Red Cliffs In My Room

January 29th, 2010 by Dawn Becker

This morning the sun shone brightly into my bedroom lighting up the walls with a golden yellow hue. It was a spectacular way to wake up with the warmth of the sun hitting the bed while I lay safely tucked under my fluffy duvet during this latest cold snap in Toronto. The colours were so magnificent that it was almost a pleasure to get out of bed – well, not really but it helped. It actually reminded me of the first battle scene in the film, Red Cliff.

If you haven’t seen Red Cliff yet you should put this one on your list of must-see films. Red Cliff is an epic movie directed by famed Hong Kong action director, John Woo and stars many Asian superstars such as Tony Leung (Lust Caution, Infernal Affairs, Hero, Hard Boiled, and too many other great roles to name), Takeshi Kaneshiro (House of Flying Daggers), Shido Nakamura (Letters from Iwo Jima), and Chen Chang (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) to name a few.

Red CliffRed Cliff is a period piece that recounts an important battle in Chinese history, the Battle of Chibi (Battle of Red Cliffs), that marked the end of the Han Dynasty. The movie is a true masterpiece of strategy and poetic battle movements shot over the beautiful scenic backdrop of the Red Cliffs. The original movie was so long that they ended up producing it in two parts. Both Red Cliff and Red Cliff II have a running time of well over two hours each so you really get your money’s worth from these movies that don’t let up at all in their pacing. The action sequences are very fresh and exciting and there’s a good dose of humour added to keep it light. It also helps that the actors are talented and easy on the eyes, so the time really flies by.

The characters seem to have been provided with stereotypically inherent Chinese personas such as the profound and thoughtful Chief Strategist Zhuge Liang, played by Kaneshiro, the against-all-odds determination and conviction of Zhou Yu, played by Leung, and the pained angst of the young lord, Sun Quan, who is plagued by unremarkable inaction compared to the warriors in his family history. Sun Quan is played by Chen Chang and is a real role reversal from Dark Cloud, the intense dessert warrior that woos the Zhang Ziyi character, Jen, in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Red Cliff 2

There is a pivotal scene in Red Cliff II involving delicious glutinous rice balls or tangyuan where the generals share their precious few rice balls with their battle leader, Zhou Yu, signifying their loyalty and belief in him. It’s a moving way to show fealty at the precipice of war, all done through food.

You can make your own glutinous rice balls but the ones you can buy frozen in most Asian supermarket are very tasty without the sticky effort.

glutinous rice ball package

I like the Amoy brand, shown above with peanut filling, but they are also available with sesame paste, red-bean paste or without any filling. To cook them, just boil a pot of water, drop the rice balls in and let them boil until they float. They are ready when half of the rice ball rises above the water. If the rice ball is not floating half way above the water the filling may not be completely ready.

glutinous rice balls 2Now you too can create an opportunity for your family to demonstrate their allegiance and adoration for you. Just make sure you boil enough of these goodies to make it easy for them share.

Sauerkraut Made Easy

January 24th, 2010 by Dawn Becker

I have Sandor Katz to thank for encouraging me to make my own homemade sauerkraut. Sandor Katz calls himself a fermentation revivalist. I call him inspiring. He is the author of Wild Fermentation: The Flavour, Nutrition and Craft of Live-Culture Foods which some have heralded as a food classic. It’s not like I’ve met Sandor Katz but I wouldn’t be surprised if I did the way my world is so inline these days. I saw his video on how to make sauerkraut on the same day a beautiful head of firm, bright green cabbage was staring at me on my kitchen counter. What to do with you? What to do?

I’ve always been a big fan of fermented foods like sour pickles, natto (soy beans), kimchi, cheese, wine, soy sauce, miso. The list goes on. I’ve mentioned before that fermented vegetables like pickles and sauerkraut seem to open up my tummy. They definitely aid in my digestion. And you can see from the video above, Katz makes it look so easy to make fermented vegetables, talking you through every step of the way. When I tried it myself I realized he was right. It was truly easy.

As a fairly adventurous home cook, I have a list of do-it-yourself recipes I want to try, like making my own cheese (ricotta, feta, and fresh mozzarella) and my own charcuterie – my neighbour Craig just made duck prosciutto and I can’t wait to see the results in two weeks. So I wasn’t intimidated by the idea of making sauerkraut at home.

Knowing that everyone isn’t as comfy in the kitchen, I want to tell you that this one is completely beginner doable. The key is to squeeze the vegetable, cabbage in my case, till the liquids are well-released and as always when creating any edible item, taste, taste, taste. Try a piece of the cabbage to ensure that you have salted it to your preference before you bottle it. I find that one average sized cabbage will fit into one large mason jar. Homemade Sauerkraut 4

For variation I’ve tried throwing in a few juniper berries to the mix and on another occasion some pickling spices that you can buy at the grocery store. I’d say keep the juniper berries to ten or less, otherwise it gets a little gin taste, which you might like. I prefer to keep my gin in a martini glass. Another time, I tried a purple cabbage with just salt that ended up having a slightly spicy note to it, which everyone loved. I’m looking forward to trying shredded carrots and daikon (Asian radish) some other day.

purple sauerkraut

The best thing is that you control how long you want to ferment your cabbage. While I like it salty and slightly sour, I don’t want my sauerkraut to taste like vinegar. I find that in our climate in Toronto, within the warmth of my condo, I leave my mason jar out to ferment on the counter for two days. Then in the fridge it goes which keeps further fermentation at bay so the flavour stays where you enjoy it.

Try making this at home. It’s a gateway creation to more DIY home goodness. And even more importantly, it’s a healthy addition to your diet… as long as you don’t eat too many sausages with it.

Homemade Cabbage Sauerkraut

1 head fresh green or purple cabbage

2 Tbsp Kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon juniper berries or pickling spice, optional

Remove any old or damaged leaves from the cabbage and discard. Remove one or two extra whole leaves and set aside. Cut the rest of the cabbage into quarters and cut out the core. TIP: If the core is large, chop up the healthy bits of the core (not the stump or anything that looks old which will be bitter) and freeze to add to soup, stew or other slow cooking recipe that will allow the core to cook down.

Shred cabbage with a knife or food processor (I hate to clean so I just use a knife). Place in a large mixing bowl and add salt. Squeeze the shredded cabbage between your hands to breakdown the cabbage and release the liquid. NOTE: If your hands are sensitive you might want to wear a pair of clean rubber or disposable gloves. The salt can irritate your skin. Or use something to pound the cabbage, like a wooden rolling pin without handles.

Once the cabbage has released about a cup of liquid or brine, taste the cabbage to see if it is salty enough to your liking. Add more salt if required. Then stuff the cabbage into a large, clean mason jar and pour the brine into the jar till it reaches about two inches from the top. Fold the reserved whole cabbage leaves to make a kind of cap for the sauerkraut inside the jar. Stuff the cabbage cap into the jar pushing down to submerge the cap and to push out as much air as possible. If there is not enough liquid to cover the cabbage cap, you can make a brine of salt and water to top up the jar or just add plain water.

Place a clean lid on the jar and close lightly. Set jar aside on top of a bowl to capture any liquid that leaks out. Be sure to release any pressure that has built up in the jar by periodically opening the lid. NOTE: The purple cabbage created more gas and needed to have the pressure released more often.

Taste the sauerkraut after 48 hours to test for flavour. Once it’s fermented to your taste, place the jar in the fridge or cellar until ready to use. The cabbage cap acts like a protector from oxidization which can cause mould. I haven’t experienced any mould so like most things, I just eat the cabbage cap once the sauerkraut is ready.

Do Guu Toronto

January 18th, 2010 by Dawn Becker

Guu menuI’m hesitant to write about Guu Izakaya Toronto located at 398 Church Street. If you’ve been reading any of the food buzz lately Guu is the talk of the Tdot. It’s not all glorious, which reminds me how food invokes such passion in people, with some taking their verbal sabres out to draw a line in the sand. After careful contemplation, I’ve decided to throw my hat in the slightly overcrowded ring and add my comment. Here’s my take…

Guu is a transliteration of the word “good” in Japanese. I’m from Vancouver and the Guu restaurant chain has a good reputation encompassing an abundance of good food with good ambience. Guu Izakaya Toronto is in the same vein.

For those who haven’t been to Japan, I usually explain that an izakaya is like a Japanese version of a Spanish tapas bar where the food is plentiful and casual, and the drinks flow freely. Once you understand the concept of an izakaya then it might enlighten you to the experience you can expect at Guu.

I’ve been reading comments and posts online that have complained about the hostesses’ ability, or rather, inability to speak English. Here’s what they need to know. It’s part of the charm! thru the Guu peephole 3If you can’t get over the language barrier, then you’re eating in the wrong place. Stick to your comfort zone and eat in restaurants that have truly westernized the experience for you. Think Mandarin or Spring Rolls. (Sorry, that’s a little snarky.)

Sure we live in Canada but there’s an authentic feel that would be lost in this particular izakaya experience if it ended up being homogenized. What you would get then is something like the restaurant named “Izakaya” on Front Street that failed to hold our attention for long. It’s closed now. That restaurant lacked a genuine izakaya vibe and eating there certainly didn’t transport me to Tokyo, like Guu does. (Shown at right is a close up of a Guu peephole-style window facing Church Street.)

While it might be inconvenient that Guu has selected a hostess with rudimentary English, I wonder if that actually serves a purpose. You can’t negotiate seating selection with someone who doesn’t fully comprehend what you’re saying. This way, everyone is treated the same. No special requests, no favours. Everyone waits in line, just like everyone before them. In a way, it’s kind of Japanese. Not understanding means no refusals.

Another person posted that they were shocked that sushi wasn’t on the menu. Well, if you’re looking for sushi go to a sushi restaurant. Guu is an izakaya. My ex-sister-in-law from Florida was known to complain that you couldn’t find a decent hamburger in France. Comments like where’s the sushi are in the same category to me.

Guu does offer some great raw selections. From the regular menu, you’ll find takowasabi (shown below), lightly blanched baby octopus coated with a wasabi-spiked dressing. You wrap a dollop of the tako (octopus) in the fresh, crunchy nori seaweed strips provided. The balance of flavours is heavenly. As with most wasabi, the heat hits your nostrils as an end note. Before that, you get the saltiness of the nori and sea vegetables, combined with tender morsels of octopus. takowasabi

The salmon natto yuke is a bowl of chopped salmon sashimi with natto (fermented soybean), shibazuke (eggplant pickle), takuan (daikon pickle), wonton chips, garlic chips, green onion and a raw egg yolk. The bowl comes with each ingredient in place and you get the fun of mixing it up with the yolk (shown below after mixing). I could live without the fried wonton chips though. I found the crunch was too pronounced against the smoothness of the primary ingredients, salmon and natto. The dish is described as salmon with “seven friends” so I guess you might not want to leave any friends out, but since you’re mixing it yourself, the choice is yours if you want to eat the wonton chips separately.salmon natto yukeOn the special menu one night, I had uni sashimi from Vancouver. They served two fresh lobes of sea urchin on top of grated radish, along with nori strips and wasabi on the side. The uni collapsed on my tongue releasing a bit of foamy ocean as I closed my mouth.

By the time we ordered oden udon, the oden was sold out. Guu offers an assortment of oden which includes egg, radish, fish cake, tofu and bamboo shoot, that’s been slow cooked in a broth or dashi. What I really wanted to try was the udon, a type of thick wheat-flour noodle. With a little encouragement from our cheering section, Chef Natsu Sugimoto created a custom dish of udon with the oden broth and thinly sliced pork crumbled on top. The noodles were perfectly cooked — silky with a slight chewiness. They were so good my companions and I nearly fell to the floor in prayer. I will definitely order those udon noodles again. I’m privately dubbing them U-DAWN, named after me, of course.

I really enjoy pickles with my meal. I find it opens my tummy up in preparation for what else is to come. The oshinko at Guu is a daily assortment of pickled vegetables. Ours included pickled daikon, preserved cabbage reminiscent of kimchi without the chilli, and sliced cucumber marinated with a sesame oil and soy based dressing. It was like Japan, Korea and China all on one plate.

DSC02152Amongst these hits were also some misses. The hotate carpaccio, thin slices of fresh scallop came with a wasabi dressing as stated in the menu. My disappointment was that the dressing was creamy. I’m not a fan of cream anything on raw fish.

I also had a selection of fried items such as the takoyaki, deep-fried puffed dough balls with a piece of octopus in the centre topped with tonkatsu sauce, a sweet ketchup and Worcestershire sauce mix, and mustard mayo. On another occasion, I tried the okonomiyaki, deep-fried Japanese-style savoury pancake also topped with tonkatsu sauce and mayo. I have to say that both were a failure to me. Takoyaki should have a light, fluffy texture with a creamy interior and a tender chunk of octopus. These were dense and the sauce was cloying. The okonomiyaki was like eating a competition weight frisbee.

I also found the kakimayo below strangely popular. Each order is a pair of grilled oysters topped with spinach, mushrooms (which is not stated on the menu), garlic mayo and cheese. The first thought is Oysters Rockefeller but they really aren’t delicate in that way. They’re okay but nothing special. Same with the gyu carpaccio or beef sashimi. Passable.

kakimayoThere are still a few things I want to try on the menu like the marinated jellyfish and the miso braised pork belly. The daily special menu always holds promise. Just avoid deep fried anything.

Guu Izakaya Toronto provides a true izakaya dining experience, at least as close as you’ll get in Toronto. When you pass through the large wooden door you do feel transported. It’s deservingly popular right now. Go with the right attitude and you’ll be entertained. Remember too that Japan is a culture of polite society, so without getting too preachy on you, try to do the same in return.

ADDENDUM: As I’ve stated avoid deep fried anything at Guu, there is one exception. The karaage, or Japan’s version of fried chicken, is really really good. Crispy skin with juicy, tender meat. Skip the mayo and ask for extra lemon. And finally the last piece of heaven that compelled me to write this addendum, is the sweet miso braised pork belly with boiled egg, topped with green onion and mustard paste. The accompaniments are essential so don’t overlook them. This is truly a mouth-watering dish and the best pork belly I’ve had in the last ten years. That dish alone is worth the wait though I’m definitely biased.

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To…

January 16th, 2010 by Dawn Becker

I regularly use the Maple Leaf Taxi company. When I call them, they keep track of my address so I don’t have to tell them where to come get me. They’re almost always waiting for me when I get to the lobby. And the eclectic group of drivers that I’ve met so far are friendly and polite.  

I have an ongoing relationship now with a cab driver named Gary. Actually he has a relationship with me. Whenever he sees me he continues where he lscan0006eft off in his last conversation, or should I say tirade, about his divorce, his ex-wife and his custody battle for his kids. It’s like a Pakistani soap opera. And I swear he doesn’t realize it’s been three days since I saw him last. He just keeps going ahead with his story without missing a beat. In fact, the last time he started into it through his window, before I even got in the car.

Gary is hilarious. He talks with his hands like a classic movie mobster, which can be a bit unnerving since he’s driving the cab. He also likes to look at me when he’s deep into a rant, which again is a bit unnerving since I’m in the back seat… and he’s driving the cab. I’m not really worried though. Gary’s a pro.

Gary speaks in a rapid-fire style with a sharp staccato rhythm reminiscent of an East Asian auctioneer, if you can imagine that. He is very animated and deeply passionate about the subject of his ex-wife. The last time I called Maple Leaf Taxi I was on my way to Guu to meet Richard. Guu is so popular right now that a line-up is guaranteed so I wanted to go early to get in the queue. And wouldn’t you know it, the driver I get is Gary, so I know I’m in for the ride of a lifetime. It’s a good start to the night.

He says “Dawn, oh I have honey troubles”. And because I’m consumed by food thoughts these days I think that we’re going to be talking about something new, something food, and my ears perk up. “Oh, not honey food, honey babe problems,” Gary says. His situation actually sounds tragic, almost complete denial of access to his two children, a court system that’s slow to take action, and an ex-wife who’s embittered. Gary has a new wife in Pakistan… and two other children, she claims. Gary tells me only one is his. I can’t help but laugh out loud.

The saga continues. I look forward to my next encounter with Gary. I just hope he survives his ex-wife.

Savouring Saveur

January 14th, 2010 by Dawn Becker

If you’re a food person and haven’t been sleeping under a rock you’ve probably seen a copy of Saveur magazine at your local bookstore or supermarket. I’ve been reading it since 1996 and maybe earlieSaveur shelfr. At a glance, the earliest issue I can see is #11. A shelf from my collection of food magazines that I felt were worth saving whole – meaning not just a random recipe cut out here and there – is shown right. It’s mostly Saveur with a sprinkling of others.

I have always loved the way reading Saveur could transport you in scent, sight, sound and most importantly, taste, to any place they were featuring. I love back stories and as I’m reading about the place and the people and of course the food, I picture myself there. And then I start drooling and that’s actually not good if you’re already in your pyjamas, nicely tucked in. Saveur writers are so eloquent their words will literally force me out of bed to cook in the middle of the night. I have them to blame for the extra pounds accumulated from late night feasting. Thank god for low rise jeans!

I have cooked many dishes that were inspired by Saveur. And with topics that are close to home like Issue #100 where they featured Chinese Red Cooking, I know their stories are deliciously accurate. My permanently grease-stained copy of that issue sticks on page 75 where I frequently reference the recipe for hong shao rou, red-cooked pork belly.

I used to put sticky notes on the pages I wanted to remember and then I found that every other page had a sticky note on it. So now I randomly pick up any issue for inspiration. In their latest issue, Jan/Feb 2010 #126, you’ll find their new Readers Edition of the Saveur 100 where all 100 entries of can’t miss items were submitted by their readers and shown in random order. How cool is that?

So we have Peter Battaglia, Tinton Falls, New Jersey to thank for suggesting Porchetta featured as #58 of the Saveur 100. I made minor modifications to the Saveur Porchetta recipe as I am prone to do, adjusting to my taste preferences and using whatever I have on hand.

Porchetta Rolled 3The Saveur recipe calls for crushed fennel. I knew Ozana would be coming over and she’s not a fennel fan so I switched that out for cumin. The recipe calls for 3 Tbsp of lemon zest but I only had one small lemon so I added orange zest as well. Also the pork belly I purchased was too short to wrap all the way around the pork loin so I just put the unwrapped portion at the bottom of the pan when I cooked it.

This Saveur method of assembling porchetta where you wrap the pork roast in plastic wrap, then foil, let it rest in the fridge for a day or two, and then roast at 325 degrees F for a few hours, really does produce a succulent pork roast.

Porchetta c.u

I’m not sure why but the rind was bitter. I wonder if that was due to too much baking soda. For some crazy reason I read 1 Tbsp, not 1 1/2 tsp which you can see left a residue on the rind (shown whole below). Oops! By the time I realized it, trying to dust it off was futile. It happens to the best of us.

Porchetta Cooked better

Thinking back, I did feel leery that the plastic wrap might melt, though the recipe clearly states it won’t. The plastic wrap around the rind was fine but there was some plastic missing on the sides (sorry I didn’t tell you Ozana). I think now it was more likely due to shrinkage as opposed to actual melting. To be safe, I discarded the ends when I sliced it since the ends always cook more than we like anyhow. Porchetta Slicing

So here’s my version of the recipe. You will see that my pork roast is smaller than the Saveur recipe but it was perfect for 6-8 people.


1 Tbsp lemon zest

2 Tbsp orange zest

1 Tbsp ground cumin

8 cloves chopped garlic, more or less as you prefer

2 tsp sea salt

1 tsp freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1 3 lb trimmed centre cut pork loin (NOTE: Not tenderloin)

1 slab pork belly with rind, preferably long enough to wrap around the pork loin

1 1/2 tsp baking soda

Mix together the first four ingredients. Season the pork loin with salt and pepper and set aside. Assemble porchetta by placing pork belly rind-side down on your work surface. Score the pork belly meat and rub the garlic mixture in. Place pork loin on top of the pork belly. Roll it up and tie with kitchen string. Remember not to worry if the pork belly doesn’t go all the way around. If the pork loin sticks out on the sides, slice off the excess. (TIP: Save excess slices and use to make cutlets or cook in a stir fry.) Wrap the porchetta in plastic wrap, then foil and refrigerate for 1 or 2 days.

Remove from fridge about 2 hours before you want to cook it. Preheat oven to 325 degrees F with rack at the bottom of oven. If your pork belly doesn’t go all the way around, place the wrapped porchetta, with the side that has no pork belly at the bottom, in a roasting pan fitted with a rack. Cook until the roast reads 130 degrees F using an instant read thermometer inserted in the middle, about 2 hours for this roast, remembering that it’s smaller than the one indicated in the Saveur recipe. Remove foil and plastic being careful as the plastic will be hot and steamy. Rub baking soda on the skin and broil on high turning frequently, until the rind is crisp on all sides, about 20 minutes.

NOTES ABOUT THE OVEN RACK: The original Saveur recipe actually says the oven rack should be at the bottom third of the oven. My oven rack heights are divided into fourths so I put it at the bottom. The recipe also does not indicate whether you should raise the rack up higher during broiling so I left it at the bottom. It was taking longer than 20 minutes to broil all of the skin to crispy so far away from the element. I compromised on the skin for the sake of ensuring a juicy roast and took it out at 20 minutes, with only two thirds of the skin as crackly as I wanted. Next time, I would raise the rack up to the middle.

Profile: Margaret Chau, Professional Eater

January 12th, 2010 by Dawn Becker

Margaret Indonesia I have been looking forward to posting my first profile here on BananaViews – the idea being to highlight food people that I admire, people who inspire me, have influenced my culinary experiences, and who are simply interesting.

Margaret (pictured left) is one of my inspirations. She lives her life with genuine gusto and lots of it. There isn’t much that will stop her from living like that every moment of the day – not even though she’s been suffering from fibromyalgia, which causes severe and sometimes constant chronic pain, for about half of her life.

Margaret was my Aunt, until divorce made her Not-Auntie Margaret, as we joke about these days since technically she is no longer related. She is also Casey’s mom, a docent at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, an undisputed dynamo in her kitchen, which she inherited naturally from her dad, Henry, who in his 80s is still fierce with a wok. I will share some of his recipes in future.

Margaret is also an avid traveler and has logged more miles in the air than most domestic flight attendants. Her next trip will be in Phileas Fogg fashion – an around the world excursion – and knowing Margaret, she will take much more than 80 days to indulge in all the food choices the world offers her. Margaret Milo Bananas

Margaret is my mentor on how to live life to the fullest. She    has been my guide through good times and bad and most importantly, she is my friend. Margaret and her husband Milo are pictured at right going bananas.

I recently asked Margaret a few food questions. Of course I should have known better than to expect a one word answer from a fellow foodist. Her answers, unedited, below:

1. Last supper question. "If you were going to die tomorrow, what would you want for your last meal on earth?" Hmmmm, I’d have a feast instead of just a simple meal! My 2 favourite words are buf-fet :0) Included will definitely be mangoes from around the world, oysters, prawns, lobsters, Kobe beef, uni, perfectly ripened fruits like strawberries, pears, watermelon, mangosteen, persimmon, coconut, cantaloupe, Hami melon, lychee; “some” veggies, although I can skip them. I’d like to die while eating!

2. Most over-rated food. Very long list! Artisan anything: cheeses from a single cow, or sheep from a single patch, Kobe beef (I know it’s on my last meal wish), organic wine, “raw” food, $15+/lb sea salt, SOME fusion foods, FOAM SAUCE!!!!! Yuck, I don’t want to eat anything that looks like someone spit on my food!

3. Most under-rated food. Another long list! Good, simple, fresh food/fruits: fruits off the tree/vine, fresh green beans, chicken with not much meat but tons of flavour, un-adulterated potatoes; food that tastes like food! I can honestly rant about #2 & #3 since I’ve had all those food items.

4. Favourite breakfast? Mango and/or fresh fruits, with or without nice plain yoghurt, glass of fresh squeezed OJ (preferable squeezed by some hunk’s thighs Ha Ha) and COFFEEEEEE!

5. Midnight snack? That’s almost like a dog’s breakfast for me! Mixed unsalted roasted nuts, good ramen, chicken soup, coffee, hot chocolate, bagel chips; all depends on how hungry I am and how far I have to crawl to where the food is.

6. What’s your favourite food movie? Several. Tampopo, Babette’s Feast, Big Night, Eating Raul, Mostly Martha (German original), Eat Drink Man Woman, The Islands Project (2007 Canadian doc.) etc.

7. What kitchen item can you not live without? Espresso maker/French press. Oh, you mean for cooking?! A good stainless pot, I can cook anything in one pot.

8. How do you take your coffee? Ready for this? Black as the night, strong as sin, hot as hell and sweet (without sugar) as love. Yeah, I like my drinks strong and my men weak ;0)

9. Most memorable meal? Too many to count, some elaborate meals, some simple ones. As far as memory goes, I’d have to say the last “feast” we had with my mother in June, 2009; it was so good to watch her enjoy the food and the company, and to watch her laugh. She died 6 weeks later.

10. What/where do you want to eat next? Next, I want to travel the world for a moving feast. Coming soon to a buffet table near me!!! But first, I’m going to have a pancetta/shallots/red pepper/egg white omelette, and mixed beans salad, with strong coffee all from my kitchen – lunch time!

IMG_3631I’m happy to introduce you to Margaret. She might already know you. As I’ve mentioned, she gets around! We are encouraging Margaret to write a blog during her big global trip. I’ll update with a link when that happens.

Thanks Margaret for being my first profile victim. I hope it didn’t hurt too much.

Hangover Remedy #2 – Latin American

January 11th, 2010 by Dawn Becker

I don’t know what it is about a good hot spicy soup that draws me when I need a proverbial hand out of the hangover hole. I suspect the action of slurping hot soup, the spice hit that brings on a slight sweat of demon toxins, and the burst of perfectly melded flavours that knocks some sense right into your brain, might have something to do with it. And when I’m looking to add qualities like satisfying in my belly and atmosphere that makes you feel like you’re somewhere else, especially not here in this northern hemisphere, then I’ll end up at Tacos El Asador in Koreatown south at 690 Bloor Street West at Clinton Avenue.DSC02279I’ve had almost confrontational discussions with people about the authenticity and quality of food at Tacos El Asador. Firstly, this is not a Mexican resto. It’s El Salvadoran and the offerings will reflect that. It also occurred to me, when I thought about what I usually order at Tacos El Asador, as it is when I eat most anywhere, that I am a “considered eater”. In this case, I mean that I seriously peruse a menu and make choices based on what I surmise to be the best offerings for the location. Granted I do get it wrong. But when I get it right, I will come back over and over and over again for that bit of yum. What can I say? I’m a loyal kinda gal.



So I’m telling you right now, I don’t order soft tacos. I like to eat things I don’t usually make at home. That being said, they have added an “Al Pastor” option to the soft tacos selection which the servers tell me is chopped pork and different in texture and taste to the other menu items. I will withhold final judgement on the soft tacos until I try it. Remember, this is my preference. Cole loves loves loves the beef soft tacos.

The pupusas – a thick, soft, corn biscuit with a variety of fillings and soft cheese which is a creation from El Salvador – are decent, but unsensational in terms of what they could be filled with. They’re a bit doughy for me, but I know that they are extremely popular. I’d say worth a try and see if they suit your taste. I do like the cabbage salad that accompanies the pupusas.

I’m fond of the tostadas which are the open-faced crispy tortilla shells piled high with fresh fixings. At Tacos El Asador they use the term enchilada interchangeably with tostadas. Note that in Tex-Mex terminology enchilada refers to a soft corn taco with beans and other fillings much like a burrito, which is made with flour tacos so it can be confusing. Topped with lettuce, onion, tomato, beans, salsa and whatever filling you choose (avocado and chorizo tostadas shown below), these tostadas are like a salad on an edible plate.DSC02285

Many people shy away from tostadas because they find them hard to eat. I don’t care. Big Macs are hard to eat… while driving on the highway… and shifting gears in a standard car… but I do it anyways… hey, I’m on the road. I gotta eat.

When I’m looking for real down to the toes satisfaction at Tacos El Asador, I order their soup – and almost always pancita (shown below). Here, pancita is a form of Salvadoran menudo or beef tripe soup with a base of chile puree. They serve it with limes and soft tortillas to make a full meal out it.pancita tacos el asador

But I don’t stop there. I usually order a tostada or maybe a chicken tamale (shown below) topped with lots of hot sauce, to really get my mojo back. Funny this – you would think, having studied Spanish, that you would pronounce tamale with an accent on the “e”. Actually there is no “e” in Spanish. The word is just tamal and the “e” added to the end is an English variation.chicken tamale tacos el asadorThe corn tamale is too sweet for my taste but the chicken tamale is perfect. The corn dough is wrapped in a banana leaf which is supposed to give a richer taste to the corn meal during cooking. The ones at Tacos El Asador are savoury with the right balance of meat filling to corn dough. A splash of lime juice and hot sauce are absolute for me. The tamales are a must-try, if they’re not sold out, so get them when you can.

Recovery starts with the first slurp or bite.

A Baby Shower Philippine Style

January 10th, 2010 by Dawn Becker

Filipinos are happy-go-lucky. Filipinos know how to dance – they can all do hip hop in their sleep. Think America’s Best Dance Crew… any season. Filipinas all want to be nannies. Okay, I have to stop now because it’s ridiculous.

This is a perfect time to reiterate that one of the themes of this blog is about my world as seen from a banana’s perspective. Being Chinese Canadian gives me a different lens as it would be if your parents, grandparents and great grandparents were wheat farmers from the prairies. Wait, how did my ex’s family get in here. Switch.

Dispelling cultural myths is one of the overarching goals of my writing. In order to do that, it’s necessary to indicate what these myths are. And I’m saying this now so I don’t need to worry about being apologetic from here on in. Get ready because I’m going to be talking stereotypes, class systems, what people think about newcomers and what they think about YOU! But of course anything that I state doesn’t mean it’s carte blanche true across the board for all. It’s just that these generalizations exist and you won’t appreciate the stories, the nuances, if I don’t state them up front.

Overall, the goal is to tear down walls and spread awareness, as my culture and experience has and continues to shape my being, as it does for you, whether you’re vanilla (yes, that’s you my culturally-mundane white-skinned friends and you know I mean that with kindness) or otherwise.

To continue… Filipinos know how to party. This is true for the most part and hell, if it’s not, Filipino friends I’m telling you to go with it. Those huge gatherings of Asians on Toronto’s Centre Island, laughing, playing games, barbecuing, well they’re not Chinese. Dollars to donuts, they’re Flips (slang for Filipino).

Rowe and Marcus 1

So when Rowena and Marcus, shown left, invited me to their baby shower I knew we’d be eating, laughing, eating some more, maybe happily playing a corn dog game or two, and then eating some more, all with the entire Santos clan. Rowena and I met through friends but I got to know her even better when she decided to run for Toronto City Council in 2006 and asked me to be a part of the campaign team. Some of my favourite friendships now were made back then when Rowena gathered this amazing group of like-minded ambitious individuals who were all movers and shakers. Fe and Papi

Now Rowena and Marcus are temporarily changing course as they wait for Baby Lennon to join us in this world. And to celebrate, Rowe’s parents, Fe and Papi (actually that’s not his name which I can’t believe I don’t know, but it suits Rowe’s dad), shown right, held a shower Philippine-style.

lechon2 The food was buffet and started off with a spectacular Philippine lechon or whole roast pork. The skin is different from Chinese roast pork that you’ve seen in the windows in Chinatown. It’s very crispy but doesn’t have the same thick lusciously fatty crunch as the skin on Chinese roast pork. The meat was tender and accompanied by a mild lechon sauce, usually made of chicken liver, vinegar, garlic and pepper. My first question was “Where’s the hot sauce?”. Rowe looked at me quizzically. No hot sauce. Laughingly, I thought how my taste buds were so accustomed to Sichuanese, West Indian, East Indian, North African and Korean spices.

The buffet featured Fe’s famous pancit, below right, which tastes equally good for both the meat and vegetarian version she makes. A secret between us kids, Fe’s vegetarian pancit noodles are soaked in… chicken stock. Shhh. It’s tough to change ingrained patterns. Quite appropriately to Fe, the ppansit x 2ancit is vegetarian because there is no sliced meat cooked in the dish. I’m sorry, but as a cook, I get her inclination to want to soak everything in chicken stock. Even if you’re an unfortunate (tongue deeply in cheek here) vegetarian I know she’s thinking it should still taste good. Fe’s famous pancit, shown far right, is the classic thinner noodles known as pancit bihon. The thicker noodles featured near right are another version of pancit, which is just the term for noodles blood puddingin Filipino cooking.

I had blood pudding, shown left at back, which was more delicious before second helpings, when I didn’t know what it was. Seriously. I’ve never liked blood in anything. Blood pudding, blood sausage, nose bleeds. Yick. I know, it’s so hypocritical. I eat tripe. I love tendon, bone marrow, pork belly, duck’s tongue!! You really can’t explain preferences.

In fact, I was going to take the pig’s head home because I’d heard from one of the Aunties or Titas that you can make sisig which is made by marinating the unused head of the roasted pig. I was so intrigued I asked Papi if I could win the head as a prize. At the end I was driving Martin back to the city so I thought better than to have a lovely stinky pig’s head in my trunk. Shame. I regret not taking the head now. I really really do.

The vegetable dish in the front was a combination of Japanese eggplant, okra, and a vegetable called malunggay which I discovered later from Papi is very nutritious (upon further research, he was right – high in vitamins, minerals and touted as an antioxidant). This type of malunggay served is popularly called drumstick malunggay in Asia because of it’s shape. It really looks like okra. Despite what Papi said, you really can’t eat the outside of the drumstick malunggay – I guess, maybe if it was really young and tender, but not this one. Instead if you squeeze it between your teeth or cut it open and scrape out the centre, you will be rewarded with a delicious pulp reminiscent of a very VERY soft and yummy artichoke. The leaves are more common so don’t expect to get the drumstick if you find yourself ordering malunggay at a restaurant.

dessertAnd to end off everything there was dessert, shown left. I’m not a sweets fan and I’m allergic to most uncooked fruit. Martin gave me condolences when I told him but I don’t miss it. I love vegetables and I can still eat apples and raw tomatoes, for now. As usual I digress. I can’t tell you much about the dessert because I really wasn’t paying attention. I tried the sticky rice and it was fine, not too sweet, despite what you might think from its vibrant purple colour but whatever… I took home a container of roast pork and the famous pancit, courtesy of Fe. Thanks Fe.

A message to Baby Lennon: You’re one lucky kid. You’re going to have a great life. You’re surrounded by people who love you and support you and they don’t even know you yet. Just wait. You’ll knock their socks off. Love, Auntie Dawn

Can Two Wongs Make A Right?

January 7th, 2010 by Dawn Becker

“Surname?” said the ominous clerk’s voice on the phone.

“Wong” I said.

“Mother’s maiden name?” said the voice.

“Wong” I said.

“No your mother’s last name before she got married” said the voice.

“Wong” I said.

And that would be the beginning of frustration on both our parts. The clerk’s impatience growing while I defended my intellect. Yes, my mother and father both have the same last name. They are both Wongs but they are not related. We are not hillbillies.

In Chinese, the characters that represent the surname Wong have two different looks and different definitions entirely.






The character above represents the Wong on my father’s side. It means “king”.

 scan0004This Wong is from my mother’s side and means “yellow”. In Chinese custom, yellow is a very positive colour representing gold and the sun and was often favoured by royalty. We are, afterall, all yellow fellows.

I’m sure you will believe me when I tell you that I hated my full name growing up: Dawn Wong. Relentless jokes about being the legendary Spanish lover, Don Juan, or dan huang which means egg yolk in Chinese. Or my favourite childhood jingle:

“Dawn, Dawn, leprechaun. Went to school with nothing on.”

Children are cruel.

So even after my divorce I kept my married name. People graciously gave me excuses like how nice it was for me to keep my married name so my boys would have comfort in having the same last name as mine. Who were they kidding? I kept my married name for completely selfish reasons. It has a better ring to it.

Broiled Black Cod With Chinese Pea Shoots

January 3rd, 2010 by Dawn Becker

All I can say is look at this gorgeous piece of black cod. Can food be sexy? I say yum. This black cod was begging to be bought, massaged with a light coating of vegetable oil, placed under the broiler until the skin was crisp and the meat flaked with the lightest touch of my cod slab 2

I was at Bill’s Lobster Fish Market located at 599 Gerrard Street East just East of Broadview Avenue looking for their wild Greenland halibut which is usually a foolproof bet. The best way to score at Bill’s Lobster is to ask the shopkeeper (Bill, his wife, or whichever family member is working) what is today’s freshest selection. They’ve never steered me wrong. And as you can see, Bill’s Lobster offers so much more than lobster and crab. You can even special order what you don’t see on hand.

Bill's Lobster 4

This time the halibut at Bill’s was skinless, not what I was looking for. The black cod beside it was calling louder “take me home – I am delicious”. So that’s exactly what I did. Depending on the thickness and the heat of your oven, you will want to keep a close eye on your fish as you broil it. My oven has a hot spot on broil so I need to move the fish around a little to make sure the skin is crisping evenly. (Oh what I would give for a commercial salamander.)

Seeing as it was an end to two weeks of holiday indulgence, I wanted some lively greens to restore my body to normal functioning. Ha. This is definitely a Chinese trait – as consumed as we are by the food we enjoy, we are equally consumed by… word choices, word choices… the release of consumed food. So to accompany the black cod, I selected some Chinese pea shoots also known as dou miao. It’s important to note that pea shoots available in Asian markets here are not like those sweet little tendrils found in the salad section of your grocer, sometimes going by the name of pea sprouts. One taste of the Chinese pea shoots and you’ll see that they are slightly tougher and closer to watercress in texture. They are best flash-fried in a hot pan with a little oil and very lightly salted. Sauce is to cod w ginger scallion sauce

I topped the pea shoots with the fish as you can see above. Then I heated some vegetable oil in a pan till very hot. I like grapeseed oil because it’s healthier than peanut oil and has a high burning temperature so it doesn’t smoke as fast as other vegetable oil. I tossed in some slivers of ginger, a handful of chopped green onions and minced garlic, stir frying quickly in the hot oil. Just before the garlic browns, remove from heat and add some light soy sauce. Pour this salty fragrant sauce over the fish and pea shoots while it’s still hot and serve immediately with steamed rice.

A big thanks to my sister, Belle, who purchased this ornate plate for me for Christmas, but more importantly because she kept pushing me to do this blog. You can read Belle’s blog too, aka Ms. Bookish.


Broiled Black Cod With Chinese Pea Shoots

1lb black cod filet

1lb pea shoots, rinsed and drained well

2 Tbs grapeseed oil

1/2 inch piece of ginger, peeled and sliced thin into toothpick-sized strips

4 green onions, chopped

4 garlic cloves, minced

1-2 Tbs light soy sauce, depending on saltiness of soy sauce

Preheat oven to broil with rack at the top, about 4” to 6” from the heating element. Lightly coat black cod filet in some oil before placing in oven-proof pan. Broil on high for 5 to 7 minutes checking regularly that skin is crisping but not burning. Move pan around on rack if you experience a hot spot. Fish is ready when the meat flakes easily with a fork or chopsticks. Remove pan from oven and set aside.

Heat 1/2 Tbs of grapeseed oil in a wok until hot. Toss the pea shoots in the oil and fry quickly until slightly wilted. Add a light sprinkle of salt. Spread the wilted pea shoots on a plate. Place the black cod filet on top of the pea shoots.

Heat 1 1/2 Tbs of grapeseed oil in a wok until very hot but not smoking. Fry the ginger slivers until fragrant. Add the green onions and garlic. Remove from heat just before garlic browns. Add soy sauce to pan – be careful, oil will sizzle. Stir gently to combine. Pour the hot oil and soy sauce mixture over the fish and pea shoots. Serve immediately with steamed rice.