Travel November 11th, 2013

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The riches of Richmond

Culinary delights found by losing yourself in Asian culture

Few cities in Canada can boast a true immersion experience into another culture. Not a gentle toe dip into Little India or Greektown like you’ll find in Toronto, or even the mild submersion of Vancouver’s Chinatown but a true plunge into the underwater depths of an extraordinary ethnic ocean like in Richmond, B.C., where several Asian traditions flourish in a multicultural lagoon.

Have a hankering for har gow? Salivating for sushi? Craving kimchi? The high water mark in any cultural experience is food, and in Richmond there’s a veritable flood of possibilities. Indeed, I have always considered myself to be fairly cosmopolitan, au fait with much of what the culinary world has to offer, but in a few short days I am amazed to find a host of unexplored new flavours.

In Haroo, a tiny Korean restaurant, I sip roasted corn tea (deliciously corny and refreshing) and cook my own dinner — dolsot bibimbap, a sizzling stone pot filled with mouth-watering vegetables, meat, seafood and even a raw egg, all sitting atop rice which turns crunchy against the hot walls of the pot. The aim is to enjoy all this, reach the bottom, and get those crunchy bits!

Haroo is on Alexandra Street. It might be hard to find: ask locals where Alexandra Street is and they will probably look blank, but tell them you want to go to Wai Sek Kai or Food Street and their faces light up, directions forthcoming. It runs for only two blocks but a rabbits’ warren of little strip malls make it possible in this short distance to house more than 200 restaurants!

For most Asian cultures, food is an important facet of community. In China and Hong Kong, large platters of food served on lazy-susan turntables bring families and friends together, chopsticks flying as they sample each dish. At the Fisherman’s Terrace, famed for its dim sum, I do the same, delicately picking up pieces of lotus root and mushrooms from the plate, ignoring western conventions that would regard forking a bite from the serving dish as inexcusable. Done with chopsticks it seems perfectly natural.

In the same mall, the Aberdeen Centre (and not a Scot in sight!), I visit Ten Fu, a tea merchant, where I’m treated to a ceremonial brewing of Pu’erh, a beautifully smoky, fermented tea which has aged for 15 years.

I learn to drink the fourth or even fifth brewing, the first three being discarded. And I’m rewarded with an aromatic inky brew, its characteristic ring of gold shining against the white cup. Heavenly.

It is in Richmond that I finally get my first, coveted taste of Beggar’s Chicken. This remarkable roast chicken dish dates to the Qing dynasty. Traditionally, a whole spiced chicken, stuffed with rice, is wrapped in lotus leaves, then encased in mud and roasted in an open fire.

Suhang’s version is wrapped in a ball of bread dough, which cooks the succulent chicken and rice inside as it bakes. There are two layers — bread and lotus leaves — to unwrap before the unveiling releases great wafts of scented steam. It’s glorious. This dish alone makes the trip worthwhile.

The history of the village of Steveston, now a part of Richmond, is wrapped up in food: the fishing and canning of salmon. A museum tells the story of this industry whose products once spanned the globe.

Barges tethered at the Steveston dock serve seafood, fresh from the Pacific. At the Crab King, owner and chef Van plucks a large, meaty crab from his tank and cooks it Vietnamese style, with chillies. It’s a zesty contrast to the more traditional fish and chips being served on the next barge, and highlights how the cultures of the Far East have enriched the culinary landscape in this area.

Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than at the Richmond Night Market. Here, Slavic rolls and deep fried cheesecake make a valiant effort to bring western flavours to a market that is overwhelmed with stalls serving bakudanyaki, taiyaki and deep fried California rolls.

Bakudanyaki is new to my palate. A fat dumpling stuffed with potatoes or chicken, or even a whole quail egg, it comes topped with a wasabi or chili sauce. Taiyaki is similar, stuffed with curried chicken, leek and prawn or, my favourite, red bean paste. It’s baked on a hot griddle into a fish shape.

I sample as many goodies as my stomach will allow — spicy grilled squid (note, no chichi calamari here), a delicious fried tofu topped with sweet chili sauce, and a challenging grilled whole fish I have to pick at delicately to remove the bones while its glazed eyes inspect my efforts.

Replete, the vendors warrant a tour: toys for technogeeks, jelly sandals and exotic clothing, and even colour-changing contact lenses guaranteed to add a sparkle to your eyes (seriously, there’s a built-in twinkle!). It’s all reminiscent of those endlessly fascinating, colourful street markets in Hong Kong, Beijing or Seoul.

It’s all too easy for travellers to land at Vancouver Airport, located in Richmond, then head to the big city, missing this exotic neighbour to the south. Don’t!

Where else can you sample the food and culture of a half dozen Asian cultures without ever leaving the North American continent? It will put a twinkle in your eyes, without resorting to contact lenses.