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The Deliciously Diverse Food of 1.6 Billion Chinese Comes to Vancouver

Global foodie culture, ambitious entrepreneurs and immigration are enriching the region’s cuisine.

By Christopher Cheung 23 Apr 2018 | TheTyee.ca

Christopher Cheung reports on urban issues for The Tyee. Find his previous stories here and follow him on Twitter at @bychrischeung.

Picture an old suburban plaza and your head will probably fill with medical offices, barbershops, pawn shops and insurance brokers. There is still much of this kind of development outside of Vancouver’s centre in areas that cater to the car. Central Park Plaza — on Vancouver’s Kingsway before the road enters Burnaby — has a Subway, a dry cleaners and a Korean salon.

But this plaza is also where you’ll find duck neck. Millennials in Wuhan, China love the trendy street snack more than chips, and you can buy it here at Kingwuu over a deli counter.

And next door to Kingwuu? Efendi Uyghur restaurant, where lineups are common at meal times.

“When people see it’s a full house, they’re like, oh, what is that?” said Mina Nur.

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The family restaurant’s previous location was on Kingsway near Knight. Photo by Christopher Cheung.

Welcome to Nur’s family’s restaurant, where they serve the cuisine of Turkic people living in China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. On a typical day, Nur is front of house and her parents are in the kitchen. On the menu are naan, steamed buns, Uyghur-style rice pilaf, a variety of noodles and other laboriously handmade dishes. It’s hard work due to the huge clouds of dough involved. The family’s former restaurant seated 150, and prepping food for so many people gave Nur’s mother, Guji Ajam, an infection in her arm.

“I took her to the doctor and they said it’s what happens to tennis players because they use their elbows too much,” Nur said.

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Everything at the restaurant is laboriously handmade. Nur’s mother Guli Ajam is prepping noodles. Photo by Christopher Cheung.

Trace Kingsway from Vancouver into Burnaby, a rapidly urbanizing suburb, and you’ll trace a history of the region’s immigration in recent decades. On the western end closer to downtown Vancouver, you’ll find casual Cantonese restaurants open until three in the morning for late workers. There’s a cluster of Vietnamese businesses, too, from bakeries to delis to noodles shops that serve the ubiquitous phở to those that serve specialties like canh cá nấu thì là, a soup with fish, tomato and fresh dill.

Pass Rupert Street on Kingsway, once a streetcar route, and you’ll hit what local food writer Fernando Medrano calls the “spicy route.” All the banks of Kingsway into Burnaby are restaurants serving cuisines from China that arrived after the millennium. Together with other pockets in Vancouver suburbia — stalls in the belly of immigrant malls, plazas and commercial complexes old and new — the region is increasingly reflective of food from China’s diverse regions: snacks served on the streets, dishes from diners and haute cuisine from hotels.

There are noodles from Lanzhou, a northwestern city, in a clear soup with chilies and peppercorns that spark like firecrackers on your tongue. There’s Beijing roast duck from the days of Imperial China, sliced in front of you. There’s jianbing, a breakfast crepe with toppings like mustard pickles and scallions from Shandong and Tianjin, cities on China’s eastern coast. There are long, loopy, chewy biangbiang noodles from Shaanxi province in central China, a dish that has already taken New York by storm thanks to a 200-square-basement-stall-turned-chain that Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson once visited with his former girlfriend, popstar Wanting Qu. There’s hot pot from Chongqing, a southwestern city, with meats and veggies cooked in a numbing and spicy mala soup — though if you can’t handle spicy, don’t fret, Metro Vancouver’s Morals Village has milder soups like wild mushroom or a sweet tomato and oxbone.

That’s only some. Even if you’re a foodie, there’s a lot to explore — dishes from tofu to trotters prepared in ways new to Vancouver — and the menu is ever expanding, due to increased immigration from mainland China and the spillover of China’s ravenous consumption culture on our shores.

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Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson on the left, Liu Wen, dubbed “China's first bona fide supermodel” by the New York Times is the woman centre-left and popstar Wanting Qu, Robertson’s former girlfriend, at a location of Xi’an Famous Foods in New York. Photo by Christopher Cheung.

Regional Chinese in the Vancouver region

Dim sum might still be a popular Saturday morning go-to for Cantonese and non-Cantonese locals alike, but today in Vancouver, southern Chinese cuisine is only the beginning of eating what a country of 1.6 billion has to offer.

Historically, Vancouver’s Chinese population, like many cities around the world, was working-class Cantonese. Wonton noodles and barbecued pork were on the menus, and the West hailed them as international representatives of “Chinese food,” the generalizing way that Japanese food is sushi and Italian food is pasta.

Chinese food got more complex when an influx of Hongkongers and Taiwanese came in the 1980s and ’90s. You could get Taiwanese beef noodles and bubble tea in Kerrisdale, which was once a very British neighbourhood. Food ranged from casual, like hot bubble waffles from Hong Kong hawkers, to high-end, like seafood banquets by professional chefs.

Then between 2000 and 2015, Metro Vancouver added 87,200 mainland China-born immigrants, an 86 per cent increase. A common drive of families immigrating to North America was to give the children better opportunities. Also between 2000 and 2015, Mandarin overtook Cantonese as the language from China spoken the most at home. And while there is no census data on new Chinese restaurants, look around and you will see them.

An adventurer named “Chloe” has been exploring the complex culinary landscape of Metro Vancouver’s largest immigrant group, booking feast after feast since October.

“It’s a fake name,” said Rae Kung, “and I use my friend’s phone. I don’t want them to know we’re the Chinese Restaurant Awards.”

“Chloe” is the awards’ collection of judges. Kung, the awards’ managing director, helps them keep a low profile. She’s only able to share this with you because judging has ended.

“A lot of restaurants recognize us already,” she said. “We don’t need any special treatment. We pay for everything, OK? They can give us a bowl of red bean soup” — a complimentary dessert at many sit-down Cantonese restaurants — “but other than that, nothing.”

The Chinese Restaurant Awards turns 10 this year, and its categories and selections have grown over its lifetime thanks to Vancouver’s boom of diverse Chinese restaurants. Cantonese classics like rice rolls and beef brisket curry still win awards, but they’re alongside dishes from their regional neighbours, like legs of lamb and spicy “mouthwatering chicken” bathed in chili oil.

The awards also have a diners’ choice section for the public to vote. They’ve harnessed the power of foodies on social media with a voting engine on the popular Chinese app WeChat, which comes in English too.

“Food really is a mutual topic,” Kung said. “People may not love to vote for their community leaders, but people love to vote for food.”

Sometimes cuisines are so new that they lead to awkward exchanges, which has happened to Nur at Efendi Uyghur. Some people have prodded her about being Uyghur.

“What is that? Where is that?” they often ask.

“It’s not ‘what is that,’” Nur will explain. “It’s one big culture.”

“So where is that from?”

“China.”

“Oh, you don’t look like Chinese.”

“I’m not Chinese. I’m originally Turkic people. We’re Turkic-system people, but we’re under the Chinese government. We’re on the Chinese map. That is why we’re Chinese citizens.”

“If you’re Turkic then you’re from Istanbul.”

“Come on!”

But Nur isn’t discouraged.

“The Uyghur community here is very small, so we didn’t really have a place to eat because we only eat halal food. We can’t go for our style food that’s run by mainland Chinese because it’s not halal. When we arrived here, my dad was like, oh, poor Uyghurs. We should have a restaurant where you can come in and sit down and have a homey feeling.”

Nur also hopes people unfamiliar with their food will give it a try.

“I want lots of people to know about our culture,” she said.

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Mina Nur is front of house at Efendi Uyghur, her family’s restaurant. Photo by Christopher Cheung.
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Nur Ajam is usually in the kitchen. Here he is prepping polo with lamb before the dinner rush. Photo by Christopher Cheung.

Restaurants like this help paint a more complete picture of a country whose food is often labeled with the food of other immigrants as “ethnic.” It’s a brave new world for eaters this side of the Pacific.

“Here 20 years ago,” said Kung of the Chinese Restaurant Awards, “it was all bubble tea and Cantonese restaurants.”

From mom-and-pops to globetrotting shops

Immigrant restaurants have historically been small enterprises, often family businesses, like Efendi Uyghur.

“Restaurants were really just a means to make money, like a laundry,” said UBC historian Henry Yu, an expert in Asian migration. These businesses were rarely aggressive ventures with co-ordinated branding, décor and hospitality strategies; they were humble places serving the “ultimate mission” of many families to get their kids in good schools.

Aside from increased mainland Chinese immigration, there’s another explanation for the growth of Chinese cuisine in Vancouver: the rise of foodie culture and the rise of entrepreneurs cooking up new flavours to feed the foodies. Foodie culture may have grown in the West, but it also flourished in the East.

“It’s the rise of the consumer economy these past two decades,” Yu said. “There are more people taking pictures of their food in China and in Korea, a lot more use of the smart phone and social media. As much as it’s made an impact in North America, it’s much more obsessive in China and Korea.”

China has a robust infrastructure of food critiquing and enterprising. Dianping — a Chinese web platform that’s a mix of Yelp, Groupon and food delivery apps — has over 250 million users; that’s more than double the number of Zomato’s global users. Star food reviewers on Weibo, a microblogging site, have millions of fans.

But Chinese foodies aren’t just after international tastes. They want the regional cuisines of their own country, too, which are as different as food in Texas is to cuisine in Maine. As Vancouver’s Chinese population grows, supply rushes in to meet the foodie demand for diversity and quality.

“You’ve got a big cluster of consumers here who have educated palettes,” Yu said. “Don’t underestimate the importance of that.”

Eric Zhu, 27, helped bring an iconic regional specialty to Metro Vancouver a little over a year ago: Sichuan sauerkraut fish. The “sauerkraut” isn’t German; it’s pickled mustard greens. You can find it in the suburb of Richmond at a restaurant called Too Two Chinese Sauerkraut Fish, where the dish is the star: “Which we do the best and you can’t get it anywhere else,” Zhu said.

Globe and Mail food critic Alexandra Gill made a trip to Too Two last fall. She describes the dish like this: “... the tangy pickles tame the heat, a richly built broth gives the soup a luxuriant silkiness, and secret spices add bright citrus and floral notes.... The tilapia is cut in thin strips and velveted (blanched with hot water) so it maintains a soft, silky texture. You will sweat, cough and perhaps even get a runny nose from the chilies. But the symptoms will pass quickly and be relatively painless.”

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The star and eponymous dish of Too Two Chinese Sauerkraut Fish. Photo by Christopher Cheung.
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The Two Too in Richmond is the Chinese chain’s first in North America. The restaurant name in Mandarin means a silly guy who can only do one thing well. (If pronounced in Cantonese, the name of the fish restaurant coincidentally sounds like ‘tyee.’ Photo by Christopher Cheung.
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The pickling mustard greens, or ‘sauerkraut,’ in a humidity-controlled room. They are ready to be served after a month. Photo by Christopher Cheung.

Too Two is not the small immigrant restaurant of the past. Richmond’s Too Two is one of 34 locations of a Guangdong-based chain. It’s the first in North America and already a hit with locals. If you plan to eat here, you’ll want to call ahead.

Despite this success, Zhu calls this first location just a “test.”

“Not as fancy as in China,” he said. “We’re being a little conservative for the foreign market in the beginning. We just want to see how the market reacts to our product, to our menu and to the entire branding.”

Zhu, who came to Canada from China almost a decade ago, is the director of the Richmond Too Two and is helping the brand expand to Toronto and big U.S. cities.

“My father read about McDonald’s and how they started their business,” Zhu said. “He found it very inspiring. That’s how he got into this business. He has this dream that China will have its own McDonald’s... that there will be one in the market eventually. Maybe not us, maybe somebody in China.”

Even if something like a Chinese McDonald’s doesn’t arise in the West, there are already a multitude of Asian entrepreneurs exporting a multitude of food concepts: from bakeries to barbecue to beverage chains, bolstered by “good strategy and good branding,” Zhu said.

“They have an awareness of what they’re selling and who they’re selling it to,” said historian Yu.

It’s not just mom-and-pops cooking the world for you now.

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You can sample food from all over China at the Richmond Public Market. Photo by Christopher Cheung.
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One of Richmond’s many plazas packed with restaurants. Photo by Christopher Cheung.
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The critically acclaimed HK BBQ Master in Richmond, underneath a Superstore. Photo by Christopher Cheung.

‘What can you lose?’

There are a diversity of immigrant restaurants all across Vancouver, including many established Cantonese eateries that have become neighbourhood institutions. But restaurants opened by new immigrants tend to be outside of the city centre and in the growing suburbs beyond.

Commercial rents are cheaper farther out than in central Vancouver, where bars, boutiques, coffee shops and heavily-branded restaurants are multiplying as people with money move in for the vibrancy and conveniences of urban life.

Since the millennium, a number of central Vancouver neighbourhoods with increases in average individual income higher than the average increase in the city have also gotten less diverse, such as Strathcona (home to Vancouver’s Chinatown), Mount Pleasant and Riley Park. The share of minorities in these neighbourhoods has decreased 14, 11 and 9 per cent respectively between 2000 and 2015.

There is a lack of new immigrants in the neighbourhoods outside of Vancouver’s downtown and a gain of new immigrants in the suburbs. Richmond, where the Chinese are a ‘majority minority,’ is on the bottom-left.

If you happen to live in a Vancouver neighbourhood losing diversity and where new immigrants aren’t settling, you might not encounter new Chinese food on your daily routine.

But Vancouver isn’t as sprawling as Los Angeles. This region also has an expansive rapid-transit network. So if you have the urge to eat the new stuff, it’s easy to get to, and not all of them are hidden holes-in-the-wall.

“Just hop on the SkyTrain,” said Fernando Medrano, who writes for Scout Magazine and other publications. He’s been eating Vancouver’s Chinese food for a long time. He remembers living in Richmond in the late-1970s when you couldn’t find rice and had to go to Chinatown.

Medrano has a number of easy-to-get-to suggestions. There’s the “spice route” of Kingsway with Guizhou, Sichuan and Xinjiang offerings. There are many food courts, like the one about Aberdeen Centre, which he calls the “Disneyland of regional cuisines.” There’s Richmond’s Alexandra Road, which locals call “Eat Street,” where Too Two is located and where you can find other treasures like Korean fried chicken.

“It can be intimating,” Medrano said, “but what can you lose? Each bowl is like seven bucks. It’s still cheaper than eating at Earls.”

At the upscale casual dining restaurant, a salmon dish is $21. Rice meals are between $15 and $19.

“Even if you toss out three bowls, you’re still ahead.”  [Tyee]

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