Tasty snacks go well with TaiwanFest fun

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Two words pretty much sum up street food in Vancouver: hot dogs. But those who stroll around the Plaza of Nations during this weekend’s TaiwanFest will get a peek into an alternate culinary landscape. The festival will be offering street food common in Taiwan to transport you back to the island or let you get to know it for the first time.

One such beloved dish is the oyster omelette. “It’s very much like a hot dog to the West—a quick bite,” says Charlie Wu, executive director of TaiwanFest, which runs Saturday to Monday (August 30 to September 1). In Taiwan, he says, “You can find oyster omelettes in almost every single city and every market. It’s considered a street food, but a lot of restaurants serve them, too.”

For those not familiar with oyster omelettes, they’re called oar jien in Taiwan. A thin yam-starch-based batter is mixed with Chinese greens—such as bok choy or chrysanthemum leaves—and oysters, and combined with eggs. It’s pan-fried and smothered with a salty-sweet tomato-based sauce that Wu says “brings out the oyster flavour”.

People love the combination. Wu tells the Straight in a phone interview that the dish was voted the island’s number one street food in a survey of foreigners conducted by the Taiwan Tourism Bureau.

However, he says that the flavour of oyster omelettes in Vancouver is never quite the same as in Taiwan. That’s because the variety of oyster used is different. Taiwanese oysters are smaller and “the flavour is stronger than the oysters we buy here.” So festival cooks will be using oysters imported from South Korea, which more closely resemble those found in Taiwanese waters.

In addition to oyster omelettes, fairgoers will be able to purchase other popular dishes such as tempura rolls, taro balls, Taiwanese sausage rice dogs, and loma rice. Wu speaks fondly of the latter, comparing the comfort-food nature of the dish to that of spaghetti in the West. “Every mother can make it,” he says of the soy-sauce based meat sauce that’s served over rice.

According to Wu, one of the hallmarks of Taiwanese cuisine is the large variety of dishes served in small portions. “Taiwanese cooking also uses a lot of basil,” he adds.

To get a jump on snacking at the festival, I headed to Kerrisdale, home to a cluster of Taiwanese cafés. All offer light meals in addition to an extensive selection of bubble teas, juices, and slushes. A person can easily dine for under $10, which may explain their popularity with students and families.

First up was BBT Café (5979 West Boulevard, 604-266-2195). The relaxed space feels like a cross between a coffee shop and a restaurant, with lone patrons reading at tables adorned with cute lamps, and friends chatting over dinner. Bamboo accents and paper lanterns add serenity.

I enjoyed the ground-pork noodles—a piping hot tangle of wheat noodles topped with meat sauce. My companion’s spicy beef-brisket meal was also satisfying; the rich brisket-and-fried-tofu stew was cut nicely by the three fresh, lightly pickled vegetable side dishes. We also gobbled up an order of spicy dumplings, which arrived plump and glistening with chili and sesame oils and brightened with fresh cilantro.

Another evening, we visited Cabin 5555. The café takes its name from its address (5555 West Boulevard, 604-263-5155) and mimics the sleek lines of an airplane with curved, white-framed windows. It was bustling during dinner, but we weren’t impressed by the food.

The Chinese beef pancake—a thick scallion crepe rolled around sliced beef—was heavy and greasy. The Crispy Salty Peppery Chicken nuggets were bland. And despite its interesting combination of fresh basil, whole roasted garlic gloves, and ginger, the Squid With Three Spices wasn’t particularly inspiring. The restaurant clearly has a following, however—it was packed with teens and families.

Neither of the aforementioned cafés serves oyster omelettes, so I satisfied my curiosity at Cute Pearl House (2130 West 40th Avenue, 604-269-9678). The casual, compact teahouse is indeed cute, with orange lanterns set into the wall and frosted glass windows. The thin oyster omelette (“oyster pancake” on the menu) covered a dinner plate. Lacy and translucent, it came fused to a layer of egg and studded with bok choy and oyster chunks. Taken together, it was a soft, gooey, chewy mouthful. I liked it, but the combination of glutinous pancake, soft oysters, and sweet sauce may be an acquired taste for some.

Visitors to TaiwanFest can try it for themselves. Also on the fest’s culinary agenda are cooking demos by chefs from the Grand Hotel in Taipei. Chefs Shao-wen Liu and Yung-yu Yen, who have cooked for four Taiwanese presidents, will share their insider secrets. For a schedule of events, see www.taiwanfest.ca/.

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