Toronto roti, Vancouver style

A perfect evening

A perfect evening

I lived in Toronto for seven years, and there are things about Canada’s largest city I still miss. Simple things, like the sound of the streetcar wires on a cold morning, or the way the thunderstorms lash the old brick buildings with cooling rain on baking summer days. I miss the Herculattes at Moonbeans coffee in Kensington Market, and I miss the hangover specials at Mars Diner in Little Italy. But the thing I miss most of all is the roti, and recently I was chatting with a Toronto expat and she too was craving the hot spicy wraps that Toronto dishes up out of storefronts such as Gandhi Roti, which I have written about here before.
Faced with a renewed craving, I hunted around and found, to my delight, that Indian Roti Kitchen at Cambie and 13th is serving up a really good Toronto style roti, which is a roti bread stuffed with Indian food, in my case a nice spicy malai kofta curry. And the Indian Roti kitchen is delivering a great and reasonably priced roti. I’ve been back, and both times I was very impressed with the flavours, though they could go a little spicier on their spicy rotis. Rotis are a great take-out food, and as I sat on the beach contentedly munching away, I began to get curious about this odd food. In Toronto roti is very common, and is either East Indian, such as the ones they are serving up at Indian Roti Kitchen, or West Indian, usually a really spicy curry. But where did this food come from? Why does it come in two very different forms?
A little research suggests that using a roti as a wrap originated in Trinidad in the 1940’s as a way to serve spicy curries as a fast food. Hummingbird Roti in San Fernando claims to be the first place to do this, but it spread very rapidly. They are also popular in Guyana. The roti bread and the name came to the Caribbean along with indentured servants from India. However the West Indian dish, both curry and bread, is quite different from the East Indian version found in cities such as Toronto. Who started making a Caribbean dish based on Indian bread with typical Indian roti and curry? Likely someone in Toronto, Montreal, or New York, as the dish is found in all of those cities. The odds are reasonable that East Indian roti wraps are a Canadian innovation! As many people online note, roti with East Indian filling isn’t the same as the West Indian variety, but given roti is originally from India, it is an example of a food that has been modified multiple times. Definitely reason for further study!

Trout Lake Market turns 20

I’ve been taking some time away from blogging to work on some other projects, but the 20th anniversary of the Vancouver Farmers’ Markets deserves some celebration. It is hard to imagine how much has changed in Vancouver’s food scene since 1994. At the time there was no mechanism for direct sales in Vancouver, and so the small band of farmers, crafters, and community members who set up in the parking lot of the Croatian Cultural Centre were technically breaking the law.  The idea of local food was still radical, and the idea of using parking lots for anything other than cars seemed a little crazy. I imagine that those first steps into a market culture felt anything but certain.

The cake was bursting with local berries!

The cake was bursting with local berries!

Oh how much has changed. VFM is a multi-million dollar non-profit operating a growing set of bustling markets that operate on nearly every day of the week. We have a winter market, a holiday market, and highlight the best local foods of the region. The market has helped feed a culinary rennaisance in Vancouver. Kale and arugula and rare cultivars of just about every fruit and vegetable are now common, but twenty years ago Vancouverites had to make do with a shockingly poor selection of farm goods on offer at the big grocers. Food trucks prowl our streets, giving us an alternative to fast food. The markets have helped create social spaces in our notoriously insular city, drawing people out to mingle and picnic. The markets have encouraged the restaurant scene, which has grown exponentially over the last decades, driven by a more adventurous public and cutting edge chefs.

Ultimately, what the market gave us was choice. VFM didn’t single-handedly reform Vancouver’s food scene, but it was an important piece of the puzzle in a general resistance to the boring, limited diet offered by the food system of the late 20th century. Vancouver’s markets rank as some of the very best in the world, largely due to their dedication to the pillars of quality and locality. A hub of innovation, the markets continue to evolve; the introduction of craft alcohol sales promises to highlight the exciting and growing worlds of brewing, winemaking, and distilling in our region. New foods continue to debut at the market, and we are reaping the rewards of a growing urban farm population alongside of a new generation of conventional producers. 20 years in, the sky is really the limit. So happy anniversary, VFM. Here’s to the next 20 years.

The Nanaimo Bar reveals some sweet secrets

A homemade Nanaimo Bar. Mmm.

A homemade Nanaimo Bar. Mmm.

I love Nanaimo Bars, with their combination of bittersweet chocolate, creamy sweet custard, and chocolate Graham Cracker base. I know they aren’t likely the healthiest food, and the dominant flavour is “toothache sweet”, but I grew up with them, and I am proud to call them a Canadian food. However the actual origin of this treat has been somewhat of a mystery, and so I decided given I am a Canada Research Chair in food I should get to the bottom of things. My student Shea Wind and I spent months raking over archives (and yes, sampling to keep our spirits up) and have largely brought the pieces of the puzzle to light. Our results, and a lot more on Nanaimo Bars, are out in a new article in the first issue of Canadian Food Studies, which is open access. Enjoy, but beware that an article about Nanaimo Bars can elicit certain…cravings.

Rhubarb Butter Tarts

Given its national distribution and historical staying power, rhubarb should take a place with salmon and maple syrup as one of our national-level foods. We are into the heart of rhubarb season, and I am finding all sorts of ways to slip this sour treat into pies and crisps. Last night I stewed some with onions and made a salad, and I have been giving small bags away as my patch produces far more than I need.

A delightful rhubarb butter tart. Where have these been all of my life?

A delightful rhubarb butter tart. Where have these been all of my life?

The trouble with rhubarb is its acidity, so I am always on the lookout for new ways to capture and mediate its flavour. The best rhubarb recipe I have encountered this year was being offered by the Tart Cart at the Victoria Public Market; a rhubarb butter tart. I love butter tarts, but they are pretty sweet, and of course rhubarb isn’t and together the flavours blend into buttery goodness. This is an all around great combo, and goes to show why markets are such amazing places; encountering new and interesting foods is a huge part of the market experience.

Two generations of tart cart folks serving up sweet goodness at the market

Two generations of tart cart folks serving up sweet goodness at the market

Inspired by the tart, I decided to make a butter rhubarb flan for the weekend, and I found a few recipes for rhubarb butter tarts drifting about the internet. The trick to baking with rhubarb when making treats with shorter cooking times is a form of par-boiling; the rhubarb is chopped, covered in boiling water, and allowed to stand for five minutes. This softens the rhubarb enough to be tender after a short cooking time but maintains the shape of the chunks. The result is pure deliciousness, so this rhubarb season I urge you to chase after the Tart Cart and try this interesting and very Canadian treat.

The Beavertail

The Beavertail donut might not be made from Canada’s iconic and hardworking little dam builders, but it is a tasty treat that has spread nationally and then globally in a short period of time. I was in Ottawa last week to give a Walrus Talk, and I had enough extra time to spend a little time in the Byward Market district. I finally managed to get a nice photo of the original Beavertail shack, and enjoyed one of these tasty Canadian treats.

Mmm. Donuty!

Mmm. Donuty!

The Beavertail, which is a registered trademark, is a rare example of a food where we know exactly when and where it was created, and who the chefs behind the creation were. It was developed and popularized by Grant and Pamela Hooker in the town of Killaloe, which is near to Algonquin national park. They sold the first ones at the local market, but knew that the sweet treats were a hit, and opened a stand in Ottawa a few years later. Beavertails are sold in many of Canada’s recreational landscapes, places such as Whistler, Blue Mountain, and the Halifax Waterfront. They are a festive food. The best way to eat a Beavertail, however, is while skating on the Rideau Canal, a quintessentially Canadian experience.

Beavertail 2

The toppings are varied, though I am partial to the maple glaze. There are savory toppings as well and one of my friends insists on the lemon glaze. In any case they are best eaten hot, particularly on a cold day. In Quebec they are known as Queues de castor. Though the Hookers claim the recipe comes from their family’s German background, there really isn’t any similar treat that involves sweet flavours in German cuisine that is quite like this. Keekla is similar but is almost always served wrapped around meat, rather like pigs in a blanket. And one doesn’t roll a Beavertail! So this quirky Canadian icon would appear to be made in Canada, and the Hookers can be proud in adding something new and distinctive to our cuisine. And Beavertails are certainly good with a hot cup of coffee!

Prince Edward Island potato fudge

One of the stranger foods I found in my travels around Canada was Prince Edward Island potato fudge. This confection uses potato to replace the dairy in a traditional fudge recipe, and gives the fudge a light and fluffy texture, without leaving a taste of potato. I’m not a real fan of fudge, but this one was nice in moderation, and it was also vegan.

Potato fudge, cut to resemble potato chips

Potato fudge, cut to resemble potato chips

There is no real mystery why I would find potato fudge on Prince Edward Island; the potato has been grown on the island since 1758, as the climate and soil is absolute perfection. The first potato patched were planted among the tree stumps of the newly cleared forests; the farmer could gather a crop several years before they could force a plow through the soil. Once a French colony, once in the hands of the English PEI saw a rush of Scottish colonists who survived almost entirely on potatoes and cod. From humble beginnings PEI potatoes became famous, and today large scale producers export potatoes all over the world. Over 500 farms touch almost every aspect of island life, and potatoes are celebrated with a potato blossom festival in O’Leary every July. I didn’t catch the festival, but I managed to take in a potato fudge making demonstration at the potato museum in town, which celebrates all things potato.

A potato field waits for planting

A potato field waits for planting

I can’t say for certain where potato fudge comes from; it is made in many places in North America, though it mustn’t be confused with Irish Potato Candy, which is neither Irish, nor made of potatoes (it comes from Philadelphia). PEI also makes and sells chocolate covered potato chips, though to be honest I didn’t like them as much as the fudge; the taste of the oil lingers on the chips, and goes poorly with the chocolate. So I will stick with O’Leary potato fudge, which is an underrated dairy free snack!

The potato museum

The potato museum

The origin of birthdays

birthday

My birthday was two days ago, and I managed to celebrate a little even though I had to give a final exam. Most of the celebrations involved food, and I started thinking about how odd birthdays are. Why do we celebrate them, and where did these rituals come from?

It turns out that birthday celebrations arose in Greek and Roman times, and that the lighting of candles in particular honours the pagan God of the day of our birth. So the date didn’t matter quite as much as the day itself. And of course our days of the week are still named after pagan Gods; Sunday is named for the Sun, Monday is named for the moon, Tuesday is named for the war God Tiu, Wednesday is named for Odin, Thursday for Thor, Friday for Freya, and Saturday for Saturn, the Roman God of agriculture. I was born on Saturday, which seems oddly appropriate. No wonder I spend so much time trying to preserve agricultural land.

Early Christians had a bit of a problem with lighting candles to strange Gods, and so birthdays were banned until at least the fourth century, when the celebration of Christ’s birthday began to be observed regularly, and the tradition spread once again through most Christian lands. That explains the candles, but the cake came much later; it really wasn’t popularized until it was taken up by those wonderful Victorians, who jumped on any excuse to eat cake. So here is to Saturn, God of agriculture, who probably would have supported the Agricultural Land Reserve. And thanks to my lovely partner Katherine for the cake!