Outstanding in the Field

A table for 120, set at North Arm Farm in Pemberton, BC. More pictures here. Right: full moon over Okanagan vineyards, Meyer Vineyards.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Urban Agriculture: More Fava Beans, Less "Angry Food"

Richmond, BC--Terra Nova is a 100-acre city park just across the Middle Arm of the Fraser River from the YVR airport. Most of the land is a wildlife and nature preserve, but a third of it is devoted to urban agriculture. (A farm surrounded by housing isn't unusual in Richmond, by the way; there are 250 farms inside the municipality. King County has a total of 50.)

Ian Lai, an environmental educator who also teaches professional students at the Northwest Culinary Academy in Vancouver, runs the farm school and related operations here with infectious enthusiasm and a sort of Swiss-Farmily-Robinson resourcefulness: the farm teaches grade schoolers about gardening and agriculture; each kid gets six square feet to grow fava beans, for example. There are p-patches for individuals ($40 a year to rent a 9-by-27 foot space), larger plots for community organizations and food banks, and an innovative program to involve restaurant cooks in the maintenance of the property. (The closest thing in Seattle is the much smaller cooperative farm called 21 Acres in Woodinville, currently building a Green Center for Local Food and Sustainable Living.)

Lai was once a chef himself, so he understands what a lot of people prefer not to talk about. Restaurant kitchens--not all of them, to be sure, but many, many--are staffed by overworked and underpaid cooks who don't really know (or particularly care) where food comes from, except "through the back door and out of a box." The result is what Lai calls "angry food."
So, to replace the ignorance and frustration he encountered with his professional students, Lai began teaching respect and appreciation for the land and its abundance.

Six years ago, he founded the Richmond Schoolyard Society, originally so his young daughter and her classmates could learn about food by growing food; the program has since taken off and now serves 500 children city-wide, and Richmond's most celebrated chefs have joined his board of directors. There are Mason Bees in the orchards, and flour to grind into wheat that gets baked in a handmade oven. Visitors harvest edible wild greens ("they're not weeds, just another form of money"). Lai recylces and resuses almost everything; he'll pickle surplus mustard greens and make wine from the dandelions. Even the meadow of ranunculus--bitter, mildly poisonous--has its purpose: they're a carpet of beautiful buttercups.

Note: My trip to Richmond and environs was sponsored by Tourism Richmond.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Richmond's Vibrant, Tasty Night Market

Top Wok Dim Sum's Mamma Mak and her helper Kimmie at the Night Market

Richmond, BC--This community of 200,000, just south of Vancouver, used to be familiar to travelers as the location of YVR airport. Today it's famous as the home of the largest immigrant community in Canada. Half the people who live here are foreign-born, two-thirds of them Asian. And they have brought with them a diversity of food cultures (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, Filipino, Cambodian, Laotian, Malaysian, Indian, to name just the most obvious) unique to this continent. Noodles, stir-fries, satays, dumplings, teas, barbecues: they're all at Richmond's four-year-old Summer Night Market.

Modeled on Hong Kong's, it's the only Asian-style night market in North America. (I've been to night markets in Thailand, where they flourish as social centers, food courts and shopping malls.) Some 250 vendors set up shop three nights a week in a 125,000-square-foot parking lot between an import warehouse and the North Arm of the Fraser River, just off the Knight Street Bridge. Most of the stands sell "stuff"--cell phone accessories, Samurai swords, cheap jewelry. Its the others, 60 or more, that I've come to see, the ones selling food.

It's street food, of course, quickly prepared and eaten by hand while it's piping hot. Unique food like the dried, salted and roasted squid, at a stand operated by Eddy Lee and his dad Shum Lam Lee; the flattened filet (from Vietnam or Thailand) is grilled, then run through a tenderizing machine that looks like it could be rolling out linguini. There are deep-fried potatoes on a stick that have been spiral-sliced like a slinky, the edges dipped in powdered cheese and drizzled with a spicy ketchup. There are traditional spring rolls and dim sum and sautéed calamari. Tofu pudding, dragon beard candy (yum!), waffle cakes filled with Bavarian cream or red bean paste. William Liu's family has been selling dim sum and gyozas in Chinatown for decades; now his house-made, home-made, hand-made gyozas and shrimp-paste-stuffed eggplant are at the night market as well. Nick and Lin Fan shake up two dozen flavors of bubble tea. Nash Chenpratum grills Thai chicken satay with peanut sauce. Chef James Chen grills beef for barbecued skewers; he wears a microphone and calls out invitations to passersby. The Mak clan from Top Wok dim sum are out in force, Mamma, Joe and Leo, with so many products they have booths on opposite sides of the main aisle. There's even a token Italian vendor doing a brisk business in pasta, meatballs and tiramisù.

The crowd is relaxed, young for the most part, with plenty of backpacks and the occasional stroller. No alcohol is served at the market, no beer garden, no nearby taverns or bars. The only music comes from a performing arts stage between the food stalls and the ranks of tee shirt vendors, where a local teen group called Collabocal performs hip-hop and breakdance routines. It's a very organized, very sober, yet very vibrant version of Bite of Seattle, with more varied food and a much.longer schedule: 17 weekends instead of, gulp, just one.

Here's a stop-motion video of the action--tens of thousands of visitors every night--on YouTube.
This was just the first night of this food tour weekend. I'm here as the guest of Tourism Richmond, and look forward to tasting much, much more in the next couple of days.