We relaxed and began our meal. On the table was a dish of pea tips with fresh bean-curd skins, perfect in its simplicity. Hargow (shrimp dumplings) and siumai (pork dumplings) then arrived. Both are common dim sum offerings, but here they were anything but ordinary. The plump hargow were rich with chunks of shrimp. ("Eat them now, when they're hot," Lee advised me.) The siumai had a topping of fresh tobiko (flying fish roe), added after steaming so it glistened like jewels. We were then offered a small dish of XO sauce. The condiment, made with expensive ingredients such as shredded dried scallops and dried shrimp, is usually reserved for special guests or regular customers ― which we were treated as, because Lee had been referred by a friend.
As we ate, Lee told me her story. She and her two sons came to Canada nine years ago from Hong Kong. Her youngest son wasn't interested in regular school, she said, so he applied to culinary school. "Then we decided we would go together.
"I tried to withdraw three times," Lee told me. But she stuck it out. "Now I'm really proud of him. And of myself. He was the top student out of 20. And I was the one after him." Her son is now apprenticing to become a chef, and Maggie Lee is enjoying a new career as a cook at a casino here in Richmond.
The meal continued, wonderfully. There were pigs' feet and hard-cooked eggs prepared with sweet vinegar, ginger, and peanuts. I recognized this dish as one my mother cooked for me after the birth of my first daughter. It is supposed to help rebuild the body after childbirth. The taste reminded me of what food at its best can be: comforting and sensual at the same time. That, in its essence, is what much of the food of Richmond is all about.
We got our chicken salad ― deliciously moist with chicken stock and dark soy. "You soak the chicken," Lee explained, "then turn off the heat. That makes the chicken very tender. It's a secret recipe. This restaurant does it well."
I could see Lee thinking about her own repertoire of dishes. "When I know a recipe is good," she said, "I write it down for my own book. I'm passionate about food."
How to order
Many Chinese restaurants in Richmond (as well as other authentic Chinese restaurants) give diners four or five menus. To sort through the mind-boggling array of choices, Stephen Wong suggests these tactics.
- Look for the chef's recommendations. They're usually listed in the small menu or under "specials."
- Ask questions. You may need to search for a server who speaks English, but ask. What are the specials? What are the best seafood and vegetables
of the day? Then discuss the way you want them cooked.
- Don't miss dim sum. A meal of small plates, it is generally served from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.; occasionally it's served as early as 8:30. At most restaurants you mark your selection on a menu. Then a server takes it, prints out a summary, and leaves it at your table. As each item arrives, it is crossed off.