I grew up in the white bread world of the 1950’s. As a child the only spices I was aware of were salt and pepper. On special occasions we had cinnamon toast laced with sugar as a rare treat. Food was bland and eaten quickly around a smoky table. Potato’s, of course were an every day staple. My father brought fifty kilo sacks home from the farmers markets. Every household had stacks of burlap potato sacks stored somewhere . They would come out on ‘sports day’ at the local schools. This Canadian penchant for the potato was how ‘sack races’ came to be. Boiled and mashed at night then fried until crispy with leftovers into hash for breakfast, the humble knob was at least filling. For flavouring, ketchup was king. It would be many years before I would understand the art and pleasure of taking to the table for recreation.
I don’t blame my parents for the blase and tasteless repertoire of plain foods they supplied. In the Canada of my youth, before the advent of immigration from the various Asia’s and America’s, there was little market variety available aside from the seasonal farmers fare of our traditional European heritage. Baked or fried, boiled and poached, meat, vegetables and starch were the limits of our gastronomic universe. Exotic meant pasta smothered with butter in my house. The food we ate was supposed to ‘stick to your ribs’.
Our diet was heavily meat-centric, most families had large freezers in the basement of their homes stocked with whole sides of beef or pork. If you wanted sausage or head cheese, you made your own with a hand cranked grinder. The days of long distance reefers bringing fresh fruit out of season from California or Mexico were yet to come. Mothers canned their preserves in the fall for the winters fare. Asian fruits and cuisine were magazine fiction.
It was common for men to hunt in those days and bring home sections of venison and moose. My parents likely counted themselves fortunate to have refrigeration. My grandmother was still using ice chests and a system of mesh contained cooling cabinets that hung off the shady back porch. For my grandfather, green didn’t mean inedible. In the suburb of Vancouver BC where I grew up we were still visited by ‘the milk man’ who came by in a horse drawn cart. My, how things have changed in the 21st century.
When I am not out in the world working as a travel writer, I live in the city of Richmond BC. It’s a vibrant place that has whole heartedly welcomed the popular change in diversity that Canadians from coast to coast have embraced. If urban economics had a seasonal adjustment then Richmond would be enjoying a spectacular spring. We have blossomed into renewed development primarily driven by the popularity of this special location among new residents who have chosen Canada as their home.
As opposed to my parents generation who might have had one grocery store per community, Richmond has a burgeoning supply of new commercial ventures focused on food, the product of new residents who have brought with them their cuisine and supply chains from all parts of the world. In the space of a few minutes walk we lucky denizens of this active community can shop for fresh produce and condiments from around the globe. Try the store Big Crazy on Number Three Road for dried foods and packaged snacks fit for every Asian palate.
Our new citizens can cook ! The fact is that I can visit a restaurant or kiosk for an exquisite meal of some exotic origin for the same price and in many cases less expensive than I can cook for two at home. In the Richmond Public Market a couple can eat for less than ten dollars at any of the dozens of kiosks serving up freshly cooked healthy meals. As empty nesters, my wife and I avail ourselves of this luxury quite frequently. Gone are the days of heading down to the basement with a large pot and hauling up a load of potato’s to be peeled.
While in other cities, where the planners have spread out commercial development into silo’s across a wide area, Richmond has allowed for a degree of comfortable concentration. This makes it easy for us budding gastronomes to hunt and peck through a wide spectrum of offerings with little need for an automobile . Eating out often in the community also means that we can enjoy the healthy exercise of walking home after a meal . Richmond’s naturally flat geography is the perfect spot for avid walkers like Patricia and I. We eat, we walk, it’s delightful. Did you know that residents of Richmond have a longer life expectancy than many Canadian urbanites?
At the present time there is an emphasis on cuisine from the Orient. Within the Asian community there is also great diversity. We have foods from Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia, Philippines, India, Hong Kong and all areas of Mainland China. You’re in for a treat if you decide to make the rounds of the Richmond Public Market which is a veritable United Nations of Asian cuisine. Do try the green onion flat bread, a northern Chinese specialty, it’s delicious. If you’d like a traditional sweet and sour pork, they have that too at Captain Wah’s.
Our entrepreneurs are an international representation from many countries . There is as well an evolution in the types of regional foods available that changes with the recency in origin of the peoples who come here. Richmond’s entry level food courts are witness to this phenomenon. Within the course of a five minute walk in any direction from Richmond’s popular downtown that is centered around Number Three Road and Westminster Highway there is much to be discovered.
We have attracted bakers by the dozen, the smell of fresh baked treats wafts through the air as you walk . I am partial to warm Dan Tat, the traditional egg custard tarts of southern Canton. Coconut filled Gai Mei Bau sweet buns and Char Sui Bau rolls filled with spicy meat paste are two of the most popular varieties that originate in southern China. Philippine’s influenced bakeries like New Town offer traditional foods from that region. Traditional breads and buns come in quantity at Cobb’s for those who seek the highest quality loaf. For those of you who hanker after Western Food, Richmond is home to every franchise you can think of visiting. The White Spot at Richmond Center is a Vancouver area tradition for hamburgers and sandwich fare. Great coffee shops and those that serve full menu’s like Tim Horton’s are all here.
Excellent dim sum houses dot the commercial centers, very busy on the weekends, with the biggest rush for seats between 11 and 2 on Saturdays and Sunday’s, come for the convivial atmosphere and the delicious dumplings averaging $3 dollars a serving. Varied cuisines from Schezwan to Mongolian and Turkish to a traditional hot sandwich at Bob’s, that is run by a very congenial couple from Japan, defies complete description. My wife Patricia who originally hails from Hong Kong assures me that the Cantonese food in Richmond is every bit as good as what we’d find in Hong Kong. Legend has it that Hong Kong’s greatest chefs have all immigrated to Canada and live in Richmond.
As newcomers ‘getting their feet wet’ in the Canadian business culture budding restauranteurs take up temporary residence in kiosk outlets like the Richmond Public Market, Yaohan Center and Parker Place as places to garner a clientele before expanding into a stand alone restaurant. Number Three Road, is lined with smaller intersecting malls and commercial plaza’s where sidewalks and stairwells are pathways and open doors to popular new gathering places where people meet to find their favorite meals and socialize. Matsuyama Sushi caters to a younger crowd by offering menu items at 50% off after 9 PM. There always seems to be adequate parking because of the turnover.
I am truly excited about my life as a ‘foodie’ in Richmond. I appreciate the ease and efficiency that city planners have built into the new urban lifestyle of our community. At present I am ‘on assignment’ in Bangkok Thailand writing about food and lifestyle. This Asian mega city of 15 million naturally developed an unparallelled obsession devoted to the enjoyment of eating. Gastronomy among the Thai is a social medium, a cherished part of their culture and a respected art form. Food courts built for thousands are where families and friends go to meet and indulge themselves in the joy of dining ‘al fresco’, children are welcomed to make noise! The streets of my neighborhood are lined with open carts offering delicious specialties at night for very reasonable prices. No reservations necessary.
When we return to Richmond in the spring we know that we won’t be starved for great food. We have a list of all our favorite places . I like to start my day with rice and chicken congee with sweet Hong Kong style tea. Later on we’ll walk a few doors down to the super friendly Happy Date restaurant for fried Singapore style spicy noodles with beef and the great ice coffee that comes free with every meal, it’s a Richmond institution. They will also cook your fresh fish to perfection if you bring it in for dinner. Buy a few large Dungeness Crab next door at ‘The Great One’ supermarket and have it cooked Hong Kong style with creamy garlic sauce by the chef’s for a few dollars a pound. Right across the street is the very popular produce store, Wah Shang, which is a terrific place to find your fresh local varieties of Asian vegetables, many grown right in Richmond.
In the afternoon I might visit the ‘Fresh Food’ market at Cambie and Number 5 road for the ingredients to a spicy Indian Masala with crispy fried paneer and mango chutney. If we’ve had a swim at the Minoru Aquatic Center that day then we might stroll over to the Richmond Public market and have a bubble tea at Peanuts. I’m quite happy when I look at the Yellow Pages for restaurants in Richmond and find that it resembles an alphabet soup of indulgent choices. Even my appreciation for the lonesome potato can be enjoyed if I exercise , McDonald’s first Canadian franchise at Number 3 and Granville makes great french fries. I can’t wait .
© 2011 J West Hardin aka Wayne Olson- Poet, Novelist, Travel Writer, Travel Blogger, You Tuber, contributor to ‘hackwriters’, Columnist for ‘The Travel Itch’ magazine