Edible Food Finds: Chinatown Experience Tours

Photos by Ken Rivard

The ebullient Jackie Church starts her Saturday morning Chinatown Experience Tour with a colorful history of the neighborhood and a primer on the basic principles of Chinese culture. She talks about the Four Virtues (propriety, justice, integrity, honor) and explains the ideas behind yin-yang and feng shui. Throughout the rest of the tour, she demonstrates how these concepts are woven into everyday Chinese culture, most especially in food.

A stop at C-Mart, Chinatown’s largest grocery store, offers an education in foods like bitter melon, pungent garlic chives, sour persimmon, sweet grapefruit and the ingredients the Chinese use to create umami, like dried mushrooms and soy sauce. It is also a lesson in Chinese urban life with grocery carts expertly and sometimes recklessly maneuvered around people and food displays.

Chinatown can be intimidating because many people in the area speak only Cantonese. English-language labeling on everything from menus to grocery items is frequently inaccurate. To truly enjoy Chinatown requires some familiarity and Jackie provides the perfect introduction. Other stops on the tour offer tastings of succulent Chinese barbecue, sweet and savory pastries, purple bubble tea and a visit to a Chinese herbalist shop where all manner of dried mushrooms, insects, barks and roots are dispensed in piles to be steeped in water for better chi (life spirit).

The final stop is for dim sum, where carts of steamed buns, shumai and other delicacies are wheeled around for diners to choose from. Dim sum for most of us involves random selection, but a little expert knowledge from Jackie goes a long way toward making the experience even more enjoyable.


This story appeared in the Spring 2019 issue.