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Around the World in 5 Dishes

Discover authentic versions of cuisines you thought you knew

By Sally MacKinnon
Photography by Jason Dziver
Plates courtesy C2 Distribution Ltd.

It all started with a trip to the southern tip of India. Tamil Nadu, specifically, where I was in for a shock: no butter chicken, no naan bread, and—in most places—no plates or utensils (you get a banana leaf, and eat with your right hand). Okay, this wasn’t the Indian food I grew up with.

Ever since, I have been on a mission to replicate that moment of culinary discovery. Not by searching out chefs on the cutting edge, but by authentic cuisine that hasn’t been (too) adulterated for North American palates. Restaurants that aren’t about flash or food trends, but mom and pops going back to the basics. My search took me from the northeast suburbs to the ranchlands of Millarville, and to venues as divergent as a taquería on 17 Ave, a food court in a flea market, and a historic home with its own ghost and house cat. So here it is, five dishes for diners who want the real deal, or at least the chance to be pleasantly surprised.

ALBERTA: BEEF

Beef tenderloin with blue cheese & peppercorn butter, beef jus, pan-fried potatoes and salad, from The MacKay Place.

If you’ve been in town for more than 24 hours, you’ve noticed that Alberta is beef country. The steak house concept has been done often and done well, but finding one that breaks the mould is a challenge. In order to do this I trekked all the way to Millarville, where an 1895 ranch house has been converted into The MacKay Place restaurant. With creaky wood floors, a cast iron stove, resident ghost and house cat named Leo, it doesn’t get much more rustic than this. The menu is “Alberta roadhouse,” with dishes such as corn fritters, chargrilled beef tenderloin, and burgers with aged cheddar and bacon. There’s also an apple wood smoker churning out pork ribs and smoked chicken sandwiches. The property is home to historic buildings open for guests to explore, as well as sweeping vistas of the prairie and herds of cattle that might one day end up on your plate. Chuckwagon Café, located 10 minutes away in Turner Valley, is another venue that serves Alberta beef in the middle of ranch country.

Or you could try Alberta bison, not as popular as beef, but a longer resident of the prairies. At The Ranche, located in Fish Creek Park, you can enjoy bison strip loin in a ranch house dating from 1896.

INDIA: THE THALI

Southern Spice’s vegetarian thali, with (clockwise from top right) payasam, yoghurt, tomato chutney, coconut chutney, tamarind curry, sautéed broccoli, cauliflower, sambar, rasam, rice, pickle, an idly, a dosa and an applam.

One of the first things I did after returning from India was search out a restaurant that served southern Indian cuisine. This wasn’t an easy task; many Indian restaurateurs are from the Punjab, and the Indian food we know and love is often Punjabi. My search led me to the northeast community of Castleridge—Calgary’s unofficial Little India—and a restaurant called Southern Spice. With chefs imported from the state of Tamil Nadu, they had exactly what I was looking for: a southern thali (pronounced tall-ie). A thali is smorgasbord of rice, curries, chutneys and side dishes, in addition to a dosa (lentil & rice crepe), idly (steamed breakfast cake), applam (crispy flatbread), yoghurt and dessert. Southern cuisine relies less on dairy than its northern counterparts, favours spices such as coconut and tamarind, and does not use a tandoor oven. The result is what Southern Spice owner Beula David calls “an island flavour.” In the downtown core, Raj Palace also serves southern Indian cuisine, in addition to northern favourites.

Or you could try hakka cuisine, a Chinese-Indian fusion that originated in Calcutta. Here in Calgary, you can find it at Singh & I and Karma.

ITALY: LASAGNA

Calabrese lasagna and side salad from Calabro.

Rose Mosca, chef and owner of Calabro, is emphatic that Italian food is all about simple flavours. When she describes her restaurant, it’s all about the simple flavours of southern Italy: fresh seafood, premium olive oil, marinated tomatoes, and unadulterated cuts of veal. Mosca uses family recipes from her ancestral Calabria—the toe of the boot—and hasn’t tried to incorporate fashionable ingredients like bison or chocolate from Bernard Callebaut, mainstays on many of Calgary’s Italian menus. Calabrian cuisine is influenced by Mediterranean cooking, and features specialties such as lentil soup, marinated bruschetta, pork sausage and Calabrese lasagna, a classic comfort dish with no veggies and slowly stewed beef sauce. Mosca’s background is as homegrown as her cuisine; after a corporate career she opened Calabro using her mother’s family recipes, and hired one of her daughters to manage front-of-house service.

Or you could try real Neapolitan pizza from Pulcinella. These aren’t North American pies from Pizza Hut; the cheese is a subtle fior di latte mozzarella, the basil is fresh, and the crust slightly blackened from their wood-fired oven.

MEXICO: TACOS

Tacos from Los Chilitos, filled with steak, adobe-marinated pork & pineapple, and tender pork. Sides include chipotle (above), avocado sauce, beans and rice (below).

The taco is probably North America’s most beloved culinary import, so it’s not surprising that the version most people know and love is more at home in Texas than Mexico. Unlike the crispy taco shells from Old El Paso, authentic Mexican tacos are made from small, soft corn tortillas. They also lack ingredients that many North Americans take for granted: cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato and sour cream. At Los Chilitos, a converted yellow house on 17 Ave, you can get Mexican tacos filled with seasoned pork, steak, chicken or chorizo; cilantro; onion; and your choice of sauce—we recommend the avocado or chipotle. That’s it, apart from sides of beans and rice. Los Chilitos also specializes in tequila, which they want you to drink like a Mexican: with sangrita, not salt and lime. Or, you can try a michelada, a Mexican drink made of beer, lime juice, Tabasco, Worcestershire and a special sauce. El Mariachi, located in the Heritage Flea Market, also sells authentic Mexican tacos.

Or you could try a taste of South America at Rincón Latino. Don’t know what posole, ceviche or pabellón are? Visit and find out.

JAPAN: RAMEN

Muku’s tonkotsu ramen, made with soy-based pork bone broth, ramen noodles, green onion, and (top to bottom) fish cakes, baby corn and barbecue pork.

For those who don’t like seaweed or fish, ramen is an easy way to experience a taste of Japan. Sushi restaurants have spread like wildfire in Calgary, but most serve ramen as an afterthought. So, I searched out Muku, owned by the same people as Globefish but without a single piece of sushi or sashimi on the menu. Unlike the other picks on this list, ramen is a relatively newer dish; Japan imported it from China after World War II. But in a nod to the fact that food, like language, is constantly evolving, and the wild popularity of ramen in Japan, I’m including it on the list. Muku’s thin, wavy, wheat flour noodles are served in either soy- or miso-based broth, and topped with barbecue pork and accompaniments such as baby corns, green onion and fish cakes. If you’re not a fan of pork, ramen may not be for you, though Muku also serves rice dishes. Shikiji, located on Edmonton Trail, also specializes in Japanese noodles.

Or you could try Japanese food that isn’t sushi, sashimi, tempura, teriyaki chicken or noodles. At Shibuya, try izakaya cuisine such as grilled calamari with teriyaki sauce, beef in ponzu sauce, and grilled cod with miso saikyo sauce.

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