Explore Chinatown in Vancouver and Learn to Make Dumplings

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A guided tour through the nooks and crannies of Chinatown in Vancouver gives you a taste of the area’s history and culture. Read on as we stroll through the bustling streets of Chinatown, followed by a hands-on class to learn the fine art of making Chinese dumplings.

The aroma of sizzling garlic floated from a restaurant as Judy Lam Maxwell, owner of Historical Chinatown Tours and Masterclass Dumplings, led us through Chinatown in Vancouver.

“Chinatown has an unusually high concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants as well as great little tucked-away places,” says Maxwell, a third-generation Vancouverite of European and Chinese descent.“My guests tell me they wish they had done my tour when they first arrived so they could go to all the best restaurants in Chinatown,” she adds, smiling. Maxwell has been leading visitors on tours of Chinatown for 15 years and shares behind-the-scenes stories on a 60-minute stroll before teaching a two-hour class on making dumplings.

Chinatown in Vancouver bustles with people strolling and shopping. Vancouver’s Chinatown is one of the oldest and largest in Canada. Photo by Sherry Spitsnaugle

Discover the Treasures of Vancouver’s Chinatown

Our group consisted of a couple from Washington State and me. Tianhe and Shiloh Yang were celebrating Tianhe’s birthday that day. The tour was a gift from Shiloh to her husband.

Tianhe, born in Shanghai, said he looked forward to learning more about his culture.

Chinatown was a magnificent mix of markets, tea shops, narrow streets, and people.

Judy Lam Maxwell, right, leads guests on a 60-minute tour of Chinatown in Vancouver before teaching a class on dumpling-making. She also recommends where to dine and shop in Chinatown and Vancouver. Photo by Sherry Spitsnaugle

We paused in front of Blnd Tger Dumplings, where Maxwell pointed out that the menu lists six types of dumplings, all delicious. But, if you ask for number seven, you will gain entrance to the speakeasy, Laowai, which serves cocktails and dim sum.

We did not go into the hidden lounge but observed as patrons placed orders for dumplings to go. Three gentlemen waited their turn before one discreetly said to the person behind the counter, “Number seven, please.”

A street corner in Chinatown in Vancouver. Photo by Sherry Spitsnaugle

Chinatown Offers More Than Dim Sum

Next, Maxwell recommended Phnom Penh, a restaurant rated Michelin Bib Gourmand known for its exotic Cambodian and Vietnamese food. She explained that the popular eatery almost always has a line out the door and doesn’t take reservations.

“Just give them your name and number, then go to The Irish Heather next door, have a drink, and wait for them to text you,” she advises.

Maxwell also told us about Fiorino Italian Street Food and what she called the number one bar in Canada, The Keefer Bar.

I asked what makes The Keefer a great bar.

“Well, let’s go in and find out!” she answers, motioning us to follow.

The four of us wandered into the packed, narrow establishment, which was lively and full of atmosphere. Servers carrying trays of lavish cocktails squeezed by as we maneuvered our way to a table.

The Keefer is known for its concept of creating cocktails in the Chinese apothecary style, described as having the power to “heal or hurt.” We ordered prosecco and mushroom dumplings and took in the hip vibe of this Vancouver hot spot.

Maxwell knows all the nooks and crannies of Chinatown in Vancouver. We also stopped at what the Guinness Book of World Records claims is the narrowest building in the world. It houses a high-end knife shop and a restaurant named Sai Woo Chop Suey, with a vintage neon sign. She even pointed out that Bamboo Village is the best place to buy paper lanterns.

Chinatowns Around the World

A world traveler, Maxwell has visited Chinatowns all over the globe, including Melbourne and Mexico City. She loves sharing her knowledge and love for Chinese history and culture. She asked if we knew the four oldest Chinatowns in the US.

Judy Lam Maxwell loves teaching guests about Chinese culture and history. She has traveled to Chinatowns all over the world. Photo by Sherry Spitsnaugle

Naming the first two oldest Chinatowns in the US was easy: New York City and San Francisco. But the other two were surprising: Butte, Montana, and Deadwood, South Dakota.

What are Chinese Dumplings?

Dumplings are a traditional Chinese food often served as an appetizer. They are an essential food during the Chinese New Year and other Chinese holidays and festivals.

The dumplings consist of a filling, usually meat and vegetables, wrapped in a thin dough made from flour, water, and eggs. Dumplings are then either steamed, boiled, pan-fried, or deep-fried.

Maxwell created the filling for our class ahead of time. It included chicken, cilantro, garlic, chives, truffles, and ginger. She uses organic, free-range, and local ingredients.

Fold, Press, Fry

Maxwell began the class by giving each of us ten wrappers.

She gives us our instructions. “Spread the egg white on half of the wrapper, add a spoonful of filling, fold, and press.” Then, she demonstrated the technique several times before we began making our own.

Guests learn the fine art of making dumplings in Chinatown in Vancouver. Photo by Sherry Spitsnaugle

“Make a crescent shape and a flat area, which is very important,” Maxwell adds. “This is so the dumpling can sit flat in the skillet.”

The three of us practiced the technique with Maxwell’s help. Soft music played in the background as we each concentrated on making our creations.

Author Sherry Spitsnaugle, left, and Shiloh Yang focus on the task at hand: filling, folding, and sealing dumplings. Photo by Tianhe Yang

Voila! A Dumpling

Tianhe, who works in tech, completed his task precisely and strategically. His dumplings looked perfect and uniform.

I wasn’t as focused and struggled to form the half-moon-shaped dumplings. Let’s say my lop-sided dumplings were not lookers.

While we practiced, Maxwell explained how she got into the business of teaching people how to make dumplings.

“Years ago, I helped a friend who owned a Chinese restaurant,” she explains. “I worked in the kitchen making 600 dumplings a day. She suggested I teach a class on how to make dumplings.”

Maxwell loves teaching and has a flair for relating to her guests. Many of her clients are repeat customers and include people from around the globe.

From Dough to Delicious

After completing our dumplings, Maxwell placed our masterpieces in the skillet to fry. Aromas of garlic, ginger, and cilantro filled the room. We sat at a table with several kinds of soy sauce to enjoy the results of our labor and each other’s company.

Dumplings are picture-perfect and ready to sample after the dumpling-making class in Chinatown in Vancouver. Photo by Sherry Spitsnaugle

Tianhe said the class helped him better understand and appreciate his culture. Then he looked at his wife and said, “This was the best birthday gift ever.”

The tour was a birthday gift to Tianhe Yang from his wife, Shiloh Yang. Tianhe said he felt like he learned more about his culture. The couple also loved learning to make Chinese dumplings together. Photo by Sherry Spitsnaugle

I shared that the next time I visit a Chinese restaurant, I will appreciate someone rolling, sealing, and pleating those magnificent morsels behind the scenes.

We all agreed that these dumplings were some of the finest we’d eaten.

We ended the evening with custom-made fortune cookies and a laugh as Tianhe read his fortune aloud: “You will be hungry in an hour.”

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If You Plan to Visit Chinatown in Vancouver

Visit Historical Chinatown Tours and Masterclass Dumplings for more information about signing up for a tour with Judy Lam Maxwell. She offers several classes, including one called Dumpling Hop & Cocktails.

When you visit Vancouver, two excellent lodging choices are the JW Marriott Parq Vancouver and The DOUGLAS, Autograph Collection.

Let Wander With Wonder be your guide when planning your next trip to Vancouver and other culinary adventures.