Vancouver Asian restaurateurs tell cultural tales through their cuisine

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      Sure, you can grab a seat at a restaurant, chow down, and be on your merry way with a satisfied belly. But sometimes owners are trying to tell a cultural tale through the cuisine they offer. Of course, those deeper meanings may not be as readily discernible as their menus.

      To make them more easily understood, here are three Asian restaurateurs explaining what they’re trying to do that may not be obvious to the average diner.

      Kobob Burger (1019 Main Street)

      Originally from Pusan, South Korea, Hojeong (Connie) Mun was disconcerted to discover so many Korean people running Japanese restaurants when she arrived in Canada four years ago.

      “It’s really easy to set up a sushi restaurant,” she said in an interview at her petite eatery, Kobob Burger, at 1019 Main Street, which she opened with her husband, Sanghyun Park, in 2014. “Korean food is hard to set up.” However, she added, “That is why people don’t know about Korean food.”

      She’s onto something. Although there are local clusters of Korean eateries serving traditional cuisine, such as Sura Korean Royal Cuisine and Jang Mo Jib, and Korean takes on western fare, like Zabu Chicken and Dae-Ji Cutlet House, Korean cuisine still hasn’t gone mainstream the way that other Asian cuisines have.

      So Mun is doing her bit. Kobob Burger’s chalkboard menu emblematizes her attempt to bridge divides while doing “fun stuff” with food.

      Kobob Burger's rice burger
      Kobob Burger

      One half is devoted to rice burgers to entice western palates, the other half to traditional bibimbap (rice bowl with vegetables and meat) for those who want to venture further—and vice versa.

      Similar to versions in Asia, Kobob’s burgers feature rice molded into bunlike shapes to enclose meat, lettuce, corn, and yellow pickled radish.

      Kobob Burger's bibimbap
      Kobob Burger

      Further breaking with tradition, while bulgogi is traditionally available only as a beef marinade, Kobob offers pork or beef bulgogi, plus tuna and kimchi salad, spicy pork or chicken, or soy-sauce chicken as meat options, for both burgers and bibimbap. Bibimbap, with white or brown rice, comes with egg, bean sprouts, carrots, white radish, zucchini, and mushroom.

      Kobob Burger's Korean pancake
      Kobob Burger

      There are even more menu options to explore, such as buchimgae, or Korean pancake, and noodle salad, available with plain, buckwheat, or zucchini noodles (which they call “zoodles”) with spicy sauce.

      “There are lots of people who hadn’t tried Korean food yet, and then people came here and they tried it, so I’m really happy with that,” she said.

      Efendi Uyghyr Restaurant (1345 Kingsway)

      When Nuerjiang (Mina) Mukelamu’s children go to school in Vancouver, they don’t know how to answer the question, “Where are you from?”

      Although they’re from China, they’re Uyghurs, a Turkic ethnic group that inhabits the Xinjiang region in northwest China. Even Mukelamu finds that people become confused when she says she’s from China.

      That’s why she and her parents, Kasimu Nuerjiang and Tuerdi Asimguli, opened up Efendi Uyghur Restaurant at 1345 Kingsway on May 28.

      Efendi Uyghur Restaurant
      Craig Takeuchi

      In an interview at their 130-seat dining room, Mukelamu explained that when her father moved to Vancouver, he couldn’t find any Uyghur food, let alone any halal food he enjoyed. In response, the family, which moved from Ürümqi, Xinjiang, to Canada in 2011, wanted to create a community gathering place. Her father, she said, doesn’t want their culture or language to disappear.

      Yet they also want to share their culture and cuisine with others who have never experienced them. Mukelamu is well-positioned to connect with Vancouver’s multicultural population: she can speak Uyghur, Mandarin, Japanese, Turkish, and English.

      Mukelamu explained that in order to maintain authentic flavours, they avoid using too many additional ingredients in their dishes, primarily focusing on salt, cumin, and black pepper. And because Xinjiang is a landlocked desert environment, don’t expect seafood entrées.

      Efendi Uyghur Restaurant's kebabs
      Craig Takeuchi

      Traditional items include chicken laghman, made of handmade long noodles with stir-fried chicken and vegetables, and Uyghur-style kebabs. Other plates include ding ding noodles, featuring handmade noodles diced into bite-sized pieces and fried with vegetables and beef, and kurgak qop, dry stir-fried handmade quarter-length noodles with garlic, chili, chives, and beef. Petir manta resembles oversized steamed dim-sum dumplings, with ground lamb and onion inside.

      Efendi Uyghur Restaurant's Petir manta
      Craig Takeuchi

      Beyond the food, she said, they want the world to know about Uyghur people.

      “We have to show people that we are kind, we are clean, we are nice, we are [a] good culture, we are educated, and we have [a] really beautiful culture that people can enjoy,” she said.

      House Special (1269 Hamilton Street)

      Who says Vietnamese food can’t be upscale?

      Sadly, when Patrick and Victoria Do’s family opened their Kingsway restaurant, Green Lemongrass, a decade ago, they discovered that many people say so.

      “A lot of people came [in]…and they would say, ‘Oh, this place is not going to be good because it’s so clean,’ ” Patrick told the Georgia Straight. “And it wasn’t like we were doing anything different.…People loved it once they tried it, but a lot of people didn’t give us a chance.”

      House Special chef Yen Do with her daughter (and House Special manager) Victoria Do
      Craig Takeuchi

      That’s why the Do siblings launched their own gastronomical venture, House Special Modern Vietnamese, in Yaletown in May at 1269 Hamilton Street.

      “We want to try to change the perception of Vietnamese food where it’s seen as disposable, quick, cheap, dirty,” Patrick said in an interview at his restaurant.

      While challenging classism, they also want to bring more of modern Vietnam to Vancouver. Although House Special’s recipes respect traditional flavours and cooking techniques, they also integrate progressive twists and international influences. That is reflected in their head chef—their mother, Yen—working alongside executive chef Phong Vo.

      House Special chef Phong Vo
      Craig Takeuchi

      Take banh tieu, for example, which is usually hollow. Their sesame-seed-covered fry bread comes filled with pickled Asian slaw and five-spice duck confit, sautéed mushroom, or hot-sauce fried chicken.

      House Special's banh tieu

      Their restaurant’s name refers to one of the best-known Vietnamese bowls as its centrepiece: pho.

      “We wanted to really focus on making the best one we could and using high-quality cuts of beef, really spending time on putting love into the broth, and then the rest of the menu would change seasonally and rotate out with whatever we were into for that season,” Victoria said.

      House Special's Saigon steak
      Craig Takeuchi

      While House Special pays homage to the past, Patrick and Victoria have a clear vision of where the future lies as they propel Vietnamese cuisine forward.

      “The best restaurants in the city, they all do that,” Patrick said. “Look at Bao Bei, Torafuku. Try to describe what Torafuku is in one word. It’s hard. But people love it because it’s different and it’s familiar at the same time, and that’s what we want to do.”