Sunday, March 14, 2010

It's A Small World: Flavour-Seeking Culture Sponges Descend Upon Vancouver's Ethnic Restaurants

Mutton Rolls at JR's Taste of Ceylon


Can you differentiate the subtleties of Sri Lankan food from other South Indian cuisines? Or perhaps you simply want to meet other people who care about such things? A new dinner club on Meetup.com, the popular social networking website, provides an opportunity for local food lovers to gather together and learn about cuisines of the world. Meetup.com was founded in 2001 and now boasts over 5.7 million members world-wide, and over sixty-six thousand groups meeting in person in their local communities to explore common interests. The Flavour-Seeking Culture Sponges is one of the many groups dedicated to food topics, and takes full advantage of the cultural diversity in Vancouver Restaurants.

Exploring the fantastic array of ethnic restaurants in Vancouver is like eating your way around the world, but without the jet lag and the neck pillow. In a city where many diners already like to think of themselves as culturally saavy and knowledgeable about ethnic food, this dinner club seems to be discovering new foods and tasting its way around the city without any danger of running out of adventures. They are finding small, authentic, and off-the beaten path establishments. Shame on you if you live in this mecca of international flavours and find yourself going to the same casual fine dining chain over and over.

Marty, the cordial host and founder of this group, has a wealth of knowledge to share, and points to his belly for proof, saying "No, I'm not pregnant. I just know about food." He is the self-appointed tour guide on this trip, and he started this group on January 29th, 2010. The beauty of the internet as a networking tool is how quickly it works. Although it's been less than two months, there have been seven events so far, and to date, 152 members have joined. The group is made up of people of various age groups and backgrounds, and yet their common enthusiasm for food spills out in typical dinner conversation topics such as cross-border cheese shopping. They have gastronomically explored Vietnam, Bosnia, and Ethiopia. They have also surveyed a variety of Indian cuisines, noting the variations between Pakistani, Punjabi, Tamil (South Indian) and Sri Lankan food.

For a recent meetup, thirty-four people came out to fill up the small family-run restaurant J.R.'s Taste of Ceylon (3929 Knight St. just off Kingsway, relocated from their previous Fraser St. restaurant, 604-708-3008). The Sponges feasted on a specially-prepared meal that introduced the group to Sri Lankan cuisine with milder spicing and plenty of friendly explanation to ensure the meal was approachable for newbies. The group was told that the food of Sri Lanka is normally extremely spicy, more so than other Indian regions, and many seem to be thankful for the restaurant's mercy. Although the restaurant has South Indian, Malaysian and Singaporean dishes on its menu as well, distinctive Sri Lankan dishes were the focus of the evening. Hot, crunchy finger foods called "short eats" started the meal as the forty participants of this event trickled in and introduced themselves to one another. These snacks included mutton rolls, tasty little deep-fried packages filled with spiced mutton and potato. For main dishes, several Sri Lankan style curries were served, including those made of beets, chickpeas and coconut milk, eggplant, and cabbage along with the chicken dish. Brown and white Sri Lankan rices and a labour-intensive multi-step ground rice dish accompanied the curries. The staff presented with pride their Sri Lankan specialties such as the delicate bowl-shaped "hoppers" made from a fermented batter of rice flour, coconut milk and palm wine. Dessert included a steamed pudding made with the sap of the Kitul palm tree. The owner described it as Sri Lanka's version of maple syrup.

In a world where technology and urbanization threaten to further isolate us from our neighbours, this group is a delightful example of the internet contributing to a sense of local community and being used to actually bring people together, in real life. The Flavour-Seeking Culture Sponges seem to have some momentum going, and you might spot them breaking bread together in your favourite ethnic restaurant soon.


2 comments:

For Diner's Eyes Only said...

This sounds like a brilliant organization! Anything to show off the many spectacular ethnic dining experiences to be had in Vancouver...
Do you know if they have any plans for restaurant excursions this summer? or whether they'd like anyone to do some 'spelunking' through some of Vancouver's less well-known restaurants?
...The Culture Sponges sound like a group with similar interests in mind as myself, and I would love to get involved or help their organization out in some way. Do they have a website or contact info?
...Thanks for posting this! I've never heard of them before!

Dumpling_Girl said...

As mentioned in the article, it's a site called www.meetup.com. Just sign up there, and you'll get the info for the meetups. They've been having meetups every week, I think.