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A tour of Canada through dinner

By SHARWIN TEE, The Philippine STAR Published Jan 06, 2021 4:00 pm

The Philippines has enjoyed Canadian products like canola oil and Canadian beef, while Canada has become a huge importer of our coconut products, especially coconut water.

Around this time two years go, on one of our regular dinners, I shared my travel hopes with a friend. I told her of my hopes to visit Canada again, with stops at Montreal, Alberta, and Prince Edward Island, plus possibly do a popup in my old school in Vancouver.

Angel, a trade commissioner for the Embassy of Canada, was ever supportive, encouraging me to apply for a visa as soon as possible. In fact, that same night, she emailed me all the forms I needed to fill up.

Life went on and I didn’t get around to filling up the forms and I didn’t get around to visiting Canada in 2019. Let’s face it: while I was busy, I also just got plain lazy to go and apply, thinking I could always go in 2020. Alas, 2020, the strange and difficult year that it is, happened, and I’m now left wondering if I will ever get to go on that epic trip.

  Chefs James Antolin and Carlo Miguel designed the evening's delicious menu. 

As if by destiny, I recently received an invitation from the Embassy of Canada to attend their Roast and Toast dinner celebrating the wonderful Canadian agricultural products that are being made available here in the Philippines. The K-drama fan in me has learned never to fight destiny, so I RSVP-ed that I would attend.

The dinner hosted at Ikomai started with the requisite temperature check, filling up the contact tracing form, and being seated in socially distant arrangements, but the atmosphere soon turned friendly and familiar, as old friends joined me at the table. Ambassador Peter MacArthur began the evening with a short speech, talking about how the agricultural relationship between Canada and Philippines has continued to grow as a symbiotic one. The Philippines, over the years, has enjoyed Canadian products like canola oil and Canadian beef, while Canada has become a huge importer of our coconut products, especially coconut water. The ambassador then mentioned that he wanted to keep his speech short because the food was to be the star of the night.

And it indeed was. The menu, designed by chefs James Antolin and Carlo Miguel, started with hokigai (surf clams) from New Brunswick, simply served as a carpaccio with a wonderfully savory dressing. The clams were sweet, with the slightly chewy texture that makes it one of my favorite ingredients.

 Pea Risotto with Scallop featured a surprise addition of mussels from Prince Edward Island.

The second course continued celebrating Canadian seafood, featuring scallops, shrimps and hard-shell mussels from Prince Edward Island in a rich tonkotsu broth. The soup was delicious and hearty, a big, warm hug perfect for the holiday season.

Unexpectedly, the third course was again a cold presentation, beautiful spot shrimp from New Brunswick served as nigiri sushi with the head tempura-fried on the side.

I compared notes with chef Joseph, resident chef of the ambassador’s official residence, discussing how the best way to serve spot shrimps is to try not to touch it too much, and chef James dropped by the table and essentially said the same thing. He said the shrimp were just so sweet and plump that he decided to serve them simply as sushi. As I downed the impeccably prepared piece of sushi, all I could do was nod in agreement.

The heartier courses then began to come in. First, a green pea risotto with a seared scallop revealed an extra treat. Chefs James and Carlo enjoyed the mussels so much they decided to slip a couple of pieces into each of our risotto bowls and they were certainly most welcome. The sweet shellfish paired awesomely with the salty, crisp prosciutto and creamy risotto.

 Canadian Ambassador Peter MacArthur (third from left) with bloggers Renz Cheng, Reese Rayos and author Sharwin Tee

The star of stars, though, would have to be the roast. The triple-A Canadian rib eye from Alberta, cooked a perfect medium-rare, was crusted with mustard and served with a peppercorn sauce, but neither covered up the magnificent flavor of the meltingly tender beef.

I’ve worked for the Embassy of Canada, promoting Canadian beef since 2011, and it warms my heart to see more and more of my culinary brethren learning how good Canadian beef really is. Responsibly grown in cruelty-free and environmentally responsible settings, it is severely underrated as an ingredient. The beef is tender, flavorful and, for a lack of a better term, “clean tasting.” I wasn’t even that hungry when I stepped into Ikomai, but only my concern about not embarrassing myself prevented me from licking that plate.

Dinner featured a big finish as well, a frangipane tart glazed with ice wine with lemon-curd gelato and wild blueberries from Prince Edward Island. We all laughed as the chefs revealed how stressed they were because the blueberries arrived at the airport a couple of hours before the dinner. I think I passed the delivery truck on my way in!

The ambassador told us just how special these blueberries were. These wild ones actually contain twice the antioxidants of regular blueberries. Taste-wise, they were potent, sweet, tart and delicious. The dinner was also spiked with wonderful Canadian wines, but I spent the night enjoying a couple of Canadian ciders, Growers 1927 and the summer peach cider. I was told they have yet to make the Philippine market, but they will. When they do, I’ll be first in line.

After dinner, Angel and I finally had time to catch up, and the first thing she mentioned was how she “told me so.”  I admit that my penchant for putting things off really did cost me a memorable food trip, but I do thank her for the invite. After all, I may not have gone to Canada, but I got to travel through dinner. As consolation prizes go, this definitely was not bad at all.

Banner caption:  The undisputed star was the roast triple-A Canadian rib eye.