Aunty Dupe’s Buka was privileged to be invited as a food judge to the 2019 Edmonton Heritage Festival. This festival is a three-day event held annually over the August long weekend at William Hawrelak Park in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Started in 1976 with 11 countries with the intent of celebrating their cultures with traditional food, entertainment, art and crafts, the Heritage Festival has now grown to be the world’s largest celebration of multiculturalism. This year, the festival runs from August 3-5 and consists of 100 countries, 73 pavilions, 25 stages and 501 food items.
I was fortunate to be a part of a group of food judges who spent the first half of Saturday August 3rd travelling to multiple pavilions to taste their traditional dishes. I also enjoyed learning about different ethnic cuisines from friendly vendors and volunteers; many of which were from the Edmonton community.
Our day started off with a meet up at 10:30am just 30 minutes after the festival officially opened to the public. All food judges met up at a predetermined location and were briefed by Heritage Festival's head food judge Phil Wilson, owner of baconhound and local food writer and blogger. We were then divided into 3 groups, assigned to a golf cart and sent on a tasty adventure by 11am! My team consisted of Arturo, Meagan Gee; chef and co-owner of the Commodore Restaurant, a family owned diner downtown Edmonton, and Rolando Sandrea; co-owner (with his wife Samantha) of Avilla Arepa, an urban Latin restaurant on Whyte Avenue. I must say being on this team was a hilarious journey filled with laughter, learning, bargaining, merging of cultures, meeting family, overcrowded golf cart and moments of dancing. It made the food judging experience much sweeter than I had imagined it would be.
I was on the yellow team and we had the pleasure of covering the southern part of the festival. Starting from pavilion 48 to 73, however, excluding 68, 72 and 71 as they were part of the other judges' zone. The Pavilions were displayed in white tents that were spread around the park. Our section consisted of 23 pavilions in total; some of which featured food items, some cultural art and merchandise and some featuring both food and art. Unfortunately, due to some setbacks at some of the pavilions such as a power outage, waiting on the food inspector or not being ready by the time the judges arrived, we were unable to try food from the Indigenous Peoples pavilion (65) and the Kenya pavilion (49). The Israel pavilion (53) was closed and would not be operating on this day. One of my fellow judges explained to me that Saturday is a sabbath (day of rest) in Israel. Interesting fact: According to Halakha (Jewish religious law), Sabbath (Shabbat) is observed from a few minutes before sunset on Friday evening until the appearance of three stars in the sky on Saturday night. Sabbath is ushered in by lighting candles and reciting a blessing.
Besides not being able to try dishes from these countries, we still had an abundant selection to try and judge. We were provided with a booklet of tickets and a binder to judge based on certain criteria e.g. taste, value for money.
Things I learned from being a judge at the heritage festival:
1) Taste is relative but an outstanding dish speaks for itself.
Although my fellow judges and I may have varied perceptions on some of the dishes we tried, when it came to dishes that excited the taste buds, the review was unanimous. An example of this dish was the humitas from Chile. Chile was our first stop and the vendors were nice to let us try a sample of each menu item. Out of the 4 dishes, we all loved the mashed corn wrapped and cooked in corn leaves! It was sweet and savory at the same time. I enjoyed this dish very much because it was flavorful and light in spices. The natural taste of sweet corn was very evident in this dish and as a fan of sweet corn I was delighted!
2) Each pavilion serving food must undergo a health and safety inspection prior to opening up to the public.
Although this was something I assumed was a necessary part of the festival, it was never apparent in my previous years of attending. Perhaps because I often came during the later parts of the day when the festival has picked up. However, as we started our food adventures in the daytime, we were surprised to find that some pavilions could not start cooking until the city inspector comes to give them a thumbs up. The Korean pavilion went through this unfortunate experience. As we neared the pavilion at about 12:30 pm, we were greeted by smiling volunteers who were dressed and lined up at the front as if ready to serve. They let us know that they were waiting for the inspector to arrive before they could open. We thought this pavilion was very organized as everything looked to be in place (including the servers) and ready to start. I wondered if perhaps the inspection could have been done the day before the festival started as the park had started to fill up with people around this time. We ultimately went back to this pavilion later in the day to sample their menu items. I enjoyed the thinly sliced beef bulgogi. It was well marinated and full of flavor. This pavilion went an extra mile with one of their menu items to create a fusion of Korean and Mexican cuisine with their bulgolgi tacos featuring bulgogi beef and fresh lettuce assembled into a hard taco shell. Thanks to Phil, we joked about this fusion and teased one of our judge members about it all day.
3) Sampling different types of food can be very costly.
Each ticket is one Canadian dollar. As judges, a criteria was to score based on value for money. While all of the pavilions we visited gave us small sample platters for 10 tickets, we realized that some pavilions can be quite expensive for the average festival attendee who could be spending a large amount of their tickets on one menu item. This makes it difficult to sample a variety of ethnic cuisines, especially at a festival with 501 food items! An example of one expensive pavilion that we encountered in our zone was the Nigerian pavilion. There, a majority of the menu items were 10 tickets each. Although the food was delicious (after all we can really throw down in the kitchen), I couldn't help but worry that this high price could deter people from trying our delicious cuisine, After all, if i were a attending the festival by myself, i would want to stretch my tickets as much as possible and get the most i can out of them. With so many cultures to check out in one place and many attendees trying new cuisines, we discussed among our team that having smaller portion sizes for a lower fee was more pleasing to festival goers. An example of this pavilion was Scandinavia who had a variety of mini food items that could be purchased for as low as 1 ticket. This would allow people to be able to try food from one pavilion and still have tickets left to explore others.
4) Golf carts are sturdier than they look.
To make our travelling easier, our team was assigned a 4-seater golf cart. At one point we had about 7 people on it and the thing still moved! Even we were all shocked and I must admit I was very nervous it would surely pack up and die at some point while climbing up a hill sending the cart rolling down backwards or toppling over during a turn but hey it didn't and we had some great times hurdled and squished up on that cart with strangers we had just met a few hours ago! Although I must add that the success of this cart carrying 7 people made us over estimate its power by the end of our food judging adventure. Our group size had increased to 9 after some of our family members came to say hello and we assumed that another 2 on the cart couldn't hurt! At this point we had just finished trying delicious food from Sri-Lanka and were about to head back to base. Upon pushing on the gas pedal, it was no surprise (but still a surprise) that the front end of the cart would go up in the air making us all scream and festival attendees laugh at us! LOL at this point we figured it was best that half of us walk back while the other half drove. There's no way that cart was taking 4 over stuffed judges and their families back to base. While on the crowded cart though some of us judges talked about our memories of rickshaws and motorcycles back in our home countries that would sometimes be so jam packed with a whole family and their belongings but would still move! We laughed.
Disclaimer: No one was hurt in the driving of our golf cart. However a lot of laughter could be heard by the festival attendees as we drove by!
By 4:30pm, our eating adventures were over and we had selected our top three pavilions that would make it into the top 10. They were Liberia, Nepal and Azerbaijan. We enjoyed the variety of traditional menu items from these pavilions as well as the vendors’ enthusiasm, knowledge of each menu item and value for money! With the addition of the other 2 judges group, the other 7 countries who made top 10 were Ecuador, Peru, Fiji, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, Scandinavia and Russia.
These countries proceeded to the next round of judgement the next day where a new set of judges tried the cuisines and chose the 2019 winner. For the second time in a row, Liberia won the title of best food at the Heritage Festival.
Aunty Dupes Buka is honoured to have been a part of the experience and celebrating a world of culture in Edmonton Alberta. Special thanks to Phil and my fellow judges Arturo, Meagan, Rolando and Samantha who made the experience even sweeter than the food we shared!