Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The road to our signature dish

Interesting fusion creation a contender

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Back on Louis Riel Day, when Winnipeggers were whining about the cold instead of about the heat, I tried to get a handle on what deserves to be called this city's signature dish.

Since New Orleans has oyster po' boys, Chicago has deep-dish pizza and Montreal has its amazing smoked meat, I asked readers to help me decide what food best exemplifies Winnipeg.

But there was a catch: Winnipeg's signature dish had to be something people actually eat here on a regular basis.

Many readers suggested kubasa, cabbage rolls, perishke and perogies, thanks to the considerable Ukrainian influence on this city. According to Statistics Canada, one in seven Winnipeggers has some form of Ukrainian heritage.

Others suggested bannock, wild rice, bison, saskatoons, pickerel and smoked goldeye, both because these are the pre-eminent Prairie foodstuffs and to honour to the city's aboriginal heritage. One in 10 Winnipeggers have a First Nations or Métis background.

Our much smaller Icelandic contingent put in a case for vinarterta, correctly noting this prune layer cake is now unique to Manitoba because the dessert is all but forgotten back in Iceland itself. There was an also an argument for shmoo torte, the caramel-covered, walnut-flecked sponge cake of possibly Jewish origin and most certainly a Winnipeg invention.

And in what felt like a throwaway suggestion, I put lumpia on the original list, noting how the Filipino spring rolls are among our meagre street-food offerings.

In retrospect, a much more versatile Filipino foodstuff warranted more attention: pancit, the omnipresent dish of skinny rice noodles tossed with soy sauce, veggies, often shrimp and usually some form of cured meat.

Although a lot of food in the Philippines has a heavy Spanish influence by way of Mexico, pancit came to the islands from the other side of the Pacific Ocean. The dish is essentially a Filipino take on the Chinese noodles traders brought over.

As such, pancit was a fusion dish from its inception. Many variations exists across the Philippines, which has dozens of different ethnic groups.

It's also easy to find in Winnipeg, where one in 18 people have some form of Filipino heritage.

Way back in February, when I first started looking for Winnipeg's signature dish, Filipino Journal publisher Ron Cantiveros -- a man best-known to Winnipeg Blue Bomber fans as the wig-wearing, megaphone-toting Cougar Hunter -- piped up on Twitter to suggest pancit instead of lumpia.

My immediate response was to joke pancit would only make the list if you replaced the shrimp and Chinese sausage with smoked goldeye and kubasa.

So Cantiveros went to work creating such a dish.

Two weeks ago, the Twitter addict used crowd-sourcing techniques to survey Winnipeggers about the best place to buy kubasa. He wound up with a list of North End sausage-makers before deciding upon Strikers Deli & Meats on Burrows Avenue.

With a garlic-sausage coil in one hand, Cantiveros snapped up a pair of smoked goldeye and took them to his friend Harry Mogatas, the chef at the Rice Bowl on Sargent Avenue.

And that's how the most idiosyncratically Winnipeg dish of all time came to wind up on my plate on Wednesday: goldeye-kubasa pancit, which turned out to have that perfect balance of sour, salty and sweet that Philippine cuisine demands.

Chef Harry shredded the kubasa into strips and fried them like Chinese sausage. The goldeye, being delicate, he shredded and placed on top of the pancit.

But not content to create one Filipino-Ukrainian fusion dish, Chef Harry decided to create a Philippine cabbage roll, stuffing a steamed cabbage leaf with rice and calderata, a Philippine stew of beef in a tomato-based sauce. He then dressed the dish with more tomato sauce, sour cream and the Spanish egg-and-potato omelette known as torta.

Both of these forays into the fledgling territory of Filipino-Ukrainian cuisine were so successful, I asked Chef Harry if he'd ever attempted such a fusion before.

"I dated a Ukrainian," he said. "It went well. We went our separate ways, but we're still friends."

Obviously, Winnipeg's Filipino community is a huge part of our city. There are almost 40,000 people in this town with at least some Philippine heritage and about a dozen Filipino restaurants.

So this begs the question -- why hasn't Filipino food become more mainstream or at least as well-known as other Asian cuisines?

Chinese, Japanese, Indian and Vietnamese food is everywhere in Winnipeg. Korean food is becoming more popular. So why aren't Philippine dishes like pancit, calderata and adobo part of the city's culinary lexicon?

"That's been a big discussion in different centres of the community," says Cantiveros, who figures non-Filipinos don't learn about Philippine dishes because they only consume them at buffets.

To some extent, accessibility is also an issue. Philippine dishes are notoriously unfriendly to vegetarians and the overly calorie-conscious, thanks to the liberal use of flesh and animal fat.

But this same heartiness makes Philippine cuisine a lot like Ukrainian cuisine. Both can basically be described as comfort food.

Anyway, I still don't have the answer to the Winnipeg signature-dish question. But I can at least assure you goldeye-kubasa pancit would be a worthy contender, if it's ever served again.

Given the cost of the prime ingredients -- good kubasa does not come cheap -- it's unlikely to remain as much a part of Chef Harry's life as his ex-girlfriend continues to be.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 3, 2011 A1


Updated on Sunday, July 3, 2011 at 2:12 PM CDT: Added to columnists list on landing page

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley’s work has also appeared on CBC Radio and Citytv as well as in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler. He sits on the board of PEN Canada, which promotes freedom of expression.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives


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