Credit: Hamid Attie
From Chef Angus An of Maenam, Fat Mao, Freebird and Longtail Kitchen
For the sauce
6 tbsp (90 mL) whole black peppercorns
2 tbsp (30 mL) whole white peppercorns
1/2 cup (250 mL) butter, unsalted
3 cloves of garlic
3 red bird’s eye chilies
3 tbsp vegetable oil
1/4 cup (60 mL) oyster sauce
1 tbsp (15 mL) sugar
2 tbsp (30 mL) fish sauce
1/2 cup (125 mL) chicken stock
Toast the peppercorns in a pan lightly over medium heat and add butter when they start to warm. Without burning the butter, continue to toast the peppercorns in the butter until aromatic. Remove from heat and blend the mixture with a hand blender or a mortar/pestle. Pound the garlic and chilies into a paste with a mortar and pestle and fry in a pan with oil until fragrant. Add the peppercorn paste and cook until it smells smoky. Stir in the remaining seasonings. Slowly whisk in the chicken stock to achieve desire consistency. Should be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon
For the crab
1 2 to 3 lb (900 gr to 1.3 kg) crab
1 1/2 cups (375 mL) corn starch
1 1/2 cups (375 mL) water
1 cup (250 mL) green onion, cut into slices
1/4 cup (60 mL) ginger, julienned
1/2 cup (125 mL) coriander leaves
Clean and butcher the crab by lifting the top shell or “apron” off the crab’s body and cleaning off the spongy gills. Save the apron and cut the legs into 4 pieces. Make a slurry by whisking together the corn starch and water. Heat a large pot vegetable oil to at 350 F (177 C) to fry the pieces of crab and a preheat a large wok to stir fry cooked crab. Coat the crab pieces with the slurry and fry for 2—4 minutes and place in the oil carefully. Remove from the pot and stir fry in a hot wok with black pepper sauce and the green onion, ginger and coriander.
Serves 4 people
Chicken and Potatoes in Mexican Adobo Sauce
From Chef Berenice Balbuena of Molli Café
This adobo sauce can also be used as marinade for fish, chicken or pork before grilling.
10 guajillo chilies seeded and torn
1 ancho chili seeded and torn
1⁄4 white onion, sliced lengthwise into 4 wedges
4 garlic cloves
1 pinch Mexican oregano.
4 whole allspice
2 whole cloves
3 tbsp (45 mL) vegetable oil
1 whole chicken in pieces or 4 chicken legs
1 tbsp (15 mL) white vinegar
1 tbsp. (15 mL) kosher salt
7 oz (200 gr) nugget potatoes, washed
Place the chilies in a pot and cover with water. Bring to simmer for 1 minute, drain and discard the simmering water.
Add 2 cups (500ml) water to the pot with chilies again and add the onion, garlic and spices. Bring to a boil and let simmer until onions are translucent. Remove from the heat and blend until smooth. Strain the mixture into a bowl and cool to room temperature, add vinegar and salt.
Heat the oil in a shallow pan and quickly sear the chicken. Add the adobo sauce and potatoes. Simmer with a lid slightly ajar and for about 20 minutes or until chicken and potatoes are cooked through. Serve hot with rice, tortillas or black beans.
Basic Dashi Soup
From Chef Takeo Sato of Shibuyatei
This soup recipe and is the base of many Japanese recipes and can used as a base of any soup noodle or miso soup.
7 oz (200g) dried kelp
1.8 oz (50g) Dashi
4 cups (1 L) Water
Heat dried kelp in the water on low or medium heat. Do not boil, but when small bubbles start to appear, remove the kelp.
Boil the same water and add the Dashi, then lower the heat to a light simmer. Be sure to stir and separate the Dashi. Small white bubbles may form on the surface, which can be removed with a small strainer or soup spoon.
After 2-3 minutes, remove from the heat and remove the Dashi with a strainer to finish. This broth can be made and frozen for later use or kept in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.