Every North American city worth its salt has a Chinatown. Bustling hubs of Asian culture that are sectioned off by big red gates and stone lions, Chinatowns break up our European-American cityscapes with market stalls, tai chi, and calligraphy. Not to mention some pretty amazing food and shopping! Montreal is no exception to this!
Last Thursday, my Montreal Food Writing class spent our morning in Montreal’s Chinatown, enjoying some wonderful cuisine and local stores. We started off our day by walking through an Asian grocery store called G&D Supermarché, located in the basement of a bustling noodle shop. If it sounds a little out of the ordinary, it is. Everything in Chinatown is out of the ordinary, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth checking out! The grocery store featured fresh cut meats, Asian snack foods, fish still with scales and heads, and even the organs of various animals. It had some great prices and an excellent selection, and exists as something of a nirvana for anyone who enjoys exotic food or Eastern cuisine. Just going there is an experience!.
Next, we headed down the street and got a candy known as Dragon Beard at Bonbons à la Barbe de Dragon. The woman running the shop was kind enough to let us all squeeze inside while she gave a demonstration on how this delectable sweet is made. We watched as she pulled a mixture of corn syrup and sugar, folded it, and then pulled it again. She did this so many times that she told us she had over 1,000 little hair-like strings of sugar in her hands. Next, she put some peanuts and coconut inside the little strings and wrapped them up into little pouches. Eating a Dragon Beard was strangely like eating the clumps of hair in a hairbrush, if those hairs were delicious and melted in your mouth.
After thanking the kind “beard maker,” we made our way down the street to a large, old building. This part of Chinatown was fairly deserted, and we seemed to have made our way out of Chinatown proper. We were all wondering where we could possibly be going when we suddenly turned down into an alley, and then into a nondescript side door. Within was a warm, enchanting storefront. We were in a famous shop known as Wings, which sold fresh-made fortune cookies and noodles (for great prices, I might add). Their fortune cookies were still warm from the oven, and were miles better than the wrapped-up stale monstrosities you find at the bottom of a take-out bag. They crunched delightfully, and tasted like warm, buttery vanilla. Some hid more than one fortune inside them. I also bought some fresh ramen noodles to cook up at home, and found them to be quite enjoyable.
Leaving Wings, we headed back to the busier part of Chinatown to have some fresh tea at ma tasse de thé. The store was very traditional, and had an excellent selection of herbal, medicinal, and gourmet teas. We sampled both a red tea that is good for digestion, as well as a white tea for stress. As a tea lover, I found the samples to be of very high quality. The tea was the perfect temperature, and ran down the throat as smooth as milk. The taste was subtle in the white tea, but only slightly bitter. The red was sweet and strong, but not overpowering. It was tea that settled nicely in the stomach, filling the body with a sense of relaxation and satisfaction. After taking a look at the rest of the selection, we thanked the store owner and made our way to lunch.
Lunch was to be some dumplings at one of the best dumpling places in Chinatown, called Qing Hua. We sampled nearly every dumpling on the lunch menu, including vegetarian and lamb. I, myself am not the biggest fan of either meats or dumplings, but I found the chicken and mushroom to be delectable, juicy, and pure. The meal overall was satisfying and filling in a way only dumplings can make you. Full and happy, the class was dismissed, and the shopping began.
My friends and I visited an excellent otaku shop in a nearby mall-like complex. Otaku shops are stores that cater to lovers of anime, manga, and Japanese culture. Many of them sell knock-off figures, posters, cosplay materials, manga, and trinkets any lover of anime would enjoy. This particular shop also sold original soundtracks from anime and video games, and there were some real gems! Soundtracks from Ghibli movies; Final Fantasy, and Kingdom Hearts are some notables. We spent a good amount of time browsing before heading out to buy some milk tea at a local patisserie (bakery). Milk tea is sweet, creamy, and strong. It’s not a flavor for everyone, but I enjoyed it a good deal.
Finally, we stopped by a different otaku shop near Wings, whose merchandise spilled out onto the street. This, my friend told me, was not a good sign. Indeed, upon entering the shop we were instantly barraged by storekeepers giving us what is known as “the hard sell”. Even though they had some interesting stuff (totoro slippers, a full set of vongola rings, posters for $3.50 CAN), they were just trying too hard! It just goes to show that every shop in Chinatown is unique and different, and the more you explore, the more you experience. You never know what you’re going to get when you walk in the door!
We made our way home after that, reflecting on the day. We speculated about how it was strange that the best places in Chinatown seemed to be hidden. Down alleys, in malls, underneath grocery stores, in tiny holes-in-the-wall…it was an adventure just finding them. And knowing where they were now was like having secret insider knowledge. Chinatown is like that. It’s much more than it seems, and if you’re intimidated by it, or afraid to go exploring, you’ll never get to see the best parts! So take a friend or two sometime, and go into stores with bars on the windows or up the stairs to shops-above-shops. Be adventurous! You never know what cool stuff you’ll come across.