Bao Bei chef Joël Watanabe's sticky rice cakes make a quick, hearty meal

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      When Joël Watanabe was growing up in Ottawa, he would accompany his father to Chinatown nearly every weekend. Together, they would explore the shops and buy groceries, and when they returned home, Watanabe’s father would often make fried rice.

      “My favourite fried rice that he used to make was [with] preserved chili mustard root, chopped up and thrown in fried rice with egg,” Watanabe recalled, sitting at the bar at Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie, where he is now executive chef. “I remember going to Chinatown, and at that time they still had the big vats and the big urns, and you’d pull the [mustard] roots out of the urn and put it in a plastic bag.”

      So while Watanabe isn’t Chinese—his mother is French-Canadian and his father is Japanese—he isn’t afraid to tackle the dishes at one of Chinatown’s most popular Chinese restaurants. Watanabe began cooking professionally in his teens, and his culinary experience includes French, Italian, and sushi training. After moving to the West Coast in his late 20s, he worked at Whistler’s Araxi and helped open La Brasserie before meeting Tannis Ling, the owner of Bao Bei and one of the main organizers of the revitalized Chinatown Night Market (opening Friday [May 17], with additional vendors and entertainment being added in June).

      “It started with this idea that we were going to take food from Tannis’s childhood and modernize it or try and take it in different directions,” Watanabe said. “Tannis took me to Taiwan to basically hang out with her family.…Her aunt took me to market every day. She would have an idea of what she wanted to show me, and we’d go to market, buy the ingredients, and cook these things.”

      Watanabe learned how to cook sticky rice cakes from Ling’s mother, and it’s been one of his go-to dishes ever since. On days when he craves a quick but hearty meal, Watanabe will make sticky rice cakes with pork and add a fried egg on top for extra protein and flavour. The dish can easily be shared and makes a nice side to other vegetable and meat dishes. Watanabe recommends pairing sticky rice cakes with a light beer or a dry white wine.

      Sticky rice cakes with pork, bamboo, wood ear mushroom, and preserved mustard greens


      9 oz (255 g) “sticky/glutinous” rice cakes, soaked in cold water for 24 hours
      0.2 oz (5 g) dried wood ear mushroom
      2 oz (60 g) pork loin
      1 tsp (5mL) plus 1 Tbsp (15 mL) soy sauce, divided
      ½ tsp (2.5 mL) plus 2 tsp (10 mL) sugar, divided
      1 tsp (5 mL) plus 2 Tbsp (30 mL) sesame oil, divided
      2 Tbsp (30 mL) canola oil
      1 Tbsp (15 mL) garlic, minced
      2 oz (60 g) bamboo shoots (if canned, rinse well)
      2 Tbsp (30 mL) preserved mustard greens, finely chopped
      1¾ cup (440 mL) chicken stock
      ¼ cup (60 mL) chopped scallions to garnish


      1. Hydrate wood ear mushroom by placing in boiling water for 5 minutes. Plunge into ice water, strain, and set aside.

      2. Slice pork loin into pieces about 5 millimetres in thickness. Marinate in 1 tsp (5 mL) of the soy sauce, ½ tsp (2.5 mL) of the sugar, and 1 tsp (5 mL) of the sesame oil for 30 minutes.

      3. In a wok or large sauté pan over high heat, fry pork loin in canola oil until just cooked. Remove from heat and set aside.

      4. Cook garlic for 1 minute before adding mushroom, bamboo shoots, and mustard greens. Cook 1 more minute, stirring occasionally.

      5. Add rice cakes, chicken stock, and remaining 1 Tbsp (15 mL) soy sauce, 2 tsp (10 mL) sugar, and 2 Tbsp (30 mL) sesame oil. Cook until half the liquid has evaporated.

      6. Add pork, and cook until sauce has reached desired consistency.

      7. Garnish with chopped scallions.

      Yield: one serving as an entrée or two servings as a side dish.

      Recipe has not been tested by the Georgia Straight.

      Watch Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie chef Joël Watanabe demonstrate how to cook using a wok.


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