If you’re an international student in Montreal, you’ve probably been paid a visit by your parents at some point. What did you do? You read them some Leonard Cohen, went to a hockey game, showed them that there’s more to Canadian music than Celine Dion, and probably had to endure their ridicule when you unknowingly uttered the ubiquitous “eh.” If your parents happen to be gourmets, you were surely faced with the daunting task of taking them to eat some “Canadian food.”
If you actually put your mind to it, you can come up with a few authentically Canadian specialties – poutine, smoked meat, Nanaimo bars, beaver tails, and the Caesar. But does this really constitute a culinary culture?
Some people would say that Canadian food is really just imported from elsewhere. Yet the origins of even the most “traditional” or “national” foods are contested everywhere – apparently some people argue that the pizza originated in China as the green onion pancake and was brought to Italy by Marco Polo.
So perhaps a culinary culture would be better defined by the food most associated with and most appreciated in a given culture, rather than by an elusive “authenticity.” This definition allows newer nations, who haven’t necessarily had the time to develop a historically anchored culinary culture, to define one for themselves in combination with existing traditions.
Perhaps I am just saying this to justify taking my parents out for some good old all-Canadian shish taouk. But at least I have artist Shié Kasai on my side. Last week at the Montréal Arts Interculturels (3680, Jeanne-Mance), Kasai displayed her artwork in an exhibit called “Survival Japanese Cooking.”
Why “survival,” you might wonder. Kasai explains that her project originated in the Netherlands in 2006, during her residency with a Canadian artist, Yvette Poorter. “[Poorter] built a shed flavoured with a theme of Canadian wild forest in her backyard; she described it a sort of a camping site,” says Kasai. “[But] what would I do at a campsite? I’d probably have to eat. I’d have to look for something to eat and prepare it myself. It challenges your surviving skills. This is why there’s a word ‘survival’ in the project title.”
Kasai defines her project as “a site-specific performance/installation project, which ends up as a cross-cultural culinary experimentation.” Using her background as a visual artist who enjoys working with sculpture, and as a Japanese immigrant, Kasai has created a multi-media representation of what she calls “concept sushi.” “I think this cross-cultural cooking happens in my kitchen on a daily basis and maybe in yours too,” Kasai explains. “This probably also applies to many other immigrants who have to cook with substitutes for many different reasons – convenience and/or necessity.”
Kasai based her concept sushi on a survey she did of Montrealers’ tastes, asking them questions about their eating habits, favourite restaurants, and favourite local ingredients. Using this information, she created “Canadian sushi” with ingredients such as hot dogs, asparagus, and samosa dough replacing the traditional Japanese fish, rice, and seaweed.
Only one question is left: what on earth does this taste like, eh?
If you feel the urge to test these culinary concepts, check out the recipes in Shie Kasai’s Survival Japanese Cookbook, available for free download at shiekasai.com.