My friend Jacqueline and I recently made our way to Ottawa for a few days of fun and we chose the train over driving or flying. We quickly realized it was the right choice as we sat back, enjoyed the scenery, sipped on wine and talked the entire four hours and 30 minutes in pure comfort. Travelling VIA Rail is “like riding through a hidden passage that no one else gets to see,” Jacqueline noted.
Chinatown was our weekend destination. Ottawa’s Chinatown is on Somerset Street in the west side of town. You know you’re there by the magnificent arc towering over the road. The city of Ottawa is twinned with Beijing, China and because of this special relationship, Beijing wanted this arc to be the best. They designed it and sent over 30 expert artisans to work on it. The nine roofs are covered with glazed tiles, five symbolic coins of five precious metals and five colour threads embedded into the structure. It took them six months. In the end, Beijing had created a Chinese arc in Ottawa unparalleled anywhere in Canada or the USA.
Ottawa’s Chinatown is a small community with the Kowloon Market at the centre. It’s here you’ll find whole barbecued duck hanging behind glass and a giant fish section, some swimming in tanks, others packed on ice. I watched as a woman bravely stuck her hand into a lobster tank, plucked out a live lobster and placed it into her grocery cart. She pivoted her cart and walked off with the live lobster loose in her cart.
Like the lobster, hanging duck and fish are sold whole. The Chinese don’t cut their fish into fillets like Canadians do. In the Chinese culture you purchase, prepare and serve fish whole. It has to do with respect for the animal, integrity and maintaining its authenticity.
It was in the Kowloon Market where I saw Jacqueline talking to China Doll, Ottawa’s most famous drag queen. Larger than life, China Doll was wearing a monstrous headdress the size of a giant beach ball. On it were large, pink sponge hair rollers covered in layers of red and white feather boas. Her lips were exaggerated in glitter, eyes so flamboyantly painted you could see them through the large sunglasses and red and gold lantern earrings with tassels that reached down to her chest.
The large, red, flowing overcoat trimmed in red feathers went all the way down to her red leather sandals and the final piece of beauty was a red leather tea pot purse; definitely Asian, definitely theatrical, definitely glamorous.
She picked up a beautiful dragon fruit, held it to her cheek and batted her eyes, “food is like fashion, we eat with our eyes first.” In colourful fashion, China Doll introduced us to sour mustard salted lettuce, preserved eggs, coconut gel, sweet orange squash and durian candy. Lunch and tour with China Doll was part of our planned weekend itinerary, booked through the Chinatown BIA.
We walked across the street to Oriental Chu Shing Restaurant and China Doll began to order lunch for us. Delicious sautéed garlic green beans, spinach with preserved duck eggs and pork and shrimp dim sum. We sipped on Chrysanthemum tea, listened to China Doll and watched as the dim sum cart made its rounds among the diners.
China Doll poured tea for the guest on her right, continued around the table and poured herself last. Some people said thank you, some nodded politely and others tapped their fingertips on the table as an appreciative gesture. The teapot was empty so she put it in the centre of the table with the lid up as a signal for more.
We raved about the dim sum and China Doll tells us the best dim sum on Somerset is at Yen Fung Ding. They’re hand made by a Dim Sum Master trained in Shanghai, China. The little postage stamp sized store front with seating for eight is where you can buy fresh and frozen dim sum in over a dozen flavours including vegetarian or you can sit and eat sticky rice in sweet (red bean) or salty (pork) flavours.
It’s fascinating to be totally immersed into a culture so foreign you hesitate to do anything for fear you may do it wrong. We talked about when to bow and when to shake hands. We talked about the difference between North American’s obsession with long harvest tables and the Chinese traditional round tables. We talked about chopsticks, the meaning of colours, how to read symbols and the messages in folklore.
China Doll was a wealth of information and she was also right, eating at round tables is more inclusive, makes sharing food easier, friendlier and creates a natural conviviality among diners. Our food was spun around on a Lazy Susan (yes, the Chinese use that word) because we were sharing. The Chinese find eating different foods more interesting than eating an entire meal of the same food.
Just then a cake appeared on the table. Scrolled on top in red jelly was a happy day message to Jacqueline and I. Oh no! I’ve sworn off sugar and have done so well for the past six months but I knew, no matter the culture, it would be a huge insult to refuse a piece of cake given in your honour. So there I am slicing and serving up a beautiful three layer cake enrobed in white icing drizzled in dark chocolate and decorated heavily with fresh fruit. It was beautiful.
With everyone served, I picked up my fork and looked down at my plate. There was a time I would have happily devoured such a sexy slice of cake but today, I looked at it with fear. So I took a deep breath and dug in my fork. Imagine my surprise when the thick whipped cream (masquerading as sweet buttercream icing) squished on my tongue with moist unsweetened cake. There was no recognizable sugar, yet bits of sweetness came from the small pieces of fresh fruit in between the layers. The cake was delicious, light and the perfect end to the perfect lunch with China Doll.
After lunch Jacqueline and I pulled out our Art Walk map and set out over the concrete Zodiac tiles in search of the 28 beautiful wall murals painted throughout the one-kilometre strip that is Chinatown. In between the murals we ducked into shops and food stores. We counted seven restaurants with the same name, Pho Bo Ga. A shopkeeper told us it means, “noodles, beef and chicken”. We laughed, unlike the Canadian way of romantic marketing and intriguing names, the Chinese culture is excruciatingly direct. To distinguish them from each other, there is a suffix that ranges from LA and King, to 1 and 2. The food is primarily all the same but it’s the people who make the food that gives it personality.
We ducked into a Chinese herbalist to find chrysanthemum tea. Chrysanthemum or “ju hua,” is similar to chamomile. It’s used to treat high blood pressure, reduce inflammation and calm nerves. We’re told to add goji berries, the powerful superfood used for strength and longevity and throw in a date or two to sweeten it. Dates in tea?
With our heads swimming in Chinese rituals and our purses bulging with chrysanthemum tea, goji berries and dates we began to walk back to Parliament Hill to explore the Canadian side of Ottawa. What a great Asian escape, right in our nations capital.
Written By: Lynn Ogryzlo