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A conversation with the founders of YATAI MTL

by Yang Shi
August 17, 2020

YATAI Festival runs August 21-23 in Montreal.
lllustration by Thaila Khampo. Design by Baillat Studio.

An onigiri is not just a stuffed rice ball wrapped in seaweed. For some, it’s the ultimate expression of love and comfort. With both hands rolling an imaginary ball of rice, Yasuko Tadokoro’s eyes lit up. She told us the story of her obaachan (grandmother), the woman who made her the perfect onigiri. As a child, she was a picky eater and she would only eat her obaachan’s umeboshi onigiri (stuffed sour plum paste). She describes it as the height of her childhood. Nowadays, every time she bites into this homemade delicacy, she reminisces about her grandmother and how marveling at her in the kitchen inspired Yasuko’s culinary journey.

It’s in this spirit of love, celebration, and craftsmanship that Yasuko and her husband, Thien Vu Dang, a Vietnamese refugee, set to organize their first edition of YATAI MTL festival in 2017 at Marché des Possibles—a Japanese street food fair rooted in (but by no means bound) by tradition. As for this year’s event, due to social distancing restrictions, YATAI is spread out through the city (in addition to a virtual component) and is laid out as a restaurant crawl where people can taste special menu items. On a balmy Wednesday afternoon, Yasuko and Thien invited me to chat in their luscious backyard: we talked about the origins of YATAI, the current state of street food in the age of pandemic, and how to nail an easy-to-make Japanese dish at home.

Yatai MTL

01/ Yatai means shop stand in Japanese, a small mobile food stall typically selling ramen or other types of street food. What does the word yatai mean to you?

Yasuko: Yatai for me is a place where people can gather and enjoy eating, talking, and drinking. And also, yatai happens at night. People are tired, but when they see the light at the yatai, people are more relaxed and ready to have fun.

Thien: It’s a kind of comfortable place for the people. It’s an outdoor setting with an indoor feel. it’s a very intimate experience. It’s very different from YATAI MTL. In Japan, you enter a noren (Japanese curtain) and you have this chef cooking in front of you. The whole mood is very low-tech, cyberpunk. It’s like an outdoor izakaya for workers. We dream about building one yatai where we can share that kind of experience.

02/ When did the idea for this festival first come to your mind?

T: The first spark of having yatai in Montreal is because of Fukuoka, a city we love. Fukuoka is very famous for its yatai because it’s a disappearing culture throughout Japan, unlike in Vietnam or Bangkok where street food is very prevalent. When we were in Fukuoka at a yatai around the river, we thought it would be nice to bring this kind of atmosphere in Montreal. That’s why we started YATAI MTL. The first thing we tried when we came back was a ramen rumble: we invited two ramen chefs at Marché des Possibles and created a Facebook event. The event exploded and hosted 1-2 thousand people per day! Gradually, we learned from that, and right now we keep improving each year.

03/ What do you think of the street food culture in Montreal?

T: It’s still very new, it's been only 5-6 years. Compared to New York or Toronto. In Montreal, they have been prohibiting street food for a very long time. Our friend, Guy-Vincent Melo, the president of the food trucks association in Montreal, has been fighting to legalize food trucks. So, we were very lucky to be able to organize YATAI MTL at Marché des Possibles, which has a permit to sell food.

04/ You’ve announced that this year’s event will be held partly online. How did Covid-19 affect the organization? What are some of the challenges you’ve faced?

T: At the beginning of the pandemic, there’s no way we could organize anything. We knew it had to be done online. So we started Yatai à la maison with the idea of ordering takeout food and watching online content. Then, as the city slowly reopened, we learned that it was safe to dine outside as long as we followed the protocols. It has to be a balance between being safe and to keep living and having fun. So, we found a solution where you can follow an itinerary with all the participating restaurants, get takeout food and eat on the street like the real yatai experience, and watch cultural events online while you wait in line [laughing]. Unlike previous editions, YATAI MTL is taking over the city!

Y: And we invite people to wear a yukata (summer kimono) or a kimono, or the YATAI MTL shirt to create a Japanese ambiance throughout the town.

05/ Do you guys organize everything?

T: It’s mostly the two of us. But we have some help with the logistics and communication.

Y: I think 80% is from Thien. 20% is from me.

T: See, that’s not true. It’s the Japanese modesty [laughing]. All artistic decisions are Yasuko. I am more in charge of logistics.

06/ When do you guys start planning?

T: We are already planning for next year!

Y: But not really in action, just collecting some ideas.

07/ It’s funny how you were saying that you complement each other. What’s your background story and how did your paths cross?

T: I think I always had that balance. For many years I was a video artist. But I studied economics and management. When I was an artist, I did all the production and organization. But Yasuko is much stronger than me in terms of artistic direction.

Y: When I met Thien, he was a VJ at the club, I was just following him around and started to assist him.

08/ When did you move to Canada?

T: I was born in Vietnam and I came here as a refugee when I was 6 years old, I have been living in Montreal ever since. My family fled from Vietnam because the country was very poor after the war and they saw no future for us there. They risked their lives to give us the hope of a better future.

Y: I came here almost 18 years ago. I was on a working holiday visa and I studied English. Then I met Thien and I started learning French.

“When I came to Canada, I started appreciating Japanese culture and traditions much more than I used to before.” — Yasuko

09/ How did growing up in Canada, or living here for a very long time, influence your relationship with your motherland?

T: It’s very conflictual. In Vietnam, I feel very isolated, they see me as Việt Kiều, the Vietnamese people who grew up abroad. So there’s a separation, which is normal since we don’t have the same life experience. I don’t totally feel Vietnamese, because I don’t have the same understanding of the country, what I have of Vietnam is what my parents gave me. It’s rooted in my family history. On the other hand, when you grew up as an immigrant in Montreal, even though you are fully integrated, you don’t feel you truly belong although I live here, because people will always ask “where are you from”. I am fully aware that I will always be in this in-between world.

Y: I grew up in Japan, so I am still very Japanese. But when I am in Japan I feel like I am not that Japanese anymore. We also stay in Japan four months a year in the wintertime, which is great. This is the moment where we collect ideas for YATAI MTL. When I came to Canada, I started appreciating Japanese culture and traditions much more than I used to before. When I was in Japan, I was watching nouvelle vague films and listening to American indie music. I am rediscovering Japan through a different lens.

10/ What do you think YATAI MTL represents and brings to the Japanese community, (as well as the non-Japanese people) in Montreal?

T: There’s a special kind of excitement towards Japanese street food. [Marché des Possibles] is near where we live and it’s very special since it’s in the middle of nowhere. You know the people who go there are going just for that [laughing]!

Y: I don’t think it brings that much to the Japanese community, I don’t see that many Japanese people going to YATAI MTL. But it’s nice to bring a side of the Japanese culture that people don’t see in Montreal.

T: I think it might not affect the Japanese community directly, but indirectly. It offers a deeper understanding of Japanese culture.

11/ What are some misconceptions you've encountered here about contemporary Japanese culture? Do you feel like western food critics mythologize Asian cuisine?

Y: I think many people think that Japanese culture is geisha, karate, sumo, sushi. I’m a bit tired of hearing it. For food, people only think of sushi. I’m quite happy to introduce them to the Japan I like [smiling].

T: You know what we have here, it's only the tip of the iceberg. A really old iceberg. The understanding is very superficial and full of clichés.

“You know what we have here, it's only the tip of the iceberg. A really old iceberg. The understanding is very superficial and full of clichés.” — Thien

12/ What’s your take on fusion food? Do you perceive it as a culinary compromise or exploration?

T: I’m more like a purist when it comes to Asian food. I have nothing against fusion, but I just love traditional Asian food.

Y: I am so open. But I haven’t had many occasions to try Japanese fusion food, except for Tsuta Ramen in Tokyo - it’s ramen meets french cuisine, and it’s just amazing!

T: The best fusion for me is the Bánh mì, French-Vietnamese fusion [laughing].

13/ How do you see YATAI MTL expanding in the future? What’s next for you two?

T: Our goal is not to make it bigger, our goal is to make it better. Better food, a better experience for everyone. We want to keep it intimate and upgrade the market place. In Asia, people love to eat and shop.

Y: With YATAI, we started to create a really nice relationship between Japan and Montreal. I wish we can be the bridge to connect both worlds. I want to introduce what I like in Montreal to Japan, and vice versa.

Yasuko and Thien in their backyard. Photography by Yang Shi.

Thank you for all your answers! I can’t wait to see where YATAI MTL is heading in the future. Before we part ways, I prepared a list of quickfire questions. 

01/ What’s your favourite Japanese ingredient?

T: Toro (fat belly tuna), it melts in your mouth
Y: Rice and saké.

02/ Name a product you cannot find here.

T: Good quality toro
Y: Maruchan Seimen

03/ What’s your favourite Japanese street food?

T: Ramen.
Y: Taiyaki (warm soft fish-shaped cake with red bean filling).

04/ What’s your favourite Japanese movie?

Y: Tokyo Story by Yasujiro Ozu.
T: Harakiri, it’s a samurai movie.

05/ What’s a recipe you would like to master?

Y: Dashimaki, it’s dashi and omelet.
T: I don’t have the patience to cook [laughing]. But I would love to master the art of fish cutting.

06/ Can you share with us an easy-to-make recipe?

Y: My grandma’s Shimeji-Gohan: As we cook rice, we only put a little of saké, soy sauce, shimeji (mushrooms), and aburaagé (Japanese deep-fried tofu pouches). Then you let your rice cooker cook for you [laughing].
T: The frozen udon, mentsuyu (noodle soup base), green onion, and egg. Super easy!

YATAI MTL 2020 takes place from August 21st to August 23rd. To RSVP or to learn more about the program, click here.

Yang Shi is a multidisciplinary creative creative and lifestyle editor at Sticky Rice Magazine. Born in China and raised in Montreal, she loves food, rock’n roll and a good meme.

Thaïla Khampo is a Montreal-based illustrator. He likes patterns, mystery, beautiful stories, naive art, caustic humour, simplicity, and images that tell a narrative.





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