It was a Zen moment as I slurped the hot clear broth, our first course at Prata Man, a dive of a Singaporean restaurant just minutes from Vancouver International Airport in the Canadian island city of Richmond, British Columbia. There was nothing flashy about this hole in the wall. But inside, every table was taken and just about everyone was savoring the flavors of traditional Hainanese Chicken – our mission for lunch.
It would be my first time eating the wildly juicy poached chicken served cold with ginger and green onions along with the quintessential hot rice cooked in the chicken’s silky oil -- the Holy Grail of the meal and the national dish of Singapore.
Welcome to gastronomic Richmond also known as the Asian food capital of North America.
Devout gourmands say that the most tsen, or proper, Chinese cooking outside of China is found here. Almost three quarters of the city’s 214,000 residents hail from Asia – mainly China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, including the finest cooks who brought with them glorious recipes from the homeland.
What also came from the old country was the vibrant eat-out culture that energizes the city. Now I understand why Seattleites who don’t want to cook at home drive north over the border to eat in Richmond.
That’s also why so many of the more than 200 Asian restaurants along three-block long Alexandra Road – popularly known as “Food Street” – were full, from eateries with only 12 seats to Hong Kong-style cafes and dinner restaurants.
“It’s common in the Asian culture to eat out,” said Joyce Chiang of Tourism Richmond. “Apartments are the size of a shoebox and kitchens aren’t set up to make gourmet meals.”
And because people work late hours, she added, it’s more time-efficient and cost-effective to grab a meal at a local stall.
The chance to savor meals as fresh and healthy as home-cooked for as little as $5? I could get used to this.
Richmond has over 800 restaurants to please all palates. But on this two-day getaway my focus was the Golden Village -- home to an extraordinary concentration of cooking from around Asia -- Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, Korea, and all the regions of China. Along with fashionable Asian shopping malls and famous night markets, a visit here is like going to Asia without leaving North America.
It was also a learning vacation. Like at R&H food stand at Lansdowne Mall where I followed a demonstration on the proper way to eat xiao long bao – or soup dumpling. To avoid soup dripping unflatteringly down my chin, I picked up the doughy pouch by its twisted knot, placed it gently onto the spoon, lifted the spoon to my mouth, bit into the side of the dumpling and at once slurped the luxurious broth. I then devoured the dumpling in its entirety, including the divine pork meatball inside. Simply heaven.
At 20-seat HK BBQ Master (accessed through a parking garage below a supermarket) regulars happily line up for its award-winning and most authentic Chinese-style barbecue this side of the Pacific. Char siu or roast pig (only the succulent belly is served here) is the best around. And if you don’t fancy pork or gorgeous crispy crackling (skin), sinking your teeth into the soy duck or soy chicken is equally divine.
At Xi An Cuisine inside the Richmond Public Market, I not only tasted the most beautiful hand-pulled noodle soup I will ever remember, but just before, I watched in awe as Chef Duan made the noodles first. The process was a blur as he rapidly pulled and stretched a plump doughy roll into a (very) long and elegant strand right before our eyes. Then, with a quiet smile, he dashed off to cook up our fresh order.
What is a Hong Kong-style café or cha chaan teng (tea restaurant)?
This phenomenon of affordable east-meets-west menu choices was born in Hong Kong after World War II to accommodate its increasing British population.
In the mid-1980s Hong Kong-style cafes emerged in Richmond and have become an institution. At Happy Date Restaurant and Bakery, I mused at the two-sided menus that listed western fare like oatmeal, French toast, omelets, bacon and hash browns on one side. On the reverse, Hong Kong standards teased my curious taste buds -- congee, (a fortifying rice porridge with origins dating back to the rule of Emperor Huang Di), Chinese donuts, rice rolls, and noodle soup.
Eating clay pot rice at James Snacks food stand at Empire Centre Food Court was another of my many “firsts” on this trip. A prized meal, its slow-cooking method (rice is cooked in a personal-size clay pot first, then topped with meat, vegetables and soya sauce) is what gives this tasty dish its deliciously charred flavors.
Sub sandwiches in Chinatown?
The baguette, or bahn mi, became standard fare when Vietnam was a French colony from the mid-1880s to 1954 and at Lai Taste Vietnamese stall at Parker Place Mall, I got a taste of the popular foot-long holdover. Made with rice and wheat flour, the bread is airy and light. Pork and deep-fried fish sandwiches are a local favorite so I sampled the latter that came layered with fresh sprigs of aromatic cilantro.
By day I roamed the holes in the wall around the Golden Village. But by night the culinary stage lit up with 10-course feasts prepared by co-owner and chef David Li of Vivacity (a banquet-style restaurant), and owner and chef Yiutong Leung of intimate Hoi Tong (about seven tables and reminiscent of private Hong Kong kitchens). From dishes as divine as braised whole abalone at Vivacity and double lobster with tossed vermicelli at Hoi Tong, each course -- presented one at a time -- was nothing short of exquisite.
And in the spirit of yin and yang, I found balance with the savory and the sweet. This glorious progressive feast fed my weakness for Asian pastries, which are lighter and less sugary than their Western counterparts. Two Hong Kong “originals” knocked my socks off.
The bubble waffle aka egg waffle or gai daan jai (means “little chicken egg”), surfaced on the streets of Hong Kong during the 1950s and became a favorite street snack. Made with eggs, sugar, flour and evaporated milk, it’s best eaten hot off the iron – with or without decadent toppings such as ice cream, fresh fruit, or whipped cream. At BBT Shop (a few steps from HK BBQ Master), I fell for the bubbly pastry’s crispy golden plainness that I could pull apart with my fingers.
In the middle of the week locals were queuing up outside Hong Kong-style Li Do Restaurant for pineapple bun, its specialty. Called bo lo bao in Cantonese, it is Hong Kong’s croissant that was officially declared an “intangible cultural heritage.” The dome-shaped buns are eaten at breakfast or with afternoon tea and are sold as fast as they come out of the oven. It got its name because the caramelized top of the bun resembles the outside of a pineapple (there’s no pineapple in it). Our order came with thick slabs of butter the size of a big sticky note. You only live once, I muttered, so I stuffed the butter into the halved bun and luxuriated in utter bliss.
WHEN YOU GO: For more information about dining, lodging, and attractions in Richmond and the Golden Village, visit www.tourismrichmond.com
WHERE I STAYED: Sandman Signature Vancouver Airport Hotel; www.sandmansignature.ca
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