Monday, June 20, 2011

FoodTrek: Eating Richmond BC - Sharing Plates of a Rich Culture

They say you eat slower when you eat with chopsticks. I say, the Canadian city of Richmond, British Columbia, never knew what hit 'em when Wasabi came through town... Are you ready for an eye-popping edible tour of only a mere nibble of what this city has to offer in terms of Asian cuisine? Ladies and gentlemen... don your comfy drawstring pants. We're goin' in, chopsticks blazing...

Peking duck with all the fixings, from Shanghai River Restaurant - Photo by Wasabi Prime

It had been a while since I'd visited Richmond, much less Canada -- which is a shame, as it's what, maybe a two-hours-and-change drive to the border from where I live? My passport literally had dust (or possibly weird fuzzy mold - ewww) on it, showing how little it had been used. It was a sign to A) immediately disinfect passport and B) make a run for the border and head north for a few days. O, Canada, indeed.

People tend to think of Vancouver when they think of BC -- another city I love -- but I always liked stopping off in Richmond for shopping as well as eating. It's by no means a small city -- Richmond is the fourth largest in BC, about a 20-30 minute drive from Vancouver, and they've got a pretty nice light rail system that avoids the snarl of traffic. They have an Asian population of over 60% and you know what that means -- awesome food! The food definitely reflects the population, so you'll see primarily Chinese and Taiwanese-style cuisine and the majority of the food places are in the four-block radius of what's called the Golden Village, off No. 3 Road, and more specifically, Alexandra Road, aka "Food Street" that has over 200 Asian restaurants all nestled together.

Guided by the Fury through dumplings, bean curd rolls, noodles and a colorful cod - Photos by Wasabi Prime 

I'm not offering this as the be-all, end-all eating tour of the city; there's just too much to fit into a single trip and I know I missed plenty of amazing spots. That being said, I brought my stomach around to nearly a half-dozen places, all offering their own specialties on Asian delicacies or comfort foods, and one of the most important things I was reminded of as I literally ate through the city:  have an open appetite and an open mind. One of the best reasons to immerse yourself in a neighborhood like the Golden Village is because it's very genuine -- this is the opportunity to experience the daily rhythm of a thriving community and take its pulse, which is a busy one, so take their energy as a cue to jump right in, appetites blazing. The vibrant pace is demonstrated by a lunch at Shanghai River Restaurant on Westminster Highway -- their xiao long bao or soup dumplings are a favorite (theirs are large; more pork than soup, but a meaty, tender bite), but don't forget to have their handmade noodles. You can tell when you see the slightly irregular shape and definitely by the bite -- a chewy tooth; firm yet delicate, all at the same time. I love the crispy skin of Peking duck, so having theirs was a treat, and I got a chance to nibble on the crispy fried fin from a brightly-colored sweet and sour rock cod dish. Crispety-crunchety fin-tastic, I must say. And bite from the delicate thin end, not the tough end like I did -- rookie mistake.

Crispy daikon cakes, spicy appetizers and mini beef sandwiches with pastry rolls - Photos by Wasabi Prime

It's a flurry of dishes to consider and Asian cuisine is typically family-style, so bring a whole group of hungry friends. Better yet, bring a fearless leader to help guide you through unfamiliar menus -- I was lucky to have the ultimate BC food guide with me at the table, the awesome and lovely Melody Fury of Gourmet Fury and the force of nature behind Vancouver Food Tour. Having someone who can help point out the cultural subtleties behind a meal can make it as enriching as a walk through a museum. The sharing of a meal is sacred in many cultures, Asian countries included, mostly due to the usual suspects -- hardship, war, the general umbrage of the human machine -- but at the table, we are together, we are equals and we work together to help serve and nourish one another as a single people. For all the differences we may have, we sure get peckish around 3pm, so let's share some spicy hot soup, shall we?

Hot, spicy, delicious -- and it only gets better as the broth stews away - Photos by Wasabi Prime

Starbucks has nothing on milk tea, a Hong Kong specialty that's served at Spicy Stage Cafe on Garden City Road. Served both hot and cold, it's a mix of black tea and condensed milk, a creamy, sweet drink that's a mix of East and West, likely a result of British influence in Hong Kong and now a popular cafe drink. Served cool, the creamy iced beverage is a great companion to Spicy Stage's hot eats, like their prawns or the Szechuan peppercorn-spiced hot pot soup, full of chewy tripe, seafood and noodles. The famed numbing effect from the peppercorns is best enjoyed with this soup, as you get this nice warming effect as you eat it. It's not painful, so don't squirm you spicy food wimps! If you're scared of the heat, they have a lighter seafood hot pot, made with their house made fish broth, filled with more subtle but flavorful items like tofu, shiitake mushrooms, meatballs and chunks of cod. Little appetizers like the chilled glass noodles, beef served with sweet pastry buns or the tater-tot like crunch of fried daikon cakes are delicious snacks while enjoying the caffeine rush of a milk tea.

Osaka Market in Yaohan Centre - too...much...good...stuff! - Photos by Wasabi Prime

You can learn a great deal about a place through its favorite restaurants or you can go where they shop. Grocery stores can be a busy place, but an Asian grocery store takes it to Eleven. No one's buying Pop Tarts or Hungry Man dinners at these stores -- home cook-smart people are crowding the aisles to get whatever's the freshest, preferably still crawling/swimming/possibly fighting, so that it makes a dynamo meal for their lucky family at home. Be nice - maybe if you're lucky, you'll go home with them! I wanted something sweet so I stopped by the Yaohan Centre right on No. 3 Road in the heart of the Golden Village. There's a giant grocery store inside this indoor shopping center called Osaka Market. Despite the name, it's a general Asian food store, not just Japanese items, and hold onto your tuques, this place gets wicked-busy with people on a shopping mission. I remember growing up in Los Angeles, where in my neighborhood these weren't Asian grocery stores, they were just grocery stores -- this was just how it was, with the live seafood that could rival a city aquarium, fast food dumplings and sushi (no, you can't have fries with that), and produce of all wacky shapes and sizes. And the Holy Grail of grocery departments -- the bakery. Sponge cakes that are made of clouds captured from the sky, egg tarts that qualify protein as a dessert and little confections that so cute, you almost don't want to eat them. Almost. Sorry, cute little froggy -- CHOMP.

Smile, you're dinner - Photos by Wasabi Prime

Does dessert qualify as an aperitif for dinner? Only in Wasabi World. Stretchy pants, do your magic. An elegant dinner is a really special way to celebrate the cherished specialties of a city. Jade Seafood Restaurant is a mix of traditional and contemporary Chinese cuisine, a winner of several prestigious awards and a local favorite, given the full house of eager diners. I was given the opportunity to sample special dishes, showcasing some of their award-winning menu items like a seared giant scallop with morel and porcini sauce, presented like a rabbit, to commemorate 2011's Year of the Rabbit.

Dishes that evoke the past and present at Jade Seafood Restaurant- Photos by Wasabi Prime

A parade of truly beautiful dishes were brought out, including a delicate fish maw (soup) with crabmeat, slow braised shortrib with beans, clay-pot chicken roasted on rock salt, and tofu with truffle oil-drizzled vegetables. Everything was brought out with a sense of purpose, very deliberate, presenting the most special high-quality dishes first -- usually meat or fish -- followed with noodles or rice secondary, just so you don't get filled up too quickly and your fresh palate enjoys the choice items first. The finish was a plate of beautiful chilled rice cakes filled with frozen blueberries -- a bit like mochi ice cream -- and flaky little pear-shaped dumplings with a sweet red bean paste center.

Specialties like a slow-braised shortrib to comfort favorite Chan Village rice noodles - Photos by Wasabi Prime

All this feasting -- how does one find room for anything else? ...How about the prospect of inner-peace? Heavy, no? The culture of Richmond can most definitely be found in its food, but one of the most stunning things I experienced is probably best left for an empty stomach, not weighted down with too much good eating. A thoughtful visit to Thrangu Monastery is one that should be experienced with an open, unclouded mind. Why include this with a post on food? Because feeling truly satisfied from a cultural experience is as much a journey of spirit as it is body (or stomach, in my case).

Thrangu Monastery in Richmond - you absolutely have to experience this place! - Photos by Wasabi Prime

It's a humbling experience to walk through the first traditional Tibetan monstery in the Pacific Northwest. Construction only recently completed in the summer of 2010, it's taken six years for this magnificent building to be finished, with much of the work done by handcrafted artisans, using materials brought in from Tibet. It's a sacred place of spiritual retreat and a symbol of what it means to live a truly thoughtful life that outwardly seeks peace in all things. I was very fortunate to be guided by Rabjor Dawa, one of the Buddhist monks who resides in the monstery and I must say, is a wise and joyful human being. It was a really fascinating thing to see how modern and traditional ways really intertwine in this sanctuary -- there's an incredible temple that will take your breath away, and surrounding this temple is a nerve system of living quarters, libraries, communal areas like a kitchen and meeting spaces with all the creature comforts of the modern world. It was Rabjor's comment about how it took modern technology to help bring this monstery to Canada, and in effect, to the world at large, and it reminds you that spirituality isn't something that gathers dust. It's something people embrace, like a mindful action, a purposeful sense of awareness, and to a great degree, much like a nonstop food tour, a recognition of a community's heartbeat that flutters in the hurried steps through the market, the steam rising off a freshly-made pot of soup or a simple handmade dumpling offered as a gesture of welcome.

There's more of my Richmond BC trip, if you can believe it -- stay tuned to the Prime's Food Trek as I wander through farms and waters that feed the city, and consider for a moment how easy it would be for me to say, so long, America -- I'm moving to Steveston! And if you can't wait to read more and just want to go to these places RIGHT NOW,  Tourism Richmond is sponsoring a trip you can win that takes you to several of these spots!

Bookmark and Share

1 comment:

  1. Yum yum yum yum yum. Did I mention Yum? (found via NotCot)


Commentary encouraged. Fresh baked cookies, super-encouraged. (hit the 'post comment' button twice, sometimes it's buggy)