By Jenny Uechi
Photos by Melissa Dex Guzman
Jenny Uechi talks with Don Dickson and Joyce Chang-Dickson, owners of South China Seas, Vancouver’s best stop for global eats.
Click here for a full-colour pdf of the article (due to printing costs, print edition was in black and white)
Modern Vancouver is a hotbed of global cuisine influences, with the average Vancouverite taking his parents out for dinner at Vij’s Indian restaurant, buying Italian pasta on the Drive, or sipping Taiwanese bubble tea on lunch break between bites of teri-mayo meat from Japadog.
Even for such people, a visit to a small ethnic food store in Vancouver known as South China Seas Trading Company could be a transcendent experience. Since the 1980s, the store has set a gold standard for ethnic food ingredients in the city, becoming a favourite haunt of foodies and experimental chefs throughout the region. On a rainy Tuesday, co-owner Joyce Chang-Dickson spends time in one of the two South China Seas’ stores, located near Commercial Drive. It is the first day of reopening since the horrific accident in January, in which a car rammed through the wall, shattering everything in the store. The car narrowly missed one employee, who dived out of the way before it smashed into the kitchen.
To the untrained eye, the store looks fully stocked with exotic foods, but Joyce flutters around the store, looking at the shelves and seeing an absence that only genuine food lovers can see. She murmurs to herself: there’s still so much we don’t have. It’s this absence of selection that inspired her husband, Don Dickson, to start the South China Seas store at a time when most Vancouverites had no idea what they were missing. A graphic designer by trade, Don had moved from Toronto to Vancouver during the 1960s. He recalls Vancouver as a “backwater,” the only exciting characteristic being that it was on the ocean. He soon embarked on a three-month trip that took him to Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Hong Kong, and Singapore. “I just loved the food there—but I came back here, and I couldn’t find the ingredients. I tried shopping, went all over town, but back then, you couldn’t even buy a bottle of soy sauce,” he laughs. Don waited anxiously for someone to start up an Asian food store in Vancouver and finally decided to take up the challenge himself at the Granville Island Public Market. Despite the 70 applications for one available spot, his bid for an Asian food store won because it offered something new and original in the Eurocentric market. With a photograph of a junk boat on Hong Kong’s harbour as its logo, the company set its sails into a new era of cooking in Vancouver.
Don helps an East Indian man choose the perfect dark soy sauce for his Szechuan stir-fry, and charts the course for a young Chinese student wanting to make the perfect Thai curry for her friends. They are what Don would call “globavores,” people who eat foods from all over the world, outside of their own cultural background.
The small store on Granville Island is stocked with astounding foods from all over the globe, like the bhut jolokia, or “ghost chili,” which is even hotter than Tabasco sauce. This chili is the stuff of legend, and often used to repel wild elephants. There are also fragrant, beautiful Meyer lemons, fresh kaffir lime leaves, tiny green “pea eggplants,” and Himalayan truffles. There are shelves filled with magnificent, one-of-a-kind cookbooks, and a “Wall of Fire” featuring spices from around the world, ranging from Korean hot sauce to Jamaican jerk sauce. Although the company’s name evokes images of food from Asia, the shelves are stocked with items from around the world, from Central and South American countries like Peru and Mexico, to the Caribbean Islands, to Middle Eastern culinary hotspots like Morocco and Lebanon.
Don jokes that the store is due for a rebranding, and because the store is so global, many customers ignore the store’s roots in Asian food. He recalls the story of a Mexican couple that frequented the store, mistaking it for a Mexican store. “They were here every weekend buying tortillas and Mexican seeds and they said one day, ‘We’ve been really thinking we want to try Thai food. Do you know where there’s any place that sells the ingredients?'”
Almost every item on South China Seas’ shelves tells a rich and fascinating story. To illustrate this, Don explains how foods can be shared across and between cultures, “First, regarding Thai pea eggplants, or bingal, makua puong in Thai; Jamaican customers call them susumber, and they seem to be the same plant in terms of edibility, flavour (bitter), medicinal properties. Botanically, they are both identified as in the solanum family, but with different species identifiers.” Don makes a point that Jamaicans may be surprised if they knew similar plants were used widely in Thailand. The customers of South China Seas reflect this tendency to eat international, that is, across cultures. Over the course of the interview, Don helps an East Indian man choose the perfect dark soy sauce for his Szechuan stir-fry, and charts the course for a young Chinese student wanting to make the perfect Thai curry for her friends. They are what Don would call “globavores,” people who eat foods from all over the world, outside of their own cultural background.