A new wave of global cuisine is attracting adventurous diners seeking unique flavours
Just before winter set in, Sonny Choi, head chef of Celadon in Whistler, B.C., drove six hours to Vancouver to fill his car with organic cabbage grown by a Korean. Back in his kitchen, he salted the leaves overnight, then washed them eight times before brushing each one with chili paste. Packed in jars for at least two weeks, and up to two years, the cabbage slowly ferments into Korea’s national dish, kim chi.
One spicy-sour leaf will replace the pickle in one of the 88-seat restaurant’s most popular
dishes, a hamburger. Choi starts with local, naturally raised beef and marinates the patties for two days in his special sauce, which includes a blend of 20 fruits, vegetables and spices. Each charcoal-grilled patty sits on an open-face Italian ciabatta bun, garnished with kim chi, a slice of avocado and butter lettuce and served with fries.
“When I opened three years ago I tried different styles, but my food was speaking Korean to the customers, and they didn’t understand a word,” says Choi, 37, who trained in Korea and worked in Germany and Hong Kong before emigrating to Whistler. “These days, I’m trying to introduce Korean food to Canadians in a way they’re more comfortable. And, it’s working.”Choi’s east-west burger ($19), along with his re-imagined bi bim bap rice bowl ($24), gleaming with
raw salmon, sea urchin and salad greens, highlight the exciting combinations stirring up our culinary landscape, from food courts to fine-dining restaurants.While Chinese food led the ethnic charge decades ago, morphing from sweet and sour chicken balls to fiery Szechuan cooking, a wave of contemporary Japanese sushi, Korean barbecue and South Indian curries now vie for our attention.
CelebratedVancouver chefVikramVij and hiswife,MeeruDhalwala, also use the flavours of their centuriesold cuisine to create new dishes at Vij’s and Rangoli, using fresh, local ingredients. “We never serve traditionalIndian food,” says Dhalwala, “and we never wanted to do another tandoori restaurant. Instead, we decided 16 years ago to have a small menu but make each curry independently with different spices.” The result has been liberating. “When you’re not dealing with an Indian clientele that knows all the spices, it’s fun,” she says.
Vij’s adventurousmains include seared venisonmedallions with figs and khoa (a dry ricotta-type cheese) in pomegranate curry ($27.50) and beef short ribs braised in yogurt, fenugreek and cumin curry ($27). One restaurateur who has followed their lead is Jash Sandhu of Rasoi, in Calgary’s affluentMarda Loop neighbourhood. Sandhu worked with Vij in Banff and credits him with making Indian cuisine more mainstream, even sexy.
“Traditional Indian restaurants haven’t changed their menus since the 1980s,” says Sandhu, whose parents were born in the Punjab. “They haven’t taken into account the trend toward health and cleaner, locally sustainable food.”
Like Vij, Sandhu infuses local vegetables and meat with the flavours he grew up with, accompanied by fine wines. But he prefers amore vertical presentation, inspired by the French chef who opened Rasoi in 2008. “You get one dish, beautifully prepared, perhaps a masala-encrusted rack of lamb sitting on a lamb shank,” he says. “The room is clean and modern, like a bistro; that’s our style.”
Ask chefs where our openness to bold new flavours comes from, and the answer is always the Food Network. “People watch it religiously,” says Reuben Major, director of Culinary and Bar Development for Vancouver-based Earls restaurants. “Their level of knowledge has opened their minds to a wider range of foods.”
Major unveiled a prawn dynamite sushi roll ($9.50) last spring to rave reviews, and he’s planning a lamb appetizer with fenugreek cream for Earls new downtown Toronto restaurant, scheduled to open by March.
What sells depends on where stores are located, he says. Earls’ sushi, for example, is huge inWinnipeg, where it’s not available three times on every block.
Travel to Asia, from business trips to the high-tech capitals of India to university grads teaching English in Korea and Japan, has also contributed to a desire for new taste sensations. Jihyun Lee, whose mother, Yanghui Chae, owns Seoul House in north Toronto, says she’s amazed when non-Koreans walk in and begin ordering in Korean.
Waves of immigrants,meanwhile, continue to leave their mark on our food scene. “Asian food is now as mainstream as Starbucks,” says Toronto chef/owner Claudio Aprile, who considers his inventive dishes at Origin and Colborne Lane a success if they interrupt a conversation. “Toronto is an amazing city because we’re surrounded by phenomenal world-class ethnic restaurants,” he says. “That has had a huge influence on the way people eat and the way chefs cook.”
Aprile’s favourite spice is black cardamom from Little India, which he uses in tomato sauce and as an Indian rub for Cornish hens. His autumn menu at Origin featured paneer and dried-fruit stuffed samosas with tamarind sauce ($7) and curried shrimp with naan bread ($17).
The trend is unstoppable, says Penny Johansen, who owns Whitby, Ont.’s Chatterpaul’s with her Trinidad-born husband/chef James Thomas-Chatterpaul, a master of bold fusion. At last, Johansen says, Canadians aren’t afraid of what their neighbours are eating. “We’re changing palates one bite at a time,” she says.After tasting Chatterpaul’s morsels of lamb simmered in an island-style coconut curry, accompanied by grilled tiger shrimp and chili cilantro-infused rice ($29.95), a 67-year-old customer whispered to Johansen that he’d never eaten lamb or curry before but had loved the dish.
The quest for authenticity has taken chefs from chains such as Earls and Toronto-based Jack Astor’s around the world and into diverse neighbourhoods in their own cities for new ideas. “I love little ethnic places where you’re in the minority,” says Graham Hayes, culinary director at Jack Astor’s Bar and Grill . “I look at what they do and wonder how I can incorporate it. I don’t want to base my entire menu round something you get on a street corner in Delhi, but I’d like to have two or three unique items guests didn’t expect to get at Jack’s.”
When Hayes asked who made the best butter chicken in Toronto, all signs pointed to Amaya. So he formed a partnership with Hemant Bhagwani, chef and owner of Amaya Indian Kitchen and Amaya Express takeout restaurants, another disciple of Vikram Vij.
The butter chicken recipe the Jack Astor’s team developed with Amaya, was such a hit during last spring’s six-week promotion, that it will be launched across the country next month, replacing a Thai coconut curry. “In an average restaurant we’d sell 220 coconut curries a month,” Hayes says, “and we went to 1,300 butter chicken dishes ($16.71) a month.” To capitalize on the success, Hayes is playing with a butter chicken quesadilla with spicy mango mint sour cream, along with butter chicken poutine, nachos and even pizza.
The buzz surrounding Korean food has also reached other Canadian kitchens. Earls’s Major says he’s seeing more pickled cabbage and kim chi in Vancouver’s Asian-influenced restaurants. Hayes also has his eye on New York City, where Korean and Malaysian food trucks are hot. “A kim chi pizza is one idea,” says Hayes. “The pizza dough has sesame oil and seeds. There’s a kim chi mixture on top, mixed with a little tomato sauce, then you pick a topping. It’s layers of flavours, not just one.”
Perhaps Hayes should meet Roy Oh, a second-generation Korean-Canadian who gave up a visual arts career to become a
cook and open his intimate tapas-style restaurant, Anju, in Calgary. Though his mother is a great cook, and he ate plenty of Western food growing up,Oh felt
stifled by Korean tradition and its labourintensive preparations.
Citing chef David Chang, owner of Momo-fuku in New York, as his hero, Oh vows to push the limits while maintaining the Korean flavour in his food. Anju’s pizza starts with organic strip loin steak, marinated in a simple soy, garlic, sesame oil and black pepper sauce ($12). He slices the steak over flatbread, spreads it with a tomato-chili sauce and garnishes it with red onions, wild mushrooms and mozzarella cheese.
“I think Korean food is more evolved in Korea than in Canada,” says Oh. “My parents’ generation is holding on to what they remember when they left Korea in 1970.”
Korean food is also making its way into food courts across the country with quick-service restaurants Koryo Korean Barbeque, founded by Korean-born Jin Ho Lee in Calgary in 2000 and Quebec chain KimChi Korean Delight, created in 2007 by MTY Group of Saint-Laurent, Que.
The Koryo brand now includes 24 stores, mostly franchises, from B.C. to Quebec, and there are plans to open three or four more this year, says office manager, Wing Yan Chan. Bestsellers include Lee’s marinated beef and chicken combo hot off the grill and a side of fresh, deep-fried potato chunks tossed with garlic sauce ($7.99).
But, when push comes to shove, the degree of authenticity of our ethnic food may depend on where we live. As bloggers debate the location of Toronto’s best pork-bone soup, Jeff Merrin, executive chef at Newport Grill, which overlooks Calgary’s Lake Bonavista, faces stiff resistance. “While we want to push people’s palates,” saysMerrin, who lived in Japan for two years and adores grilled beef tongue, “if they find risotto adventurous, they probably won’t eat fish-head soup and fried chicken feet.”
Authenticity is important, argues Aprile, but flavour trumps all. “The most important thing in cooking is that the food tastes good,” he says. “Regardless of whether it stays true to its roots or bends a few rules, all that matters is if people like it.”