I ran into some conflict at work the last time I created a dish that fused together two cultures. I was serving a ‘chicken pho sandwich’ similar to a french dip but with all the usual pho ga fixings: chicken braised in a medley of charred onions, ginger and earthy spices, bean sprouts, thinly sliced white onion, thai basil, cilantro, and even a mayo flavoured with sambal oelek and gf hoisin.
on the morning I was prepping this dish, I got a text from one of the store owners. it was a screenshot of an instagram story from a stranger who was furious: ‘STOP THE BULLSH*T, WTF is a chicken pho sandwich?!?’. disheartened, I knew I had to reach out and open myself up to feedback.
I sent a message asking what exactly upset her so much and her reasoning was, ‘because you don’t have noodles or soup in your dish, you’re not allowed to call it pho’. that she’s sick and tired of people stealing her culture’s food and making it their own.
understanding that she probably feels underrepresented in the community, I tried to explain my side of things as I also grew up asian canadian.
food is my art and dishes are my medium of expressing my narrative. I grew up in toronto, a cultural mosaic where everyone is gifted the opportunity to live and share their own experiences. I was lucky enough to try foods from all over the world and as I matured as a chef, it was exciting to combine ingredients and flavours that were not conventionally paired before. sure, my food isn’t ‘authentic’, but by no means was I ever trying to be. what the hell does that word mean anyway? the idea of how something should be because it has always been done that way?
I asked her what I should have named my dish instead and got the most unsatisfying response. ‘I don’t know, just be mindful of your word choice’. do I have to name my dish ‘vietnamese-inspired-rice-noodle-soup-braised-chicken-on-baguette’ for people to be happy?
why are people so set by predetermined boundaries? what’s wrong with connecting experiences and creating new ones?
I’m honestly grateful this happened to me as it really defined my role here as a chef. I am determined to shake up the food scene in kw, to open the discussion, and to expose people to a new outlook on food.
anyway, there’s my spiel and here’s a really delicious hybrid food that I don’t know what to name because it might upset somebody. but I’m proud of it and want to share it. pandan is known as asia’s vanilla and adds an amazing nutty note to the coconut milk and corn, contrasting well with the brightness of the fresh herbs and raw veggies.
1 small can (165mL) coconut milk, preferably aroy-d
1/2 tbsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
2 pandan leaves, tied into knots (usually found in the fridge or freezer section of an asian grocery store)
4 cobs of corn, husks on
1 red bell pepper, small diced
1/2 red onion, very thinly sliced
1/2 jalapeno, brunoised
any of the following: mint, basil, green onions, cilantro, chopped
In a small pot, heat coconut milk, sugar, salt and pandan leaves and bring to a low simmer. Do not let boil. Heat for 15 minutes on low heat. Turn off heat and set aside.
On a grill or in a pot of water, cook corn cobs with husks on for 10 minutes. Dehusk.
On a cutting board, cut off corn kernels with a sharp knife. In a medium sized mixing bowl, combine corn, bell pepper, red onion, jalapeno and herbs.
Transfer seasoned pandan coconut milk into a squeeze bottle and drizzle onto the salad, or drizzle with a spoon. Mix to combine and portion out immediately.
Best consumed in August when corn season is optimal!