Chinese New Year is fast approaching, and in Vancouver, that means it's time to roll out the haggis.
“People really like haggis dim sum,” says Todd Wong, otherwise known as Toddish McWong. He’s organizing the 12th annual Gung Haggis Fat Choy dinner, which takes place next Sunday (January 31) at Floata Seafood Restaurant. In the past, he says, the dim sum appetizers “have been so popular that many people didn’t realize they were eating haggis”. So they’ll be on the menu again this year, when over 500 people dig into a 10-course Chinese banquet that features the Scottish delicacy in unorthodox forms.
In previous years, chefs have combined haggis with crunchy water chestnuts as a filling for deep-fried won tons; mixed it with pork for siu mai dumplings; and even added it to shrimp for delicate rice-dough-wrapped har gow. The highlight, however, is always the whole one-pound haggis, which is brought to each table with great ceremony. It’s then devoured as part of a lettuce wrap along with diced, stir-fried vegetables and a smear of hoisin sauce. (West Vancouver’s Peter Black & Sons Butchers supplies the haggis.)
So what exactly is haggis, and who is Todd Wong?
Haggis is a traditional Scottish dish that’s served on Robbie Burns Day. (Burns is the author of the poem “Address to a Haggis”.) Wong describes it as a giant sausage or pudding. Minced sheep’s organs like heart and liver are mixed with oatmeal and spices, stuffed in a casing (traditionally a sheep’s stomach), and then boiled or steamed. “It’s not unlike a lot of Chinese pioneer cooking,” he notes in an interview at a Kitsilano coffee shop. “They used all parts of the animal and fillers to make food stretch.”
Born and raised in Vancouver, Wong is a fifth-generation Chinese Canadian who works for the Vancouver Public Library. “There’s not a wee drop of Scottish blood in me,” he says. Yet he’s the force behind what he says is the largest Burns supper in the city”¦or is it a Chinese New Year supper?
In fact, the event celebrates both, falling neatly between Robbie Burns Day on January 25 and Chinese New Year, which takes place on February 14 this year.
Wong’s introduction to haggis came in 1993 when he was a student at SFU. He was recruited to take part in the school’s Robbie Burns Day celebration, which fell two days after the lunar new year. Wong put two and two together, and the phrase “Gung haggis fat choy”—along with his Toddish McWong persona—was born.
In 1998, a Scottish friend brought a haggis to Wong’s Chinese New Year dinner party, and the small group toasted both Scottish and Chinese cultures. The evening was such a success that Wong staged the fusion meal for 40 people the following year in a small Chinese restaurant as a fundraiser for his dragon boat team. Since then, the event has outgrown three restaurants; it now raises funds for the Gung Haggis Fat Choy dragon boat team, Ricepaper Magazine/the Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop, and the Historic Joy Kogawa House Society.
“It’s taken on a life of its own,” Wong says. “I run to keep up with it.” Entertainment has become a big part of the evening, with music, poetry readings, and even a rap about haggis. Groups that have purchased tables are introduced as “clans”, and singles “make nine new best friends.”¦It’s probably the most intimate dinner for 500 you’ll ever attend.”
Wong says attendees are those of Chinese descent and those with a Scottish connection. But many fall somewhere in between, including people of mixed ethnic backgrounds and those in intercultural relationships. “Whoever you are, this feels like your tribe,” he says. “The key to Gung Haggis Fat Choy is its inclusiveness. It’s not one or the other, Scottish or Chinese.”¦Everyone can be a part of this family.”
Still, Wong recognizes that not everyone is used to eating certain ethnic dishes. Some people arrive having never experienced a full-on Chinese banquet, while others are wary of the haggis: “We really have to balance things with dishes that are ”˜safe’ for people to eat—that are within their comfort range—with ones that perhaps challenge them.” Past dinners have included hot-and-sour soup and Mongolian beef. This year the evening will feature salt-and-pepper shrimp, and fried turnip cakes will give a nod to Scottish “neeps and tatties” (turnips and potatoes).
Gung Haggis Fat Choy has inspired a similar event in Seattle, and this Saturday, Wong is spearheading a Gung Haggis Fat Choy dinner in Victoria. He knows of imitation parties that have taken place in Whistler, Ottawa, the Yukon, and Santa Barbara.
Wong recently visited Scotland for the first time. “In a strange way, it felt like a homecoming,” he says. In Ayr, not far from the cottage where Robbie Burns was born, he stopped in at a Chinese restaurant and told the owner about his Gung Haggis feasts. “My goal now is to have a Gung Haggis Fat Choy dinner there,” he says. The trend may just go global.
The Gung Haggis Fat Choy dinner takes place at 6 p.m. on January 31 at Floata Seafood Restaurant (400–180 Keefer Street). Tickets are available through the Firehall Arts Centre (604-689-0926) and cost $65 adult/$54.50 student with ID/$44 ages 13 and under. See www.gunghaggisfatchoy.com for more information.
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