On a sleepy Saturday morning in Vancouver’s historic Chinatown, banging drums and ringing cymbals suddenly sound on a desolate stretch of East Pender Street.
Air Canada enRoute x Destination Canada
Taste Bite–Sized Stories of Chinatown
Spot the white rabbit on the sandwich board outside chef Andrew Han’s Kouign Café and you’ll wind up in a flavour wonderland.
A curious diner rushes to the front door of Kouign Café and squints up at a building across the way, where members of the Hon Hsing Athletic Club of Vancouver are practising a lion dance. According to traditional Chinese belief, the dance is performed to chase evil spirits away and bring in a prosperous new year.
It’s fitting folklore for this community of graffitied storefronts, located in the city’s Downtown Eastside, which, like Chinatowns around the world, was hit hard by the Covid–19 pandemic and a surge of anti–Asian racism.
But if you follow the white rabbit on the sandwich board outside, you will tumble into this magical, Wonderland–themed café, where executive chef and owner Andrew Han is baking his own, bite–size stories mixed with pork–floss strands of nostalgia and glazed with chrysanthemum–honeyed love.
“I grew up in Chinatown. It’s a very special place for me and it’s the inspiration, along with my mom, for everything I do,” says Han, who literally wears his heart on his tattooed arm sleeves.
Shuttling between a handful of customers and an open kitchen, which smells sweet, yeasty and warmly spiced with star anise and clove, he explains the taste memories that inspired some of his signature treats.
The peanut butter Lunch Box cookie, studded with lap cheong sausage and topped with nori shreds, is a spicy mélange of the flavours from the lunches his Vietnamese mother used to pack him for school. When Han was a teenager, and his mother was too busy working at the grocery store that his parents owned on East Hastings Street, she would give him money to buy a mortadella sandwich at Benny’s Market. His Bunny Burger, swiped with house–made kimchi and minty, lemongrass salsa verde on a black–sesame sourdough baguette, is an ode to the neighbourhood deli, which still operates today.
Meanwhile, one version of Han’s namesake kouign pastry is folded around a coconut butter mochi heart, while another incorporated the White Rabbit candies he begged for on Saturday mornings when he tagged along to the Chinese markets. “Those were happy, more innocent times,” he says. “And that’s where the whole Wonderland theme comes from.”
Han’s mother wasn’t thrilled when, in his late twenties, Han left a stable desk job with the Canada Revenue Agency to go to culinary school. This coincided with his coming out as gay and what he calls an Alice–like transformation, “to the person I truly am.” His mother, like many of his friends, also worried when he insisted on opening his first café in Chinatown, an area that was strained and underdeveloped at the time.
“But it had to be here,” says Han, gazing out at the old buildings with their peeling paint. “This is where the menu was born, and it makes me proud that we are one of the reasons people still come to Chinatown.”
Check back for the latest updates on Canada’s Best New Cookbook, coming in spring 2022.
To find out more, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org