Food

My trip home to the other Vancouver (B.C.)

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I went home to Vancouver a few weekends ago. Yes, the other Vancouver, where I was born and raised. There are a few differences between the two, but both are considered my home. There were a few reasons we made the short trip to Canada but mostly it was for some rest and relaxation and, as always, it turned into an eating fest. My brother and his family were going to be in Vancouver for a track event, we had not seen my mom since last year, it was my sister’s birthday and my aunt passed away.

The common thread was that there was food involved. As soon as we plan our trips, I make a note of what I want to eat and where I want to eat it. When someone asks me what we will be doing on our mini-vacation my standard answer is “eating.” There are so many foods that are readily available back home and there are no replacements that satisfy my cravings for these specific dishes or restaurants anywhere except the wonderful city that I grew up in.

The first meal we had when we arrived was lunch with mom. I have been craving Chicken and Mushroom Congee; this is a Cantonese rice porridge what is my go-to comfort food. We also had Rice Noodles with Beef and some really good wonton soup. Our first meal usually is dim sum, but we decided to forgo that as we could have that almost any time in Portland. We had a long drive which started at 12:30 a.m. due to the collapse of the I-5 Bridge over the Skagit River. The meal that we had was exactly what we needed.

The next big meal would be with my brother’s family and my parents. Earlier in the month I was talking to my brother and after catching up, we talked about food. Yes, where could we all go for dinner since it is pretty much the center of our lives. He recently had a fantastic meal at an Italian restaurant called Marcello Pizzeria & Ristorante. This was in the heart of Little Italy which was a short drive from my Mom’s house.  Since we were at an Italian restaurant we decided to eat family style, so we could all sample a variety of dishes.  This worked out well as we sat at a long table and were able to shuffle the dishes down the table. The food was amazing and the conversations were loud and boisterous, as we had not been all together for over two years. There are many cultures that serve food family style, which is my favorite way of eating as this encourages conversation with everyone as the dishes are passed.

As we were finishing our meal my mind started to wonder about dinner to celebrate my sister’s birthday, since the way that we celebrate birthdays in my family is going out to eat.  We all have such busy lives and some of us live quite a distance from home that we enjoy long dinners so we have time to catch up with each other. Earlier in the day we had driven by a Szechuan restaurant that had been there for many years. Szechuan is a style of Chinese cuisine originating from the Szechuan province in southwestern China. Since I grew up eating Cantonese food, my palate for spicy food is not as refined as I would like it to be.  After reading some reviews online, my mom and I decided that this would be a great place to celebrate my sister’s birthday. With my mother, I had the honor of choosing several dishes that we could all enjoy.  The dishes were Hot and Sour Soup, Peking Duck, Spicy Tofu, General Tso’s Chicken, Green Beans with Spicy Sauce, Chinese Broccoli with Garlic, Shanghai Dumpings, Fried Sliced Bread and my favorite Szechuan dish, Crispy Rice with Shrimp. It sounds like a lot of food, but the seven of us devoured almost every bite of food on the table. We had another wonderful meal with dishes that complimented each other. The few leftovers went home with one of my sisters.

I have always been curious about the connection between food and Chinese traditions. Since I was young we were always invited to special banquets and dinners with friends and family.  I would make note of what dishes were served and what order they were served in. The most important thing that I learned was that every meal needs to be balanced, and most of the dishes served symbolize something — even the meals that my parents taught me always had white rice as a platform of the meal with a soup, a meat either beef or chicken or pork or even seafood.  There was always a vegetable dish to round out the meal.  From all that I have learned, I feel that I have mastered what dishes should be chosen for any occasion.  The preparation and the flavors of each individual dish need to be complementary to all the other dishes.  Having more than one deep fried dish is not advised or having beef prepared three different ways is not recommended since there are so many other ingredients such as chicken, pork or seafood of all types.

I have been to so many dinners for weddings, births of new babies, milestone birthdays such as 70th, 80th, 90th and even sometimes 100th and also the celebration of a person’s life after they have passed on. I thought I would share with you some of the popular dishes served.

The first dish is the Chinese version of an appetizer which consisted of cold meats such as Chinese ham or roast pork or beef tongue. On the platter was also a pile of jellyfish seasoned with sesame oil. There would sometimes be another appetizer such as deep-fried crab claws, which were very popular with the kids.  It was like eating a seafood lollipop.

The next dish was usually a large bowl of Fish Maw soup made with crab meat and chicken.  Fish maw is the air bladder of fish which is considered a luxury ingredient since the banning of sharks fin and the nearly impossible to find Bird’s nest.  The fish maw has a very gelatinous texture and if you can get past that the soup is actually quite delicious.

The next dish that would arrive at the table would be either lobster or crab or both sautéed with garlic and onions. The lobster and crab is prepared so that eating it would not require a mallet and bibs.  Each crab leg would be cracked and the lobster tails and claws would also be cracked before they were cooked so eating it would not create a mess. There are always plenty of hot towels brought to the table.

The next dish would usually be a whole Crispy Skin Chicken served with crunchy shrimp chips. The chicken is always served cut up in to manageable pieces.  The chicken is always served with the head, neck and tail of the chicken.  This symbolizes completeness from head to tail.

The next few dishes would be a vegetable with either shitake mushrooms or abalone or sea urchin.  All these ingredients are served as they are considered luxurious and expensive.

The one dish that I have never enjoyed is a whole fish steamed with garlic and ginger and usually green onions.  The fish is served whole again as a symbol of completeness.  There is something about a whole fish with the eyeballs staring at me that have never set well with me.

The next two dishes are usually what we call “fillers” — fried rice and noodles.  If it is a wedding, the fried rice would be called Lover’s Rice which is the ying and yang which represents the male and female. The noodle dish would usually be served as a symbol of long life as the noodles seem to be endless.

Then the last dish served would be considered dessert.  It could be a sweet red bean soup or a sweet almond soup.  The dessert soups would symbolize the end of the long meal which consisted of at least 10 dishes which are usually served one at a time. The reason for this was initially to allow diners to enjoy each dish, but in modern times I think it is because serving up to six hundred guests or 60 tables would be rather chaotic. This type of dessert is not as common as the second and third generation Chinese Canadians are getting married to non-Chinese, couples are trying to incorporate North American traditions, therefore desserts have become more elaborate.

We did have several other special meals on our vacation and I did get to eat most of my favorite foods but as always the most special was prepared by my mom. No matter how old we get or how much time passes we can always count on mom to always remember each of our favorite dishes and we can guarantee that every time they are made with love.

Lila Mah-Kuhn

I am a first generation Chinese/Canadian/American who has lived in SW Washington area for almost sixteen years. I have a love for all things about food. At age 10 I learned how to cook by watching both of my parents preparing meals for family and friends. I have collected recipes and recipes for most of my life and in the past fifteen years I have found that reading food blogs and searching for recipes has become a hobby. I love sharing my heritage and how food is not just a necessity but something that ties all human beings no matter what part of the world you live in.