The area of Richmond in Vancouver is often seen as just the area around the airport for many International travellers. Around this area, 65% of the population are Asian giving rise to a rich amount of eating experiences that makes a visitor feel as though they are in an expansive Chinatown area reminiscent of Hong Kong.
The middle aged Chinese man in the green booth of the Hong Kong style cafe sits silently while around him his two friends chatter eagerly. Around him are signs in Cantonese advertising deals and specials of the day. He picks up and bites into a pineapple bun, a square of meting butter jutting out the side and closes his eyes as his teeth clamp together and crunchy crumbs rain down onto his plate. He is clearly enjoying a preternatural moment with Li Do restaurant's pineapple bun.
He isn't in Hong Kong, he is in Richmond Vancouver. Of the 200,000 residents of Richmond, situated about 35 minutes from downtown Vancouver right at Vancouver's airport, about 65% are Asian and 45% are Chinese. It's where people go to get their hit of a small Asian city without travelling on any of the planes that leave at the nearby International airport. At Li Do in Golden Village, the centre of the Asian community, there's no fancy decor or pretentiousness. Just hungry people waiting to ease their cold bones into a comfy green booth.
It's Sunday morning around 10:30am and we wait for about 15 minutes for a table. We watch as they bring out a tray of the pineapple buns and as soon as they do, many of them are boxed up. We are called to our table where we order a range of things.
Most places in Golden Village are cash only, service is brusque in the way that Chinese waiters seem to specialise in and they are keen to upsell. Indeed Li Do is one of those restaurants that offers a unique service. On weekdays between certain times, if you spend over $18 you get a large takeaway box full of food to take with you. If you spend $42 you get two and you choose from a range of turnip cake, fish noodles or winter melon pastries.
Stacey speaks Cantonese so she orders for Julia and I although there is a breakfast menu in English too of the more popular items. We start with almond milk which is lightly sweetened and served hot with small ginkgo nuts and crunchy flower petals at the bottom. It's the perfect antidote to the cold outside. After some light badgering from the waitress, Stacey orders it with the turnip cake. This has a lightly crispy outer and a soft interior studded with lup cheong and pureed turnip.
There's a delay on the pineapple bun as they're waiting for a fresh batch to come out. And once they arrive I'm so glad that we waited and if you visit I urge you to settle in for a meal and order a freshly baked one because there's nothing like a pineapple bun from the oven. It comes with a pat of butter and a crunchy, crackly crumbly crust that falls off with every bite. The butter soaks through the warm bread and it takes a strong will to tear it away from your mouth.
Stacey explains that the reason for the Asian population in Richmond is the immigration of Cantonese in the mid 1980s from Hong Kong and during that time the area was predominantly Cantonese. In 2000 saw the immigration of the Mainland Chinese and after the Hong Kong Handover many Cantonese returned to Hong Kong so there is an ethnically diverse mix within Asia with people from Vietnam, Korea and the Philippines too. But yum cha or dim sum remains popular, some even with a Canadian twist in some items.
"You've never been!?" Stacey chastises Richmond native Julia about Fisherman's Terrace restaurant in the nearby Aberdeen Centre. Aberdeen is of course named not after the Scottish town but the Hong Kong area.
There's a short wait - about 15 minutes just as estimated by the front desk person before we take a seat in the large restaurant. We pass a table where a family is enjoying king crab, its legs cracked in half and served with herb butter while the top shell is reserved with stuffing with crab fried rice. But we're on a mission to try their dim sum some of which features different goodies to what we get in Sydney. Most places here use the menu ordering system rather than the trolleys.
Smoked Salmon salad in crispy shell $5.35CAD
This dish is said to exemplify the West Coast of Canada's East West cuisine. This is a prawn cracker filled with a mayonnaise coated tinned fruit salad and topped with smoked salmon. I remember eating this fruit salad when I was very small and wondering why tinned fruit salad in Australia didn't have as many grapes. Anyway, I digress, it's so interesting, slightly odd but not bad although I didn't end up eating all of the fruit salad.
Pork feet with ginger in sweet vinegar $7.75CAD
In the vein of trying things that I don't really see on yum cha menus in Sydney we try this. Said to be good for pregnant or breastfeeding women as it increases blood flow, it's a dish made with chopped up pieces of pig's trotter sweetened with ginger and given piquancy from sweet vinegar. It's actually really good although there's mostly fat on a trotter rather than meat.
Peatip with bean curd skin and ginkgo nut $7.95CAD
This was ordered because we needed some vegetables and this is refreshing and clean and just what you need on an eating fest. The peatips are mild flavoured greens, sauteed until soft with mixed mushrooms, ginkgo nuts and wrinkled bean curd skin.
Deep fried chicken knees with spicy salt $7.25CAD
Have you ever contemplated the knees of a chicken? Perhaps not - and neither had I. The brown bone has been removed and all that remains is the crunchy cartilage tossed in flour and deep fried. I'm addicted to this little snack which I used to order a lot when I lived in Japan.
Fresh shrimp dumplings $5.35CAD
The dumpling master has been working here for 17 years (the restaurant has been open for 19 years) and while others may buy in frozen dumplings, they make all of theirs in-house. You can tell the difference as the thin wrapper holds a plentiful amount of succulent prawn.
Steamed sticky rice wrap with preserved meat $4.85CAD
These remind me of my grandma and I always find sticky rice dumplings a comforting memory. They're filled with sweet minced meat and vegetables with just the right amount of sauce.
Last but not least is the bitter melon dumpling. The green bitter melon is very light in bitterness and it's filled with a black sesame and peanut filling.
We wander around a bit more - there's a shop that sells an excellent range of candy. On top of this is the food court where we stop by a very popular stand called Bubble Waffle. It's like those egg roll biscuits in the large tins where it is hollow inside. We chose black sesame and it has a little black sesame sprinkled in it.
We walk across to President's Plaza food court, a smaller and slightly less glam food court but of course as you may know, looks aren't the focus with food courts. At O'Tray Noodle we stop by for two items which have cult status among the local food blogging community.
Tianjing bun $2.75CAD (top) and wrap $3.75CAD (bottom)
The tiangjing wrap is like an eggy crepe filled with vegetables and a sweet bean sauce not unlike a hoi sin sauce. It's soft and comforting and oh so good. The tianjing bun on top is filled with chopped soft cooked pork where the bun is buttery soft too. They're both made to be eaten as quick snacks on the run.
A nearby stall sells a Chinese breakfast of deep fried dough in toast with sweet or savoury soy milk. Alas he is out as it is quite late in the afternoon but this is also popular with local food bloggers.
We cross to Yaohan centre. The lack of sleep and cold weather means that I woke up with a very sore throat and my condition is declining rapidly. Mindful of my flight back to Australia the following day we stop in at a herbal tea shop with an enormous urn out front. Stacey explains that the urn holds a 28 herbal blend of ingredients that makes it a strong tonic to ward off infection or illness.
One cup is $6 and Julia offers to go half with me in solidarity. I sniff it and it reminds me of the smell of Chinese medicine that my parents would make on occasion and I take a sip of the dark ominous drink. It's not as bad as expected but it takes an effort to finish the whole thing. Alas, it didn't really help me and I resorted to my stash of Western medicine to right myself but I'm glad that I tried it.
Dinner sees us crossing countries over to Korean food at Haroo for homestyle Korean cuisine. And by homestyle we don't mean fancy decor as evidenced in this quirky waiting room where the back two legs are taken off chairs resting a green shag pile rug to make it a comfortable place for diners to seat. A real family affair, it is run by a husband and wife team. She cooks and he serves and the restaurant is very busy with everyone waiting the requisite time sitting on those chairs waiting for a table to open up.
The banchan arrives first and we all simultaneously declare our love for the vegetable side dishes. There are five varieties including kim chi, hijiki black seaweed, marinated tofu skin slices, sesame bean sprouts and candied potato cubes which are so addictively moreish.
Seafood Bibimbap $11.95CAD
The seafood bibimbap comes out first and it's piled high with seafood. The bowl is hot so we wait for a little for it to cool before we mix around the seafood. Once mixed through, the rice is very flavoursome with chilli sauce and we find prawns, mussels and scallops inside.
Bulgogi Pajeon $17.95CAD
I think this vegetable pancake could feed half a dozen people it's that large. It comes with some bulgogi beef on top in the centre. The pancake itself is beautifully crispy and light and comes with a sweet dipping sauce.
Cheese Tteokbokki $17.95CAD
We were intrigued by the melted cheese on top of the tteokbokki which is a dish made with short batons of chewy rice flour noodles. Nowadays it's a street food although originally, it was part of Korean royal court cuisine. I really like the texture of the rice flour sticks but I'm not so sure about the cheese on top and I think I'd prefer other versions, especially once it gets cold and the cheese hardens.
Jangban Mandu $13.95CAD
This was a last minute request. The mandu dumplings come as long rectangles prettily presented with a sweet and spicy sauce to the side. They're very crisp and are filled with a flavoursome mix of meat and vegetables. But of course, as you tend to do, we over ordered. Never fear though, there's always the takeaway box available!
So tell me Dear Reader, what is your favourite yum cha morsel? Have you ever tried Chinese medicine?
NQN travelled to Canada as a guest of the Canadian Tourism Commission and Tourism Richmond
Li Do Restaurant
150-4231 Hazelbridge Way, Richmond, BC Tel: +1 (604) 231 0055
4151 Hazelbridge Way, Richmond, BC V6X 4J7, Canada
Golden Village, 2285-8181 Cambie Road, Richmond, BC V6X 3X9
Golden Village, Suite 2000, 8580 Alexandra Road, Richmond, BC V6X 4B3
Open: lunch 11:30am -2:30pm Friday to Sunday. Dinner 5pm-10pm 7 days a week.