A Chinese Food Marathon in Richmond, BC
I miss Hong Kong – the stunning waterfront skyline, the bustling crowds, the singsong hum of Chinese dialects, and, of course, the mouthwatering food. But with airfares sky high, I thought it would be a while before I saw this golden city again. That was before I came to Richmond, British Columbia, Hong Kong without the jet lag.
Never heard of Richmond? It’s in the heart of metropolitan Vancouver, a city renowned for its picturesque setting of ocean and snowcapped mountains. Richmond is right next door, a community of nearly 200,000 located on 17 islands in the middle of the Fraser River. But what makes this town a standout is its people — 65% Asian, 44% of which are Chinese and most of those from Hong Kong. These immigrants have recreated their beloved Hong Kong with Asian stores and shopping malls and Chinese food that’ll rival any you’ll find outside of China.
All Roads Lead to Richmond
Vancouver International Airport is located in Richmond, which makes it a snap to hop a free shuttle to my hotel. Richmond is only 20 minutes from the U.S. border by car; about the same to downtown Vancouver. It’s also served by rail (both Amtrak and Canada’s Via Rail). Since the 2010 Olympics were held in Vancouver, it boasts a light rail line that goes to the airport and to downtown Vancouver in less time than it takes to drive.
On the ride in from the airport, I notice a preponderance of signs in Chinese. This is a modern town, with high rises, wide boulevards, big shopping malls, and nearly 400 Asian restaurants. It’s not the quaint Chinatown of yesteryear. This is a modern mini Hong Kong, and, judging from the building cranes and construction all around, a town its residents are still creating.
I’m staying at the Sheraton Airport Hotel, a bit of a misnomer since it’s 15 minutes from the airport. My room is whisper-quiet without the airplane noise too common in airport hotels. If you’re on a budget (and who isn’t), Richmond is a great choice for lodging since there are 26 name brand hotels here and their rates are considerably less expensive than those in downtown Vancouver.
I’ve come to here to meet friends because I’ve heard that Richmond is one of the best places in North America to celebrate Chinese New Year – and I’m dying for some terrific Chinese food.
My friends and I meet at Fisherman’s Terrace Restaurant in the Aberdeen Mall. Richmond is a city of Asian malls, four in all, that rival the malls of Hong Kong. Fisherman’s Terrace is famous for their dim sum, tiny little plates of food literally translated as “touch your heart.”
Unlike many old style restaurants where they wheel steam carts around and you point to dishes you want, most dim sum restaurants in Richmond like Fisherman’s Terrace make all the dishes fresh-to-order. It’s not quite as fun as cart pointing, but my friend, Stacey Chyau, who hails from Taiwan, assures me that this dim sum is fresher and more delicious. She’s right.
With Stacey leading the way, we order a number of tantalizing dishes to share – pillow-soft steamed shrimp dumplings; chewy, sweet sticky rice with pork and shrimp wrapped in bamboo leaves; flaky pastry filled with rich BBQ pork topped with sesame seeds; shrimp and garlic spring rolls; rice rolls with shrimp nira (Chinese chives); and, my favorite, crispy deep fried pockets of bean curd wrapped around shrimp and pea shoot tips. For dessert, we enjoy little green balls that look like Japanese mochi that are filled with deep fried bitter melon with bean sauce – a crispy, soft, and sweet, but not overly sweet, end to our dim sum adventure.
Lions in the “Village Square”
We head over to another mall, Lansdowne Center, where several Asian community groups like the Richmond Chinese Community Society have set up booths to sell items like traditional hand cut paper lanterns. At one space, people line up for a spin-the-wheel while young Chinese girls and boys shake hand-held clackers. At another, there’s a display of traditional “lucky” Chinese New Year foods such as sweetened water chestnut, puff pastry dumpling, sesame donuts, egg pastry, and sweeten lotus root. At yet another table, a silver haired Chinese man, Richard Wong, writes fortunes in beautiful flowing calligraphy. He smiles when he hands me mine and says, “It means you should move on with the times. Progress.”
Like Hong Kong malls, this place is buzzing with activity, including the familiar hum of Chinese dialects. In Richmond, and in modern Hong Kong, the malls have become community meetings places, village squares if you will. Given B.C.’s damp January weather, these temperature-controlled spaces are perfect. And nearly everyone here is dressed in their New Year’s finest, embroidered silk jackets in vibrant reds, greens, pinks, and lavenders. They’ve come to watch the lion dancing, the dance that heralds in the Lunar New Year.
According to tradition, a Chinese monk dreamed about many evils and sorrows plaguing the land. He prayed and asked the gods how to prevent these evils. They told him a lion would protect them. So the monk combined all the lucky animals he could think of and created the lion. Since then, young men in lion costume dance during the New Year celebration to ward off evil and bring good luck and prosperity.
Boom, boom, boom. The Taiko drum announces the lion dancers, three teams of two men each dressed in golden lion costumes. At first, the lions sit quietly on the stage, the drum slowly awakening them. Then, as the drum beats faster, the lions come to life, leaping and undulating, their giant heads bobbing, mouths flapping, tails swinging in an intricately choreographed dance. All too soon, it is over and the lions toss out traditional red envelopes filled with small amounts of money to the crowd and we applaud and shout our approval.
We’re curious to know more about Chinese beliefs so we head a short distance to the International Buddhist Temple (aka Guan Yin Temple), reputed to be the best example of classical Chinese temple construction outside of China and the second largest Buddhist temple in North America. It’s raining when we arrive, so we grab umbrellas and head through the ornate Chinese gate to the first large stone sitting Buddha sculpture.
The air is thick floral smoke as worshippers move from shrine to shrine praying and offering incense. The walkway leads to a broad courtyard filled with gazebos decorated in red and gold and a large golden shrine of Guanyin, known for her compassion. Beyond are elegant ponds and bridges, gardens and rockscapes. At the edge of one pond is the Wisdom Fountain whose water worshippers believe has healing properties. I could spend hours on a sunny day in this tranquil landscape, but the rain is coming down harder so we pull our umbrellas closer and head for the main temple, an imposing building with golden tiles and flared eaves on its two-tiered roof.
As I step through the doorway, I suck in my breath. The giant 13-foot golden Shakyamundi Buddha, the largest in North America, is magnificent. Surrounding the statue in little lighted niches are hundreds of tiny Buddha statues. In front of the shrine are offerings – fruit, rice, cooking oil. Behind the large Buddha is a wall with photos of people who have died. Here worshippers leave offerings and prayers to their ancestors.
After touring the temple, we hustle through the weather to the Cattle Café, an East-meets-West Hong Kong style restaurant that reflects Hong Kong’s years as a British colony. “This is as close as you can get to Hong Kong food,” Stacey tells us. “You can’t beat it for a quick, casual, every day type lunch or dinner that’s really inexpensive.”
On Stacey’s recommendation, we try bubble waffles, light-as-air egg-flour waffles with “outdents” instead of indents that taste like soft fortune cookies; a BBQ eel sandwich on white bread with the crusts cut off (very British); and, my favorite, a “red and white” baked rice, that comes with tomato-based rice and pork chop on one half and a creamy scallop-prawn-fish rice on the other. It’s filling and the ultimate Chinese comfort food. We also try two other Hong Kongese treats – milk tea made with sweet condensed milk and the special house tea made with tea, coffee, and condensed milk—and they’re creamy and delicious.
Countdown to Year of the Dragon
Tonight is Chinese New Year’s, so my friends and I retreat to our hotel rooms to rest up for the feast to come. Chinese New Year is a time of family reunions and relatives often travel from Hong Kong or mainland China to be with family here in Richmond. It’s traditional for Chinese families to go out for a multi-course meal before going to the countdown celebration.
Our choice is Shanghai River, a coolly elegant restaurant that’s within walking distance of our hotel. Shanghai-style restaurants are quickly overtaking Cantonese in popularity thanks in large part to Xiao Long Bao, tender “soup dumplings” filled with their own broth inside a doughy wrapper.
Tonight, our feast consists of 12 courses, starting with a cold appetizer plate of shredded jellyfish; braised gluten with mushrooms; bean curd roll; braised bamboo shoots; and marinated bean curd with celery. Most of these dishes I’ve not experienced and my mouth is excited by all the exotic flavors and textures.
Next comes the soup dumpling, an intricate pillow folded into 28 pleats. Our host suggests we put the entire dumpling in our mouths – or suffer broth dripping down our chins. We try it and none of us is embarrassed with dribbling soup, but all of us are amazed at the silky texture and the surprise burst of delicate broth.
Then it’s rich, sweet-spicy pan fried tiger prawns that leave my mouth tingling. The braised chicken soup with vegetables and won ton comes as a light broth with a chewy won ton. Next it’s pan-fried live crab with rice cake, a dish reputed to bring financial and emotional status in the coming year. I can use both so I take another helping.
The dishes keep coming – Peking duck two ways, braised seasonal vegetables, a whole rock cod with sweet and sour sauce, and pan-friend noodles. We wash them down with cold Chinese beer and wine and boat loads of tea.
By the time the desserts arrive, my slacks feel tight, but I can’t resist the Chinese “donuts,” crispy fried sweet dumplings with red bean paste served warm and sweet sticky rice, a traditional dish that signifies a family’s commitment to “stick” together in the New Year.
We leave Shanghai River well fortified for the countdown to the Year of the Dragon. Aberdeen Center’s walkways are packed with vendor tables offering everything from Chinese trinkets and to special New Year’s cupcakes. A man dressed as a rich man carries a bar of gold and poses for pictures with visitors. Everywhere are red and gold, the colors of health and prosperity.
In the mall’s center, there’s a large stage where a seemingly endless stream of speakers and performers entertain. Lion dancers cavort
and young men and women pound out Chinese pop songs in Mandarin. People gather watch the action in front of the stage and along the sides of the four stories looking into the space. I go explore many of the stores.
Aberdeen Center, the largest Asian mall in Richmond, offers everything from a Lamborghini outlet to Daiso, a huge Japanese $2 store. There’s also a big computer-generated fountain (ala Las Vegas’ Bellagio) and an 800-seat food court filled with Asian-themed restaurants. You can shop the latest in Chinese fashions (shiny, puffy coats seem popular) or check out Chinese candy shops and herbalists who stock everything from dried sea cucumber to ginseng powder. I pop into one and buy several packages of Golden Throat, a Chinese cough drop I first discovered in Hong Kong.
By the time I’ve perused some of the 160 shops, it’s nearly midnight and the excitement is growing amongst the throng. It’s countdown time.
10,9,8…the drum thumps out the numbers 4,3,2, 1.
“Gung Hay Fat Choy!” The stage erupts with confetti and streamers and the crowd cheers.
It’s officially the Year of the Dragon, purported to be a year of power, success, and happiness. Tired and smiling, we head back to our hotel to dream about dancing lions.
Celebrating Year of the Dragon
The next morning, we meet for – what else? – more Chinese food. We head to Anytime #9, a 24-hour East-West fusion eatery. Here, you can order Western style eggs and bacon or Asian fried noodles or rich porridge. My friends and I are still game for more Asian flavors so I order Congee, a rice porridge with whole mushrooms and large pieces of chicken and fried noodles with soy sauce. While I enjoy the noodles, the thick, rather bland Congee is an acquired taste. My tablemate cleans up her thick, sticky Congee, but I let mine congeal largely uneaten. I order Hong Kong style coffee-tea-condensed milk combo and again love it.
Just because the Year of the Dragon is here doesn’t mean the celebrations have ended. We strike out for Yaohan Center, another of the city’s Asian malls. Like others, this mall is filled with Chinese fashions and houseware stores, but it’s also famous for Osaka, a giant Asian supermarket.
Osaka overflows with prepared Chinese foods – dumplings, whole BBQ ducks, sesame balls, spring rolls, delectable looking sushi—and packages and foodstuffs I haven’t a clue about. The fish counter features whole frogs and tanks of live fish. I sample some bitter-tasting ginseng tea and buy some sweet coconut macaroons.
The sound of Taiko drums pull us out of the market to the mall’s second floor to watch two young martial artists perform the most amazing lion dance I’ve ever seen. Risers, metal poles with round metal plates on top, have been set up at different heights and the lion suddenly leaps up onto four of them. With perfect coordination, the two men leap as one from riser to riser. When they reach the highest riser, lion’s front end jumps onto the rear man’s shoulders and makes the lion stand. Up, down, around, without missing a beat the lion dancers move gracefully over the risers to the beat of the drum. Each time the lion leaps from riser to riser or rears up, the crowd gasps and cheers. As the dance ends, the lion spits out red envelopes and good luck scrolls for dignitaries in the front row.
Stacey tells us we shouldn’t miss Parker Place, the “most Asian” of Richmond’s malls. This shopping center has plenty of Asian high fashion, but those in-the-know come here for the authentic food court, Dragon’s Beard candy, and incredible roast pork.
Our first stop is a small stall, Rainbow Fresh Fruit and Bubble Tea,where the smiling proprietor offers us bubble waffles, those light-as-air bubbles of dough, hot off the griddle. Because these were baked just seconds ago, they’re lighter and crispier than those we previously enjoyed. Next, she brings out the Dragon’s Beard Candy, spun sugar wrapped around chopped peanuts. Our friend Michelle warns, “Take the entire candy in your mouth at once and have some water handy.”
I pop the little square of sugar threads into my mouth. It’s sweet and incredibly delicate, but, Michelle’s right, it sucks every drop of moisture from my mouth. A bottle of water saves me. The vendor here in Parker Place is only one of three people outside of mainland China still making this ancient Chinese cotton candy and it’s worth a try.
We wend through a forest of food stalls, including plenty of street style food you’d find in Hong Kong like big steaming noodles bowls with three toppings for $5. But it’s the meat shop with the long line of people waiting outside that draws us. This is Parker Place Fresh Meat and BBQ, a traditional Chinese butcher shop with golden ducks hanging in the window and, along one wall, whole sides of beef and pork.
Stacey queues up and soon returns with a food box filled with steaming cuts of roast pork. I take a piece. At my first bite, I’m transported back to my beloved Hong Kong. This is pork heaven — skin thick and crisp, the meat incredibly juicy. It leaves my fingers dripping with fat and my mouth craving another and another piece.
My pork snack has readied me for our next Asian culinary adventure – more types of bubble tea than you can imagine. We’re at Zephyr Tea House, a small, modern café that specializes in Taiwanese food and 100 different types of bubble tea.
Back in the 1980s, bubble tea, drinks made with a tea base mixed with fruit (or fruit syrup) and/or milk, became popular in Taiwan. The “bubbles” are small chewy balls made of tapioca starch or jello-like cubes. They sell the drinks in tall glasses with fat straws for slurping up the bubbles.
Stacey orders us a six or eight different types of bubble tea such as a spring green kiwi pearl that’s refreshing; a delicious grass jelly mint tea; fruity mango slush, and chocolate mint with pearls, and plenty of extra straws. It’s great fun passing around all the drinks and sticking in a new straw in each for a taste.
Along with bubble tea, we snack on Taiwanese popcorn chicken; beef with green onion; crispy pineapple prawns; beef with black pepper sauce; beef noodle soup; and a spicy curry seafood. It’s all delicious and even more fun because we wash it down with our bubble teas. Afterward, we literally slosh back to our hotel!
Hot Pots and Mushroom-truffle Dumplings
It seems impossible, but tonight is our last night in Richmond and our whirlwind of Asian food adventure is nearly over. Tonight, we’re doing a special “dine around” on Alexandra Road, also known as “food street” because it offers 200+ Asian restaurants in a three-block area. With so many, how do we choose? We consult Mijune Pak, a
20-something blogger who writes about the area’s food scene in her Follow Me Foodie blog.
We meet Mijune at Claypot Hotpot and BBQ. Hotpot is China’s version of fondue. Groups gather around large tables, each with inset or tabletop burners, and cook meats and vegetables in oil or broth.
“Hotpot is a way for families to come together,” Mijune tells us. “It’s especially popular during the cold weather.”
Mijune orders us two pots – one oil and one with chicken broth seasoned with ginseng and red goji berries — and a variety of thinly sliced meats, fowl, seafood, and vegetables. As the wait staff set up the pots and we wait for them to boil, Mijune says, “Over the past 20 years, Richmond’s food scene has grown organically. It’s locals opening restaurants for locals and, with more than 400 Asian restaurants, there’s a lot of competition. We get some of the best chefs coming from China and I honestly think the food is as good or even better than what you can get in Asia.”
The pots are boiling and we each select foods and place them in the pot. Each diner gets two sets of chop sticks – one for cooking raw foods and the other for eating. We try sliced beef, mushrooms, greens, and finally noodles and it’s all fun and delicious. Some of us drink Chinese beer; others opt for plum juice, a sweet sour drink that’s surprisingly refreshing.
We could make a meal of Chinese hot pot, but Mijune wants us to experience Jade Seafood Restaurant, where
Executive Chef Tony Luk was named best Chinese Chef in 2010 in the HSBC Chinese Restaurant Awards. Jade Seafood is a beautiful place – a large, formal dining room with big round tables and attentive wait staff.
We start with the restaurant’s signature appetizer, mushroom dumplings with truffle oil. It’s an amazing dish – a rich, earthy mixture of mushrooms in a delicate, paper-thin dumpling. Truffle oil is certainly not a traditional Chinese ingredient, but the chefs here at Jade Seafood specialize in elevating traditional Cantonese dishes with innovative uses of non-traditional ingredients.
A waiter emerges holding a large, live and squirmy Dungeness crab. The Chinese are fanatical about fresh ingredients and you can’t get any fresher than this local crab. Before long, the waiter returns with our hapless crustacean cooked up in a salty, savory dish with mushrooms and onions.
An award-winning cold dish called Grandpa’s Smoked Duck comes next and fills us with its juicy, salty goodness. Pea shoots with garlic, sautéed to just the right crispness, give just a break from the richness of the previous dishes. A mixed mushroom chow mein, with crispy, ultra-thin noodles, sliced mushrooms, carrot shreds, and bean sprouts and seasoned with a nutty truffle oil rounds out our meal.
Finally, our waiter brings us two desserts – ice cold blueberry balls with cream inside that are soft and fresh tasting and a brown sugar pudding cake, said to bring prosperity, that has a interesting chewy texture and rich molasses flavor. It’s the perfect end to an amazing gastronomic weekend and we head back to our hotels content and more than a little full.
The next day as I wait for my plane, I nibble the edges of soft-crisp coconut macaroons I purchased at Osaka Market and realize I’m no longer hungry for Hong Kong. With its rich Asian culture, over-the-top Asian shopping malls, and incredible array of restaurants, Richmond is a pretty good substitute. And I smile broadly as I realize that I’ve just saved myself $1,000 in airfare. – Story and photos by Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor
For more information about traveling to Richmond: www.tourismrichmond.com/