A growing phenomenon, several dozen sichu have proliferated in Vancouver over the past several years.
I drive down the main street of Simon Fraser University’s UniverCity village, scanning the sidewalk, looking for my suppliers. At first, nothing. And then, there they are. Min, in one of the lovely Doris Day-style housedresses that she seems to favour, and her daughter, Sherry, holding white plastic bags. I hand over the cash, $37, as we’d agreed earlier in the day, and then my husband and I race off to a nearby park to consume our goods. We open the bags and then the Styrofoam containers, unsure of exactly what we’ll get.
It’s even better than what I expected. Chunks of terracotta-coloured chicken pieces, spicy with cayenne. One container of vermicelli noodles, the clear glass kind, darkened with soy sauce and sprinkled with bits of minced pork and green onions. Steamed buns with meat filling, their bottoms browned with a lacy fringe from the frying pan. A hefty box of spareribs, rich with fat and black-bean sauce, and another one of cabbage with bacon.
Our secret meal is from a sichu, one of several dozen that have proliferated in Vancouver over the past several years. A sichu (literal translation: “private chef”) is the Vancouver term for an underground Chinese restaurant. It’s a growing phenomenon in some parts of China via an Airbnb-style platform. The concept, in a more primitive form, has trickled into cities like Vancouver and Los Angeles, thanks to the new tide of mainland Chinese immigrants, one contingent of which is homesick for cheap, homemade food and another whose members are bored and looking for something to keep themselves busy.
The authority hasn’t inspected or closed down an underground restaurant in at least two decades.
Underground food and alcohol purveyors are not new to Vancouver. Amateur chefs have run various secret dinner clubs over the years in city houses and apartments, coming and going in waves, though they have become somewhat less popular recently. “It’s faded a bit because there’s just no money in it,” says pre-eminent Canadian food scholar Lenore Newman. A University of the Fraser Valley professor and author of Speaking in Cod Tongues: A Canadian Culinary Journey, Newman notes there was a thriving underground moonshine industry in East Vancouver for several years before laws changed to encourage legal producers of gin, vodka and beer.
But the Chinese sichus don’t run sit-down restaurants. They’re not about the experience, as some of the non-Chinese underground Vancouver restaurants were with their multiple courses, sometimes theme-based. It’s strictly takeout.
One comprehensive list of sichus, on Cloudlifedaily, a Vancouver-based WeChat account, showed 65 listings early this year. There’s a wild variety. CreamyCreationBaker makes only mango cakes. Van_canzui specializes in Chaozhou cuisine, while Canadachris offers Shandong dishes. There are a couple of hot-pot operations, one chicken wings and feet, one barbecue, one handmade wonton, several that make only desserts, and one that is specifically for a “fitness diet plan.” They are especially popular at the region’s two main universities, UBC and SFU, which have large populations of mainland Chinese students, and in Richmond.
Min, (internet restaurant handle: A Min Mama, with no last names, please, in this business) was one of the restless types looking for something to do. The 49-year-old from the Shanghai region arrived in Vancouver three years ago to join her daughter, Sherry, who had been studying in Canada as an international student since she was 17. (Mr. Min is back in China, still working at his office job.) At first, Min, who had worked as a baker before becoming a full-time mother and housewife, cooked just for Sherry in their Burnaby Mountain apartment. (“I gained 10 pounds in two weeks!” Sherry moans with a grin.) Then she started cooking for Sherry’s friends. Then Sherry’s friends liked her food so much and asked for it so often that Min decided to start a little takeout operation. Now it’s turned into an everyday business that keeps the two of them hustling.
This particular Thursday morning, Min, in another elegant dress, and Sherry, in a Roots hoodie, have trekked down to the Crystal Mall on Kingsway in Burnaby, a kind of suburban Chinatown in a big box with a huge produce market, butchers, bakeries, specialty products and more, all geared to Chinese shoppers. They are picking up potatoes, chicken legs, pork and vegetables for the day’s cooking. Although only two orders have come in so far this morning for lunch, they know there will be more by day’s end.
The expanding business has meant increasing levels of complication. To ensure that neighbours don’t complain about smells, they’ve installed extra fans and keep the windows closed. They’ve added a lot of extra cooking equipment—big pots and multiple saucepans. They’ve changed the menu. At first, they cooked the non-spicy food that is more typical of Shanghai, says Sherry. “But students here love spicy very much.” So the offerings, now much expanded, are now spicy. They deliver all the food to keep people away from the door and, again, to avoid neighbours’ complaints.
So far, their worst problem has been an order delivered to the wrong person.
And the days are occasionally brutal. On the day after their WeChat listing first appeared, they got so much business that they were doing food preparation until 3 a.m. Sherry, who has done the first-level food-safety course here, also pays attention to ensuring that the food is always high quality and safe. So far, their worst problem has been an order delivered to the wrong person.
Vancouver Coastal Health officially frowns on all types of underground restaurants, warning that they aren’t inspected and don’t have food safety plans. “Basically,” says spokesperson Anna Maria d’Angelo, “we advise that people patronize them at their own risk.” But the authority hasn’t inspected or closed down an underground restaurant in at least two decades, she acknowledges. So the coast is clear on that front.
The business isn’t a pot of gold. The pair estimate they make about $3,000 a month in good months, after expenses. Besides the food and cooking equipment, that includes items like plastic bags, takeout chopsticks, Styrofoam containers and napkins. In the summer, when students are away, it’s more like $1,000.
Sherry’s just graduated with a business degree and would like to eventually run her own food stall. She’s scoped out the cost: $320,000 to get into one at Richmond Centre. In the meantime, she feels duty bound to help at home. “My mom asked me to do this,” she says. “I can’t say no.”
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