When Jamie Shanker was in fourth grade, her birthday party was dim sum-themed. The next year, it was a soup dumpling birthday party.
For three years, Shanker, a 2012 Beasley School of Law alumna, has worked as a food tour guide in Chinatown. Shanker started giving tours through SideTour Philadelphia, a now-closed online marketplace for touring arts and food culture. In 2015, she established her own business dedicated to the tours called Philly Food Adventures.
Shanker’s favorite dish from the neighborhood is “Jianbing,” an omelet-like street food with crunchy wonton shells, scallion, chives and hot sauce, wrapped in a grilled crepe.
Shanker, a New York native, attended law school to learn more about nonprofit law. But she soon realized that law was not for her, and began to focus more on helping nonprofit organizations. She now works as a program manager for a business development nonprofit in Camden, New Jersey.
“It’s difficult to break into the nonprofit world if you don’t have the graduate school connections,” Shanker said. “I needed something else while I was looking for a really great job, so I started doing food tours.”
She enjoys leading tours because of her passion for food and Chinese culture, she said.
Shanker said she chose Chinatown to explore because of her roots in Queens, New York. She grew up close to Flushing, a neighborhood in Queens that is home to one of New York City’s Chinatowns.
“When I was in fourth grade, my birthday party was a dim sum birthday party,” Shanker said. “Fifth grade it was a soup dumpling birthday party.”
She vacationed in China four years ago, visiting Beijing and Shanghai, which helped her build a repertoire of favorite Chinese cuisines.
On her tours, she leads the visitors to five stops where she introduces them to different Chinese snacks and dishes.
“Some will be really small stops where we’ll be just eating on the street and talking about food, talking about China, the development of Chinatowns in America and the development of Chinatowns in Philadelphia,” Shanker said. “We’ll do at least one sit down where we’re having a substantial meal, and then we’ll usually end in a grocery store and walk around.”
Shanker said wrapping up the tour in a grocery shop gives the tourists a chance to understand more about Chinese food products and allows her to recommend certain foods and show them what ingredients she uses in her own cooking.
“Usually when we go to a grocery store and we’re looking at the live animals, usually I would say you know, you can’t judge what other cultures eat,” Shanker said. “I’ll tell people things that I like to cook with, and ingredients they may have tried that day.”
Shanker’s tours are sporadically planned. She could have anywhere between zero to four tours per month.
Andrea Highbloom, a 2012 communications alumna from the University of Pennsylvania, has attended two of Shanker’s food tours. Highbloom heard about Shanker’s food tours through a mutual friend.
Highbloom went on her first tour a year ago, and she did the second one this past summer with her family. She has lived near Philadelphia her whole life, so she was already familiar with Philly’s Chinatown.
But she still learned new things about Chinatown from Shanker.
“Jamie taught us a lot about the history of Chinatown, in particular the diversity of Chinatown and the different areas of [China], like where the cuisine comes from,” Highbloom said.
While visiting the different restaurants, Highbloom said she tasted everything from shaved noodles to Chinese desserts.
“I definitely would want to go back,” Highbloom said. “I don’t think people realize how many different regions that the different restaurants come from within Chinatown, so it was really cool.”
As a tour guide, Shanker said she draws her motivation from her love of food and people. She said she finds gratification in bringing people new experiences.
“I love doing it, the tours are exhausting and invigorating at the same time,” Shanker said. “There’s a lot of myself in it, it’s not a scripted tour like a lot of other food tours.”
Shanker said she likes to incorporate her interest in nonprofit business law with the food tours by supporting small businesses.
Ultimately, Shanker added she is glad she stuck with giving food tours rather than practicing law.
“Just practicing as a lawyer…things take a really long time [with] zero results,” she added. “But watching someone eat something, and seeing their immediate reaction, that’s awesome.”