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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Chinatown, my Chinatown


Like most white people who were raised on sandwiches, sometimes I find the food of Chinatown daunting:


Ya know?

Lana and I went for a walk on Sunday to Chinatown, to check out a new furniture store, get some bowls, and enjoy the sun. I also wanted to get some Chinese five spice powder, and figured where better but one of the many markets:


I love places like this because it's what you imagine all grocery stores must have looked like 100 years ago: large glass canisters filled with bulk foods measured for each customer. I find the dried fish on the sidewalk a little iffy, but I'm sure it's good if only I knew how to cook it correctly. I asked for five spice powder and got some bulk - obv - a large bag cost me $1.32


FYI, you can get dried sea horses for $45/lb:


Practically everything worth doing was done by the Chinese first, so I needed to know immediately what the hell they do with their little dessicated bodies. I googled it (what did we do before google? I seem to remember we just wondered aloud a lot - "hmmm, I wonder what they use that for?" *subject dropped*). Apparently they are used as an ancient medicine for kidney ailments and impotence, as well as in soups. Who knew.

Anyhoo, five spice powder. I read about it in Real Simple magazine and wanted to try it. The five spices it includes are Szechuan peppercorns, star anise, ground cloves, ground cinnamon and ground fennel seeds. From the package it has a musky smell. I took mine home and decided to invent a little recipe with beef:

Chinese Five Spice Beef and Bok Choy
1 large steak, cut into strips
1 tbsp Chinese cooking wine
1 tbsp light soy sauce
2 tbsp dark soy sauce
1 tbsp five spice powder
1 green pepper
1 head baby bok choy
1/2 yellow onion
2 green onions
1 clove garlic

Combine cooking wine, soy sauces, five spice powder and beef and leave to marinate in the fridge with the sliced yellow onion for 1/2 hour.


Mince clove of garlic into a stirfry pan and mix with vegetable oil. Chop green pepper and bok choy into chunks, the green onions into scallions. Over medium high heat, add the beef and cook until browning begins. Add peppers, boy choy and green onion and cook until meat is cooked through. Serve hot over rice


Five spice powder has a great, sweetish taste that compliments beef very well. It was a good guess on my part to mix it with soy, it's a nice offset. I devoured this, which by now you are pretty used to, if you've been reading this blog for any reasonable length of time.

Chinatown has a special place in my heart because I lived there while I was going to University. By sheer dumb luck, I just happened to answer an ad in the Province that had just gone in that morning for an apartment in a brand new subsidized building. The original plan was that elderly Chinese residents could live there, but it was open to everyone if you had a chance to pounce. I moved in a month later and over the next five years, would have a succession of roomates and one boyfriend live there with me. At first, I was regarded by the elderly residents as somewhat of an oddity and possibly a threat (which was completely fair: the back portion of the building was on Shanghai Alley, which if you know anything about Vancouver history, was the street on which the Chinese built a gate to keep angry white people out during the Anti-Chinese riots at the turn of the century. Many people I lived with were the sons and daughters of those people, and didn't trust whites. I wouldn't, either).

It was a different dynamic because me and whoever I lived with at the time were the only people that weren't elderly Chinese in the whole building. One thing I love about Chinese people is that they will talk shit about you right to your face. Ukrainians do it too. It's as though if I can't understand their language, I surely won't be able to understand the brazen staring at me and pointing a bony finger at my tits while we're in the elevator together. I got talked shit about a lot in the early days. And it became my normal. That is, until, the fire.

The landlord did not live on site. Late one evening, an elderly man fell asleep and left his stove on. His suite caught on fire, and whatever he was cooking caused an amazing amount of smoke and drama. I helped some of the folks down the stairs (as you do) and showed the firefighters where to go. What I did was not at all unusual, especially if you are the only 20-something in a building full of octogenarians. But to those old folks, my willingness to help them elevated me from useless white kid to helpful neighbour, ever after to be trusted and relied upon.

I knew shit was different when the next day there was a knock at my door. Five old ladies, and enough food to feed an army. Glistening Peking duck, mango salsa, the works. Seriously delicious. They had decided that they loved me, and I could do no wrong after that. Because I was going to theatre school at the time, they nicknamed me "movie star" and would run across the street to say hi to me if I was walking by. When I moved out, my landlady cried. Language barriers be damned, we had a little community and I was sorry to leave, but it was time to move on.

Today I live in between gay dudes and sports bars, and I wouldn't have it any other way. My live-in is furry and bitchy with sharp claws. I no longer live in the poorest postal code in the country; I live in an expensive one (this is not me trying to brag, I still live in a tenement, just in a nicer hood). I miss my old neighbours sometimes, with their fish fries and bingo in the basement. And I think about them from time to time, and hope they are well.

I wonder if the ladies would like this dish? Not sure, I doubt it was as good as if they had made it. But not bad for a white devil :)

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