Monday, September 26, 2005

Word on the Street

The annual Word on the Street festival took over library square in Vancouver yesterday afternoon. I had once been a participant in the event, when I was an editor for a book of animal stories contributed by people throughout British Columbia for the SPCA. Local celebrity and pretend editor Vicky Gabereau hosted the book's launch at the festival, along with my friend Steve Huddart, an SPCA executive and the book's originator. It's the kind of event that's probably more fun to be in than to be in the audience, although it was kinda fun drifting through clouds of loudly spoken prose and poetry from microphones and tents that intrude upon one's walkery like PT Barnum-basted dreams.
The first author I actually paid attention to was Evelyn Lau, whose autobiography my daughter enjoyed reading in high school. Seeing Sandra Oh recently in Sideways, it was somewhat alarming to remember her as the teenaged prostitute in the MOW CBC did of Evelyn's book. Later I turned Monique onto an article by Evelyn in Vancouver magazine about her unpleasent sex life with ancient and overly-famous "boyfriend" WP Kinsella. She still writes poems lamenting her inability to wrest the famous author from his wife. For a writer who boasts endlessly that no man is immune to her vast sexual charms, she looked surprisingly fat and ugly (Not the same thing). Maybe these men that find her so alluring are characters of her heated imagination. Thankfully, she read little.
Later, an even more famous author, Joy Kogawa appeared in another tent and read from something. She seemed to remember details of a house she lived in 60 years ago more than what was happening right then in the tent. Her novel Obasan is one of the few novels that has actually altered the political landscape (think Uncle Tom's Cabin, and, uh.....), bringing redress at long last to the Japanese Canadians stuffed into chicken coops (she described them vividly) during the great racist Tsunami that overcame North America after Pearl Harbour.
Also caught a few verses from muscular, old, and famous to those who read, Geroge Bowering. I was hoping to hear Lyle Neff read. He used to write for a magazine I used to edit- more of that on my site coming soon. But instead I wandered up the street to my usual Sunday meeting with the aptly named Sunday Club. I told the two women who were there first about Word on the Street and they seemed incredulous that people actually read books. They had both read the book To Kill a Mockingbird and discussed it warmly, as it may indeed be the only book they've read since reading was a required activity in their school days. I was going to mention that one of the characters in Mockingbird was modeled on Truman Capote, a childhood friend of the author, Harper Lee, but I seriously doubt the two women would have any idea who Capote was. Capote once reviewed On the Road: "that's not writing, that's typing." But Kerouac and the Beat Generation writers will be read long after the last Capote book turned into dust and vanished from all known memory. It is my contention that On the Road hero Neal Cassady (star of my play Neal Amid) changed the English language in the same way and with the same intensity that Jackie Robinson changed baseball. We are all able to communicate better than we were before Neal turned Jack Kerouac on to the possibility of communication. And have a lot more fun doing so.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

The Flavour of India

India obviously has many flavours, at least as many as Indian restaurants in Vancouver- a true multitude. The Flavour of India was an old favourite in North Van, particularly when we lived around the corner from it. A year or so ago, I noticed an ad for The Flavour of India in the local North Shore newspaper, informing its fans that it had a new chef, from an upscale Fusion place in Bombay, and a new menu to go with the new owners. And truly fusion it was. What could be more Greek than Calamari? But it magically morphs into exquisite Indian cuisine, with a subtle pantheon of flavours that enchant the happy person who orders it. I've also enjoyed the eggplant. But both of these fine dishes seem to taste differently every time I eat them here. Not a bad thing, but somewhat confusing.
Visitors from Japan and our regular restaurant companion Steph joined us for a fine meal last night. I celebrated with a new dish- an amazingly refreshing cucumber and pineapple salad, which I really needed to put out the fire of Fumiyo's eggplant. Yes, the same eggplant I'd loved here before, but Fumiyo ordered it "Medium Spicy" which to my pallette is like being served The Sun. She was quite happy with it, as she was with her Dal and Rice, though she would have preferred yellow lentils. Her old student Eichi ordered Tamarind Prawns with maximum heat, and found them incendiary indeed. Eichi's mother enjoyed her prawns at a somewhat lower termperature but I tried neither of them, fond as I am of prawns. Steph pronounced her butter chicken "average," quite different from when she last ate butter chicken here.
I dived into my highly scenic calamari, mixed superbly with chunks of red and green pepper and topped with slivers of ginger and parseley with such a long stem it seemed to demand being put in a vase. The cuke salad was a most welcome refreshment as well as the perfect combination to the calamari which even without the superb salad tasted differently than when I'd had it before. A particularly intriguing aftertaste. I felt like Sherlock Holmes in India, trying to decipher what it was. Stuffed as I was from Fumiyo's Gyoza I had filled up on for lunch, I couldn't eat much of my meal, and discover to my delight that it tastes just as good as leftovers today.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

A toast to Taste of the City

My old friend Frank and I attended Vancouver's 3rd Taste of the City yesterday at The Plaza of Nations, part of the old Expo 86 site. The bottom picture is my last Samubuca prawn from Rossini's, also the source for Frank's Jamabalaya- much tastier than Fumiyo's at Ouisi's, along with some superb pasta. The top picture is Frank's daughter Leah and my daughter Monique at Expo 86 nineteen years ago. I ended up waiting in line for the bouillabaise and prawns from Oasis as long as I had to wait to get into the more popular pavillions at Expo 86. After I finally got the long-awaited tidbits, Frank and I attempted to find seating by stepping over some stair-benches and I spilled half my long-savoured prawns. The one I didn't spill was pretty good though.
Among the tastes we enjoyed were watermelon topped with Dungeness crab- just as refreshing as it sounds from Ch'i. An Alsatian pizza- onion on top of a pastry, which the server told me was addictive. Perhaps she has an addictive personality. The dilled lox from the same place, Feenies, was just as refreshing as the watermelon thing. I savour shrimp as much as Monique used to, and the Sambuca prawns were the best. The worst was the scampi on a skewer from Temp-tations, a cooking school very much in need of a taste teacher. The ratatouille on a piece of micro-toast from Observatory at Grouse Mt was also excellent. Frank had never had this classic French veggie stew before but it's a staple in my kitchen, usually served on top of Yaki-soba, a Japanese-Chinese noodle dish.
Frank had eaten at C before and raved about it but they only featured some deserts at this event. He sampled some Indian food without me and we both avoided the offerings from Cassis, an excellent and cheap French bistro we were both quite familiar with. I also avoided The Mouse and Bean as I've already sampled its fine Mexican fare. The idea was to have something NEW.
My last food tickets were exchanged for a delicious bite of smoked salmon from O'Douls which reminded me a lot of the lox I had at a reception for Stephen Hawkings when he lectured in Vancouver in the early 90s. It was so good I didn't even mind Steve running over my foot in his wheel chair, on his way to get some more. If I were stuck in a black hole with such food, I wouldn't mind at all. No matter either.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Ouisi Come, Ouisi Go

We heard that a local New Orleans-style bistro called Ouisi was giving 15% of the price of its trademark Jamabalaya and Gumbo to New Orleans relief. Sounded like a good excuse to go there and try Real New Orleans food. We'd had New Orleans food in Japan, which was exquisite, but that's true for food in general there. Surely a city as famous for its food as New Orleans would be a great culinary treat. Or so we thought.
The menu was intriguing enough. Divided into Cajun and Creole specialities, one of the Creole dishes was an asparagus and roasted new potato salad tossed with jasmine-tea marinated sour cherries, smoked gouda, candied pecans and grapefruit-fennel vinaigrette. We're not in Disneyland's New Orleans square anymore! Too bad we didn't order that.
I was delighted to see Sangria on the menu. Much less so when it was actually in my glass. It tasted like a smoothy (heavy on the raspberries) over which someone had whispered the word "wine" a couple of times.
For appetisers, Fumiyo ordered the crab cakes and I went with the blackened tuna. The tuna thankfuly wasn't totally burnt. Beneath the skin, the tuna was pulpy, which made it ideal to soak up all the pineapple and red pepper it came with. Fumiyo's crab cakes were much spicier, but where was the crab? We've had a lot of crab cakes over the years- most of the better fish shops in Vancouver make their own and they're always excellent. I'm sure it wasn't immitation crab but exactly what was in them remains a mystery. Where is Sherlock Holmes when you need him?
My gumbo (from an African word for okra) arrived looking like a large brown ocean next to a small continenent of rice with some green tree-like substance growing in the middle of it.
Fumiyo's vegetarian Jamabalaya looked like a continent of rice next to a continent of vegetables.
We dug in.
The gumbo tasted strongly of earth. Earthborn, but not detached from the soil. Inside the earthy stew were fish, vegetables and probably meat. I slightly recognized a scallop, but it was heavily disguised. What was that flavour? Its overall overwhelmingness is finally punctured by a fishy taste. Crawfish? Something strong enough to cut through the gumboness and identify itself as "fish." Neither good nor bad, just kind of heroic in a culinary literary sense.
I sample a mushroom from Fumiyo's Jamabalaya. It reminded me of an escaped prisoner, or slave. Spartacus, perhaps, trying to start a rebellion. A sprig of parsely was its key to freedom.
Fumiyo complained that the whole meal was tasteless and she attempted to rectify this misfortune with pillars of salt. My gumbo continued to attempt to escape, only to be constantly sucked down back into the mud.
The music was mellow (not exactly New Orleans style jazz, but good for digestion) and went well with the art work on the walls, mostly portraits of jazz musicians. The meal was not expensive and it was for a good cause. But as we left, Fumiyo insisted "no more strange restaurants."

Monday, September 12, 2005

Natural Gardens Tour

Seemed like a colourful way to spend a sunny afternoon in North Van. Also very instructive, and inspirational.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Hon's Noodle House

Our Japanese friends the Miyoshis used to live in Vancouver, in the same building as Hon's Noodle House on Robson street, a street crawling with restaurants, money, and the trendy young. The Miyoshis cook with the best ingredients and eat at the kind of restaurants you have to be very rich to even know about in Tokyo, so I expected their chosen noodle house would be very good.
The ambience of the place reminded me of countless university cafeterias I'd been in, as did the prices. Could the luxury-soaked Miyoshis have really made this their regular eatery, as Fumiyo insisted? I wasn't sure if I'd been to Hon's before, it reminds me of so many other vast, cheap and somewhat institutional places I've been over the decades. We are with Steph and her Europe-bound roommate Junko and Junko's boyfriend Yohei. Both Yohei and Junko work in a restaurant in Vancouver and have a professional interest in food quality.
The five of us order six dishes, and they all arrive at once. They are immense. Lined up on our table, they look like air craft carriers lined up for the battle of Midway.
I had ordered the mango scallops and a mushroom dish. Steph wanted the beef with crispy noodles. And they were complemented with mabudofu, a tofu meat stew that's a staple of Japanese Chinese food, fried rice from the same JC menu, and sweet and sour deep friend prawns, which could have been on any menu of any Chinese restaurant in Canada.
Each dish was perfectly prepared. The vegetables were just crispy enough to compare with the crisy noodles and benefit them both. No cuisine does mushrooms better than the Chinese, to my tastes and this was no exception. The prawns seemed delighted in their sweet and sour situation. Was this the first time I've had prawns in this sauce, instead of the usual pork or chicken? Hard to tell.
Small towns in Canada, and even large cities used to (perhaps still do) have predmoninantly Chinese restaurants. The earliest memory I have of eating out was a Chinese place in Yorkton in the early 50s; a town then as now not top-heavy with restaurants. When people in other countries have asked me what is typical Canadian food, I say Chinese. Noodles, meat, vegetables, rice. What more could you want?
I have had very upscale Chinese food in Vancouver but this was more the kind of food I knew from childhood, and poverty-stricken university days. Filling. Satisfying.
I had definitely never had mango scallops and things before but it tasted very familiar. It's the sort of dish usually done with pineapple, a fruit the Chinese have perfected combining with assorted animals. The scallops tasted like scallops, they weren't overwhelmed by the sauce, but more... entertained by it. The mango as juggler, Jughead and Mudhead.
Fumiyo used to make a lot of fried rice and this tasted like hers. In fact, everything in the restaurant had a home-cooked quality. Not a hint of fusion. No mango-peppermint martinis. Not the place you'd take a date to. Quickly it dissolves into deep layers of memories of eating very similar food over long periods of time. After finishing the meal, I feel like what a Sumo wrestler looks like. I might need a crane to help me up. A thousand cranes, perhaps.