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The learning idea I alluded to in my previous post is outlined in the following. I’ve always been a fan of “Word of the Day” and can really get sucked into the idea of learning a little every day. If I know it the word, I move on. If I don’t, Word of the Day succinctly reminds me of what I don’t know and I can learn. One word a day is highly manageable!

Yesterday, I started to test out the idea and it’s as good a time as any to “go live” and get this started! I will be tweeting at this blog’s Twitter account (@CatchStarGirl) two “Word of the Day” from the list of 3,000 most common characters. I will annotate each Tweet with pronunciation and definition.

Here is the format of each tweet where an underscore (_) denotes a space character:

Word of the day
Form: Traditional-form(Simplified-form, if applicable)_
Characters: 2 or 5

Form: Pinyin/Cantonese_
Characters: maximum 10 (usually maximum four for each of Pinyin and Cantonese, occasionally five)

Form: _#Top3000中文chars
Characters: always 16

Form: _#ID
Characters: maximum 7, e.g., _#1,234
Note: to track which word we are up to!

Form: free
Characters: usually up to 102 characters
Note: descriptions include definition (denoted by “def:”), common or fun usage or link to a dictionary if I can’t define certain ones; if multiple definitions exist, I might only post one or two of them, particularly the way I know the word; if I know the word already, I won’t look it up for confirmation

Post frequency: twice daily, at 8:00 AM and 8:00 PM Eastern time – I wanted to post at 8:08 but Hootsuite won’t let me schedule posts that way.

I hope to have fun and brush up with this exercise and meet other people who want to learn Chinese!

Short URL for this blog post: http://ow.ly/w5tWm

Learning Chinese 學中文

What got me started/reminded again about this life-long goal is when my friend @FrankLam tweeted about ChineseCubes. In the sea of new ways to learn that most difficult language to learn, ChineseCubes is more “hands-on” and could be revolutionary… or not. I wondered how many of the 40 characters in that set I knew already…

The latest learning site that captured my fleeting interest was introduced via an interview on SinoplicegotCharacters. I couldn’t figure out what was so special about her lessons, concluding it was pretty normal methods once you got beyond her pretty infographic.

In a nutshell, this is my Chinese education:

  • Mum’s hand-made flashcards on textured stock paper and cut with pinking shears. The primary education, of course, was from her speaking exclusively Cantonese to me because her English is never as good – her Chinese is pretty proper as she doesn’t swear and tries to avoid vernacular/low-class (jook) speech.
  • One summer I spent in Hong Kong, Mum hired a proper Beijing Mandarin speaking tutor for me. I was a delinquent student – would you believe that? – and she believed in corporal punishment.
  • Another summer I spent in Hong Kong, Mum sent me to math classes. Come to think of it, I wasn’t learning Chinese since I would have been several grades behind my age. I was also sent to calligraphy and watercolour classes, also not language-focused.
  • There was one summer (my memory begins to fail me now so I’ll say it was after the 11th grade) where my Chinese identity turned on and I spent the summer cramming Chinese vocabulary, totally voluntarily.
  • In the late 1990s, I was in university and amongst Chinese classmates for the first time and had access to Chinese malls where I would amass a collection of 200 CDs and Chinese radio. I listened to HK Pop almost exclusively and endeavoured to learn songs although I would never, ever sing in front of people.
  • Back when access was much more open, in the mid-2000s, I listened to the ChinesePod dialogues. The only one that stuck is the one one that means “I’m not telling you!”
  • For one semester some time in the late 2000s, I took a Mandarin for Cantonese Speakers course at Langara, because I know I didn’t need to start from the very beginning with either speaking Mandarin or reading characters. I’m a proud Cantonese speaker and wanted to surrounded myself with the like – but my classmates were all immigrants from Hong Kong and while I got stuck halfway through the course, it’s like a lightbulb switched on and they were suddenly fluent. Frustrating.

I read somewhere that during the Cultural Revolution (or perhaps it was the subsequent reform period), an educational regime was created in China to rapidly bring about basic literacy. The program entailed learning something like 3,000 characters in three months and then the student can read a newspaper. I’ve always wanted to know that I knew those 3,000 characters for certain. Whether I would actually put my knowledge into practice was another story…

So, I’ve had this idea on the back-burner for a couple of years and all will be revealed in the following post.

Currently reading John Jung’s Sweet and Sour: Life in Chinese Family Restaurants

john jung sweet and sour life in chinese family restaurantsI purchased the Kindle edition of John Jung’s Sweet and Sour: Life in Chinese Family Restaurants, as far as I can remember, a couple of years ago. While it isn’t difficult at all to read, I would get sidetracked and only got about a quarter of the way through before putting it down for over a year.

While this is a topic that is important to me, other books and novels of interest to me will never cease to come to my attention so I had to make a concerted effort to put other reading on pause while I finally finished this book.

When I was younger, I did not want to admit to my family background, that I was a “restaurant kid”. It was drilled into me that my parents come from a higher “class” in Hong Kong than the other restaurant-operating folks in Halifax who came to Canada straight from a village with grade school education and – since no one will check – claim high school matriculation. But as my parents chose to immigrate and found difficulty securing jobs in their fields, working in a restaurant was an “easy” option. Over twenty years ago, when I was 12 years old, my parents opened their own restaurant and by doing so, could finally make themselves proud. That, in a nutshell, is my story.

Being a “restaurant kid” is a sort of demographic since so many Chinese people open restaurants. I don’t find in Asian-American literature – except for Judy Fong Bates’ Midnight at the Dragon Cafe and Kim Wong Keltner’s I Want Candy – that this demographic is well represented. Being a restaurant kid gets into your very fabric but it makes for a poor community because everyone desperately wants out. These days, I am proud to be a restaurant kid because it is inspiring to me how my parents literally tough it out every day, into their sunset years.

This is the book I wanted to write (but from more of a food point of view but not exactly like Jennifer 8. Lee’s The Fortune Cookie Chronicles either).  John Jung is a retired professor of psychology. Just reading his Life After Retirement bio, I realize how similar our Chinese-American/Canadian paths have been. He grew up a “laundry kid” in Macon, Georgia where his family was the only Chinese in town (I grew up in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on the eastern end of Canada) and then he moved to San Francisco where there are plenty of Chinese but he still didn’t fit in with San Francisco Chinese who lived with so many Chinese all their lives (ditto, I moved to “Hongcouver”/Vancouver, British Columbia). I love how John Jung has the ability to pursue his interest during his retirement and I hope to do that as well.

John Jung’s first published work was a memoir of his family life and was followed by an in-depth book about Chinese laundries. His third book focused on Chinese grocers in Mississippi in a time of racial segregation. To round out the work on occupations available to Chinese at the turn of the 20th century, he published Sweet and Sour in 2010.

In the preface, in the first sentence, Jung writes, “the focus of this book is not on Chinese food.” It is a sociological study of the Chinese restaurant, how it was a major entrepreneurial option for immigrants and how it introduced an initially strictly American-food eating public to other cuisine. It is about the families as well because strictly quoting statistics of numbers of restaurants is dry. And because progress in Canada mirrored that in the United States in so many ways, Jung gave nods and provided Canadian examples.

There is one chapter consisting of in-depth interviews or essays with people in restaurant families. In their own words, the children of restauranteurs describe their family histories and their world growing up in a kitchen or dining room, surrounded by family and restaurant folk. In their stories, I saw my own history and my parents’ as well, even though my parents opened their restaurant and I was born about 10 years later than Jung’s interview subjects. I read a passage to NPY who thought it was my writing and about my father.

It’s true – Jung writes about the family Chinese restaurant as an ode because it’s all changing now. Formerly small towns with just one Chinese family and restaurants evolved into small cities. Nearly everyone has tried Chinese food and the public has moved and the current fascination in small cities seems to be Thai food. In the Internet age, everything changes.

None of the restaurants described were as new as my parents’ restaurant, established in the early 1990s. By my age, Chinese women had been arriving the in the Americas for generations, broke out of traditional gender roles and pitched in equally in the kitchen. People don’t so often live above their restaurant – we didn’t.

You hear that behind every great man, there’s a great woman. Sometimes the woman is leader of the family. More often than the case studies or examples and interviews would suggest, often people who start in the restaurant business are not suited to run a restaurant. In the 80s and 90s, there is a lot of competition as the number of family Chinese restaurants per capita skyrockets. What about price wars? What about unethical practices? It’s not all rosy but that is also not part of the scope of Sweet and Sour.

I was so mad at my parents for making us a stereotype. What I realized reading the interviews is that our family had the unique privilege to work together for years. We spent time together in a truly special way, in the pressure cooker that is the kitchen. It’s small consolation right now when they continue to be tied to the restaurant and I see them just once or twice a year.

Literally, a Studio Ghibli marathon

In the past two years, I’ve noticed, diarized but then did not attend Studio Ghibli retrospectives in Toronto (Spirited Away: The Films of Studio Ghibli) and Vancouver (Castles in the Sky: The Return of Studio Ghibli). Their advertisements and the like that landed in my email reminded me that there is a big and growing body of work that I have 100% missed out on. I have only watch about 25% of Ponyo, can you believe that?

Over the years, in order to get more done, I’ve really stopped watching the television screen. I play the shows I follow in the background. Setting aside 45 to 50 minutes to sit with NPY to watch something takes a lot of patience from me (until the show just sucks me in). There is one scenario when I have nothing but time, working on my computer or playing on my phone is not an option, and all I do is stare straight forward: when I do my runs on a treadmill. With minimum half-hour runs at least a couple times a week, I figure it won’t take that long to get through most of the Studio Ghibli canon.

The initial fun lies in selecting the movies (not all… yet) and which sequence to watch them. I wanted to start from the beginning and watch the most famous movies (that I’ve heard of) so I’m watching these ones first:

Castle in the Sky (1986)
My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
Princess Mononoke (1997)
Spirited Away (2001)
Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
Ponyo (2008)

Then I checked out lists rating the films and added two more, also to be viewed in chronological order:

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Porco Rosso (1992)
Whisper of the Heart (1995)
The Secret World of Arrietty (2010)

So, that’s my viewing fodder for the next while and I’m so excited (to run and) to immerse myself in this world!

Modern Asian food dinners round-up: PiDGiN, Broken Rice and ShuRaku

It just so happened that in the past few weeks, I have been able to try a few places that have been on my wishlist for a little while. So I save all of my pictures for this big post. I feel completely unqualified to really review the dishes we had so this is largely a post of photos and that speaks more than words, doesn’t it? I’ve been so excited to try these three places like you wouldn’t know.


When Su-lin came back to Vancouver for a visit last year and posted about PiDGiN, I finally took notice and just couldn’t get the restaurant off of my mind. PiDGiN participated in Dineout and while the six-course menu was undoubtably good, I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed to what they chose for me. We wanted to make sure that we could try what we heard was really good.

Modern menus with abbreviated descriptions of the food. Put your faith in their hands.


In time for the Olympics and all that controversy surrounding it, PiDGiN concocted a special cocktail they named Putin’s Pride and thumbs its nose in the direction of Sochi. The limited edition cocktail is made with Mount Gay Rum, Cointreau, pineapple syrup and coconut water. Note how the unflavoured ice cubes are a rainbow of colours. You get the point and you get an idea of the kind of humour PiDGiN has.

This sounded so much better than I found it to be – humpback shrimp toast. I would much appreciate if the menu were to reveal that the shrimp was raw because a cooked shrimp toast sounded so nice. Shimp on sushi menus is actually often cooked and raw shrimp tastes so … pasty. My cousin found the toast to be stale and I just had a difficult time enjoying it.

The raw scallops were labeled as such on the menu and a seafood served raw that I am much more accustomed to. In addition, there was in a curry oil drizzle. The crunchy and fresh daikon and apple garnish was nice and refreshing, not that the curry oil was heavy. The scallops were silky and part way divine.

Things were getting better and better with vitello tonnato – cubed tuna and seared veal. The yellow paste is a fried egg emulsion and I made sure to drag each piece of meat to through it to have tasty “sauce.”

Then came the foie gras rice bowl that Su-lin said was a well-balanced dish when it was all stirred together. I forgot the stirred-together tidbit and left the wasabi off to the side. My cousin’s friend said the foie gras rice bowl was the best thing to ever enter his mouth. Well, weren’t we looking forward to it?

It was delicious but not the best thing ever. The foie gras cubes were fatty and gloriously cooked and unagi glaze makes it nice and comforting Asian fare. Chestnut pieces were velvety and a luxurious and filling accompaniment and the braised daikon was complementing in flavour but added a vegetable and juicy component. It’s a really cool combination.

Vadouvan spiced lamb belly. I’ve never had this cut of lamb before and the spices and smokiness attenuated the otherwise really “lamb-y” taste that the belly would have. So it was just really nice and tender.

Once upon a time (recently), PiDGiN had this awesome sounding milk chocolate Ovaltine mousse with orange blossom yogurt and honeycomb. I would have ordered that too in the blink of an eye. But it was no longer on the menu and between the three choices, I went with the safest one. The neighbour table got meringue with coulis and it looked more special. But a matcha opera cake is not bad and really easily shareable, a better portion and easy to linger over.

Broken Rice

Broken Rice is not somewhere I would have heard of but BIL and his gf went a few months ago and after her description, it made it onto my wishlist. It was the strategic place to suggest for a triple date with friends – just beyond the Vancouver-Burnaby boundary, it’s almost in the middle between the three of us living on south False Creek, Coquitlam and south Vancouver area.

Salad rolls aren’t exactly my thing but they are a refreshing start. The ingredients and thus the smell and taste of the rolls were fresh. The peanut sauce was thick. We ordered the shrimp salad roll and the Phnom Penh Roll, both ended up being salad rolls. I think the intention was to order spring rolls with the “blistered skin” but we’d get a taste of it later.

Duck confit sliders – the server was nice to accommodate the six of us by cutting the three sliders in half and I took a smaller half with less confit. That’s okay, I could still taste it and it was richly braised. The fresh and tender steamed bun was the winner.

So I’ve learned that at a Vietnamese place, to try their wings-here named Uncle Hing’s Chicken Wings! For my standards, they were a little mini but also a nice taste of wings. To accommodate everyone’s tastes, I asked for it to be tossed in the garlic butter sauce.

The Sizzling Saigon Crepe is an impressive display and it turns out it is presented as a lettuce wrap dish. That’s a pile of romaine, green leaf lettuce and sprigs of basil for you to choose from. It’s a thick crepe with tumeric and coconut flavour. Although a lot of fillings are listed in the crepe, it struck me as primarily bean sprouts (which were cooked and actually pleasant to me) and miniature shrimp. I enjoyed the crepe on its own without lettuce but with a dash of the nuoc mam sauce.

A house vermicelli with chicken skewer and pork brochette and the “blistered skin” spring roll – a staple on Vietnamese restaurant menus and each component was good quality.

To share largely between me and NPY but also with others, I ordered the pork belly and anise, a clay pot dish and it was beautifully presented if not earth-shattering in novelty. It was more than a decent amount of pork belly elegantly tied in a bundle with kelp. The broken rice that was served with it was marvellous at soaking up the braising liquid.

The wonderous part was how each of the three couples ordered the curry chicken ballotine dish. It sounded splendidly novel and it was a special dish with the stuff chicken (with chicken), panko broken rice balls and root vegetable chip garnishes.

While the idea of Vietnamese coffee ice cream sounded good, it didn’t seem like a great value so I ordered black eyed peas, their Vietnamese rice pudding with black eyed peas and coconut cream. It looked … well, you just have to turn off your Western aesthetics when you ordered an Asian dessert. To suit Asian palates, dessert will never be too sweet and there was each a touch of saltiness. It was definitely a segue from the savoury dishes of dinner to the light sweetness (and kind of healthy taste) to dessert!

ShuRaku Sake Bar & Bistro

To round out this modern Asian mini-tour and to get some sustenance before going to a concert across the street at Vogue Theatre-Pentatonix!-I lined up dinner at ShuRaku. I’ve been to ShuRaku for lunch twice and really looked forward to dinner and trying items off the dinner menu. I even did my “research” in advance and wrote my choices on a yellow sticky note, which I didn’t think to photograph. Happily, it all pretty much went according to plan.

So the thing that happened was I had a 6:15 reservation through Open Table and NPY told me he was leaving work at 6. I went back to update my reservation to 6:30 and saw that if I made a 6:00 reservation, I would get 1,000 points (versus 100 points) for dining. So, I was there at 6 and waited and looked stood up for over half an hour. After about half an hour, to get things moving, I tried to order two items that would not suffer from cooling down. They were out of Eggplant Poppers but I could order the Roulette Roll.

The Roulette Roll was selected because it has everything we like – chopped scallop, toro and avocado. The crisp lotus root chip and black seaweed soy sauce was a nice touch.

When I went to Hapa Izakaya in Toronto, I tried “sea foie gras” for the first time, an item off their daily menu/sheet. I wanted NPY to try it, too, but of course it was a little different. Hapa’s was smoked and sliced very thin, presented inside a upside-down stemless martini glass that clouded up from the smoking process. ShuRaku’s were steamed and thicker cut tasting more dense. It was still a great deal lighter than beef/pork liver and tasted indulgent.

Since I couldn’t get Eggplant Popper, my back-up dish was the Spicy Salmon Tartar. What a fun dish! A lotus root chip was a garnish so that NPY and I could be even at two a piece and it was held up with soba noodle sticks. I mixed the spicy wild sockeye salmon with the raw quail egg, pine nuts and avocado. The tempura seaweed squares were perfect delivery vehicles for the salmon tartar that was not too spicy.

ShuRaku has to “Age” dishes, shrimp or tuna that has been wrapped in seaweed and flash-fried. I deliberated and went with tuna, Tuna Isobe Age. It melted so easily such that I thought it had been chopped. Maybe I overdid it with the mushy textures since this followed negitoro, chopped scallop and salmon tartare.

Then we waited for a really long time for Hitsuma-bushi, which is highly recommended. I let NPY have most of the only rice dish of the meal. We were instructed to have half of the unagi rice dry then to pour the dashi sotck in and have “soup rice”. It was a fun dish and worth the wait.

Men’s Figure Skating at the 2014 Olympics

Technically, categorizing this post as “Asians on TV” could be a stretch. But they did appear on my television screen in full-colour glory. We’ve seen some dominating Asian figure skaters/teams in women’s and pairs but I didn’t quite imagine seeing an Olympic podium for men’s figure skating would be a sweep in terms of skaters of Asian descent. What a nice moment in history.

Sochi Olympics Figure Skating

Image from http://www.canada.com/olympics/gallery/gallery-mens-figure-skating-free-program
Olympic bronze medalist Denis Ten is of Korean descent and skates for Kazakhstan. He has been on my radar despite not having podium finishes in Worlds or the Olympics until last year. Perhaps it had to do with the intriguing country (that I just learned is by no means small) he gets to represent. He is the first from Kazakhstan to get onto the Worlds and Olympic skating podium and enables more athletes from his country to be allowed to represent his country in next year’s competition.

Silver medalist Patrick Chan is who I root for because he is Canadian from Toronto. He is just three years older than Denis but has had a much more decorated career which might amount to training and access in the West. Even so, Chan’s accomplishments by the time he was 20 (Ten’s current age) were more numerous – except for that Olympic medal Ten already has by 20. In the 2010 Olympics, Chan placed in 5th overall which was a small disappointment when he was going in with two Worlds silvers. That is to say, attaining a silver medal and considering who he was chasing is a super result. A silver medal is tied with Canada’s best men’s figure skating accomplishment to date.

Then there’s Yuzuru Hanyu representing Japan. Who is this guy?! Comparatively speaking it’s like he only just entered the competitive senior level scene in figure skating. He is a year younger than Ten, at 19, which kind of scares you how young they all are. His best placement in Worlds was two years ago with a bronze but he has been burning it up at Grand Prix events earning out-of-this-world (over 100) points for his short program. He skates with so much more confidence than – I’m sorry – could be expected of a Canadian skater and enviable fluidity during his short program (but, hmm, it’s his second year skating it). There is a Canadian connection – neat! – which is that he is coached by Brian Orser and trains in Canada.


Image from http://bleacherreport.com/articles/1962369-mens-figure-skating-olympics-2014-young-stars-guarantee-competitive-2018-games

Alvin Leung on Masterchef Canada

Ah yes, another reality show kicks off a Canadian version.

So far, and in chronological order (I think), we have seen Canadian Idol (defunk after six seasons), So You Think You Can Dance Canada (defunk after four seasons), Big Brother Canada (second season will air in March), The Bachelor Canada (in between seasons 1 and 2) and The Amazing Race Canada (second season in the works). Oh, and does the Real Housewives of Vancouver count? After two seasons, it is “on hold”.

Of this glut of reality shows, only SYTYCD Canada  and The Amazing Race interest me. I won’t deign to watch Big Brother or The Bachelor but did, admittedly, watch all of RHOV – like in the background and I got increasingly annoyed with myself during the second season.

We are super happy with the results (i.e., the winners) of the first season of The Amazing Race and did NPY tear up just a little? Because even if the production quality of the Canadian versions suffers a bit compared to the American counterpart – a story that tears at your heart will continue to do so.

Which brings us to Masterchef Canada that premiered a few days ago. We have watched all seasons of the Masterchef, US version because what is more entertaining than watching normal (amateur) people do what you do (cook) but under a great deal of pressure? :D We’re excited to see how the country is represented when the finalists are decided as NPY is inclined to name the show Masterchef Toronto. They certainly do not hold a monopoly on good amateur chefs!

Okay, fine. The judges are kind of Toronto-centric but we can expect to see some celebrity chefs hailing from different cities. Like Vikram Vij’s, I can almost guarantee, from Vancouver. And, um… I can’t name any other Canadian celebrity chefs! Maybe Iron Chef Rob Feenie and Top Chef Canada winner Dale MacKay?

I’ve been to Michael Bonacini’s O&B Yonge & Front for brunch and Claudio Aprile’s origin restaurants came into my radar for delicious brunch but I never got around to it.

The “wildcard” judge is Alvin Leung whose two Michelin starred restaurants, Bo, are located in Hong Kong and London (UK) with focus on fusion and molecular gastronomy. A newer restaurant, MC Kitchen in Hong Kong, serving modern comfort food, sounds more up our alley. And his new healthy food franchise Beautifood might be the most affordable! :P

The moniker “Demon Chef” seems to be a label he applied to himself and he coined/named his cuisine X-Treme Chinese. I think I would simply like to read about it. Like a Bo dish called  “Sex on a Beach” which involves an edible “condom” made out of a konjac and kappa on a beach made of mushroom; the “condom” is filled with a mixture of honey and ham…. (from Wikipedia).

It will be fascinating to learn more about Alvin Leung, the so-called “enfant terrible” of the Hong Kong culinary scene, throughout the season. Already intriguing details include that while he was born in London, he grew up in Scarborough so still has roots in Canada and cheers for the Leafs :P. We also learned he has an engineering background and thus bonded/mentored a hapless new engineering grad who was auditioning.

AlvinLeung Image from ctv.ca/MasterChefCanada

January 2014 Toronto dineout bonanza round-up

This year after New Year’s Day, my mum, sister and I went to Toronto on a staggered schedule where they went out on January 1 and I went out on January 2 and left on January 4 while mum stayed until January 6. Between mum’s notes on restaurants she saw profiled on OMNI’s Trendy Zone, a Globe article I read just a few days before, a couple of my own wishlist and flipping through an issue of re:porter during a flight, I put together a list of 13 places to eat during mum’s five-day visit which included 10 places for me to visit during my three-day stay. I set the bar high…!

Ryoji Ramen & Izakaya
690 College Street, Toronto
Website / Yelp

Getting from Halifax to Toronto was brutal and I’ll think twice next time about taking a non-direct flight even when the price seems right. How could a Halifax-Montreal flight feel so very long? It’s all relative, I guess. And then arriving in Toronto was greeted with a blast of cold. I was eager to tuck into a cozy izakaya. I want mum to try an izakaya and my first choice is Hapa Izakaya which has opened a Toronto location after several successful Vancouver ones. But I also wanted to try Ryoji, a uniquely Okinawan joint and it also boasts of being an izakaya. All I know is that Okinawa has different cuisine from the mainland.

We arrived for an early dinner by the restaurant and the College Street area’s standards, when the music was not loud, lights were not dim, and fellow diners weren’t too young. It was nice to see a diverse staff with men and women working in the open kitchen and multiple ethnicities of servers. That is so Toronto. Even so, I felt vaguely uncomfortable for my mum who hasn’t caught onto the concept of “fusion” Japanese food. Good thing I had figured out everything I would order and the menu did not present any surprises.

The first to arrive was ji-ma-mi, a peanut tofu and Okinawan specialty. It had texture that is a cross between squishy cheese and tofu, was served cold in syrup that looked like honey, and topped with grated ginger. It tasted mild like bocconcini but with soy flavour and slight peanut aftertaste. It was intriguing to try, I found a tofu I did not fall in love with, but being served first, it was a nice light start.

I ordered poki salad to have some greens and it’s a Hawaiian style and mum loved her time in Hawaii. It was nicely dressed in a sweet chili sauce but I found the quantity of fish to be paltry and the taco bowl appeared to be a tortilla wrap that was fried and became limp and unappetizing.

I really should have declined the server’s offer to mix up our taco rice as I’m perfectly capable of doing it. What a messy photo! It was, however, delicious – saucy rice in stone bowl with salsa, beef, lettuce, cheese and onion. It tasted like a pasta dish, over rice. Too bad the rice was too wet to stick to the stone bowl and crisp.

Because I first heard of Ryoki as a ramen place, an order of original Otoko-aji (Tonkotsu) is necessary. You are asked if you want your noodles cooked soft, medium, hard or very hard and the server translated my “al dente” request to hard. The broth was really nice and cream and the ramen was the kind that looked like angel hair in thinness and it had the slightest bite. I might have preferred “very hard” cooked noodles.

Our last dish was takoyaki, because it’s a night market staple. The menu describes it as fried mashed potato balls with octopus, tonkatsu sauce and mayo. Indeed, it was mostly mashed potato with a token bit of octopus in each ball. I was missing the gooey texture that comes from barely cooked batter compared to a dry mashed potato recipe.

We happened to eat downtown because my flight was into the city airport. I want mum to try another izakaya where I have an even better idea of what to order. I’m mildly disappointed that I didn’t find any of the dishes tremendously good.

Millie Creperie
161 Baldwin Street (Kensington Market), Toronto
Website / Yelp

Since we were downtown anyways (a rarity), and I just learned of a creperie in Kensington Market from the Porter in-flight magazine. It was a weeknight although in the midst of the holidays and rather cold so it was odd to feel as if there were only about ten other diners in all of Kensington at that time.

Millie has just three tables and most of the store counter space for crepe preparation and gelato/ice cream storage. We ordered the Japanese Special crepe with green tea ice cream, sliced strawberries, adzuki bean paste, whipped cream and matcha sauce drizzle. The crepes were bundled for handheld eating and both we and the other three patrons inquired if there were plates to facilitate sharing. It was a delicious dessert crepe and I was delighted to peel back the crepe to reveal sliced strawberry and adzuki paste throughout.

I also wanted to order their crepe cake but it was not available at the time so I simply have to find my way back next visit or so.

Phoenix Restaurant
8190 Bayview Avenue, Thornhill
Website / Yelp

For my first full day in Toronto, I was very ambitious. We would start the day off right with a proper breakfast close to Lil Sis’ apartment before we dropped her off at work. Phoenix is what I consider a “traditional Hong Kong style cafe” – big space and what the menu offered. Mum immediately contrasted the service, admittedly slow, were a couple other places she had been to before I arrived.

I ordered staple breakfast items. The macaroni soup arrived first and it was tasty and light. It didn’t need chili oil and I debated between added it and spicy up breakfast and eventually didn’t.

I ordered the waffle because mum said something like “road side waffle” and so I wanted to try this food that sounded like Hong Kong street food. It did not look at all like the photo but it was clearly freshly made if not overly hot (it did not melt butter) and the butter was carelessly served with lots of bread crumbs mixed in.

The hot breakfast plate was most intriguing. I’m not a fan of teriyaki sauce so found the piece of dark meat chicken just adequate. The scrambled egg (unless there was some miscommunication) looked more like an omelette. It turns out a sweet (Japanese?) soya sauce was folded in and everyone thought it was too salty. We should have ordered pork chop with tomato sauce instead of chicken.


Deer Garden Signatures
550 Highway 7 East (Times Square), Richmond Hill
Website / Yelp

For this place, I think the noodle soup photos can say it all! I was pleased that we had the time to take Lil Sis to a Vancouver Deer Garden in September and she had gone to the new Toronto location one on her own. Mum’s visit was much shorter and crazy scheduled but I felt consoled that could try it in Toronto.

So, while Lil Sis was at work, mum and I went to Deer Garden and mum was introduced to the concept of DYO. She thought it was quite cute. We ordered one original no-MSG fish soup with the (possibly) homemade thicker rice noodle. Mum chose to chop it with beef tendon (not tender enough) and fish tofu. I introduced the spicy option with Thai tom yung gong broth, Korean sweet potato noodles and my usual fish filet topping and giant prince mushrooms. The fish was good as usual but I think I would prefer the mushroom sauteed. We also ordered a specially price side dish, pan-fried fish puffs which was a nice bite on the side.

Franchise or chain restaurant, it was definitely comforting to see all the same touches in Toronto as I am accustomed to from Vancouver – same mugs, tea cups, bowls, menu. The Toronto location is the newest and the noodle soup is cheaper ($8.25 cf $8.50) possibly because “eating out in Toronto is cheaper than Vancouver” but with the 13% sales tax in Ontario versus 5% tax on restaurant meals in Vancouver, Deer Garden noodle soup is cheaper in Vancouver!


The Host Fine Indian Cuisine
670 Highway 7 East, Richmond Hill
Website / Yelp

There’s a Japanese restaurant that serves pasta that we’ve want mum to try and we attempted it altogether last January to learn they were closed for a few days. This year, we called before heading over and no one picked up. Perhaps they are continuing a common Japanese practice of taking this time of the year off. So Lil Sis quickly thought of The Host for Indian food. Located on Highway 7, we see it all of the time and have wanted to try it.

The Host is located in a non-glamourous mall attached to a Sheraton and nearly all fellow customers were Indian, despite the Richmond Hill location. That is always a good sign, right? At first, I found our waiter to be rude and/or dismissive of us. I’m afraid that I quickly wonder if he is discriminating against us. More likely, we had ordered such ordinary food and under-ordered by his standards. Most like, it was something else. And his mood and attitude did improve as our meal progressed.

We ordered samosa which came four small ones in an order. They were really good and only slightly spicy. We ordered butter naan on mum’s request, lacha parantha because I like it and basmati rice. For curries, we ordered their butter chicken and lamb rojanjosh. We were not asked how spicy we wanted our curry and normally mild butter chicken had a kick! The chicken was almost a bit dry – not injected, Lil Sis remarked. The lamb rojanjosh was really good and the meat perfectly cooked.

Legend, Asian Legend
5186 Yonge Street, Toronto
Website / Yelp

I had a dim sum place in Scaroborough in mind, one mum had turned up from watching Trendy Zone and I “confirmed” with my research. We would go there if only the three of us went, because my Toronto uncle has his own favourites and I’d rather he be happy even though he is always open to our suggestions. We meet at Legend in Thornhill but it wasn’t open due to having a burst pipe! So we drive down Yonge to go to another standby for our family, Asian Legend.

I get shy away from photographing food around my elders so I’ll simply list what we ordered – the usual but goodies: two baskets of pork soup dumplings, sticky rice roll with egg and pork floss, onion pancake coated in egg, beef noodle soup, Shanghai rice cakes with pork and picked cabbage, Fujian fried rice, and mushu pork. We had a new addition to our lunch and there was a good balance of elders (3) to kids (4). It was a delicious and good time.

Marathon Cafe
155 East Beaver Creek Road, Richmond Hiill

On recommendation from Trendy Zone, we tried Marathon Coffee & Donuts where you don’t order coffee or tea, haha. They are known for their award winning Hong Kong style milk tea. The Richmond Hill location we went to is the newer and presumably more spacious location and is simply called Marathon Cafe.

You order at the counter from menus hung on the walls and we started with two milk teas and a HOng Kong style French toast that comes with a milk tea. Mum considered this place to be a real traditional Hong Kong Style cafe (no fancy desserts, no muss and fuss) and was fascinated with the place and menu. She proceeded to order a pineapple bun and steamed rice rolls for take out.

I watched intently as they prepared our tea just behind the cashier counter. First, he poured in light brown evaporated milk (I learned later the brand is Dai Pai Dong) then added tea from a thermos then more evaporated milk. The tea is so rich and smooth, unlike any other I’ve had.

When I was in Halifax, I wheedled mum to make Hong Kong style French toast that is deep-fried. In a serious of questionable cooking/ingredient decisions, it didn’t taste right to me. This French toast was the way I wanted mum to make them, two slices of buttered white bread lightly coated in egg and deep fried, a small part of butter and served with this syrup that wasn’t maple. Maybe it was maltose. It didn’t have the consistency of normal maple or imitation maple syrup.

Ten Ren’s Tea
111 Times Avenue, Thornhill
Website / Yelp

Originally I had planned to have dinner at a dumpling place but after our lunch of Northern Chinese cuisine, the idea didn’t sound so palatable. Mum has spied Ten Ren’s from the highway many times and it was recommended in a Globe article I just read so I was game.

Mum chose to have the five-course rice combo which pleased me greatly. She chose steamed rice, wonton in tea-flavoured soup, osthamus steamed fish, Alluring Jasmine  tofu and matcha litchee pudding. There were exactly three wontons for us to share. The steamed fish was steamed on some pressed spongy tofu and mum marveled how delicate the flavors and dishes were. The tofu dish was very silky and even though black beans were used, it wasn’t salty. Dessert was served in a shot glass sized glass with matcha whipped cream topping the litchee flavored pudding that had the consistency of jello.

Other than tea and tea concoctions, a lot of the food was flavored with tea. Lil Sis ordered milk genmaicha and noodles in a tea flavor pork sauce. Her tea was good with palpable nutty rice flavor. I think I could taste the tea flavour in her noodles after it was all tossed together and we certainly could identify and pick out the tea leaves. Mum nabbed the marinated egg the dish was served with.

I ordered a watermelon ti kuan yin tea with aloe jelly and creamy chicken soup noodle with chicken nuggets. My tea was what was described in the Globe article and the aloe jelly was so real, like bite size pieces of fruit. I wanted to introduce mum to Taiwanese “soo guy” since she serves the Canadianized Chinese version in her restaurant but it wasn’t the best and needed to be saved by dunking in soup. I love a pork and pickled cabbage noodle soup and this one was “creamy” (from cornstarch?) and also mushroom flavoured. For the noodle dishes, al dente hand-pulled noodles were not used and that’s okay because I didn’t mind at all the thick rice noodles.

Ten Ren’s tea company has been around for 29 years and Ten Ren’s shops have been around for at least 15 years. It’s taken a while to get around to having a meal there since I never knew it had such an extensive tea and food menu. Mum was impressed with the “new style of restaurant”, the service and level of professionalism. It was a great way to cap off the trip!

The most difficult conversation

My mum is so whacked and I can’t take all of the credit for giving her her issues from raising me.

I live on the West Coast and mum lives in the East Coast and Lil Sis lives in the eastern part of the country. We’ve all been living apart for three, nearly four, years because where we grew up does not sustain life (as we would like it).

So, we were sitting on the couch with mum sitting between us and Lil Sis texted messaged me, “Can you tell Mummy I have a boyfriend? :)” It’s news to me but I roll with it. I put up a bit of a fight in text message because I’ve had to broach the sticky subject myself each and every time but she wheedled in text messages and I chose my words carefully and in consultation with her. Abruptly, I said, “Mummy… Little Sister has a nam pung yao jai.”

I chose such a term meaning “little boyfriend” because “boyfriend” sounded way too mature for me to say. I chose to say it in Chinese because after all these years with mum, I can’t say “boyfriend” in English except like the way she does, spitting the word out, emphasis on the first syllable. Mum has categorically called them all my “friend” and also spits out the one-syllable word, whether she’s referring to a male or female. It’s a loaded word for mum because “friend” are people who infringe on my undivided attention on and love for her.

Mum’s first question was, predictably, “What kind of person is he?” That doesn’t mean, “What is he like?” It means, “What race is he?”

“He’s half European… and half Korean.”

There is palpable disappointment on mum’s part who makes no mystery about it. “I always wanted, hoped, dreamed you would be with someone Chinese.”

Why?! Why! I jump to Lil Sis’ defence although she is perfectly capable of it herself. I’ve thought long about it, had this argument prepared in my mind. “Just because you spoke to us in Chinese?! Although we lived in a small town and went to private school. You were too snooty to befriend other Chinese ladies who would have children to make interacting with Chinese seem normal. WHY on earth would you think we’d just get along so well with Chinese males? We’re naturally going to be more comfortable with white guys like we went to school with.” Although, with an older sister who dated some non-Chinese in her youth, Lil Sis has surely heard about mum’s expectations that we date and settle down with Chinese men. Ad nauseum.

I had fun rapidfire asking questions about what matters. Where is he from? What did he study and where? What does he do for fun? And I chuckled in delicious delight as mum asked uncomfortable questions and drew unfortunate conclusions about the guy. I’ve been through it, I’m so happy to be married at present to be beyond this kind of scrutiny.

Lil Sis was happy to show us a picture of her guy, a wide angle headshot from which you can see his whole upper body. His hair is so dark and his glasses so nerdy you would have thought he was all Asian from that photo!

But mum strangely fixated on his European half, calling him European, exclusive of his Korean heritage. From my experience (gleaned from one mixed boyfriend), the primary caregiver, presumably the mother, can impart more of her culture than the father can. To discount the mother’s contribution, to consider him European on account of his name and the father’s side reeks of the traditional patriarchal views she has long harangued she is beyond. And, according to mum, even if his mother impressed upon him Korean culture, it is still not Chinese.

The questions mum asked are loaded and I would raise my eyebrow at Lil Sis as a warning. “How often do you spend time together?” You don’t even know what mum’s threshold is: too little and mum prefers to think it is not a serious relationship, too much and she frets about, well, that. Lil Sis chose to tell the truth and mum chooses to believe it’s not that serous. Uhm, Lil Sis wouldn’t be telling us if it wasn’t kind of serious.

Mum’s other loaded question is asking Lil Sis what she likes about her boyfriend and what she doesn’t like. We know full well know mum is hell-bent on disliking him, proving Lil Sis has made a mistake so any criticisms raised are not taken as benign chatter but a weapon mum can brandish again and again. I joked it was like the interview question where you’re asked to name your weakness. How do spin a strength into a weakness? Off the cuff, I suggested Lil Sis say, “I don’t really like how he wins more cases than I do.” How could that be bad? Here is a potential train of thought: “He wins more than you do? How smart he is! But you’re in the same field. Why isn’t he helping you with your cases? How selfish! What kind of bad person is he?” And that whole train of thought would get verbalized.

In my experience, I’ve been threatened with being disowned if I marry someone not Chinese. Mum, who prides her English ability as sufficient to obtain a degree at a Canadian university, doesn’t want to speak to a son-in-law in English. A landed immigrant to Canada of 30 years and supposedly modern thinker but the narrow traditional view rears its ugly head.

Lil Sis has always handled mum differently and better than I have and she can perhaps train mum to sound kinder on the subject of boyfriends. By default, mum wants to say “friend” because “boyfriend” to her connotates something serous. Mum prefers not to refer to him by name which is one syllable like mine and hard to pronounce. The way mum refers to him as “keuy”, the gender ambiguous third person singular pronoun in Cantonese, sounds spiteful and harsh.

Until checked, mum wants to believe it is not serious. She even asked Lil Sis if there wasn’t anyone else at this time… someone mum would like better! And if Chinese men in her field and specialization are in short supply, mum suggested Lil Sis looks outside her own field. Mum asked how Lil Sis would go about meeting a doctor or engineer! All of which is highly disrespectful of Lil Sis’ relationship status!

And, mum wants the guy to learn Chinese! It’s sooooooo useful these days, mum never fails to mention each time we are together and pointed in the direction of the tv stuck on the Chinese channel, or a number of other triggers that prompt her to say, again, “Mummy really wants you to learn Mandarin, it’s so useful these days.” Like that’s going to happen for any of us. Gosh, I’m so glad my husband already speaks both Chinese dialects and I am the “more Chinese daughter” to not have to deal with this (once I met my husband).

We meet the much discussed person in person tomorrow at a family lunch. It was deemed an appropriate scenario since mum will meet him with me and a male cousin around to carry on conversation and she can sit back and do, well, that thing she does regarding our boyfriends.

I like him already and wish him and Lil Sis the best of luck at gaining that elusive acceptance.

Big Chinese brunch

It all started with my not yet having used my Zojirushi rice cooker’s congee/porridge function and having half a carton of vegetable broth to use up. Just rice+broth – what a boring mixture! – and I did not want to buy pork floss that I would not use again for a long time.

So it came to mind to create a da lang meal for a weekend “brunch”. Da lang, as I know it, is the concept of having plain congee supplemented with abundant savoury side dishes. And so the very next thing – of course – was to create a menu. Just to keep me honest and not give up halfway through.

Here is the menu text:

Da Lang Brunch Menu

Vegetarian Mushroom Congee

Chilli Bamboo Shoots
Miso Pickled Cucumbers
Soft Boiled Egg
Marinated Chicken Wings
Garlic Sauteed Spinach and Kale
Kaya Toast

The dishes were a combination of store-bought, pre-prepared and fresh prepared so it wasn’t overly difficult and my cousin, Meg, had dropped by and we could chat while finished off the side dishes.

Congee 1 cup white rice with about two cups of vegetable broth and water up to the line in the rice cooker. It was less watery than I would have wanted it and I know I could have added more water and reboiled. Out of curiosity, I wanted to know the consistency my rice cooker wanted to make congee at.

I did say it was a mushroom congee but that didn’t work out as planned so I just sauteed white mushrooms in a light soya sauce and hoisin sauce mixture.

Chili bamboo shoots store bought and a pantry staple for us.

Miso marinated cucumbers I hate cucumbers but the MIL gave me a few small ones and I was so glad to have a Miso-Pickled Cucumbers recipe to try. So, this side dishe was pre-prepared.

Soft boiled eggs except they are totally hard-boiled, oops.

Marinated chicken wings from a “recipe” I got from Cristine Ha’s cookbook in the vignette portion of the book. The wings aren’t pretty in the least but they are nicely lightly flavoured because they were boiled with fish sauce, ginger and black pepper.

Garlic sauteed spinach and kale Fresh bunch of spinach and frozen chopped kale tossed together

Kaya toast okay, this isn’t savoury but it was just something else to throw in and to try out the kaya I finally bought from T&T – just Nottingham bread slides which have a lovely slight sourdough taste with one buttered side and one side with kaya.