Growing up in a Chinese home and being sent to school with some sort of funk in my lunch thermos that would permeate the lunch room did not help my popularity in elementary school. Last night’s dinner of braised pork belly with pickled mustard greens over rice would be the only thing on my mind leading up to lunch time. Nowhere to be found in my He-Man lunchbox were there any fucks packed by my mom to give about the kids who thought it was gross; frozen chicken nuggets or peanut butter and jelly on whole wheat and other latch-key loveless lunches. Trying to explain what my lunch was, I fought fodder for ridicule and ultimately groomed my passion for Chinese cuisine and subsequent appreciation.
Here is my top 25 list (in no particular order) of Chinese food/dishes that you need to try in Montreal!
1. Dim Sum
I didn’t want to believe it until I asked around to non-foodie friends, but there is a large part of the Montreal population who have still yet to discover the wonders and glory of having Chinese aunties yelling over each other singing the contents of their cart full of steamers. If you haven’t had before, this weekend tradition of brunch consists of roughly 200 different small dishes of dumplings, steamed savoury dishes and desserts circulation a bustling dining room. Great for sharing, dim sum is an event best experienced amongst friends.
Location: La Maison Kam Fung, Restaurant Red Ruby, Maison Foo Lam
2. Hand-pulled Noodles
This ancient at of hand-pulling noodles goes back to ancient times… as National Geographic dates it over 4000 years ago. There are a handful of places around the city who serve freshly pulled noodles to order and should be on every noodle aficionado or carb lover’s radar. Served dry or in a flavourful soup.
This egg filled crispy buckwheat flour crepe is a staple on the streets of China as a popular breakfast on the go option. Stuffed with a sheet of crispy fried dough wrapped around pickled greens, hot chili peppers and slathered in hoisin sauce, these portable chinese breakfast burritos… churritos are available at only a few Szechuan restaurants.
Location: Restaurant Mei
4. Bitter Melon and beef in black bean sauce
Obviously bitter, this dish is made with sautéed beef in black bean sauce. The bitter melon is bitter in a very aromatic sense and the bitterness is almost sweet. The garlic of the black bean sauce drives out the perfume of the melon and hits you in the back the the sinuses. The melon is said to be packed with medicinal properties that help diabetes and hypertension.
Location: Found on most Chinese restaurant menus.
5. Anything with “XO Sauce”
XO sauce referes to a homemade chili sauce that’s made with a combination of Chinese sausage, dried shrimp, dried scallops, chopped chilies, shallots, garlic and simmered in oil. This savoury paste has the ability to heighten any dish into a fuller spectrum of profound depth of flavour that can make your description of it go full Top Chef judging panel vernacular.
6. Hot Coca-Cola with ginger and lemon
One of those strange home remedy type things that is actually a thing. Used to soothe sore or itchy and scratchy throats to upset stomachs; this hot Coke beverage is laced with ginger juice and freshly muddled lemon slices to tackle what ails you.
Location: Chinese Cafes (Most places that sell Bubble Tea – L2, Magic Idea.)
7. Chicken Feet
Often found on dim sum menus, this preparation of chicken’s feet – or “Phoenix claws” are fried, then braised in a citrus honey-garlic sauce then steamed. Intimidating to some, but regarded as the right of passage to most dim sum diners, phoenix claws can also be found pickled in a spicy brine and eaten cold.
Location: Dim Sum restaurants
Draped in folklore, Mooncakes are the delicious ephemera of the Mid-Autumn moon festival which takes place early September. This sweet and savoury cakes are traditionally filled with various sweet fillings such as lotus root paste, black sesame, red bean and mixed nuts and beans. In the centre is a salted duck egg yolk which provides a tasty contrast of flavours while representing its namesake.
Location: All Asian grocery stores in August and September – Similar cakes can be found in most Chinese bakeries.
9. Xiao Long Bao (soup dumpling)
These little bundles of steamy goodness are traditionally bundles of soft dumpling skin holding together a delicate pork meatball surrounded by soup. What makes them special: the soup is actually IN the dumpling like a water ballon.
Location: Qing Hua, Restaurant Mei, Mai Xiang Yuan
10. Dragon Bead Candy
To my knowledge there is only one place that makes these dragon bead candy. Solidified corn syrup and sugar pulled and doubled over and over again that form thousands of delicate strands of “dragon’s beard”; it is wrapped around a mix of toasted peanuts, sesame seeds and coconut.
Location: Dragon’s Beard Candy in Chinatown.
11. Egg Tarts
Like little cups of sunshine, these Chinese egg custard pastries are a long lost relative to the Portuguese version pastel de nata. Introduced to China via the colonization of Macau, these flakey tarts are popular as a snack or dessert and should be served piping hot. Its name is actually the verbal romanization of its English name, called, “Dan tat” (egg tart).
Location: Chinese Bakeries – Patisserie Harmonie, Callia, any place serving dim sum.
12. Congee with pork and century egg
This entry is the “2 for 1” of the list. Congee is the Chinese version of rice porridge – the same stuff Little Red Riding Hood ate before her ass got trapped in a house by a family of bears. Hot and soothing, congee is the perfect remedy for a cold, homesickness and broken hearts. The “century egg” is actually a duck egg that’s preserved in clay, ash, salt, lime, and wrapped in rice husk for several weeks or months. The white turns into a jelly like consistency with very little taste, but the yolk is creamy and brackish. Almost ammonia like in smell, the egg is often eaten with something equally pungent in flavour like pickled onions, or in this case a very neutral base of rice porridge to quell the pronounced aroma.
Location: Any Chinese restaurant menu – ask for by name, Dim sum.
13. Mapo Tofu
Cooked in a fiery chili paste rich in szechuan pepper corns, garlic, chili oil, fermented black bean and ground pork, this tofu dish is said to be named after a woman who’s face was disfigured due to leprosy. This dish encompasses all seven food describing adjectives that denotes a ‘perfect chinese dish’: 麻 (numbing), 辣 (spicy hot), 烫 (hot temperature), 鲜 (fresh), 嫩 (tender and soft), 香 (aromatic), and 酥 (flaky).
Locaiton: Most Chinese restaurant menu
14. Dried Squid
A popular street food and snack, the squid is salted, dried and then rolled paper thin and eaten whole or shredded like the variety pictured above or to the finely shredded called kind called “floss”. Found in the snack aisle at any Asian grocery store, there are different flavours that range from sweet to very spicy.
Location: Any Asian grocery store.
15. Grass Jelly
Not GRASS grass or to be mistaken as China’s equivalent of a western “weed brownie”, this dessert is made with the leaves and stalks of the Mesona chinensis plant (member of the mint family) that’s formed into a jelly. Typically served cold with fruits or in drinks with condensed and evaporated milk, this jelly is earthy in taste and almost medicinal in flavour. It’s aromatic properties add a floral note to the desserts its found in.
Location: Asian grocery store in cans, Chinese cafes.
16. Steamed Fish
A popular preparation to live fish, steaming is a technique that preserves the freshness of the fish. Often prepared with sweet soy sauce and tons of aromatics such as scallions, ginger, cilantro; the fish is steamed whole. The best part about this dish is when you ask for live fish, more often than not, they’ll bring it to your table in a net still flopping around to show you. I like to give them a name before they cook it.
17. Hong Kong Style Milk Tea
A secret blend of different kinds of tea, black and green, mixed with evaporated milk and sweetened with condensed milk, this beverage originates from Hong Kong afternoon tea culture appropriated from the colonization of Britain. Often called “pantyhose tea” – strained through a sieve that looks like a lady’s unmentionables, the tea is incredibly fragrant and creamy.
Location: Chinese cafes and bakeries.
Often served as an appetizer, the strips of desalted and cooked or sometimes raw jellyfish are served in a dressing of soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame oil and chili. The jellyfish is unique crunchy texture with a taste of inherent oceanic salinity on its own.
Location: Most Chinese restaurants.
19. Hot Pot
Chinese hot pot is basically the eastern equivalent to fondue, just a lot more awesomer and tasty. A variety of meats and seafoods, vegetables and delicious goodies are blanched in a communal pot set to a rolling boil of a fragrant broth packed with herbs and aromatics. Dipping sauces are made with condiments such as hoisin sauce, sesame paste, chili oil and soy sauce then a raw egg is beaten in. Once you fill up your little wire basket and blanch your food in the soup, you dip it in your custom sauce and eat it over rice or noodles.
Location: Mongolian Little Sheep Hot Pot, Restaurant Red Ruby (only in winter).
20. Scallion Pancakes
This Chinese classic is a doughy pancake that’s filled with green onions and fried. Served often with a dipping sauce of soy and vinegar, the scallion pancake can also be found with other fillings such as beef or pork. It is argued to be the inspiration behind pizza, as Marco Polo brought the idea back to Italy… Hey I’m just saying.
Location: Szechuan restaurants, Golden Stone, Maison du nord, Noodle Factory.
21. Fish Fragrant Eggplant (Sichuan Spicy Eggplant)
This dish of quick fry eggplants is cooked with a spicy garlic and ginger sauce with ground pork. The caucasian repellant in this dish is the dry salted fermented fish used to heighten the flavour and aroma. 😉
Location: All Chinese restaurants.
22. Peking duck
This multi course dish is of a whole roasted duck that’s served various ways. Wrapped in a homemade crepe, the skin is eaten with hoisin sauce, scallions, and pickled vegetables. The meat is made into a stir fry, often with noodles or vegetables and the bones are served in a soup of tofu, vermicelli noodles and shitake mushroom.
Location: La Maison Kam Fung, Tong Shing, Mon Nan, Peking Gardin (Pierrefonds).
23. “War Siu Gai”
This dish has an interesting story in itself; it is said to have been invented right here in Montreal in the early 60s and can’t be found anywhere else. Originally, this giant patty was made with ground chicken, chinese sausage, pork fat and swallow’s nest. It was then wrapped in chicken skin and fried then served over shredded lettuce and a chicken gravy. There are other dishes that are similar but this preparation is unique to Montreal.
Location: Bigger Chinese restaurants: La Maison Kam Fung, Restaurant Red Ruby, Le Crystal.
24. Turnip Cake
This savoury “cake” is made of Chines turnip (daikon) glutenous rice flour, Chinese sausage, dried shrimps and shitake mushrooms. Steamed into a cake then pan fried and served with hoisin and hot sauce, this typical dim sum dish has that alkali aroma typical of turnips but works deliciously with the saltiness of the sausage and sweetness of the hoisin.
Location: Dim sum.
Durian… or what I like to call, “Satan’s Asshole” is a spiked fruit that smells like hot trash on a summer day that’s been left out all day under a dumpster. You’d think that since this fruit has spikes on it and falls from trees and is actually responsible for deaths in some countries, it’d be a sign that we as people… as humans, probably shouldn’t eat it. But no, we opened that bitch up and ate the crap out of it. Buttery in texture, almost like custard, this is one of the only few things Andrew Zimmern can’t handle (that dude has eaten everything from donkey dicks to chicken anus). Sold whole (frozen) or opened and packaged, the smell is scarier than the taste. You need to try it.
Location: Most asian grocery stores in the frozen food section. Fresh only available in summer. Marché Kim Phat, Marché Hawaii, Marché Kim Hour.