August 12th, 2007

The Taste of a Japa Dog

Posted in Canada, Food, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

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In Vancouver, like in most Canadian cities, street food vendors are limited to hawking pre-cooked meat: hot dogs, in other words. But, even within the restrictive confines of the law, innovation is possible, especially in a global city like Vancouver. You can taste as much by wandering over to the corner of Smithe and Burrard. There, across the street from a supermarket and a megaplex cinema, amidst the daytime downtown bustle, is an ordinary-looking hot dog stand. Its hot dogs, however, are anything but ordinary: they are “Japa Dogs,” a new type of street meat invented by Noriki Tamura, an ad salesman who left Tokyo for Vancouver two years ago.

I read about Japa Dog in Maclean’s a week before I left for Vancouver. “Behind the spitting grill, Noriki Tamura keeps up with the crowd, dressing still-sizzling turkey dogs with pale brown miso mayonnaise, sesame sauce and a layer of crispy green radish sprouts,” writes Nancy Macdonald. “His $5 Oroshi packs a motley punch. The bratwurst frank is loaded with an inch-thick layer of finely shaved daikon radish and green onions, topped with wasabi and soy sauce. As the grilled German sausage burns a trail down the gullet, the wasabi delivers its unmistakable kick to the nose. Hands down, Japa Dog marks the single biggest innovation to hit city street meat since Vancouver vendors started hawking the Yves Famous Veggie Dog a decade ago.”

I had to check it out so, last Wednesday, on the kind of bright, impossibly fresh day that only the Pacific Northwest is able to produce, I wandered up to Burrard Street for lunch and bought a Terimayo, a beef hotdog topped with teriyaki sauce, Japanese mayonnaise and strips of dried seaweed. My food vocabulary is fairly limited, so I’ll describe it like this: it tasted Japanese. It was probably the combination of the seaweed and mayo, the former naturally savoury and the latter full of MSG, which combined to create a brothy, full-mouthed umami flavour. The $4.25 price tag was a bit steep, but not terribly overpriced when you consider that the going rate for the most basic Vancouver street meat is $3.50.

The Japa Dog isn’t a mind-blowing culinary experience; it’s just an ingeniously simple hybrid of traditional American junk food with distinctly Japanese ingredients like miso and nori. What interests me, though, is what the Japa Dog has to say about food and culture in Vancouver. I’ve always been more interested in the cultural aspects of food than in the food itself. In Vancouver, with its panoply of Asian eats and a food culture that effortlessly blends seemingly divergent cuisines, it is hard not to see city and society with one foot on either side of the Pacific. As Macdonald writes in Maclean’s:

Vancouver’s “merged cuisine” is a more seamless union of Asian and European than earlier fusion, says Jamie Maw, food editor for Vancouver Magazine. Maw says this level of maturity — which took root in the past three to four years — is unique to the Pacific coastal region. Sure, sushi’s become generic takeout in most Canadian cities. But in Vancouver, it even subs for pre-packaged roast beef sandwiches at the gas station. It’s not uncommon to spot Asian influences on the menus of the most white-bread local-franchise family restaurants: from salted edamame starters and sashimi to ponzu sauces and chutney.

Although Vancouver is not quite Honolulu, where spam musubi can be purchased at the counter of every convenience store, it does occupy a distinct culinary sphere in North America, being a city where the latest trends from Asia meet and sometimes merge with more typically North American food. I’m tempted to make a grand, sweeping assertion that this represents the culturally hybridized future of Canada’s West Coast metropolis — but, you know, I’ve done that before and I don’t want to be too much of a tiresome bore.

But take it from me: there’s more to the Japa Dog than it would seem.


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