Of course, my first post of the New Year is about food - after all, I spent most of my break eating everything in sight while mentally promising myself that I'd atone for my food-sins by walking to work every day and joining a new gym (assuming that all jet-lag has been erased by Monday morning!).
Aside from slowly expanding my waistline in the Gap velour sweatpants I've had since college (I've been meaning to throw them out, I swear - but they're just way too comfy), we spent a long weekend in Vancouver, B.C., which is just a 3-hour drive from our house in Washington.
The city of Richmond, a suburb of Vancouver, is North America's "most Asian city". At least 50% of its residents are Chinese, mostly comprised of immigrants from Hong Kong, who emigrated after the Chinese takeover of Hong Kong in 1997. Today, Richmond resembles a mini Hong Kong, with Chinese shopping malls, businesses, and restaurants at every turn.
I've been visiting Richmond for over 20 years now (!!!) as my aunt and uncle still live there (while other relatives have returned to Hong Kong). Unsurprisingly, it's become a hub for some of the best Chinese food in the world, especially as fresh seafood is ubiquitous in Vancouver. Each time, we arrive well-equipped with antacid tablets and our favorite restaurants on speed-dial (my family is known for making lunch reservations at breakfast and dinner reservations at lunch). A far cry from the local Chinese takeaway where sweet and sour pork and spring rolls rule the paper menus, the restaurants in Richmond boast some of the most expensive dishes that are exclusive to Chinese cuisine, specializing in delicacies such as shark fin soup (which is controversial, I know), abalone, and geoduck, to name a few. It's food for the adventurous - and not for the faint-hearted!
But first, let's start with the basics: wonton soup (though the variations of the soup available can hardly be called "basic"). Our first stop once we've crossed the Canadian border is always Max Noodle House, which is renowned for its wonton noodle soup.
My favorite is the beef brisket and tendon wonton noodle soup (yes, there are plump wonton dumplings underneath that tangle of noodles above!) accompanied by a side order of gai lan - Chinese broccoli. The noodles here are especially tasty due to their consistency: wonton noodles shouldn't be limp and mushy, but perfectly al dente (as my dad likes to exclaim when he's taste-testing ramen at home). The gai lan at Max's is also perfectly cooked: tender, but not too soft, crunchy, yet not too raw. It's served simply: with a small helping of oyster sauce and a dash of sesame seed oil. That's all you need, really, and this simplicity is a marker of Cantonese cuisine, which carries flavors that are typically lighter and cleaner on the palate than the spicier, heavier flavors of Chinese cuisine from mainland China.
From there, we ventured to Fisherman's Terrace Seafood Restaurant in Aberdeen Centre for dinner - a Chinese shopping mall (complete with a fountain that performs light shows set to music, a Japanese $2 store with everything you ever needed over 2 floors, and a food court specializing in Chinese street food - all which I'll cover later).
Here, we ordered specialities such as scallops (my favorite!) served in a "bird's nest" and a dish featuring two Cantonese delicacies (bottom right): abalone and duck feet. A mollusc found in the coastal waters of the Pacific Ocean (as well as off the coasts of New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa), abalone is a very desirable delicacy in Asian (as well as Chilean and French) cuisine, but is notoriously expensive. We often save it for special occasions and it's something my grandma usually orders or buys for me when I visit her in Hong Kong.
I'm not a huge fan of duck feet, but it's also very good - John was brave and tried some, which he ended up liking, but I devoured the scallops (which are hard to find of that size here in the UK), the chicken (upper left), and roast meats of pork, duck, and char siu like you've never tasted before (upper right). The char siu you might have at your local Chinatown can be tough, dry, and sickly sweet. Here, the barbecued pork is juicy, flavorful, and tender, much like the kind you can find hanging in a Hong Kong restaurant window.
The next day, we had dim sum at Sun Wui Wah in Richmond - another seafood restaurant known for its delicious offerings of lobster, geoduck, and fresh fish.
Like so many others I know, I love dim sum. And if you have a recommendation for a good dim sum restaurant in London that isn't grossly overpriced, isn't re-heated from frozen dumplings made from who-knows-when, and which serves decent-sized portions (I'll even overlook the bad service, which is apparently a given at every single Chinese restaurant I've tried in London), then puh-leaze let me know. Like, now.
Pictured above is one of my favorite sweet dim sum desserts: sesame balls with toasted sesame seeds on the outside and a black sesame paste on the inside, encased in a dough of glutinous rice flour (similar to the texture of Japanese mochi). So. Good.
In between lunch and dinner, we picked up some "snacks" at Aberdeen Centre and Parker Place (a neighboring Chinese shopping mall which ... happens to be directly across from Aberdeen Centre). I say "snacks", because the Cantonese equivalent of "snack" is more akin to a skewer of curried fishballs or a thick slab of toast with lashings of butter and condensed milk, versus a dry granola bar or a handful of nuts. You get the idea.
Cantonese and Taiwanese Chinese love their fresh juices and bubble milk teas. 8 Juice, located in the food court in Aberdeen Centre, has a variety of fresh juices made to order. My parents like the fresh Asian pear juice, but I opted for a papaya slushee - fresh, sweet chunks of papaya blended with ice. So delicious and refreshing. It brought back memories of thirst-quenching papaya and Asian pear fruit juices we'd grab outside the Causeway Bay metro station in Hong Kong after a particularly long afternoon of shopping or visiting my grandma in Kowloon.
Next, we headed to Parker Place for some of those delicious Chinese yellow curried fishballs - a childhood favorite.
The yellow curry is delicious mixed in with some rice, chicken, or even potatoes, and my mom used to ask for extra sauce so she could bring it home and do just that! My stomach's growling just thinking about it (and my heart sinks in disappointment at the reality of a can of tomato soup and stale baguette waiting for me here in the kitchen).
That night, we headed back to Sun Sui Wah (yes, again, don't judge) for a seafood extravaganza, including lobster served on a bed of noodles and geoduck - a giant clam that has a lovely sweet, and slightly crunchy texture.
Geoduck is a delicacy that's expensive to source (it rang up on our bill as $154.50 alone - yikes!) and therefore rare to find in restaurants. It's native to the west coast of North America, so you'll be hard-pressed to find it elsewhere. It can be cooked two ways (pictured above - below left and right) and also eaten raw (as sashimi) and this video from Hung Huynh, the winner of Season 3 of Top Chef shows you how (warning: geoduck looks super unappetizing in its natural form!). For me, the fried "body" of the clam (the part underneath the shell) is a little too strong (though John loved it) but I could easily polish off a plateful of the rest! Dipping it in a bowl of soy sauce with slices of red chilli only enhances its natural, sweet flavor.
We also indulged in some roast squab (pictured upper right) and one of my favorite Chinese vegetables, pea shoots sauteed in oil and a bit of garlic - simple, yet so very effective.
Finally, the piece de resistance was the ultimate dessert (and one that isn't on the menu): baked red bean and tapioca custard pudding.
You won't find this in many Chinese restaurants, and it has to be ordered ahead of time due to the amount of time it takes to bake. The flaky, outer crust resembles that of a Cantonese pineapple bun, and the warm, gooey tapioca and red bean filling is served so hot, it normally burns my tongue. I love it, and always seem to find room for it no matter how full I am!
Though we were super lucky to have my parents to guide us (and to treat us!) in ordering at some of Vancouver's best Chinese restaurants, I hope that I'll be able to return someday and be brave enough to order these delicious dishes myself.
What about you? What's the most adventurous dish you've ever tried? And has this post given you a different perspective on Chinese food? I'd love to know in the comments below!