By CINDA CHAVICH
The menu reads like Kunming’s Top 10 dining hits – starting with Crossing the Bridge Noodles and ending with sweet, little mooncakes, the sugary filling studded with chunks of the region’s famed Yunnan ham.
Then there’s the handmade pork and shrimp dumplings and big bowls of rice noodle soups, topped with ham, fried fungi and homemade fish balls, or spicy ground pork “Miscellaneous Sauce”.
If it all sounds a little foreign and confusing, never fear. Runyuab (Daphny) Du, proud daughter and cheery hostess at Little Yunnan restaurant in Chinatown, is there to explain her father Cunan Du’s cooking and anything else you’d like to know about her home province in southern China. There’s no stir-fries or fried rice on Little Yumman’s menu, but there are definitely some unique Chinese specialties to taste.
“I just tell people, ‘You have to try, you never know until you try,” says Daphny, noting several traditional dishes – spicy bamboo shoots, salted and picked vegetables, garlicky kelp salad - are small, and designed to share.
Douhua Mixian is another Yunnan specialty, she says, the rice noodle soup topped with creamy soft bean curd and pork chili sauce. And you can finish your meal with their handmade rose petal pastries, Tang Yuan rice balls with black sesame filling and brown sugar sauce, or those sweet and salty ham-filled mooncakes, the Chinese equivalent of a bacon-glazed doughnut.
Whether she’s passing out a binder filled with tourism information about Yunnan province, or schooling diners on the best way to combine all of the ingredients that arrive for your Crossing the Bridge Noodles experience, Du is a one-woman ambassador for this region of China.
And like many of the new immigrants to the city, she’s bringing delicious diversity to the local dining scene.
SMALL BUT SERIOUS
Victoria is a small city, but punches well above its weight when it comes to restaurants. As the local tourism types like to point out, after San Francisco, Victoria boasts the highest number of restaurants per capita in North America.
The natural beauty and killer climate keeps migration to this corner of the country constant, especially from other parts of Canada, so there’s a broad cultural mix.
But the CRD is not Toronto or Vancouver - there’s no busy Little India, Greektown or Italian district to explore authentic global flavours. In fact, a full 80% of Victorians list their heritage as European (while just across the water in Vancouver more than 45% of the population has Asian roots). Roll over the EstateBlock.com real estate map – which identifies ethnic diversity Vancouver and Victoria based on the 2011 census – and you’ll notice a distinctly blue block across Vancouver Island, indicating a dominant British heritage.
There may be no better place in the country for a pub crawl – complete with exceptional craft brews, bangers and mash, or designer Scotch eggs - and we’re blessed with many talented chefs, farmers and foragers devoted to fresh, wild and local island ingredients.
But there’s long been a dearth of ethnic eateries in Victoria. Until now.
We’ve seen an uptick in authentic, global flavours in local restaurants of late, thanks to chefs from around the world sharing their secrets. Restaurants devoted to handmade falafels and pita breads, fresh Punjabi curries, handmade Thai dumplings and crispy Korean fried chicken have appeared. There are Japanese sake flights and Asian fusion tapas, poke and perogies.
Some of these creative cooks are former foreign students and immigrants, who arrived on Vancouver Island for an English immersion. Others are migrants from across Canada, or simply local cooks exploring their own ethnic roots.
When chef David Chung arrived in Nanaimo from Korea more than a decade ago, it was to learn English.
“My father picked it,” he chuckles, remembering his early enrolment at Vancouver Island University (VIU). The idea was that he would return home after two or three years, but he fell in love with the island.
“I love nature – fishing, clamming, crabbing,” says Chung. “I just wanted to stay.”
Soon he was studying to be a chef at VIU, then working his way up through the kitchens in top hotels. A year ago, Chung opened The Persimmon Tree restaurant in Langford, featuring his own refined take on Korean cuisine. Chung says he chose to locate in a suburban mall, rather than in downtown Victoria or Vancouver, to reach Canadian customers with his “Modern Korean” menu, one that marries traditional Korean flavours with fresh, local ingredients, western technique and contemporary presentation.
“Langford is one of the fastest growing cities in BC,” says Chung. “My target customer is English background, and 95 per cent of residents list English as their mother tongue.”
Koreans may find there’s fusion in Chung’s deconstructed seared tuna salad or yam noodle japchae, but the flavours are authentic, as are some classic dishes, from bowls of Bimbim Bab and Korean shortribs, to his savoury seafood pancake, or pork and aged kimchi stew.
Persimmon Tree is the first Korean restaurant in Langford, known more for its big box stores and chain restaurants. But Chung may be part of a new trend, with the recent opening of Taiwanese bubble tea shops, and other innovative eateries here, including the House of Boateng and a second location of the popular Island Poke.
Chung’s refined Korean food draws savvy foodies and Asian diners from the city but has been a harder sell to the Langford locals. He’s redesigned his menu cards to give diners a clear look at the dishes they are ordering, with stylish Instagram-style food photography and detailed descriptions, including GF, vegetarian and vegan choices.
“Ramen and dumplings were the most popular when I first opened,” he says, “because people don’t know what to expect, so they go for something safe.”
“Now, with the pictures, people order the mackerel, the tuna salad and the Bibim Bab.”
It’s still a learning curve for all, introducing a new cuisine, while balancing local tastes with ethnic traditions. To let diners adjust the heat, Chung serves essential additions like chili paste, kimchi or gochujang on the side, which can turn into a problem if diners don’t use it.
“You need to add these things or the dish will be completely under-seasoned,” he says, “but people are scared and careful, because it’s the red chili thing.”
Chung says Koreans may debate the authenticity of some of his dishes – and concedes that his mother’s homemade kimchi, gochujang and miso are more traditional – but he is offering locals a contemporary ethnic experience.
“This is the Langford area and this is Canada,” he says, “and this is modern Korean cuisine.”
Naveen Sharma and Kuljeet Singh bring similar culinary education and acumen to their new Indian restaurant, Royal Spice.
The childhood friends are from the same town in the Punjab region of northern India, both are educated in hospitality and hotel management, and use a modern, systems-oriented approach to manage their large restaurant and take-out business. Set in a central, retail strip mall – straddling the borders of Saanich, Victoria and Oak Bay – it’s a convenient spot for parking and delivery, says Singh.
“Everyone can reach us, from every part of the city, and customers really appreciate the convenience of parking here,” says Singh, adding their on-line ordering and delivery system has boosted take-out to half of their sales.
But it’s the food and friendly service that keeps people coming back.
“The food we are serving is authentic Indian food, using authentic spices and fresh ingredients,” says Sharma, pointing to some of the unique Punjabi-style dishes on the Royal Spice menu. From the creamy Chicken Lababdar and Lamb Handi with chili peppers, to Eggplant Bharta, Shahi Paneer with cashew curry, dried fruits and saffron, and kofta in spinach sauce, there are many interesting dishes to explore. The naan bread arrives hot and blistered from the clay tandoor oven, and the puffed bhatura bread with chickpeas and pickles makes a fast lunch.
Or you can partake of the daily buffet from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m., complete with 33 dishes.
“We prepare food from scratch, everything,” adds Singh. “We have a big team in the kitchen – 24 cooks, including two professional chefs who came from India.”
The partners first joined forces with the former Masala Bites restaurant on Fort Street, then left to open the much large Royal Spice in 18 months ago.
So how did these young entrepreneurs decide to locate in Victoria? Sharma originally arrived just eight years ago to work at the Portofino Bakery while Singh started his Canadian culinary education in Niagara Falls just five years ago and “then I looked for the place with the best weather to live in Canada.”
Victoria’s ethnic eateries run the gamut, from the old-fashioned, family-run “hole in the wall” diners to modern concepts built around trending foods from around the world.
Tacos, falafels, rice and noodle bowls, perogies, tapas, sushi, poke and bao – all are among the global street foods that have evolved into the popular culinary lexicon. And all have inspired independent Victoria restaurants, from Tacofino, Yalla and Bao, to Tapa Bar, Sült Pierogi Bar, Nubo Japanese Tapas, Foo Asian Street Food and Island Poke.
David Lee and his wife Mel Kim arrived in Victoria from Malaysia, via Vancouver, and made a snap decision to move to the island after their first visit 18 months ago.
They immediately secured a downtown location and began constructing their Island Poke restaurant, which opened early last year. Already, there is a second location in Langford and plans for another or even a franchise.
“We came for a holiday and we just fell in love with the city,” says the former sushi chef and carpenter who designed everything, from the eclectic poke bowl combinations on the menu to the thick, Douglas fir table tops and banquettes at the downtown Island Poke location.
With his Korean heritage and Malaysian roots, Lee is unapologetic about his western Canadian take on this Hawaiian staple. His restaurant research took him to poke restaurants in Vancouver, Seattle and Los Angeles, and his mix-and-match poke bar allows patrons to design their own poke bowls, with a base of rice or greens, and a variety of toppings and sauces to complement the marinated, sushi-grade raw salmon and tuna.
“Poke was created by Japanese fishermen in Hawaii and then recreated in California, so it’s always been a fusion food,” says Lee. Though Hawaiians would never add sesame aioli, corn, jalapeno peppers or cilantro to poke, it works for the customers who line up for lunch bowls and nori-wrapped poke rolls at the popular spot.
Other city chefs are channeling their own ancestry in new ways. Chef Castro Boateng was born in Ghana, grew up in Toronto where he graduated from culinary school, and worked at prestigious hotels around the world. But most recently the local chef has opened his own restaurant and catering kitchen in Langford, House of Boateng Cafe. With Japanese-born Chef Motoharu Nozawa, Boateng has created an ingredient-forward menu, that draws on fresh and foraged island foods, global and personal inspiration.
“I’ve been on the island for 10 years and Langford was the first place we moved to,” says Boateng, noting his neighborhood has expanded to include more ethnic eateries, from authentic Thai and Indian to Taiwanese bubble tea. “Most of our friends live buy us – I though, why not create a place where we all can go.”
While the catering menu ranges from family-style dinners to corporate buffets, Boateng and Nozawa draw on their roots when it comes to their Taste of Africa food station, with Ghanaian-style Arancini, African spiced local fried fish and cassava chips, and sweet roasted plantains with braised pork belly, or the Interactive Sushi Station, featuring Tamago with Cured Salmon, Pork and Shrimp Dumplings and contemporary sushi combinations.
“It’s connecting the past with the future,” says Boateng, describing the little Ghanaian “bofrot” doughnut he serves in the café, or the “jollof rice” pilaf, spiced with traditional shito hot pepper sauce, that’s rolled up with spicy cured tuna and topped with crushed crispy plantain for their African sushi.
“Chefs who are opening their own places are making the culinary scene more interesting all the time,” says Boateng. “We’re all doing the things we love and pushing the boundaries.”
For Chef Kunal Ghose, Victoria’s evolving ethnic food scene parallels his own career here. From his beginnings at Red Fish Blue Fish, to the popular Fishhook (now with two locations) and his latest venture, Dobosala Cantina, Ghose draws on his Bengali and British heritage, while riffing on whatever inspires him from around the globe.
“I’ve been cooking for 34 years, and my specialty has always been melding different flavours and coming up with new ideas,” says Ghose, sitting in the sunny space with it’s open kitchen and bike lane drive-thru window for take-out.
Whether it’s his channa-battered pekoras, Tikka Tuna Tataki or Pondicherry Seafood Koftas, the Fishhook menu leans on Indo-Canadian themes. At Dobosala, Ghose has looked around the entire Pacific Rim for inspiration, with rolled tacones filled with adobo-gochujang chicken, rice noodles topped with masala mushrooms, and bao stuffed with achiote-pineapple pork.
“The palate of Victorians has changed,” says Ghose. “People want something different.”
This feature first appeared in EAT magazine