Story: Tara Lee is a freelance food writer and unapologetic glutton whose work is found in the likes of MonteCristo Magazine, The Georgia Straight, Eat Magazine, The Vancouver Sun, and CBC Radio.
Back in 2015, Matthew Murtagh-Wu walked into Dollar Meat Store in Vancouver’s Chinatown and stood at the counter to order pork belly for his new business, The Dumpling King.
The butchers responded to Murtagh-Wu with some hesitancy: he spoke Mandarin instead of Cantonese, and they perceived him to be White. However, Murtagh-Wu, who is actually half-Hong Kong Chinese, half-White returned day in, day out, until he proved he was serious about their product. Over time, he gained their trust and affection.
Now, Murtagh-Wu and the butchers are wonderful friends, messaging each other on WhatsApp, exchanging gifts of oranges and rice wine, and even sharing a staff lunch together in the basement of Dollar Meat. “It’s become a relationship that is very special to me. It’s a testament to what it means to have a small food business and be connected to the vendors who give you the ingredients that you use to cook,” he says.
For Murtagh-Wu, Chinatown nostalgically reminds him of shopping with his father as a kid to pick up a fish or chicken for their weekend supper. His dad, originally from Hong Kong, taught Murtagh-Wu the value of sourcing fresh, local ingredients. “There is a tangible and noticeable difference when you get fresh ingredients, and when you process them quickly,” Murtagh-Wu says.
The Dumpling King Uses Locally-Sourced Meat
Every morning, Murtagh-Wu receives pork belly that the butchers at Dollar Meat have just freshly ground. He then immediately mixes it with other ingredients, such as Shaoxing wine, Worcestershire sauce, and a glug of Johnnie Walker Black Label, to make the filling for his hand-folded, Taiwanese-style dumplings.
Chinatown is more than just a place for Murtagh-Wu; it represents the city’s cultural history, his personal Chinese heritage, as well as the ethos of his company. “My business DNA is linked to that neighbourhood. They’re inseparable,” he says. He passionately explains his loyalty to other Chinatown vendors, like Carley BBQ & Hot Pot Supplies, where he buys ginger and green onions, and soy sauce.
On a typical visit to Chinatown, Murtagh-Wu visits Dollar Meats, then wanders over to the nearby Continental Herbal Co., where owner Micky Cheung makes sure to set aside the best grades of dried shiitake mushrooms and the biggest wood ear fungus for him.
While large food wholesalers have reached out to him, Murtagh-Wu remains rooted in his pride in Chinatown and the quality of its ingredients. “I take the time to tell the story of the food, and I hope people see the value in it,” he says.
Johnny’s Pops Showcases Locally-Sourced Produce, B.C. BerriesJohnny Wikkerink, owner of Johnny’s Pops, shares Murtagh-Wu’s belief in sourcing close to home. He defines local as “something that adds value and diversity to our community” and a vibrant local food system “as a hive with everyone supporting each other, and we all do better.”
Wikkerink’s cheery red cart appears regularly at farmers markets across the city, stocked with artisan popsicles that feature blackberries and raspberries from local producers such as Krause Berry Farms in Langley and Mandair Farms in Abbotsford. Wikkerink says it makes logical sense to buy local berries instead of those shipped from afar: “It’s literally in the region so why not buy from them?”
Johnny Wikkerink (Source: Vancouver is Awesome)
Wikkerink admits that purchasing this way can sometimes be challenging since farmers here don’t produce year-round. Supply can also be unpredictable, especially with changeable weather conditions. His solution is buying frozen berries, in addition to being flexible with his flavours, so that he can dream up popsicles that showcase what’s available locally.
Although the ingredients for Johnny’s Pops are more expensive, Wikkerink feels it’s important to make fellow BC businesses a priority. For example, his blackberry cheesecake and creamy strawberry lemonade feature products from Port Coquitlam’s Meadowfresh Dairy, who sources from smaller farmers in the area.
Wikkerink offers all-natural, local popsicles for kids of all ages, a welcome contrast to the artificially-flavoured versions that many people grew up eating. Selling small batches at farmers markets, neighbourhood stores, and cafes means he doesn’t have to resort to stabilizers. “Basically, if I went big retail, I’d make worse popsicles,” he says.
Panela Lemon Bakes with Pure, Local Ingredients
Marilyn Cordoba of Panela Lemon is equally careful about the integrity of the ingredients for her company’s plant-based cookies. Cordoba learned how to bake from her mother in Colombia who transforms existing recipes for desserts, such as carrot cake, into healthier, yet equally tasty versions.
Before Cordoba launched Panela Lemon a couple years ago, she experimented in her own kitchen for a more wholesome way to satisfy her vegan sweet tooth. “I wanted something that is a nice indulgence but also that is less processed and locally made,” she says.
The result are cookies like the Sinner, which features chocolate dough with organic coconut chips, organic white chocolate, as well as a crunchy peanut butter filling. Cordoba spends countless hours researching each ingredient to ensure that it is as organic and sustainable as possible.
Cordoba is also very committed to sourcing within Canada. “It’s my way to support other local companies,” she says. “We create a loop where everybody helps each other. It generates jobs for other people, and the money stays in the local economy.”
Besides using Canadian maple syrup in her cookies, Cordoba sources whole wheat flour from Nunweiler’s Flour Company in Saskatchewan. She chose them as they only use the entire whole grain kernel, and don’t have any additives and preservatives in their products. “I want the flour just to be flour,” Cordoba says.
Cordoba purchases rolled oats, in addition to oat flour for her gluten-free cookies from the Chilliwack-based Anita’s Organic Mill. She likes the nutty flavour the oat flour lends to the cookies. Plus, since the flour doesn’t have to travel a great distance, it’s fresher, further improving the quality of her products.
Cordoba invests a lot of time in her sourcing decisions because she cares deeply about the wellbeing of her customers. “Since the beginning, my purpose was to give people something that makes them feel good. It’s my way to show respect for them. I put a lot of effort in checking ingredients and how the cookies are made, so they get a very good product,” she says.
While her food costs are higher due to sourcing locally, Cordoba is confident that supporting her customers and the local community provides immeasurable benefits. And based on the videos her customers send her of their families happily enjoying Panela Lemon cookies, buying local can be a joyful experience as well.
Our online shop Coho Market carries all of Marilyn and Matthew's handcrafted cookies and dumplings. Check out Panela Lemon and the Dumpling King here!