Friday, January 2, 2015

Food Coma: A (Chinese) Food Tour of Vancouver B.C.

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!


  1. ahhh... i feel as if I have feasted on a 8-course meal! This reminds me so much of my own family when we would do food trips in Madras or Bombay.. especially planning the next meal as we are devouring the first. The chance to experience such amazing cuisine is only made better by family and the memories made. So glad you had a great foodie trip!

    1. I'm dying to take that kind of trip with you to India!! John would love it (he claims he could eat curry every day for the rest of his life ...). Totally agree with you on the family part!

  2. Jaime, I always love going out for Chinese food because I feel like it's super easy to find lots of vegetarian options (which seems true for many Asian restaurants in America... Thai, Indian, Korean...) -- but here you have a lot of meat! Is vegetarian Chinese food actually not all that authentic? Or are the dishes you enjoyed more special occasion meals and a vegetable stir fry would just be a normal weeknight dish? Thanks for describing everything for us! Glad you had a great trip home!!

    1. Hi Alix, that's a great question - my family and I eat meat, so we do have a lot of meat dishes, but there are a LOT of vegetarian options in Chinese (especially Cantonese) cuisine, particularly because of the Buddhist influence on diet (which promotes vegetarianism). We eat a lot of different types of vegetables and there are a lot of dishes made from root vegetables (such as taro), fungus (i.e. mushrooms) and a variety of tofu and soy-based dishes as well, but those are quite different than the ones I imagine you'd find in an "ordinary" Chinese restaurant or take-out place in the US. The dishes we've had here are definitely more for special occasions. We usually have one meat, one vegetable, and one soup for dinner at home (which my mom or dad usually makes) which is a lot more low-key and less extravagant than the dishes pictured here. Hope that helps explain things a bit! :)

    2. Yes great explanation! I'll be on the lookout for a more Cantonese restaurant -- but I do also love my veggie lo mein.

    3. Veggie lo mein is delicious - my dad makes a delicious one with some shredded Chinese cabbage, mushroom, and egg thrown in!

  3. So, yeah... you basically ruined my life with this post. Why did I move to England instead of Vancouver? I'm having a hard time coming up with a good reason at the moment... In fact, my life is doubly ruined b/c as I was reading I thought "Oh! I can ask Jaime for London dim sum recommendations!" Then... ::wompwompwomp:: hahaha.

    1. HAHAHA ... best comment ever, Gianni! I've heard that Royal China near Baker Street is good, so I'll have to try that out and report back!

  4. Loved this post! I actually visited family in Vancouver a few months ago. They live near Victoria drive and their go-to spot was Sandy La for the honey garlic pork ribs! I also had some of the seafood congee the first night I was there. Definitely a good sort of hole-in-the-wall spot that's open even in the ungodly hours (I got in about midnight, went there after a short drive through the city, and we didn't leave until about 2am.)

    Anyway, just stumbled on your blog via my Twitter suggestions. Love it! I've always been fascinated with London/Londoners. I'll be staying awhile. :)

    1. Hi Shayne, thanks for stopping back! Those honey garlic pork ribs sound AMAZING. Must stop by next time - thanks for the recommendation! Love your blog - look forward to following you in the New Year! xo


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