There’s nothing like the thrill of an Asian food find for an eater like me. Especially when the food is found in Victoria. In the rain. On Yelp. When we least expected it.
FOO Asian Street Food (769 Yates Street) is not a fancy place. Like many of its Vancouver Island brethren, this funky hole-in-the-wall demands lining up before you can order and snag a seat. At FOO the seating is slim: no more than a dozen stools line the perimeter of the order/waiting area.
Emma and I dashed in from out of the rain and were instantly slammed (in a pleasant, food-lover’s-way) by the smell of the place. The air was thick with stir-fried oil, Thai basil, chillies, toasted seaweed and Jasmine rice. FOO’S menu, along with daily specials, were in big print on the blackboard. Reading it was veritable candy to my Asian-cuisine-starved eyes: curries, noodles, stir-fries, dahls, sweet and sour soups, and crazy specials like poutine with Szechuan peppercorn gravy or fries done up Togarishi-style with spicy house furikake and fermented chili mayo.
Better still, the woman at the cash taking our order was mean. She had an edgy, crowded city attitude that delights masochistic and hungry metropolitans like me.
We ordered hot fried bread and chutney to whet our appetites along with two local brews: a can of Fat Tug (Driftwood IPA) and a tall bottle of Hoyt Pilsner.
Because our stools were squished near the cash counter, I leaned over, smiled senior-sweetly and asked the Cash Lady if the fried bread contained chickpea flour.
She could barely contain her disgust.
“Chickpea flour?!” she scoffed. “We’d never do that, ever.” Then she guffawed.
Okay, maybe I should have guessed turmeric. I know they secretly tuck something into these professionally deep-fried triangles of golden-hued, super moist bread. Each bite took the edge off our hunger.
Next up, seared morsels of rare, albacore tuna were spread out like a deck of cards over a tangle of cold soba noodles and cucumber ribbons bathed in a sesame-miso vinaigrette. Pad Thai was ratcheted up a notch with charred scallions instead of plain old green onions. But it was the Curried Noodle Stir-Fry that stole my foodie heart, with morsels of cha siu bbq pork, succulent shrimp and truly al dente Shanghai noodles.
I lied. It was the Sweet and Sour Pork Belly with tamarind glaze served with spicy green beans that stole all our hearts. Each one of these pork mouthfuls had us groaning, its flavourful fat such a yummy counterpoint to the salty pork.
Just below the blackboards manning the open kitchen, two young chefs in black T-shirts slammed, shook, tossed and sautéed non-stop. Working eight unrelenting gas burners on super high, each like a blow-torch, these guys have no time for comments or questions from Plebeians like sweet, little old me. I watched them ladle in sauces, drop in handfuls of noodles, sprinkle fistfuls of shrimp, pork or tofu and slide steaming contents into one big white bowl after another. It was an endless stream of expert deliciousness overseen by the Cash Lady managing both the line-up and take-out call ins.
“You can pick up in an hour,” she told one caller, “Want it sooner? Try McDonalds.”
Luckily, we experienced no wait. We were at the front of the line both visits and food arrived swiftly. After the first FOO visit, we started plotting our return, despite the more than hour drive into Victoria over a mountain pass, no less.
It was the Ground Lamb Curry’s fault. I didn’t tell you, dear reader, about its rich and layered meat sauce, redolent with a dozen spices and so superbly satisfying. The blackboard advertised it as “Indian spiced lamb” but it was so much more than those three words. I swear those line cooks had pulled every flavour out of their toolboxes to create this glistening, gravy infused lamb creation, sweetly offset with green peas, lying on a soft white bed of basmati.
There were four of us all fighting over the Ground Lamb Curry on our second visit. It was a magical flavour equation that I had to recreate in my kitchen.
As every cook will attest, ingredients are 90 per cent of a recipe’s success. I jumped on two packages of frozen, farm-raised ground lamb from the Yesteryear stall at the Duncan Farmers’ Market. Later, I pounced on fresh, very unwrinkled turmeric root at The Community Farm Store, also in Duncan. My spice drawer had recently been supplemented by a happy, inaugural stroll through Sabzi Mandi Supermarket in Nanaimo. The finishing green garnish would be a handful of mint from the burgeoning mass under our willow tree and another, from a clump of cilantro in the raised beds. (Miraculously, cilantro (fresh coriander) self-seeds here on the island.)
And because I am so humble, I attest that the only difference between my Ground Lamb Curry and Foo’s is me. I am the final 10 per cent of this recipe’s success.
Herd Road Ground Lamb Curry with Peas and Mint
This is the same and different from Foo Asian Street Food’s ground lamb curry.
2 cooking onions, quartered
6 garlic cloves
2 inches ginger
2 inches turmeric
Peel and chop onion, garlic, ginger and turmeric. Whirl into a paste in a food processor, adding ¼ – ½ cup water.
In large frying pan, heat two tablespoons oil and saute onion paste until golden, about 3 minutes.
In a small mortar and pestle, crush:
1 hot dried pepper
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp coriander seeds
½ tsp fennel seeds
½ tsp black peppercorns
1 ½ tsp coarse sea salt
Add to onion mixture and saute 1-2 minutes.
4 tbsp tomato paste
½ cup coconut milk
Bring to a boil and simmer gently for a few minutes.
2 lbs ground lamb
3 tsp garam masala
Cook on medium heat until lamb is brown. Add 1 1/2 cups water. Cover and simmer on extreme low for 20 minutes
1 ½ cups frozen peas
2-4 small fresh green hot peppers
2 tsp anardhana (dried pomegranate) * optional
1 tbsp lemon juice
¼ cup chopped fresh mint leaves
¼ cup chopped fresh coriander
Simmer until peas are tender. Serve on steamed basmati rice.