The G20 Series: China

16 Jun

By Chris Garbutt

I wrote about China last year, when I reviewed an engaging book by a Chinese-American who sought to work with master Chinese chefs, and learn about the roots of Chinese food (and learn a little about her own roots at the same time). Nothing opened my eyes more about food in China than this one book.

One of the central storylines is the author’s quest for the perfect xiao long bao. Her descriptions of this pork “soup dumpling” had me drooling, and it wasn’t long before I went on a little quest of my own, to at least try them for myself. So Mary and I went with some friends for lunch in Markham, to Ding Tai Fung, on Highway 7 near Woodbine We sat in the crowded bright room, watching the dumpling makers through the kitchen window. When the xiao long bao arrived, our friends showed us how to eat them, using both a spoon and chopsticks. What can I say, it was soup and pork belly in a dumpling and it was great. It wasn’t even the best thing on the menu – that prize would have to go either to the green onion pancakes or the stir-fried Chinese broccoli (I imagine in China they would just call it broccoli…)

It’s just another stop in my long journey with Chinese food. But I would embarrass myself in front of my Chinese friends if I were to claim to even begin to be an expert. Besides, China’s food heritage is so rich and diverse and ever-changing, I’m sure you could write whole books on just one dish.

I’ve done a little Chinese cooking, and the highlight for me was from a wedding present – a book called Beyond the Great Wall by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid. Though we in the West mostly think of Chinese food as what people eat in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, the authors of this book wanted to discover (and photograph) the foods of the people who live in primarily non-Han regions of the country. It’s a beautiful book, worth reading even if you don’t like to cook.

So to thank the couple that gave us this gift, and to try something new, we had them over for dinner and I made some dishes from the book. Here was the menu:

Quick-pickled radish threads (Tibetan)

Sprouts and Cabbage Salad (Kazakh)

Vegetable Hot Pot (Hui)

Steamed Momos (Tibetan dumplings)

I had also planned to make beef-sauced hot lettuce salad (Mongolian), but figured that these four dishes would fill us up, and I was right. Finding some of the ingredients was more challenging than I expected – the most unusual was black rice vinegar, which I actually never found and just substituted regular rice vinegar instead. Seemed to work out okay. And have you ever tried to find a daikon radish at Yonge and Lawrence? I guess I never thought of it as exotic, but in store after store, I was out of luck. Eventually I found a single one in a flower shop that had vegetables in the back. I said to the guy at the counter, “I think this is the only one in the entire neighbourhood.” He replied, “the only one for sale – I have two at home.”


The G20 Series: Russia

15 Jun

by Stephanie Dickison

I love the fact that Russian cooking includes a lot of cuisines.

In The Best of Russian Cooking by Alexandra Kropotkin, soups not only get their own section, it’s early on in the cookbook, which isn’t always the case with North American cookbooks.  I like to believe this is because they place a lot of importance on them.

I also love that there are a ton of both cold and hot soups available.

According to Wikipedia:

“Russian soups can be divided into at least seven large groups:

  • Chilled soups based on kvass, such as tyurya, okroshka, and botvinya.
  • Light soups and stews based on water and vegetables.
  • Noodle soups with meat, mushrooms, and milk.
  • Soups based on cabbage, most prominently shchi.
  • Thick soups based on meat broth, with a salty-sour base like rassolnik and solyanka.
  • Fish soups such as ukha.
  • Grain- and vegetable-based soups.”

Over at Yulinka Cooks, Julia in Wisconsin gives you the low down on Borsch with her Borsch 2.0 entry (note there is no “t” in hers).

I like the decoding of Uzbek Soup in Anna’s Recipe Box.

Schi, a traditional Russian soup, might sound a little hearty for this warm weather, but I say give it a try.

If you live in Seattle, you can learn to make Russian soups like a pro.  But since you probably don’t, you can make some of the soups from The Food and Cooking of Russia by Lesley Chamberlain, discover Russian Food Culture and learn to read Russian menus.

And on your way to Russia, shop here for your authentic ingredients.

In the meantime, Clear Russian Fish Soup with Lime and Dill sounds delightful:

* 8 cups fish stock, clarify

* 1 pound white fish fillets, sliced into 6 serving pieces (salmon fillets are also excellent)

* 6 paper thin slices of lime

* 1 Tablespoon finely cut fresh dill leaves

Bring stock to a boil in a large saucepan. Lower in the fish fillets and reduce heat to low. Simmer for 3-4 minutes–until the fish is just opaque. Carefully lift the fish out and put into flat soup bowls. Pour hot stock on top, squeeze a little lime juice into each bowl, float a thin lime slice on top, and sprinkle with dill. Serve at once.

The G20 Series: Canada!

14 Jun

By Chris Garbutt

How many times have you heard someone say that Canadians define themselves by what they’re not, that to be a Canadian is to be defiantly not American?

I’m not here to argue that this sentiment is wrong, but I do believe that we arrive at the conclusion as a (perhaps insecure) response to our perception that the world sees us as the same as the United States, only nicer, and more polite. We saw this at its worst during the Olympic opening and closing ceremonies in Vancouver this year. (Ugh, how is it that if you spout clichés in the form of slam poetry, we’re supposed to think it’s actually profound?)

Sure, we can conjure images when we think of other countries – Italy? Pasta! China? Dim sum! India? Curry! Middle East? Hummus!

Canada? Maple syrup and back bacon!

I’m here to argue that Canada actually is something, that it has a distinct cuisine, and it only has a little to do with our friends to the south. Herewith, I propose a number of statements to support my thesis.

1. Canada is a country of regional cuisines. From Newfoundland’s toutons, to Quebec’s tourtière, to Saskatchewan’s Saskatoon berry pie, what we eat is highly localized.

2. Canada is a country of international cuisines. Thanks to our embracing of immigration, our food is influenced by dishes that come from almost every country of the world.

3. Canada has a very deep culinary history. And if you haven’t looked, there are books that outline this history. It comes from long before the Europeans arrived on this continent. Aboriginal food, for example the “three sisters” – beans, corn and squash (check out the soup recipe on this page, by the way) – are staples that appear on almost every Canadian table during the late harvest.

4. Our national cuisine is a hybrid of regional, international and historical influences. It’s distinct, but it’s not in your face. Poutine may come from Quebec, but somehow, we think of it as belonging to all of us. (Sorry Quebec, but I promise it’s always best with chicken gravy from a truck somewhere at the side of the road on the Gaspé.)

5. Americans try, but they can’t steal our stuff. For example, in Vermont they claim to be so great at making maple syrup. Well, Canada makes 80 per cent of the world supply. And we also have way more hockey gold medals.

6. And, um, maple syrup is awesome. Seriously. I could drink the stuff out of a glass.

The G20 Series: Mexico

13 Jun

by Stephanie Dickison

Funny, I was just thinking along the same lines as Chris – how the hell do you sum up an entire country’s food in a mere 3-4 paragraphs?!

You can’t.  I can’t, anyway, so I thought long and hard about what sets Mexican food apart for me from the rest of the crowd (I had to fight getting up in the middle of the night to make tacos).

Here’s what I came up with:

Mexican food is perhaps one of the most fun, messy foods to eat.

Tacos and tacitos drip hot sauce and juices from pork and chicken,  enchilada sauce bursts forth from your entree, and ceviches blot your napkin with lemon or lime juice.

Salsas are perhaps one of the messiest condiments, with the water from the tomato or tomatillo and citrus juices making it sometimes difficult to get on your tortilla chip or breadstick.  And when your  fajitas, quesadillas and tacos have salsa on them, just  know that it might take a few tries to get the hang of it and not have it end up on your shirt front.

The good thing about salsa is it is simple to make an outstanding one as long as you have fresh ingredients on hand, and because you don’t have to cook it, it can be made quickly.  The base ingredients include tomatoes or tomatillos, cilantro, onion, garlic, citrus juice and hot peppers.  Some pros say salt and pepper too, but I’ve never done that.  (Hmm, I’m going to try that next time….) I like to chop and mix it all by hand, but many people use their food processor.

One thing I’ve learned over the years is the making it fresh always trumps a store-bought one. And this way, you can make it as hot or mild as you like.  The best way to add heat to your salsa is to remember that:

1.  the smaller the chili, the hotter it is

2. add a little at a time and taste as you go

The other thing I’ve learned is, salsas vary in Mexico, depending on the region.   Northern Mexico is known for its hearty grilled beef dishes, so you want something vibrant to stand up against the heaviness.

In The Cuisine of Puebla by Karen Hursh Graber, Northern Mexican “Drunken” Salsa is the perfect accompaniment.  And she says if you don’t have tequila, an extra 1/4 cup of beer will do just fine.


  • 1 mulato chile, seeded and deveined, soaked in hot water until soft, drained
  • 3 pasilla chiles, seeded and deveined, soaked in hot water until soft, drained
  • 3 large garlic cloves, roasted on a comal or griddle, then peeled
  • 1 tablespoon chopped onion
  • 3 tomatoes, roasted on a comal or griddle
  • ½ cup beer
  • 2 tablespoons tequila
  • 1/3 cup pineapple juice
  • 2 tablespoons dark brown sugar or piloncillo
  • salt to taste


Grind the chiles, garlic, onion and tomato in a molcajete or blender. Add the beer, tequila, pineapple juice and sugar and blend to combine ingredients. Add salt to taste.

Made a few hours ahead of serving, this salsa develops a deeper flavor. Makes 2 cups

If you want to make something from the South, use a smoked jalapeño called Chipotle.  The Aztecs who lived in central and southern Mexico from the 14th to 16th Centuries, came up with the idea.

The only other thing I would suggest is a lot of napkins.

You’re going to need ’em.

The G20 Series: Brazil

12 Jun

Let’s face it, trying to come up with a summary of the cuisines of entire countries in a few short paragraphs is a bit of a Sysiphean task. Nations are complicated places, with regional cuisines that are sometimes foreign even to other parts of the country.

Which brings me to Brazil. The largest country in South America – and future host of both the World Cup and the Olympics – Brazil is diverse both in its geography and its people, and therefore its cuisines. Like Argentina, Brazil produces and eats a lot of beef. Unfortunately, cattle are responsible for the majority of deforestation in the country. Still, there’s more to Brazil than beef.

(And, for that matter, coffee.)

Considered the national dish of the country, feijoada is a stew of black beans and meats. You can make it the old fashioned way by including pork ears, tails and/or feet, but if your tastes are less adventurous, you can stick to sausages, pork tenderloin and bacon. I confess I have not tried this, but if anyone wants a volunteer for tasting their feijoada, you can reach me through this blog!

My own experience with Brazilian food is limited, a fact that I promise to address soon by visiting one of our city’s many Brazilian restaurants. A friend of mine who grew up in Brazil, and who has taught cooking classes for university students with me, once showed me how a bean salad can be made more delicious by adding hearts of palm. She also said she very often cooked with a pressure cooker when she was in Brazil, but when she moved to Canada, she had trouble even finding one to buy.

While cheering Brazil all the way to the World Cup final (my prediction, at least according to my office pool), try some moequeca capixaba (a fish stew); some fried plantain soup; farofa (a toasted manioc meal); or even pan de queijo, a Brazilian cheese bread. And save some for me.

Friday 5 – Pretty Pictures

11 Jun

(photo by Stephanie Dickison)

by Stephanie Dickison

Doing restaurant reviews undercover, I take photos of the dish before me.  It quite often doesn’t resemble the plate on the restaurant’s website.

So today I thought I’d highlight some really amazing food photographers that make food look so appetizing that we drool on our keyboards and race home to recreate what we’ve just seen.

1. Robin Sharpe – If Looks Could Fill

2. Jonah Calinawan – Food Portraits

3. Jackie Alpers

4. Leemei Tan

5. DarioMilano Food Styling & Photography’s Photostream

The G20 Series: Japan

10 Jun

by Stephanie Dickison

Japanese is just about one of the only cuisines I could have every day for the rest of my life.

I like that there are so many aspects to it.  We North Americans are taken with sushi, sashimi and maki, but in Japan there are noodle houses, dumpling houses, tempura delicacies as well as many unusual ingredients from the sea.

You can search for Japanese restaurants outside of Japan to find out where to get authentic Japanese dishes near you and The Japanese Food Report offers lots of pictures and videos.

My favourite Japanese restaurant in Toronto is Daio Sushi (45 Calton St. 416-260-2116 ) which unfortunately doesn’t have a website.  Daio is family-run and really authentic – there are rice paper walls and the servers dress in kimonos.

What it great about Daio is that it is not fancy, so you can go with a group of friends and feel comfortable, and it is not expensive, especially when you consider the ingredients and preparation.

They have items on the menu that many “sushi joints” pass over in favour of cream cheese-filled rolls and other Americanized plates.  Torigarage is deep-fried dark meat chicken served in pieces, Japanese style.  This is the kind of treat you would find in an izakaya in Japan.

Sukiyaki and Shabu Shabu are also available.  These are Japanese hot pots that are incredibly delicious and oh-so filling!

Your server brings out not only the homemade broth and all of the fresh, thinly sliced ingredients, but the heavy  cast iron pot and table-top element to cook it all in.  It says that it serves 2, but 3 or 4 could easily tuck into this lovely dinner.

And if you can’t resist getting makimono or sushi and sashimi, choose some of the more interesting selections that Daio offers, such as Burdock (Yamagobou maki) and Sea Urchin (Uni temaki hand roll).

To make authentic Japanese fare at home, try:

Harumi’s Japanese Home Cooking: Simple, Elegant Recipes for Contemporary Tastes by Harumi Kurihara

Izakaya: The Japanese Pub Cookbook by Mark Robinson and Masashi Kuma

Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen by Elizabeth Andoh

どうぞめしあがれ or Douzo Meshiagare – “Enjoy your meal!”

The G20 Series: Australia

9 Jun

By Chris Garbutt

When I was in the fourth grade, I did a project on Australia, with cut-out pictures glued onto Bristol board and everything. I had all kinds of information about natural resources, demographics, flora and fauna, agriculture and political structure. I’m pretty sure there was nothing about the food. (I do recall, however, a statistic that said there were something like six times as many sheep in the country as people, a figure that I believe still holds.)

I’ve never been to Australia, but I do feel an affinity, simply because, like us, many people from elsewhere think of the country in stereotypes. No Australian I ever met talked about a “shrimp on the barbie”, though I have no doubt they all have had their share of grilled seafood. And thanks to Men at Work, we all know about vegemite. And should we even talk about Foster’s – a okay beer that is actually kind of hard to get in Australia?

Trying to track down an Aussie restaurant in this city is not easy – I still haven’t had any luck. There is the Tranzac Club, which, while devoted to promoting Australian and New Zealand culture in Toronto, makes no mention of cuisine on its  website.

Like Canada, Australia has a large immigrant population, and the government highlights the availability of flavours from Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East. But what is unique to Australia? What is their version of the beaver tail, the maple syrup, the figgy duff? Here are a few things I’ve discovered:

Dim Sim: a fried or steamed meat dumpling, at least twice as big as a Dim Sum dumpling, usually sold in Fish and Chip shops.

Moreton Bay Bugs: a kind of lobster, without claws.

Four ‘n Twenty Meat Pie: it’s, well it’s a meat pie. Often with ketchup squirted on top or inside through a hole in the crust. FYI, it has a Facebook fan page.

Pavolva: a meringue dessert best served with fruit.

Twisties: a crunchy rice snack in cheese and chicken flavours.

Tim Tams: tasty looking chocolate-covered cookies. If you find some, try a Tim Tam Slam!

And don’t forget, Australia is the fourth largest wine producer in the world!

Now I haven’t talked about kangaroo, though I am led to believe it smells terrible when cooking, but tastes like really good beef.

If you’re looking to know how  to talk at your next Aussie dinner party, here’s a lowdown on the lingo. And this government site offers some history, including information on traditional Aboriginal foods.

Think it might be time for a glass of Shiraz – I know I don’t have to look too hard to find that!

The G20 Series: Italy

8 Jun

by Stephanie Dickison

In Toronto, we have so many Italian restaurants that I could review one a week and never have to do one twice.

We are also fortunate enough to have our very own Little Italy, located on College Street from Euclid Avenue to Shaw Street.  This area of the city that became a hub for Italians back in the 50’s,  used to house many of the city’s best and most authentic restaurants, which has now become more gentrified, and as a result, offers almost every cuisine you can think of.

But each year, the Taste of Little Italy (happening  June 18-20 2010) festival celebrates foods that Italians make like no one else.

This year, you’ll be able to eat with abandon from one end of the village to the other, with tomato sauce dripping veal sandwiches, prosciutto and arugula-wrapped bread sticks, sausage and peppers on a bun, arancini (rice balls) stuffed with veal and peas, stuffed eggplant paninis, and because it will mostly likely be incredibly hot out, you’ll want to finish it all off an espresso granita.

That is, if you can find the room.

And while there will be plenty of pasta on hand to indulge, there is much more to Italian cuisine than spaghetti and ravioli.

Next time you’re out for an Italian dinner, try:

Grilled Boneless Sardines, Seared Veal Shank, Beet Risotto, Mediterranean Sea Bass, Buratta Mozerlla, Assorted Salumi Tray andRapini with Garlic and Pepperoncino, instead of your usual bowl of ziti.

The G20 Series: Argentina

6 Jun

Interview by Chris Garbutt

The first stop in our G20 tour is Argentina. We’ve discussed Argentine food before, on the topic of an Argentine-American tradition called Magic Gnocchi Night. But since my own sister-in-law Sophie was in Buenos Aires only a month ago, I thought I would grill her on what she ate on her trip. Here is our brief conversation.

Had you ever eaten an Argentine dish before?

No, but I kept hearing about beef so I was interested in comparing their beef to the Texan beef. It’s all about the beef in Argentina and they enjoy telling you any chance they get. The annual consumption of beef in Argentina is 220lbs per capita.

Did you have any expectations before you left?

I had no expectations, except that I was interested to compare – you guessed it – the beef. And to see what our Texan friends thought.

What did you eat there?

A lot of beef… Aside from what seemed like a typical dish: beef with a side of pumpkin and eggplant that were sauteed or roasted (delicious). On some occasions, the beef or pork or lamb was cooked on an open BBQ pit.

What stood out?

I realize that I speak of beef quite a bit, but the quality really was outstanding. They take a lot of pride in their cattle. Not sure how true this is, but we heard many times that the first settlers arrived with seven cows and one bull and that was the beginning of cattle farming in Argentina. That and Argentines realize that feedlot cattle do not taste nearly as good as the naturally fed ones.

The other thing that stood out was the excellent Malbec wine. There really wasn’t one red that we didn’t like. The whites were very okay. I wish I knew more about wine to elaborate, but the wine tasted great on its own and wonderful with a meal.

The cocktail of Argentina is the Pisco Sour. Pisco is Argentina’s tequila. The drink is made with pisco, egg whites, lemon or lime, regional bitters and simple syrup. Very light, fresh cocktail  that reminded me of a margarita.

So how did the beef compare with Texas? What did your Texan friends think?

The Texans were mighty impressed! Everyone agreed that the Argentines know what they are doing with beef and wine. We all agreed that we’d love to return and make a side trip (a 2 1/2 hour flight) to Mendosa – wine country. And also try the regional cuisine.

Is there anything you didn’t get to try?

I didn’t try enough of the Argentine BBQ. Very famous, open pit with a multitude of meats grilling. Often, you would see the pit at the front of the restaurant, next to the entry, I guess to entice you.

Are you going to try (or have you already tried) any Argentine recipes now that you’re back?

I actually couldn’t wait to take a break from all the beef I consumed, but that isn’t to say I wouldn’t be interested in trying more Argentine cuisine. Our tour guide was asked about fish given that Buenos Aires is situated on a delta that flows into the Atlantic. She said that most Argentines love their beef and she recalls being forced to eat fish once a week growing up. We started wondering if she was working for the beef industry or something, because she went on about it!