Rediscovering Vancouver’s Chinatown: Part III – Food and Markets

Photo: Remy Scalza

Chinatown is suddenly Vancouver’s most talked-about neighborhood (Just check out this recent Vancouver Sun article).   To understand Chinatown’s past and present, I tagged along on a unique walking tour of the neighborhood called A Wok around Chinatown.   In my last post, I talked about the ancient ceremonies that are alive and well in Chinatown.  In this final installment, I’ll take a look at restaurants and produce and meat markets in the neighborhood.

While the best Chinese food in Vancouver today is arguably being served in Richmond, there are still some authentic and affordable restaurants right in Chinatown.  Jade Dynasty, near the corner of Pender and Main Street, is one of them.

At noon on a Saturday, the restaurant is packed with a mainly Chinese clientele who’ve come for a traditional dim sum lunch.  I’ve you’ve never tried it before, think of dim sum as the original tapas.  A succession of small plates are brought out – from dumplings to noodles – and shared around the table, ensuring that everyone gets to try a bit of everything.

Photo: Remy Scalza

With expert advice from Bob Sung, the creator of the unique Wok around Chinatown tour, I order some dim sum standards: har gau (shrimp dumpling ) and sui mai (pork dumplings with shrimp, topped with crab roe).  The dishes come out steaming hot in traditional bamboo trays.  Soft dough on the outside gives way to savory fillings – the ultimate comfort food.

With the standards taken care of, we move on to more adventurous fare: bean curd wrap stuffed with enoki mushrooms, congee (a kind of thick, flavored soup made from cooked rice) and, finally, chicken feet.  Rarely eaten in North America, chicken feet are requisite menu items in authentic Chinese restaurants.  These ones come delicately braised and flavored with cloves and cinnamon, delicious enough (well almost) to obscure the fact that they look exactly like lopped off chicken feet.

After lunch, we take a lap around Chinatown’s numerous produce and meat shops.  Markets are filled with lush, green vegetables I’ve never tasted or heard of, stuff that goes way beyond bok choy -  flowering chives, bitter melon, daikon radish and Chinese longbeans.  In the butcher shops are exotic cuts of meat:  tripe, lungs and trotters.  Uncommon on American menus, these cuts feature prominently in many Chinese cuisines, especially Schezuan-style cooking (They’re also part of the nose-to-tail dining movement that’s currently popular in Vancouver’s upscale eateries).

Further on, we pass shop windows filled with the iconic Chinese roast ducks, golden brown and hanging by the dozen from metal racks.  Inside a seafood shop, whole colonies of rare spot prawns – the caviar of the shrimp universe – swim in shallow pools, waiting to be taken home by the day’s customers.

With the extensive tour winding down (at four-hours long, you get your money’s worth), we pass a shop selling fresh chicken feet for $1.49 a pound.  On a busy Vancouver streetcorner, the shop and its wares look stubbornly out of place – a vision from another time and another culture, authentic and not always comfortable.

Photo: Remy Scalza

But I think that’s the virtue of Vancouver’s Chinatown.  Even though it’s right next door to the city’s glitzy and well-touristed neighborhoods, Chinatown has clung fiercely to its identity for more than 100 years.  Today, more than ever before, it’s worth a visit.

Anyone else have tips for things to see or do in Chinatown?  Memories?  Comments?  Please weigh in below.

Remy Scalza

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