It’s been a long time since I’ve heard Italian, and just as long since I’ve SEEN Italian.  The language is half-communicated through gesture, after all.  But guess what – yesterday I was surrounded by it all once again, awash with the rhythmic rolling of rrrr’s and familiar, two-kiss greetings.

How did this happen, in RICHMOND of all places?  Well, yesterday I had the honour of playing host to a group of ten students from the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy, where I did my Masters in Food Culture and Communications in 2010.  They’re travelling in British Columbia as part of their three year undergraduate studies program, and are exploring all around Metro Vancouver and Vancouver Island.

I had the pleasure of showing off Richmond, and we met up yesterday morning at Waterfront Station.  I was instantly among friends, and it felt great.

We began our day at Leisure Tea for a lesson on bubble tea culture.  Tom, who owns the tea and coffee house with his parents, agreed to be our guide.  I chose Leisure Tea for its unique atmosphere, which shows how Richmond is so much more than the clichés often associate with Asian cuisine.

While it’s apparently huuuuge in Berlin, bubble tea has yet to penetrate Italy’s espresso-loving heart, so few of the students had tried it.  Tom mixed up two kinds for us to sample – classic milk tea and a fresh taro drink – and brought out two large taro roots from the back for everyone to see.

The fresh taro drink with pearls was phenomenal; they make it from scratch, and once you’ve tried it, you’ll never go back to that purple powdered stuff again.  Tom also brought out a shaved ice dessert for everyone to try, which had kidney beans, red beans, green beans, peanuts, grass jelly, and sweetened and condensed milk.  That was polished off quickly.

This group of students was awesome – they were so enthusiastic to learn, full of intelligent questions, and photographed the heck out of Leisure Tea.  Just a warning: if you come within 10 metres of UNISG students and are carrying anything edible, you’ll be forced to wait at least five minutes while they ensure its digital place in history.

Next, we walked over to H-Mart, where Daniela – the group’s leader – had one particular mission: to purchase spices for making kimchi.  She’s been experimenting with fermentation back home, but it’s tough to find Asian ingredients in Italy.  She left H-Mart with exactly what she needed – a big package of coarse chili powder – and was very happy indeed!

With spices and Korean snacks in hand, we walked over to see if Lido had any pineapple buns.  We snagged four of them fresh out of the oven, and I described them to the group as “brioche-like buns with no actual pineapple, topped with a sugary-crust, and served with a thick slice of butter.”

As usual, the buns were a massive hit.  They were passed around under a grey, dripping sky, with everyone biting into the crackly tops and murmuring “beeeeelliiiisima” as they chewed.  Those things are just stupid good.  That’s an academic phrase I learned during my masters.

After the obligatory butter sandwich stop, we continued on to Suhang for lunch.  UNISG students have very discerning tastes, and I wanted a restaurant I knew would be good.  Fortunately, yesterday’s meal at Suhang wasn’t good – it was incredible.

We chose our dishes based on a few requests from students – pig’s ears, for example – as well recommendations from Amy, one of the Suhang’s owners.  She suggested we try the Hangzhou-style Chicken, which is also known as “Beggar’s Chicken” ($45, must be ordered a day in advance).  The bird is stuffed with sticky rice, egg yolks, edamame beans, and chesnuts all mixed with a soy-based sauce, then wrapped tightly in lotus leaves.  The chicken is then encased in mud (at Suhang they use dough instead) and baked for five hours.

The dish’s stiff, blackened exterior was cracked open before being paraded to the table, and the whole thing had an air of medieval glory to it.  What a photo opp!

The tender chicken fell right apart, and was so permeated with flavour it had turned golden brown.  The sticky rice was amazingly rich, and I fully fell in love.

In addition to the chicken, we ate cold strips of pigs’ ears in chili sauce (very chewy); xiao long bao; pan-fried chive and shrimp dumplings; fried rice; smoked chicken and duck; sautéed green beans; fresh Shanghai noodles; fish soup; wonton soup; and Chinese greens with garlic.  How much of this enormous spread was left?  Only about two portions of fried rice.  Seriously, these people can EAT.

At one point, Amy taught everyone how to say ‘nian gao’ (which are rice cakes, also referred to as “gnocchi di riso” by one of the students), and in return, they taught Amy how to say “molto buono” (very good), their praise for the lunch.  After a few tries she had it down, and sent us off with some good-hearted “ciao ciao ciaos!”

After Suhang, we headed over to see Kareno at The Sharing Farm.  By that point the weather had descended fully into its morose winter-self, but everyone bundled up for a discussion about agriculture in Richmond, and a tour of the farm’s three acres.

From there, the students and Daniela went off to help with the community meal at Gilmore United Church, and I went to find more food before heading home.

At this point I was rather stuffed, so decided to try something on the lighter side.  I went to Aberdeen Center, and sought out Mazazu Crepes, a Japanese chain I’ve had my eye on for a while.

In classic Japanese style, they have models of their sweet and savoury crepes on display, so you can see visualize your meal before you eat it.  I ordered an egg and tuna crepe as well as a strawberry, brownie, and frozen yogurt crepe (each under $7), but didn’t think to ask for one before the other.

I ended up with an enormous crepe in each hand, frozen yogurt quickly melting, and my camera inaccessible.  Where are those UNISG students when you need them?

Since my ice creamy dessert had an expiry ate, I ate it first, snapping photos on my phone before I dug in.  The photos are bad, but the crepe was scrumptious.  It was like a big, hand-held sundae topped with chocolate sauce and endless rosettes of cream.

The tuna and egg combo was far less aesthetically pleasing, but still really tasty.  I would definitely get these again, only next time I’d order them one at a time, like a smart person.

On Sunday, the UNISG students head to Vancouver Island, then come back across the water before heading home to Italy.  I had such a nice time with them, though it made me miss my own classmates fiercely.

So what do you say, class of FCC-A 2011?  How about a reunion in Richmond?  I’ll host, and promise to feed you as many Hangzhou chickens as you can possibly eat.