You can have an authentic Chinese culinary adventure, right here in BC, with a tasty tour of the Asian restaurant scene in Richmond, no passport required!
(Cinda Chavich photos)
By CINDA CHAVICH
The fat dumpling sags ominously at the end of my outstretched chopsticks, proof of its delicate wrapper and perfectly soupy interior.
I’ve lifted it carefully by the nub that sits at the apex of its 18 perfect folds, and slid the base through a saucer of inky black vinegar sauce.
And when the soup dumpling bursts open in my mouth, revealing all of the hot, porky perfection within, I mumble my best multilingual culinary compliment – “Mmmmmm”.
Though it’s a simple food, the skillful execution of this Chinese specialty, xiao long bao, is what makes it so special. The fact that I’m eating it half a planet away from its origins in Shanghai, makes it even more remarkable.
But this is just one of the many remarkable – and authentic – Chinese food experiences you can have in Vancouver and environs, arguably the best place to eat Chinese food anywhere beyond China’s borders. Metro Vancouver is considered “the most Asian” city outside of Asia, with 45 per cent of its residents of Asian descent – the only other place that comes close in San Francisco at 33 per cent. In nearby Richmond, nearly 70 per cent of the 215,000 inhabitants have Asian roots, 47 per cent ethnic Chinese.
Whether it’s the great ramen shops along Robson Street, the elegant dim sum restaurants like Sun Sui Wah, Dynasty and Kirin Seafood, or hip, contemporary Asian concepts like Bao Bei, Kissa Tanto, Torafuku or Heritage Asian Eatery, it’s easy to eat something exotic at every meal. It all makes for a unique culinary adventure, like a trip to Hong Kong via Tokyo and Seoul, without the jet lag.
Beautiful crispy BBQ pork belly at Hong Kong BBQ Masters in Richmond.
CHINESE MASTER CHEFS
The first wave of Chinese immigrants arrived in Vancouver in the 1850s for the gold rush, and later to build the Canadian Pacific Railway. They established the city’s earliest Chinatown but it wasn’t until the 1980s that Vancouver saw a large influx of immigrants, and capital, from Hong Kong and later from mainland China.
Many of the young Asian Canadian chefs making a mark in Vancouver today are the children of these immigrants, a new generation building on the authentic traditions that arrived with Hong Kongese master chefs, and creating their own contemporary Asian concepts.
Chef Alex Chen personifies the confluence of cultures here – a child of Chinese immigrants who grew up in Vancouver and built his culinary career in top kitchens across North America. He cooked for Canada at the prestigious Bocuse d’Or culinary competition in France and now runs Boulevard Kitchen & Oyster Bar at the Sutton Place Hotel.
Chen has watched the Asian food scene blossom like a pot of flowering tea and has his favourite haunts. So I can think of no better brain to pick before heading out to try Vancouver’s finest Asian food.
“Our cuisine is so vast,” says the young Chinese master chef, “from congee for breakfast and dim sum, to afternoon bakery snacks, casual noodles and fried rice, or elegant multi-course banquets.”
With waves of Chinese immigrants arriving in the 1980s and 1990s, including top chefs from Hong Kong, “there’s been a big improvement in authentic Chinese cuisine,” says Chen.
Shrimp dumplings – har gow – are found on every dim sum menu, but it’s the combination of fresh, local seafood and top technique that makes Vancouver’s version exceptional.
“I go to New York, I go to San Francisco, I hit all the Chinatowns,” he says, “but it’s here I find that perfect har gow, the skin strong enough to encase the sweet prawns, and so thin it almost melts in your mouth.”
Chen also has a soft spot for barbecue meats and sends me to an unassuming shop, tucked next to a supermarket parking garage in Richmond, for a fix.
There’s a row of mahogany glazed ducks hanging in the window next to the busy take-out counter at Hong Kong B.B.Q. Master. Anson Leung, barbecue master Eric Leung’s son, brings us paper plates piled with duck and soy chicken but it’s the roasted pork, with its shattering layer of crackling pork skin, that’s irresistible.
The mahogany pork and crisp soy sauce chicken at Hong Kong BBQ Master in Richmond should not be missed. Cinda Chavich photo.
“It’s a traditional way of cooking food – all done by hand and by eye,” explains the second-generation barbecue chef-in-training, noting his father started it all 24 years ago. “Its pure fire, and how you move the meat around, a lost art.”
Almost lost, but thankfully not quite, in this sprawling city of new immigrants, with it’s well-stocked tea shops, ginseng merchants and designer knock-offs. Driving the streets of downtown Richmond, it’s easy to imagine you’ve fallen through that imaginary rabbit hole to China. It’s just a 10-minute ride on the Canada Line from YVR to Richmond – 20 minutes to downtown Vancouver – but it’s a world away.
Though Richmond has a colorful history as a fishing village - and boats still unload their catch of fresh salmon, halibut and spot prawns at the dock in Steveston - Chinese food has become the biggest draw for visitors, says Colin Wong, guiding me through the city’s 400+ Asian eateries.
“One of my favourite things is to explore other styles – Hunan, Szechuan, even authentic Muslim Chinese cuisine – we can eat all regions of China in Richmond,” says Wong who grew up eating mainly Cantonese cooking and finds some of the food as exotic as I do.
“It’s gotta be authentic,” he adds, “because there are a lot of new immigrants, and they demand it.”
In fact, there’s so much that’s authentic here, it would take multiple visits to be even moderately acquainted with it all.
Whether you’re snacking on the ethereal “shaved ice” at Frappé Bliss in the uber-Asian Aberdeen mall or a crispy bubble waffle doled out by the elderly Cantonese couple at the Rainbow Café, eating your way through Richmond is a culinary adventure.
Where else will you find authentic “dragon beard candy” (a kind of Chinese spun sugar confection) pulled by hand on the street, flaky wife cakes (laopo bing) filled with winter melon and sesame paste, or pristine balls of coconut-crusted mochi?
In the food court, upstairs above the food and vegetables stalls in the the public market, we find kiosks devoted to making pork dumplings and creating chewy, hand-pulled noodles, served with chilies and cucumbers as they do in the Muslim market in Xi'an, China.
We’re amazed by the array of sweets and savouries at the lovely Kam Do Bakery, and select individually-wrapped buttery egg tarts, “pineapple” buns with their crackled sugar surface (served with a thick slab of butter like they do in Hong Kong cafes) and golden coconut-filled buns for noshing while we explore.
There is no pineapple in a Chinese pineapple bun, just a crackled sugary top that resembles the tropical fruit.
START WITH A PLAN
It’s smart to start with the familiar – barbecue pork, dumplings, hot pots – before veering off into the uncharted territory of birds nest soup, chewy chicken feet, stinky tofu, or braised beef tripe.
Cruising Alexandra Road, known as “Food Street”, with its clusters of strip malls and signage bristling with Chinese and Korean characters, can be a navigational nightmare, even for the savvy explorer with a Google map. Thankfully, the clever tourism types at Visit Richmond understand the cultural disconnect for non-Mandarin speakers. So they’ve created a Dumpling Trail pamphlet and smart phone app, to lead adventurous diners to a dozen local restaurants, all carefully curated for cleanliness, English-speaking staff and, of course, delicious dumplings.
It’s a great place to start, as many of the stops on their trail are known for other specialties, too, from hand-pulled noodles to hot pots and, that daily ritual, dim sum lunch.
DOING DIM SUM
We dig into the latter at Chef Tony Seafood Restaurant, a contemporary space swathed in glossy white enamel, with private rooms, giant video screens and the requisite crystal chandeliers. Tony He opened his first Sea Harbour restaurant in Zhongshan City in China, then expanded to Richmond and Los Angeles, before creating the eponymous Chef Tony here in 2014.
Lots of modern bling in the room and on the dim sum menu at Chef Tony Seafood Restaurant
The dim sum menu is illustrated and easy to navigate (circulating dim sum carts now non-existent) and we indulge. The fluffy, fried taro dumplings (wu gok) arrive with a sliver of abalone perched on top, the translucent har gow with matusake in the sweet shrimp filling, and steamy egg buns oozing golden custard. Like his pork and shrimp sui mai topped with black truffles, it’s all about elevating the traditional, in both quality and price.
We decide on dinner at Hoi Tong Chinese Seafood Restaurant. Tucked into one of the ubiquitous strip malls along the neon-lined Westminster Highway, it looks unassuming, but master chef Leung Yiu Tong is a bit of a legend, known for his skill with delicate
Regulars come to sample his dai lang fried milk with pepah tofu - an ethereal cloud surrounded by lute-shaped quenelles of fried tofu - slippery bean curd rolls, filled with mushrooms, and taro-crusted layers of pressed duck.
Chinese food can be complicated in its simplicity and cooks like “Uncle Tong” – the septugenarian who arrived from Hong Kong with the first wave of Chinese chefs in the 1980s – have laid the foundation for a new generation of Asian chefs in Vancouver, where hip fusion concepts abound.
THE YOUNG GUNS
Young Felix Zhou is in the open kitchen at Heritage Asian Eatery in the downtown financial district, where office workers line up at the counter for morning Peking Duck benny bowls and congee, or fluffy bao filled with pork belly, kimchi and shiitake mushrooms.
Zhou was born in China and, with his two partners (with Chinese and Japanese/Spanish roots), designed a restaurant to reflect their shared heritage – “Asian food presented our way.” They’re on a trajectory that mirrors the evolution of Asian immigration and food trends in Vancouver. Like the earliest Asian Canadians, who populated the city’s original Chinatown, these young cooks are mashing up old and new ideas, family comfort foods and impeccable local ingredients, with their classical chef training.
The rice bowl is simple but the confit duck, like the pork char sui, is all made in house. When we come for Zhou’s Lunar New Year dinner – “the most traditional menu you will ever see me cook” – it’s a feast of updated flavours, from the pork consommé with a brunoise of vegetables and Chinese ham, to steamed oysters with puffed vermicelli and XO sauce, and eggplant dumplings, a vegetarian specialty Zhou created while cooking at The Parker. Bowls of hot glutinous rice balls in ginger broth make a fitting finish on a wet night.
We walk the busy downtown streets, past high-end boutiques and hotels, a sea of Asian faces in Brooks Bros., Anthropologie, Prada and Pottery Barn. Old Chinatown is crumbling around the edges, replaced by the modern lure of Richmond’s food hub, but we wander through the peaceful Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden and stop at trendy Bao Bei for an Asian-inspired rum cocktail flavoured with plum juice and Sichuan peppercorns, and bar “schnacks” of house-made Taiwanese sausage and Chinese pickles.
Dinner is at another modern Asian concept – chef Clement Chan and partner Steve Kuan’s award-winning Torafuku. Chan is at the pass in the busy open kitchen, and we sit at the polished concrete bar and watch our artfully-plated order emerge - Dy-No-Mite prawn tempura roll, Humboldt squid in yam flour batter with crispy Brussels sprouts and compressed apples, seafood laksa in a miso and red curry sauce, a jar of creamy panna cotta with yuzu gelée and a sliver of black sesame shortbread for dessert.
The room is sleek and minimalist, a buzz of hip diners enjoying cocktails, the soft grey and blue upholstery along the walls dampening the clatter and chatter in this narrow space. Chan was born in Vancouver, his grandmother owner a popular Shanghai-style restaurant in town, but like many young Asian chefs, he’s never worked in a traditional Chinese kitchen. From culinary school to cooking in notable kitchens at Chambar and Blue Water Cafe, to his Le Tigre food truck, pop-up dinners, and Food Network appearances, this young celebrity chef is a poster child for the evolution of modern Asian food in Vancouver, where Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Japanese cultures fuse, even as authentic traditions remain intact.
“In Vancouver, it’s all about diversity, especially in Asian places,” says Chan. “But better Asian or Chinese cooking here is mainly about better ingredients – we can have anything you can think of.”
Heading back to our hotel on Robson Street, we pass wun-tun houses, Thai noodle joints and popular places for steamy bowls of Japanese noodle soup like Kintaro Ramen and The Ramenman. From hole-in-the-wall diners to posh places aimed at new mainland Chinese money, Vancouver has so many choices. My list still includes the upscale Peninsula Seafood Restaurant, Jade Seafood Restaurant and Golden Paramount Seafood Restaurant, where I’ve heard the delicate steamed crab and pork dumplings are worth a special trip.
With seven daily flights from China to YVR every day there’s lots of cross-pollination, but it’s easy for Canadians visiting Vancouver to taste authentic and contemporary Asian delights, no passport required.
This story originally appeared in Doctor's Review magazine