To participate in The Masticator’s reading week adventure, you will need the following items:
- A bus pass
- Seven dollars
- A backpack big enough to hold six pounds of shrimp and eels
- Courage, fortitude, and an adventurous palate
Sorry, what was that? You wanted to go to the Yucatan Peninsula? Well so did I. Unfortunately, my bank account had other ideas. If you’re in the same financial boat as me (it’s more like a raft, or a partially-deflated inner tube), I have really good news for you. There are loads of culinary adventures to be had right at your doorstep, for cheap. My most recent food safari took me to the wharf in Steveston, BC.
I first heard about the wharf in Steveston from my fishmonger, Daryl. Daryl not only mongs my fish, but along with his lovely wife Gigi also catches it by hook-and-line in the Queen Charlotte Islands, freezes it onboard, and sells it himself at various farmers markets here in Vancouver. The first tuna sashimi I “made” from his catch literally changed my life.
But since reading Bottomfeeder by Taras Grescoe, I’ve been concerned about the sustainability of my piscatory habits. I asked Daryl if he ever caught bottom-of-the-food-chain fish like sardines. He said no, but that I should make a visit to the wharf in Steveston.
So on the last day of reading week, a beautiful sunny Friday, I took a “vacation” to Steveston. I packed a lunch, put on some shades, and hopped on the #98 bus.
Two hours later, I was standing at the wharf.
I was feeling a little nervous. It was only when I moved to BC that I found out fish have seasons the way produce does, and I had no idea what would be available in the depths of February. I’ll save you the suspense: February is a time for shrimp. All the boats docked at the wharf had huge, pink piles of the leggy crustaceans, and almost nothing else.
The shrimp shocked me. I’m used to those fat gray tiger shrimp that come in a zippered bag. These ones are small, bright pink, and have heads and tails and long legs. They also have big black cartoon eyes, and are alarmingly creaturely. I couldn’t see how they were related to the bagged variety, until I realized that the grey ones must be headless and legless. But it wasn’t just their appearance that shocked me. Shrimp always seemed like such an exotic animal, and until that moment I almost didn’t believe they could be local to BC.
“How much?” I asked. Five bucks for five pounds. “Okay,” I said, having no idea how much five pounds was. I soon found out: five pounds of shrimp is a ridiculous amount of shrimp. It’s a criminal amount of shrimp. It’s enough to fill half a garbage bag, or an entire backpack. When I finally stopped gawking at all the shrimp I had just acquired, my eye was caught by a bin of darker, thinner creatures. They were eels, I was told. Two dollars for a pound. What the heck, I thought, I’ll shove them in the side pockets.
As I started to stagger away with dinner for sixteen in my bag, the woman called me back. “Umm…I don’t think they’ll let you on the bus with that,” she said. She handed me three more bags and some newsprint. I thanked her and headed back to the bus stop.
On the way home, I couldn’t stop smiling. For under ten dollars, I had visited a new part of BC, experienced part of local life there, purchased an exciting new food and learned something about seasonality in this part of the world. I couldn’t help but think it was a better way to spend my time and money than lying on some expensive, anonymous beach. Also, I thought it was funny that nobody on the bus knew I had a backpack full of eels.
It was a great trip, and I would recommend it to all Vancouverites. To get there, you can either take the #98 bus all the way to the Richmond Centre and then transfer to the #410 or #402, or you can take the #491 express from Burrard Station. Before you go, check their website, which tells you which boats are at the wharf and what they’re selling that day.
…But wait! Did you think the adventure was over? What kind of culinary safari would this be if I didn’t cook the darn things? Here’s a quick rundown of how they turned out:
The shrimp were relatively easy. I threw some whole into a rice pilaf, and it certainly looked cool, but it was too hard to eat. So next time, I buckled down and shelled a huge bowl of them. They turned out tiny and bright pink. I fried them in olive oil, butter, garlic and shallots, then added a little tomato paste and cream and lemon juice and tossed the whole thing with spaghetti. I will not mince words. It was good.
The eels have been slightly more challenging. I didn’t really look at them when I bought them. When I finally got them out of the bag, they had huge puppy-dog eyes and looked really sad to be dead. I knew I had to cut their heads off before I cooked them, or else my friends would freak out. I tried doing it in the sink, but my friends saw anyway and much freaking out ensued. Anyway, when I finally had the slippery things properly beheaded and eviscerated, I dredged them in batter and panko bread crumbs and fried them in oil. They were pretty tasty, but they have a huge spine that is very easy to choke on. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall says they’re best cold-smoked, so I’m trying to figure out how to rig up a smoker in my backyard.