How Asian food has become the star of Canada's culinary scene
When food lovers visit Vancouver, the often have several kinds of Asian cuisine on their must-try restaurants list. From the dim sum and regional delicacies of China as found in Richmond, to the city’s ubiquitous fresh, affordable sushi, and a new emerging generation of modern-classic Vietnamese eateries, Vancouver is enjoying an explosion of Asian flavours.
In fact, Chef Angus An of Maenam in Kitsilano believes it’s Vancouver’s Asian food that is putting the city on the global map as a food destination. “I think Vancouver has some of the best Chinese food in the world. Certainly some of the best Cantonese food. Our Japanese, and Korean food is always at a high level too. Izakayas and ramen bars are everywhere. I think on an international level, our Asian food is definitely leading the pack,” An tells Daily Hive.
Elsewhere across the country, Asian food is rising in prominence; while the strip mall cheap eats aren’t going anywhere, those “Americanized,” (or “Canadian-ized,” if you insist) staples exist in tandem with fresh, bold, elevated, contemporary Asian restaurants.
Canada is undoubtedly a nation that is in search of a culinary identity–at least one that goes beyond poutine and All Dressed chips. Canadian chefs, and home cooks, draw from centuries-old traditions in the kitchen, and regionalism has a heavy hand in determining ingredients.
Still, waves of immigrants continue to adopt Canada as a new home, and Canadians immerse themselves in cultures abroad, and when those influences come to the dinner table, the result is often exciting food from eclectic perspectives.
Montreal’s Chef Antonio Park is perhaps one face on Canada’s culinary scene who best reflects in his biography and eponymous restaurant the diversity in our food scene. Park spent his childhood in South America, but is of Korean heritage, and has lived in Canada for a long time. He cooks Japanese food fueled by Latin and Korean touches.
“What I really am is a messed-up Latino with kimchi in his blood who is seriously in love with sashimi,” he jokes on his restaurant’s website.
“The food is really my background, it’s really who I am,” Park tells Daily Hive via telephone. “I want people to be able to see who I am, to be able to share that with people.”
In Toronto, Nick Liu of the acclaimed DaiLo shares a similar sentiment. “A lot of dishes we serve at DaiLo I learned from a place I visited, a country I cooked in, or dishes from my childhood. To be able to bring back those techniques and flavours is the story I can tell about those cultures,” he says.
Liu continues: “I’m a Canadian born Asian. I’ve also trained in fine dining French cuisine all my life. I also lived in Italy to learn Italian cuisine for a year. I’ve traveled to Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Australia to learn and experience they’re culture and food. All of what I learned and experienced in the culinary arts are incorporated in my cuisine.”
An offers a similarly tangled origin story for the intersection of his food and his background:
“I’m Chinese (born in Taiwan) Canadian (raised in Maple Ridge) who learned French food and then accidentally fell in love with Thai food. (Complicated enough?) I try to represent who I am and what I love without confusing people—after all, it’s about putting good food on the table, so most of my dishes have a little of everything I grew up with.”
Good food indeed: An’s Maenam was named “Restaurant of the Year” for 2016 by Vancouver Magazine–some 20 years since an Asian restaurant had last nabbed the honour–and a Gold ranking for Best Thai.
An credits his initial exposure to Thai food to working in London under Chef David Thompson, but says his connection to the food and culture didn’t solidify until he spent time in Thailand. “It is essential to travel the land to breathe the air, to fully understand the landscape, and that way we can fully appreciate the food of that culture,” elaborates An.
But lately the conversation in media has turned to the notion of cultural appropriation: Do you have to be from a culture to cook its food?
“I don’t touch food that I don’t know the culture,” offers Park. “I don’t think that’s right to do either. I only do the food that I grew up with, what I have a passion for.”
Liu, however, leaves the door open for chefs from other cultures mastering Asian cuisines:
“I think it helps to be a part of a culture to cook it well. If you’ve been brought up around it all your life it tends to rub off on you. For example I’ve been making noodles and dumplings since I was 5 years old. I’m pretty sure I make a better dumpling than someone who’s been cooking Asian cuisine for 5 years…But than again their are some chefs that I look up to who aren’t Asian who are killing the game!”
For his part, Park may look the part, but his connection to his food goes far beyond skin-deep. “Well I look Asian,” he laughs. “I’m a camouflage,” says the chef who considers himself firstly South American. Oh, and Canadian. “I’m not only Latino, because I’ve lived in Canada all these years.”
Canada also happens to be a relatively young country, and, yes, it’s a cliche to say we’re a “melting pot,” but it also happens to be true. It’s no wonder many of our best chefs turn to their heritage, or the rich heritage of other cultures, for culinary inspiration.
“Asia has some of the oldest cultures and traditions. Most of the cultures in Asia are heavily rooted in food,” remarks An. “It’s easy to look back on history when it comes to food, and when you look back on Asian history, it’s full of food and cuisine.”
And in turn, Canada has become more full of food and cuisine, much of it Asian.
“Diners today are much more knowledgeable about Asian food than they were 20 years ago. Some of it has to do with travel, some of it has to do with the fast growth of our Asian restaurant scene,” offers An. “Let’s keep this up and continue the growth—the more knowledgeable the diners are, the better the food will become, because they will demand it.”
Count Liu in Toronto among those who are watching our culinary history unfold with excitement: “I love the direction that Asian cuisine has taken in Canada. I hope to see more Asian chefs do their thing and create #sickasianfood.”
Taste the flavours of Asia through the culinary talents of Angus An, Nick Liu, Antonio Park, and over a dozen more top Canadian chefs at EAT! Vancovuer 2016. All three chefs will take part in the exciting collaboration dinners, and will join their peers for the all-star Harvest gala. Tickets to all the EAT! Vancouver events, including the Harvest event and the Dinner Series, are available online.
EAT! Vancouver 2016
When: October 4 to 7, 2016
Where: Various locations
Tickets: Available online
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