Wednesday, June 18, 2008

For those who don't know better: a taste of Vancouver culture

I was joking to Dag the other week, in the midst of what has been a very cool and wet May and June, that now that the earth is cooling, the massive religious energy that has gone into belief in global warming is fast turning into a religion of agricultural crisis; chaps like Dag and I will now be told how evil we are for being a little overweight, for eating the wrong things, etc.

And then came today's news. I don't know whether to admire the entrepreneurial risk-taking of a restaurateur who wants us to eat insects, starting with crickets, or write this off as another Vancouver lotus liberal who will get famous for telling the world what's good for them.

Feeling a little cynical right now, I must say my own experience with our much-hyped local restaurant Vij's suggests to me that people really don't know what's good for them. In addition to regular dining, Vij's offers a very popular take-out Indian food business which features small boilable bags of decent, but not extraordinary curries, at a hefty price. One could eat just as well and cheaper elsewhere, and get stuffed.

But the wealthy West side of Vancouver has been told countless times that Vij's is the culinary cutting edge, the new "Indian" cuisine, and they happily pay the price. If you ask me why, it is because Vij's is exceptional among Indian restaurants not so much for the food but for creating an image of Indian food and lifestyle that transcends ethnicity. It is the sign of an officially "multicultural" city that doesn't really like traditional cultures though maybe it likes their food and a few other cultural elements (yoga, say). And it's a city that likes signs that Indo-Canadians, or whoever, are no longer just immigrants running traditional immigrant small businesses, but are now into high-end, shiny postmodernist digs. When you're paying big bucks for some spiced-up chick peas, it's a way of saying we're all equal and adapted to each other now. Yuppiedom uber alles.

But now comes the big test:
Vij's restaurant, Vancouver's pride and gastronomic joy, is moving into a brave new world. Next week, it will start to serve insects in some of its dishes.

Meeru Dhalwala, the chef and co-owner with husband Vikram Vij, has decided to introduce insects as a green cuisine. She wrote about her plan in a recent piece in The Vancouver Sun.

She argued that insects can provide an environmentally positive, healthy protein and an occasional alternative to meat, if only we could tackle the yuck factor.

Green cuisine or not, cooking with insects is a bold move for a restaurant known for its sophisticated food and regarded as a top-ranking go-to spot for the famous and the foodies. Vij's will certainly be the only high-end restaurant in North America I know of that cooks with insects.

Dhalwala hopes to thwart North America's instinctive disgust towards ingesting insects the way a mom disguises broccoli in her child's food.

In the first baby step, she will start serving crickets by roasting them and grinding them into cricket flour. Then she'll make a spicy paratha, an Indian flatbread, with the flour. After that, she's thinking of moving on to grasshoppers. Tiny ones, mind you. She's thinking of roasting them with lemon and cayenne.

Crickets and grasshoppers are arthropods, the same class as prawns and lobsters, she points out. "If you're allergic to prawns and lobsters, there's a slight chance you might be allergic to crickets and grasshoppers."
"I'm not proposing we quit eating meat, but simply adding insects into our diet," says Dhalwala. "I have a complete yuck fear factor, too, and I thought, who better to do something with this than me? I know my food. Maybe I can figure out a way to serve healthy cricket dishes that taste great and don't offend."

At Simon Fraser University, Jeff Joy, a PhD student in the evolutionary biology of insects, responded enthusiastically to the news of insects on the menu.

"Yeah!," Joy said. "Insects are fantastic for human consumption. In a lot of the world, insects are important to diets and supply protein people otherwise wouldn't get. I can't think of any reason it would be unsafe to eat, especially if it had chocolate on it. I'm definitely going to go and try it out." He's eaten grasshoppers (chocolate-covered) and enjoyed it.

Dhalwala says 2,000 crickets would make enough paratha for 12 people. (They sell for $12 a serving.) "Crickets are so good for you," she says. "They're actually healthier for us than meat. They have three times more iron than beef, way more calcium, is low in fat and is super-low in cholesterol and aren't raised with antibiotics."
Vancouver, she says, is the only market where she'd try something as daring as insects on the menu. Husband Vikram Vij totally supports her on this, she says. "He loved it. He said as long as I do it with a lot of dignity and we don't humiliate ourselves, he's totally supportive. He's super-proud to be serving these now."
No doubt she's trying to flatter Vancouverites' sense of themselves; but on the other hand maybe this really is the only market where people can't get enough of what should be good for them.

That's one of the reasons Covenant Zone holds meetings every Thursday night, 7-9 pm, in the atrium of the Vancouver Public Library, Central Branch, in front of Blenz Coffee. We try to keep a conversation going where you will not be endlessly told what's good for you. We're into freedom, which means a preference for showing over telling. Join us if you can. We will be there tomorrow, I suppose, as long as we still have our feet.


Vancouver visitor said...

Next, they'll serve grass as the new cuisine.

Findalis said...

In my state if there are insects in the food they shut down the place as unsanitary. Maybe the Health Department should do that to this place.

Anonymous said...

Personally I love Vij's. Vikram is an amazing chef and he has created a really great culture around his restaurant. What concerns me is that he and his wife are really messing with that culture. I am pretty adventurous (have eaten ants and wichity - spelled right? - grubs and other strange foods ... but that doesn't mean I want my favorite upscale restaurant serving them. It actually turns my stomach and makes me want to avoid it. I am going to suck it up though and go there to see if that feelings lasts. I think it is way to big a risk on their part ...

Dag said...

I recall breaking a window with a Bret Easton Ellis novel, American Psychopath, hurled it through the glass when I got as far as the central character taking his friend to an upscale restaurant and feeding her chocolate covered urinal bars, which she pretended to enjoy. Yes, it was supposed to be satire, but it was a one line joke gone too far. As is our culture these days. There's only so much grinning and pretending the intolerable is tasty. It is disgusting.

I've eaten all kinds of things I wouldn't care for had I the choice. I ate what locals ate, and often because otherwise there was only death to chew on. I was in a war in Jugoslavia where people lived in fear of being killed to the point they stayed hidden till hunger drove them outside to find food in spite of being shot. They ate what hey could find. Not an exotic dining experience, just staying alive long enough to eat. Damn these people who trivialize genuine torment and starvation. I've eaten bugs and stuff that would make people puke, that kills the weak, and I've been grateful for it because it's kept me alive till better things came round. To pretend it's good, that it's wonderful, that one should do, that makes me angry. We have so much food, and such good food, preserved and packaged and protected, grrrr. I hate people who complain about our beautiful abundance. Let them die like real poor people and terrified people. Let them bury children ever day of every year, dead kids because of filthy food and water. There is no end to Western sentimentality. I could spit!

Findalis said...

Hey Dag, when do I get your next report?

I've eaten bugs when local customs demanded it. But I really don't like incests in my food. And yes I have eaten raw fish (Sushi is a favorite of my family), lobster, shrimp, crabs, and also water buffalo, zebra, and giraffe (which is kosher). I prefer a good beef steak to a grasshopper (although the kind you drink are nice). And chicken to vulture. But I will eat anything edible if push came to shove.

For the record: Giraffe tastes like very gamey beef.

Anonymous said...

"chaps like Dag and I will now be told how evil we are for being a little overweight, for eating the wrong things, etc."

I actually saw an article in the newspaper about 10 days ago blaming overweight people for global food shortages because they not only consume more than their fair share of food but of the fuel needed to truck it to them.