A primer on Canada's culinary scene
By PERVAIZ SHALLWANI
Let's face it, Canada may be a close neighbor, but most of us still are pretty clueless about what's going on up there.
So with the Olympics kicking off in Vancouver on Feb. 12, we reached out to a host of people who could give us a quick primer on the Canadian culinary scene.
"The bottom line is that any diverse city that has an ocean and a wine-growing region will have unique things," said celebrated Vancouver chef Vikram Vij, whose Indian restaurant Vij's is regarded as one of the best South Asian restaurants in the world.
Here's the cheat sheet of what you need to know.
Vancouver is a particularly international city, with numerous cultures — and their cuisines — represented. Pick from near-endless options for Chinese and Indian fare to more obscure amalgamations such as Aburi-style sushi (seared slivers of seafood infused with French sauces).
German-born master charcuterist John van der Lieck and wife Christina are a good example. Their once mostly Eastern European shop — the Oyama Sausage Co. — now produces more than 350 sausages and dry-cured meats, including German, Polish, French, Spanish, Ukrainian, Asian and South American variants.
"We started with a very small palette of products and then it just ballooned in the first few years," said Christina van der Lieck. "People come and say my grandpa made this sausage. Can you make it?"
So they do. It's not everywhere you find kazu — pork neck dried and cured with kazu (the mash of sake), leaving a tender bite and a sake flavor.
CANDY, WITH A TWIST
Big candy makers know that tastes in sweets vary across cultures, so expect Canada's candy counters to look somewhat different than those in America, said Steve Almond, author of "Candy Freak," a book about the candy industry.
He suggested a few Canadian candies to look for.
• Coffee Crisp — a chocolate bar with a coffee cream, chocolate and wafer-layered center.
• Smarties — basically M&Ms in pastel colors and a harder, sweeter shell. They're also available in Europe, but Canada is the closest they get to the U.S., said Almond.
• Big Turk — a chocolate bar with a pink jelly center. "It would never work in the United States," Almond said. "Come on, jelly?"
POUTINE: YOU DECIDE
This guilty pleasure of extra-crispy french fries, meaty gravy and cheese curds has been called the national dish of Canada.
"It's primarily associated with Quebec, but we have plenty of restaurants that serve poutine in British Columbia," said Christine van der Lieck.
It's a favorite after a late night of drinking.
In Vancouver, Asian restaurants such as Pings offer their own take on the dish with a topping of vegetable curry and cubes of the cottage cheese-like Indian curd paneer.
WEST COAST WINES
We know that the West Coast in the U.S. is great wine territory. British Columbia is no different.
While some might think Canada is too cold to produce wine, in cooler climates such as Germany, wineries flourish near temperate water regions, says wine writer Kevin Zraly, who included Canada for the first time this year in his annual "Windows on World Complete Wine Course."
"(British Columbia wines) have come a very long way, actually, in a very short period of time," he said.
The majority of Canada's wineries are near Lake Ontario in Ontario and the Okanagan Lake in British Columbia. British Columbia is Canada's fastest-growing wine region, with the largest number of wineries. Zraly said 2005 and 2006 vintages are good bets.
The inlets along Vancouver Island are prized for their beautiful oyster beds, which are framed by soaring spruce trees and snowcapped peaks, said Rowan Jacobsen, author of "A Geography of Oysters."
"It's just a spectacular area," he said. "It's the last place of native Olympia oysters in the world."
Unlike those in the Puget Sound and Willapa Bay, the island's southern sisters just across the border near Seattle, British Columbia oysters are a little more homogenous in taste, writes Jacobsen.
"You won't get overwhelming or strange flavors from many (British Columbia) oysters, just a little salt, a little sweetness and, if you pay close attention, often a green-apple candy note."