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3 out of 4 stars

A Taste of Empire

  • Written and performed by Jovanni Sy
  • Directed by Guillermo Verdecchia
  • At the Market Kitchen in Toronto

When we eat international cuisine, are we savouring the flavour of the world coming together in delicious harmony? Or are we filling our bellies with a taste of empire?

In his new solo performance - part play, part cooking show - actor, playwright and amateur chef Jovanni Sy explores these questions and exposes a history of culinary colonialism.

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In a similar vein to what Michael Pollan did in his bestseller The Omnivore's Dilemma, Sy takes a single meal and follows the ingredients back to their source.

But Sy does this while actually preparing the meal in question for us in a test kitchen at the St. Lawrence Market; he adds a theatrical spin by performing in character as Jovanni, the much-abused Filipino sous-chef of fictional superchef Maximo Cortés.

No doubt a descendant of a certain Spanish conquistador, Cortés is the proponent of a school of cooking called Imperial Cuisine - it's a variation on the 100-mile diet, where if an ingredient doesn't come from more than 100 miles away, he won't use it. (He also believes that a sous-chef, like crème Chantilly, gets better the more you whip it.)

On this particular evening, Cortés has had to respond to a food emergency from celebrity client and Globe and Mail editor emeritus Bono, so Jovanni has stepped up to cook for us, hawk his boss's line of frying pans and expound on the provenance of the ingredients.

What Jovanni prepares is a traditional Filipino dish called rellenong bangus, a milkfish that, we discover, has been stuffed full of the flavours of Spanish imperialism and American colonialism.

It's a relatively complicated dish - and aficionados of the Food Network will be entertained just watching Jovanni make it. After an incision is made in the neck of the fish, the meat is separated from the skin with a palette knife. The fish's insides are squeezed out its neck, deboned, fried together with other ingredients and then stuffed back into the fish's intact skin. This process is a potent metaphor for the forceful attempt to replace the insides of a people that accompanies colonialism.

What is actually mixed with the milkfish meat is sofito, the garlic, onion and tomato mix that is the base for much of Spanish cuisine. The traces of empire in rellenong bangus run deep. The tomato, for example, actually originated in South America where it was first domesticated by the Aztecs. Spain distributed tomatoes throughout the world in the 16th century; in the 19th, the Americans squashed them down, mixed them with sugar and salt and made a sticky sweet condiment that conquered the planet. Many recipes, though not the one here, now add in ketchup and that other quintessential American ingredient, SPAM.

The specific tomato Jovanni uses in his rellenong bangus, however, was grown in Ontario. It nonetheless creates a paradox for locavores: The fruit may not be imported, but the picker, Carlos, certainly was. Flown in from Mexico, he was brought to Canada through the controversial Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program to do the hard, low-wage agricultural work that Canadians won't do even in a recession.

As a cooking demonstration that also provides food for thought, A Taste of Empire is a great success. The theatrical elements in this Cahoots Theatre Company production aren't quite as sophisticated as its underlying food politics, however - the satire is broad, the jokes a bit cheesy. Sy is a likeable performer, but Jovanni's trajectory from a true believer in Imperial Cuisine to his realization that he is being exploited ultimately feels like unnecessary garnish.

In addition to the show, A Taste of Empire features appetizers beforehand, wine to be drunk during, and a taste of the rellenong bangus afterward. Unless, of course, the injustice behind the ingredients spoils your appetite.

A Taste of Empire runs at the St. Lawrence Market west mezzanine in Toronto until July 24.

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