Un­der­ground Chi­nese Food

Vancouver Magazine - - Taste - Frances Bula and Si Chen

the main street of Simon Fraser Univer­sity’s UniverCity vil­lage, scan­ning the side­walk, look­ing for my sup­pli­ers. At ƒrst, noth­ing. And then, there they are. Min, in one of the lovely Doris Daystyle house­dresses that she seems to favour, and her daugh­ter, Sherry, hold­ing white plas­tic bags. I hand over the cash, $37, as we’d agreed ear­lier in the day, and then my hus­band and I race o‹ to a nearby park to con­sume our goods. We open the bags and then the Sty­ro­foam con­tain­ers, un­sure of ex­actly what we’ll get.

It’s even bet­ter than what I ex­pected. Chunks of ter­ra­cotta-coloured chicken pieces, spicy with cayenne. One con­tainer of ver­mi­celli noo­dles, the clear glass kind, dark­ened with soy sauce and sprin­kled with bits of minced pork and green onions. Steamed buns with meat ƒlling, their bot­toms browned with a lacy fringe from the fry­ing pan. A hefty box of spareribs, rich with fat and black-bean sauce, and an­other one of cab­bage with ba­con.

Our se­cret meal is from a sichu, one of sev­eral dozen that have pro­lif­er­ated in Van­cou­ver over the past sev­eral years. A sichu (lit­eral trans­la­tion: “pri­vate chef”) is the

I race off to a nearby park to con­sume our goods.

Van­cou­ver term for an un­der­ground Chi­nese restau­rant. It’s a grow­ing phe­nom­e­non in some parts of China via an Airbnb-style plat­form. The con­cept, in a more prim­i­tive form, has trick­led into cities like Van­cou­ver and Los An­ge­les, thanks to the new tide of main­land Chi­nese im­mi­grants, one con­tin­gent of which is home­sick for cheap, home­made food and an­other whose mem­bers are bored and look­ing for some­thing to keep them­selves busy.

Un­der­ground food and al­co­hol pur­vey­ors are not new to Van­cou­ver. Am­a­teur chefs have run var­i­ous se­cret din­ner clubs over the years in city houses and apart­ments, com­ing and go­ing in waves, though they have be­come some­what less pop­u­lar re­cently. “It’s faded a bit be­cause there’s just no money in it,” says pre-em­i­nent Cana­dian food scholar Lenore New­man. AUniver­sity of the Fraser Val­ley pro­fes­sor and au­thor of Speaking in Cod Tongues: A Cana­dian Culi­nary Jour­ney, New­man notes there was a thriv­ing un­der­ground moon­shine in­dus­try in East Van­cou­ver for sev­eral years be­fore laws changed to en­cour­age le­gal pro­duc­ers of gin, vodka and beer.

But the Chi­nese sichus don’t run sit-down restau­rants. They’re not about the ex­pe­ri­ence, as some of the non-Chi­nese un­der­ground Van­cou­ver restau­rants were with their mul­ti­ple cour­ses, some­times theme-based. It’s strictly take­out.

One com­pre­hen­sive list of sichus, on Cloudlifedaily, a Van­cou­ver-based WeChat ac­count, showed 65 list­ings early this year. There’s a wild va­ri­ety. Creamy-CreationBaker makes only mango cakes. Van_­canzui spe­cial­izes in Chaozhou cui­sine, while Canadachris o‹ers Shan­dong dishes. There are acou­ple of hot-pot op­er­a­tions, one chicken wings and feet, one bar­be­cue, one hand­made won­ton, sev­eral that make only desserts, and one that is speciƒcally for a “ƒt----

ness diet plan.” They are es­pe­cially pop­u­lar at the re­gion’s two main univer­si­ties, UBC and SFU, which have large pop­u­la­tions of main­land Chi­nese stu­dents, and in Rich­mond.

Min, (in­ter­net restau­rant han­dle: A Min Mama, with no last names, please, in this busi­ness) was one of the rest­less types look­ing for some­thing to do. The 49-year-old from the Shang­hai re­gion ar­rived in Van­cou­ver three years ago to join her daugh­ter, Sherry, who had been study­ing in Canada as an in­ter­na­tional stu­dent since she was 17. (Mr. Min is back in China, still work­ing at his oˆce job.) At ‰rst, Min, who had worked as a baker be­fore be­com­ing afull-time mother and house­wife, cooked just for Sherry in their Burn­aby Moun­tain apart­ment. (“I gained 10 pounds in two weeks!” Sherry moans with agrin.) Then she started cook­ing for Sherry’s friends. Then Sherry’s friends liked her food so much and asked for it so of­ten that Min de­cided to start a lit­tle take­out op­er­a­tion. Now it’s turned into an ev­ery­day busi­ness that keeps the two of them hus­tling.

This par­tic­u­lar Thurs­day morn­ing, Min, in an­other el­e­gant dress, and Sherry, in a Roots hoodie, have trekked down to the Crys­tal Mall on Kingsway in Burn­aby, a kind of sub­ur­ban Chi­na­town in a big box with a huge pro­duce mar­ket, butch­ers, bak­eries, spe­cialty prod­ucts and more, all geared to Chi­nese shop­pers. They are pick­ing up pota­toes, chicken legs, pork and veg­eta­bles for the day’s cook­ing. Al­though only two or­ders have

come in so far this morn­ing for lunch, they know there will be more by day’s end.

The ex­pand­ing busi­ness has meant in­creas­ing lev­els of com­pli­ca­tion. To en­sure that neigh­bours don’t com­plain about smells, they’ve in­stalled ex­tra fans and keep the win­dows closed. They’ve added a lot of ex­tra cook­ing equip­ment—big pots and mul­ti­ple saucepans. They’ve changed the menu. At †rst, they cooked the non-spicy food that is more typ­i­cal of Shang­hai, says Sherry. “But stu­dents here love spicy very much.” So the o‹er­ings, now much ex­panded, are now spicy. They de­liver all the food to keep peo­ple away from the door and, again, to avoid neigh­bours’ com­plaints.

And the days are oc­ca­sion­ally bru­tal. On the day af­ter their WeChat list­ing †rst ap­peared, they got so much busi­ness that they were do­ing food prepa­ra­tion un­til 3 a.m. Sherry, who has done the †rst-level food-safety course here, also pays at­ten­tion to en­sur­ing that the food is al­ways high qual­ity and safe. So far, their worst prob­lem has been an or­der de­liv­ered to the wrong per­son.

Van­cou­ver Coastal Health o“cially frowns on all types of un­der­ground restau­rants, warn­ing that they aren’t in­spected and don’t have food safety plans. “Ba­si­cally,” says spokesper­son Anna Maria d’An­gelo, “we ad­vise that peo­ple pa­tron­ize them at their own risk.” But the au­thor­ity hasn’t in­spected or closed down an un­der­ground restau­rant in at least two decades, she ac­knowl­edges. So the coast is clear on that front.

The busi­ness isn’t a pot of gold. The pair es­ti­mate they make about $3,000 a month in good months, af­ter ex­penses. Be­sides the food and cook­ing equip­ment, that in­cludes items like plas­tic bags, take­out chop­sticks, Sty­ro­foam con­tain­ers and nap­kins. In the sum­mer, when stu­dents are away, it’s more like $1,000.

Sherry’s just grad­u­ated with a busi­ness de­gree and would like to even­tu­ally run her own food stall. She’s scoped out the cost: $320,000 to get into one at Rich­mond Cen­tre. In the mean­time, she feels duty bound to help at home. “My mom asked me to do this,” she says. “I can’t say no.”

is for WIN NIPEG, the home of mad ge­nius chef Man­del Hitzer, pro­pri­etor of Deer and Al­mond and founder of the Raw pop-up din­ners that at­tract the coun­try’s great­est chefs to a tent at the frozen con uence of the Red and Assini­boine rivers ev­ery win­ter. Hitzer is com­ing to town on Novem­ber 9 as part of Eat Van­cou­ver to cook with Raw: Al­mond alum Makoto Ono at Mak N Ming. For tick­ets, go to eat-van­cou­ver.com.

is for VIPs, and judg­ing by this year’s ros­ter (Bono for his birth­day, Ge­orge Lu­cas and the prime min­is­ter of Italy), if you’re in­ter­ested in spot­ting them, then buck up and head to Ciop­pino’s. ciop­pinosyale­town.com

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