Backcountry Wok + Wok Fresh - Melanie Ang
You started Backcountry Wok in Vancouver and just recently moved to Ottawa. Tell us a bit about the transition and yourself.
When I told people in Vancouver I was moving to Ottawa, many people didn’t have great things to say, mostly about the winter and how cold it gets! To be honest, I’ve really enjoyed my first year in the city. While cold, Ottawa winters are sunny which is more than I can say for Vancouver. My favourite part about Ottawa though is the community! I’ve met so many amazing people from selling at markets, events, grocery store demos etc., then you see the same happy customers again at the next event and you really start to build a connection and a friendship over time. It’s such a rewarding experience to hear the stories about where our meals have gone and how it's made people’s lives easier and better!
What was the inspiration and story behind Backcountry Wok?
Backcountry Wok started from our desire to create better tasting and less wasteful dehydrated meals for camping. About 2 years ago, a group of friends and I did a multi-day backpacking trip on Vancouver Island. After a week of eating the same boring flavoured dehydrated meals, filled with too much salts and preservatives, we came out of the trail craving some real food with actual veggies. On top of that, we packed out a bag full of trash from all the plastic and aluminum packaging from these meals. I thought “how can being outdoors and enjoying nature actually leave the environment and the places we care about in a worse state.” That trip was such an eye-opening experience and inspired us to create our own eco-friendly dehydrated meals.
Tell us a bit about the process of making each meal.
It is really important to me for our meals to be as sustainable and local as possible. That’s why we source all our produce from local producers here in Ontario. We prep and dehydrate all the ingredients in-house. Then we store them in air-tight containers (they keep for up to a year!) and we mix and match in specific amounts in our compostable bags to create each meal. The bags are heat-resistant so the hot water just goes directly into the bag. The water gets reabsorbed by the dry ingredients and you have a meal ready to enjoy within 20 minutes. You can either home or industrial compost it when you're done. Fun fact: I buried a bag in my backyard about 1.5 years ago, and while the pouch and lining are gone, the zipper seal (which is slightly thicker) is slowly starting to compost.
Which one is your favourite?
Definitely the Bibimbap, which is a Korean Fried Rice. This was the very first Backcountry Wok recipe I created when we started dehydrating foods. It has since gone through multiple iterations – at one point, I was eating my dehydrated Bibimbap for lunch every single day for a month! I was obsessed with creating and perfecting the right combination of ingredients and processing steps. For example, I would slice the carrots in strips, then cubes, then slices. I would steam the carrots for 1 minute, 2 minutes, microwaving. Dehydrating it for different lengths of time. Trying to figure out what combination of steps would give me the perfect re-hydrated carrots that would complement the re-hydrating time for the other ingredients in the Bibimbap. Since then, our Thai Green Curry with rice has been our most popular dish but the Bibimbap will always be my baby!
Where did you draw inspiration for your recipes?
At home, I tend to gravitate towards cooking and eating more Asian cuisine. It is a familiar comfort food that I grew up eating and learning to cook with. When I started spending days and weeks at a time out in the backcountry, I was always craving Asian food. I wanted to eat food that I would regularly eat at home when I was in the outdoors. That was the inspiration behind creating these Asian inspired recipes and putting the Wok in Backcountry Wok. There are increasingly diverse people exploring the outdoors and I feel like that multiculturalism needs to be better captured in the outdoor industry and represented in the choices of camping foods available on the market.
Is Backcountry Wok just for camping?/Tell us about your new line of products.
Since moving to Ottawa, I noticed that many people who bought our Backcountry Wok meals would also eat it as a quick lunch in the office, or as an easy meal at home or at school for final exams. That’s when I launched Wok Fresh (www.wokfresh.ca) – essentially it’s the same dried meal as Backcountry Wok, but with less salts and protein for an everyday lifestyle, since most people don’t require as much salts or protein when they aren’t hiking or canoeing all day. It is such a convenient meal, you can just leave at your desk without refrigeration and it keeps for one year.
Where can I pick up your products?
You can purchase it online at backcountrywok.com and wokfresh.ca. In Ottawa, our Backcountry Wok meals are also sold at Trailhead Paddleshack and Nu Grocery. Our Wok Fresh meals are available at Rainbow Foods, Natural Food Pantry, Wild Oat Bakery, Dandelion Foods and Sandy Hill Pet and Human Food Co-op.
Tell us about your first camping experience.
My very first backcountry camping trip was such an interesting and hilarious experience. It was in Garibaldi Provincial Park in British Columbia and I pretty much had no idea what I was doing. I carried a ton of unnecessary weight and I brought items I thought were essentials at the time like a frying pan and just way too much food. I remember for breakfast, everyone was eating oatmeal and I would whip out all the ingredients for pancakes. My friends were super helpful in showing me the ropes and over time I learnt by doing. It always seems intimidating when you first start out, but you definitely don’t have to go from never stepping foot on a trail to 2 weeks in the remote backcountry. There are so many ways to enjoy nature and explore the outdoors. My hope is that camping and the backcountry becomes as accessible as possible to everyone. There are so many amazing resources and groups in Ottawa. And if anyone has any questions or want some tips on where to start, please don’t hesitate to reach out -- I love to chat all things camping and the outdoors!
What’s next for you in 2019?
I definitely want to keep growing our business here in Ottawa and launch new recipes too! I’ve been recipe developing over the last few months – trying out different combinations of ingredients and flavours. I can’t wait to share our creations soon.
What are some of your favourites places to go camping and why? Any camping plans for this year?
The Rockies will always have a special place in my heart. I worked for Parks Canada in Yoho National Park a few years back and I couldn’t believe a place like that exist! Specifically, Lake O’Hara in Yoho is one of my favourite places in the world – fun fact: it is the cover photo on my Backcountry Wok website and the image on the Bibimbap label. I did so many solo scrambles and hikes in that area -- experiences that challenged my limits and also taught me the value of preparation, independence and respecting the elements. It’s my favourite place because it always reminds me of my capabilities and tenacity.
This is my first summer in Ottawa. I am excited to explore the parks in Ontario and especially get into canoe camping! I have some plans for Algonquin and Killarney Provincial Park. Out west, I think it's much more focused on backpacking and hiking so I'm excited to experience Ontario's infamous canoe camping and lakes that I've heard so much about!