Until we moved to Lake Country at the end of August, I’d spent the last ten or so years living in Vancouver, where all manner of Asian cuisine – good and bad, authentic and otherwise – is easily accessible. Take any block in the downtown core and look around; I’d guarantee there would be at least one sushi restaurant or Izakaya within spitting distance of where you were standing. Of course that’s a slight exaggeration, but it’s true that in Vancouver Japanese cuisine takes less searching out than even a Starbucks coffee, which speaks volumes because the city has a farcical overabundance of said coffee outlets.
This isn’t to say that every sushi place serves up a quality product, however. It seems to me that the competition created by the omnipresence of sushi in particular (Izakayas are growing is popularity but remain comparatively fewer in number) is largely one of cost and not quality. The result is that many restaurants offer something along the lines of an ‘All You Can Eat’ or ‘Happy Hour’ menu, which typically features rubbery maki rolls, tempura leaching grease into its parchment-lined plastic basket, freezer-burned gyoza and sad little green salads. I only have experience with the vegetarian selections but I’d imagine the quality of the fish, chicken and beef is equally if not more dubious.
While mediocre bargain menus are somewhat of the norm, Vancouver’s sushi scene certainly isn’t all dire. One of my favourite places (resplendent with crazy hand-written signage advertising various menu items plastering the walls) burned down a couple years ago, taking my favourite dish, a massive soba noodle soup loaded with fresh veggies and tofu, with it. There’s also the world-renowned and super-authentic Tojo’s (no ‘California Roll’ on the menu here), if you can afford it (I can’t). Vancouver’s large Asian population means there are also numerous Thai, Malaysian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Indian and fusion restaurants throughout the city, and these tend to show the same variation in quality, authenticity and price points as their Japanese counterparts. The prevalence of Asian cuisine in Vancouver is easy to take for granted until you move from the city to a smaller, more culturally homogenous, area of the Province and are suddenly faced with a severely parred down selection of not only Asian but ethnic food generally.
The culinary focus in Lake Country – influenced by the many wineries in the area – is largely Mediterranean, and it’s done really well. Routes Grill, Ricardo’s Mediterranean Kitchen, and the Grapevine Restaurant at the Gray Monk Winery have made me lose my mind with their amazing pastas, pizzas, salads and cheese plates. Straying from restaurants such as these, however, and you’re left with the same slim pickings as in any small town: fast food, pubs, dismal greasy spoons and of course, the token Chinese food restaurant. This place – along with a sushi restaurant and a Thai place which I have yet to try – represents the extent of the Asian offerings in the area. It’s also where we made the ill-fated decision to get takeout on the way back from a day at Okanagan Lake a couple weeks ago.
Ever since moving to the area I’ve had to train myself away from the tendency to judge a restaurant by its decor; the places where I’ve eaten the best food here have also had the worst interiors. By ‘worst’ I don’t necessarily mean dive-y (I like dives) but rather a misguided attempt to be ‘tasteful,’ which often comes in the form of throw cushions, gauzy curtains and tealight candles everywhere. In the case of the Chinese place, however, I was well within my rights to have reservations about the meal the lay ahead based on the vertical blinds and nefarious exterior sign advertising a nightly set-price ‘smorgasbord’.
Once inside, I was surprised and relieved to find a vegetarian section on the menu and ordered the Buddha’s Feast and a couple spring rolls. The latter, in tandem with the heavily-battered and deep friend egg rolls and deep fried chicken balls ordered by my fellow diners, turned out to be THE most grease-sodden, jammer-inducing fare I’d ever consumed. Each bite that passed our lips undid any and all attempts we’d ever made at eating healthily, I’m sure of it. It didn’t help matters that we ordered the food to-go, so that by the time we finally opened the takeout containers everything was more overcooked than it had probably been to begin with. My Buddha’s Feast was the standout dish of the lot; if not super flavourful it at least resembled real food. I hardly blame the cooks at the restaurant – maybe they’re simply catering to their regulars whose palates demand the sodium-rich, uber-greasy flavours and textures of American-style Chinese food. Or maybe they were really trying to kill us!
If this was the best Lake Country could do in terms of catering to my stir-fry needs, I was going to have to take matters into my own hands, which is how the recipe here was born. I make no claims as to its authenticity (especially the inclusion of marmalade!), but I promise it contains no MSG and doesn’t require the use of a deep frier. Baby bok choy (currently my favourite leafy green) – cooked quickly to a bright emerald green – is so good with chewy buckwheat soba noodles, and the citrusy, salty-sweet sauce ties them both together. The toasted cashews add a satisfying crunch on top of it all…
Recipe: Gingery Orange-Glazed Baby Bok Choy and Buckwheat Soba Noodles with Toasted Peanuts
Makes 4 servings
- 180g buckwheat soba noodles
- 8-10 florets of baby bok choy, ends removed
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1/4 cup Bragg All Purpose Soy Seasoning (or Tamari)
- 1/2 cup marmalade
- 1 teaspoon Sriracha
- 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
- 1 tablespoon ginger, minced
- 3 cloves garlic, finely sliced
- 1/3 cup cashews, crushed
Prepare soba noodles: Cook soba noodles according to package instructions or until al dente. Drain and rinse under cold water. Set aside.
Prepare cashews: In a small skillet over medium heat, toast crushed peanuts until a rich golden brown. Remove from heat and set aside.
Prepare sauce: In a small bowl, whisk together Bragg All Purpose Seasoning, marmalade, balsamic vinegar and Sriracha. Set aside.
Finish recipe: Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and ginger and saute until soft and fragrant. Add baby bok choy and saute just until tender crisp and bright emerald green. Fold sauce into baby bok choy and stir gently until sauce begins to thicken. Add noodles to skillet and gently toss until coated with sauce. Serve immediately, topping each portion with toasted cashews. Eat!