Guan Fu Sichuan

People often ask where (and what) I’ve eaten recently, so in response, I’ve been posting photos of some of the tastiest dishes from my favorite restaurants under the category You Asked For It. You can find these and more on my Instagram account, @ethnojunkie.


Every once in a while, a new Sichuan restaurant comes along and it’s so good that you feel compelled to shout about it from the rooftops and tell the world. But seldom does a new Sichuan restaurant show up that’s so remarkable, so outstanding, so clearly superior in every way that you fall silent, awestruck, in appreciation of every skillfully prepared bite.

Such was my experience at Guan Fu Sichuan.

Here are a few favorites from my recent visit. (Click any photo to view in glorious high resolution.)

Kung Pao Lobster

Kung Pao Lobster (宫保龙虾). Not what you’d expect when you hear “Kung Pao” anything. Masterfully seasoned (no heavy-handed spice complication) and exquisitely plated, the contrast between the crisp peanuts and the melt-in-your-mouth lobster was perfection.

Sichuan Style Scallop with Minced Garlic

Sichuan Style Scallop with Minced Garlic (蒜蓉蒸扇贝). Each perfectly prepared, alive-moments-ago scallop is balanced atop a nest of noodles bathed in an ambrosial scallop broth – truly a culinary gem. They’re break-your-heart luscious but break-the-bank expensive at $10 apiece. But do take note: I resolutely champion the tenet that ethnic/world food should never be relegated to the “cheap eats” category. The talent and creativity (not to mention the quality ingredients) that go into making this – and every – dish at Guan Fu justify the price as would any equivalent experience at a schmancy French restaurant. In my opinion, Guan Fu rates a firmament of stars for its inventive cuisine and presentation.

Razor Clams with Green Pepper

Our appetizer of sweet, tender razor clams with mildly spicy green pepper (烧椒圣子皇) was delicate yet distinctive. I admit that I’m easy to please when it comes to razor clams but I’ve never had them prepared with such finesse. Again, an expertly crafted dish.

Fried Corn

You’ve heard of Candy Corn, right? Well, as far as I’m concerned, this dish is Corn Candy and it’s amazing. It’s called simply Fried Corn (金沙玉米) – sweet corn prepared with salted duck egg yolk and I could probably eat a whole plate of it myself. Simple, yet elegant, another Guan Fu must-have.

Spicy Oil Wontons

From the Snacks section of the menu, they’re just innocent looking dumplings, right? But again, at Guan Fu, they’re a cut above. Often you hear folks report whether the skins are thick or thin and that’s where the description ends. These Spicy Oil Wontons (红油抄手) (medium thickness and perfect chew) are swaddled in a delicious wrapper (how often do you hear people talk about how good the wrapper tasted?), stuffed to bursting with a savory meaty filling, and swimming in a not-too-spicy sauce.

Boiled Fish with Pickled Cabbage and Chili

Boiled Fish with Pickled Cabbage and Chili (酸菜鱼) is available with different kinds of fish – the least bony is the most costly, and even then you’ll need to be careful.

Mapo Tofu

I don’t like Mapo Tofu (麻婆豆腐) said nobody ever. Once again, Guan Fu’s rendering was exemplary. Fluffy, remarkably soft pillows of tofu in a sauce that was complex and flavorful that went well beyond the ubiquitous nondescript spicy versions.

Guanfu Style Bean Jelly Salad

Guanfu Style Bean Jelly Salad (川北凉粉) was a perfect way to start our meal.

Cucumber with Home Sauce

Cucumber with Home Sauce (沾酱乳瓜), essentially Persian cucumber with hoisin sauce, was the most uncomplicated dish I tried; tastes exactly as it sounds.

 
Guan Fu Sichuan is located in Flushing Square, 39-16 Prince Street G01, in Flushing, Queens.

 

Goodness, Gracious, Great Balls of…Fish?

You’ve undoubtedly seen these if you shop at Asian markets whether Chinese, Japanese, Korean or Southeast Asian because they’re a favorite everywhere in that part of the world. (Scandinavia has its own variant, but we’re not going to venture that far north this time.) There are even fish cake emoji like 🍥 (narutomaki) and 🍢 (oden). In local Asian markets, you’ll find fish balls and fish cakes in the freezer case packaged in bags or plastic wrapped in a small tray, but if you’re lucky they’ll also have bins of loose assorted varieties where you can cherry-pick as many or as few of whichever ones suit your fancy – my style of shopping, of course.

At their most basic, fish balls are made of fish paste: finely ground fish (pulverized and pounded), egg white, starch, plus a little seasoning. You may have also encountered fish paste as Japanese surimi which is used to make imitation shellfish like the crab stick you see in those ubiquitous California rolls. Incidentally, you can often purchase a few types of fish paste by the pound at the larger markets in the fresh fish/meat department. These are generally the stores’ own blends and are worth trying, but they’re easier to work with as filling for a dumpling or stuffing a vegetable, dim sum style, rather than for rolling your own fish balls, so I strongly recommend getting the ready-to-go frozen ones as an entry level fishy requisite.

Anyway, I was shopping at Jmart (136-20 Roosevelt Avenue in the New World Mall in Flushing, Queens) and fortuitously happened upon one such bin – fortuitously because I had just made a savory Chinese duck soup from a pair of carcasses that contributed their meat to a Thai duck salad I crafted and I had been trying to decide whether to put noodles or dumplings in it. This bounty made the choice easy – and now I had the perfect excuse to buy a few of each kind.

It’s difficult to rate them on some sort of 1 to 10 scale because they’re all quite good but the cuttlefish balls and all of the filled varieties were especially tasty; the shrimp ball filled with pork and sea cucumber and the fish ball with pork filling were excellent. By way of identification, from left to right in the photo above:

Row 1: shrimp ball, fish tofu, imitation lobster ball, Chinese brand mini bite sausage

Row 2: beef tendon ball, fish dumpling with lobster flavored filling, fish ball with fish roe filling, cuttlefish ball

Row 3: fish tofu with shrimp filling, fish ball with pork filling, pork and chicken patty ball with pork filling, shrimp ball filled with pork and sea cucumber

Preparing them is a piece of cake (no, not fish cake) because they’re already cooked. The easiest method is to simply drop them into boiling soup/water; they’ll float to the top when they’re good to go. Alternatively, they can be fried and served with just about any Asian dipping sauce; you’ll find them on skewers at some food trucks, and I’ve seen them served with a curry sauce as well. Obviously, they’re incredibly versatile.

The flavor is mildly fish-like (except for the ones made from meat which are mildly beefy or mildly porky) which partly accounts for their affinity for various dipping sauces and also for their adaptability in combining with other ingredients. The texture is tender and frankly springy/bouncy, but in a happy way.

The final photo was taken just before adding more soup since it would have completely covered them up; there are some greens in there for good measure.

So I’m curious: let me know if or how you’ve used these little wonders in the “Leave a Reply” box below! (If you don’t see it, click the reply button next to the title of this post.)

 
 

Main Street Imperial Taiwanese Gourmet

People often ask where (and what) I’ve eaten lately, so in response, I’ve been posting photos of some of the tastiest dishes from my favorite restaurants under the category You Asked For It. You can find these and more on my Instagram account, @ethnojunkie.


One of my favorite ways to dine is with a large group of foodie-type folks. There’s a method to my menu madness, of course: if you gather a crowd of eight or ten around a mountain of ethnic food, everyone gets to taste a bit of everything. (That’s essentially the idea behind my ethnojunkets as well.) And that’s exactly what we did at Main Street Imperial Taiwanese Gourmet.

Here are some photos of the extensive indulgence we enjoyed. (Click to enlarge.)

Braised Ribs

Duck Tongue

The meat is tender and a little fatty and envelops a bone that runs down the middle of the tongue. You’ll encounter these in other Chinese cuisines as well (at Cantonese dim sum parlors, for example). Go ahead. Try some. I promise you won’t leave quacking.

Oyster Pancake

Budzu Steamed Fish

Budzu is often seen as “Putz” on Taiwanese menus and it isn’t what you think it is. Budzu are manjack berries, little olive colored globes with a single seed, and are a standby in Taiwanese cuisine.

Clams with Basil

Basil frequently factors into Taiwanese cuisine as you can see in some of the other photos. It was the perfect fillip for these tender clams.

Crispy Sautéed Chicken

Squid with Ginger and Scallion

Stinky Tofu

An acquired taste? You be the judge!

Intestine with Garlic Chive

You might think you’ve never eaten intestines, but that, after all, is where natural sausage casings come from. The garlic chives and medium spicy sauce are the perfect complements; great with rice.

Sa Cha Beef

 
And yes, everything was absolutely delicious!
 
 
Main Street Imperial Taiwanese Gourmet is located at 59-14A Main Street in Flushing, Queens.
 
 

Reverse Engineering Legend of Taste’s Smoked Pork with Garlic Leaf


Legend of Taste, located at 2002 Utopia Parkway in Whitestone, Queens, is fast becoming a legend in its own right. Arguably the most original Szechuan restaurant in New York City, finicky foodies have been flocking here to check out the hype (yes, it’s completely deserved) and enjoy the chef’s skillful spin on Szechuan classics.

As to my modest role in supporting this establishment (whose only drawback is its location: you need to drive there since it’s not near a subway line), I’ve brought several groups of food writers and photographers, restaurant reviewers, chefs, and Szechuan cuisine enthusiasts to sample as much of the “Legend Special” and “Chef’s Special” sections of the menu as we could and still fit through the door on the way out. You can see some of what we’ve sampled here.

It turns out that among the many amazing offerings we tasted (like the unimaginably delicious – may I say transcendent? – Szechuan Style Crispy Eggplant), the relatively simple Smoked Pork with Garlic Leaf never failed to garner tremendous approbation from the throng. As a matter of fact, a few folks asked if I had a recipe so they could try their hand at reproducing it. Although I discovered some similar dishes in my research, I couldn’t track down a proper recipe so I had no choice but to try to create one myself. I was fortunate that on one visit I had been able to carry out a bit for an A/B comparison while I was inventing my own take on it. (Sure, try and convince people that sacrificing a morsel of the dish for me to bring home and deconstruct would ultimately accrue to their benefit.)

What follows is my modest proposal for just such a recipe. (Actually, it’s more of an algorithm than a formal recipe, but you’ll get the idea.) The limited number of ingredients made the task seem less daunting. The real key is finding a version of smoked Chinese bacon that resonates for you. (No, I don’t have a favorite since I always buy a different one: it’s the best way to learn.) Now, I suspect that Legend of Taste smokes their own pork belly so you won’t be able to find a perfect match in Chinatown, but you can approximate it. In the market, you’re likely to find Chinese style bacon available in two forms, either Cryovac packaged or hanging by a string alongside other dried meats like lap cheong (Chinese sausage) and assorted types of poultry (see photos). Either one will work in this dish. The packaged versions differ from each other considerably – some are richer than others, some have added seasonings like cinnamon, soy sauce, wine, and there’s even a Szechuan style spicy má là version; it’s all a matter of taste. Note that these are not refrigerated in the market.

For the greens, head to the produce section. English names for this vegetable vary widely from “garlic leaf” to “green garlic” to “Chinese leeks”; in Szechuan province it’s known as suan miao, 蒜苗. You’re looking for a vegetable that has flat leaves and a purplish tinge to the outermost layer of the bulbs. The photo here (left) shows what you’re after. That shiny silver disk is a quarter placed there for the sake of size comparison; you can see that they’re much longer and thinner than garden variety American leeks. They’re more tender than regular leeks as well so they cook up much faster.

The only other significant ingredient that I could discern is dried salted black bean; you’ll find it packaged in plastic bags near the other dried items like lentils, starches, nuts, dried mushrooms, black and white fungus – things you’d cook with, not snack on.

Preparation: Steam the Chinese bacon over boiling water for 15 minutes; doing so will cook and soften it so that it can be worked with. Slice off a little of the fat and render it for use in the stir frying process later. As soon as it’s cool enough to handle, lay it on its side (or whatever technique works best for you) and carve thin slices (photo on the right). Don’t worry if your slices aren’t as thin and translucent as what you see here; do the best you can and it will be just fine.

The main difference between this and the pork in the dish from Legend of Taste is the sublime smokiness. (As a matter of fact, Legend of Taste’s outstanding Special Smoked Ribs and Tea Smoked Duck are so redolent of smoky goodness that, if you’re lucky and your timing is right, the aroma will seduce you as you enter the establishment.) Since I don’t have a smoker, I tried to come up with a process for enhancing my expeditious ersatz rendition. My first try involved adding a few tablespoons of liquid smoke to the steaming water; that helped a bit, but it needed more encouragement since the smokiness couldn’t really permeate the large hunks of bacon (although it most decidedly permeated my kitchen). A few tests later, I settled on a method of mixing a tiny amount of liquid smoke in a bowl with a little water, sugar, and smoked sea salt and briefly tossing the slices of pork all at once in the mixture, then steaming them again for a few minutes. Perfect? Of course not. And there are those among us who eschew liquid smoke at all costs; I can appreciate that. But if you don’t overdo it, my method will get you close. Incidentally, if you try this technique, I recommend that you not use a variety of Chinese bacon that has additional seasonings added.

As to the garlic leaf, remove the roots and wash it thoroughly. Cut off the bulb and quarter it so it will cook at the same rate as the leaves and stalk. You’ll get the best results working with the sturdier leaves just below the tips down through the stalk just above the bulb. The very ends can be wilted and in any event are too delicate for use in this dish; they get a little stringy and don’t hold up under stir-fry conditions. Save them for soup stock if you like. Or to use as ribbon on tiny Christmas presents. (Just wanted to see if you were paying attention.) Make one slice lengthwise through the stalk, then slice it and the firm leaves into 1½-inch pieces on the diagonal.

Rinse a small amount (perhaps a tablespoon or so) of the black beans and chop them coarsely.

The precise amounts of the components are up to you. Have a look at the photos and balance them as you wish.

Assembly: Heat a wok or a cast iron skillet until it gets impossibly hot. Add a little of the rendered pork fat – you won’t need much. Stir fry the sliced greens until almost tender (it won’t take long), and add the pork strips, black beans, a pinch of white pepper, a pinch of salt (depends upon how salty the bacon is), a pinch of sugar, and a big pinch of MSG. (Yes, really. You wanna make something of it?) Stir fry for a minute or two, just enough to introduce the ingredients to each other and until they develop a happy relationship. Serve with rice.

Remember that this is merely my take (bottom photo) on reverse engineering the dish so wonderfully crafted at Legend of Taste (top photo). If you have a recipe for it that you’d like to share, use the area below to send a comment. I’m eager to hear from you!

PS: I think it came out rather well!

Tim Ho Wan

People often ask where (and what) I’ve eaten lately, so in response, I’ve been posting photos of some of the tastiest dishes from my favorite restaurants under the category You Asked For It. You can find these and more on my Instagram account, @ethnojunkie.

(Click photos to enlarge.)


You’ve heard about it. You want to go there. But you weren’t convinced that hanging around for the better part of an hour to snatch one of their 60 unreservable seats – even during off hours – would be worth your time.

If you’re a hardcore Chinese food devotee, you probably know that Tim Ho Wan is a chain of dim sum parlors that took off in Hong Kong in 2009, rocketed across Asia (catching a Michelin star not long after after its debut), and landed in Manhattan’s East Village in January, 2017.

They boast that freshness is the key factor that distinguishes their fare from the rest of the pack. But although their wares are certainly fresh, I beg to differ with their professed rationale for the acclaim. Surely most of the dim sum around these parts is made the same day with fresh ingredients. Think about it: the turnover at such places is formidable; if you try to go anywhere to yum cha at 2:30 in the afternoon, you’ll see that the pickings are mighty slim. However, I do concur that there is a significant distinction in what they bring to the table, and that’s their spin on the dim sum itself.

It seems that there are two schools of thought about Tim Ho Wan’s food: the first posits that most of the offerings aren’t all that different from those of other dim sum restaurants. My very biased judgment is that those who can’t quite fathom what all the hubbub is about simply haven’t sampled dim sum from a wide enough assortment of restaurants. Here’s why I think that. Take a look at the photos below. Generally, they look like the dim sum you’ll find everywhere. Now, I’m fortunate to live in New York City and have enjoyed dim sum at dozens of restaurants in most of our five or so Chinatowns for decades, and indeed, one venue’s rice roll tastes pretty much like all the others. (There are exceptions, of course.) And Tim Ho Wan’s appear to look like all the rest for the most part. But “look like” is the operative phrase here. I suspect that in the barrage of foodie hype, those previously titillated, primed-for-ecstasy folks were expecting to gaze upon spectacular and unusual looking delicacies they had never encountered before and were, of course, disappointed.

The second school of thought is concerned with flavor and alternative recipes. For example, even though the cheung fan (steamed rice noodle rolls) seem like clones of so many others you’ve happened upon, the filling is special, memorable, and stands head and shoulders above the competition’s. And I suspect that the seasoned taster and enlightened foodie faction recognizes that Tim Ho Wan’s take on these items is undeniably novel and radically different from their doppelgangers – and absolutely delicious as well.

So here are some photos of my recommendations. I haven’t tried everything on the menu, but many of the items are similar, swapping out pork for beef and the like. Believe it or not, my only disappointment was the popular and ubiquitous siu mai (steamed pork dumplings with shrimp) which were good, but nothing out of the ordinary and the reason I didn’t post a photo.


Baked Bun with BBQ Pork

Tim Ho Wan’s claim to fame. In terms of appearance, these do look considerably dissimilar from their counterparts found elsewhere and they’re a hit with everyone regardless of their allegiance to school of thought. The texture of the dough is a little airy like a biscuit, a little crispy and a little crumbly, its flavor sweet, and altogether unlike the smooth, golden brown versions you’ve experienced before. The filling is sweet and savory, just like that of their BBQ Pork cheung fan below. If you get nothing else (and after that long wait, you’d be foolish not to), you’ve got to try these.


Steamed Rice Roll stuffed with BBQ Pork

Cheung fan filled to bursting with their own variant on BBQ pork. So much better than anything similar you’d find elsewhere.


Steamed Dumplings Chiu Chow Style


Steamed Rice with Pork and Dried Squid


Steamed Beef Ball with Bean Curd Skin


Sticky Rice in Lotus Leaf


Pan Fried Turnip Cake


Congee with Pork and Preserved Egg

Congee, also known as jook, is rice gruel; you want this for breakfast on a cold winter’s day in a deep and dark December.


Deep Fried Eggplant filled with Shrimp


Sweet Osmanthus with Goji Berries

Yes, I know, Chinese Jello, but it’s easily the best version of this dish I’ve ever tasted. Subtle and sweet, it makes you very happy.


French Toast filled with Custard

Not Chinese by any stretch but not bad at all. I mean, dim sum is sort of brunch, right?
 
 
Tim Ho Wan is located at 85 Fourth Avenue, New York, NY
 
 

Legend of Taste

People often ask where (and what) I’ve eaten lately, so in response, I’ve been posting photos of some of the tastiest dishes from my favorite restaurants under the category You Asked For It. You can find these and more on my Instagram account, @ethnojunkie.


So much has been written about Legend of Taste that I’m reticent to repeat it here. Suffice it to say that the culinary cognoscenti think it’s the best new Szechuan restaurant in NYC and I concur wholeheartedly. (The proof lies in the statistics, viz: the number of minutes I’m willing to travel by bus after riding the subway to the end of the line in the quest for outrageously great cuisine, times the number of diners I’ve lead there, to the power of the number of dishes we’ve enjoyed.) Yes, it’s a bear to get to by mass transit (the 7 train to Main St. Flushing plus a bus) but it’s unequivocally worth it. If you have access to a car, then it’s relatively easy; if you don’t, by all means convince a friend who does that you both need to go there posthaste! Otherwise, pony up a fare for the MTA; you won’t regret it. The only caveat regards the menu: it’s extensive and much of it exists to provide familiar offerings to the less intrepid. I’ve determined that some of their best dishes can be found in the Chef Special and Legend Special sections of the menu although there are exceptions. But if you stick with my recommendations, I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

And as usual, I strongly suggest that you go with a large group; that way you’ll get to sample more of the amazing dishes I’ve tried! (Click photos to enlarge.)


Szechuan Style Crispy Eggplant

I’ve listed this dish first for a reason: even if you’re only lukewarm on eggplant I suspect you’ll delight in this dish as much as everyone else who’s tasted it. Don’t be afraid of what appear to be hot peppers! They’re quite mild and are an integral part of the experience. Take a bite that has some eggplant, some pepper, and some of the impossibly crunchy peanuts. I can still taste it! (But maybe that’s because I brought an order home with me.)


Smoked Pork with Garlic Leaf

This one is remarkable as well and satisfies those who want “something green”.
UPDATE: Read this post in which I attempt to deconstruct and recreate a quick version of Legend of Taste’s awesome Smoked Pork with Garlic Leaf!


Special Smoked Ribs

So tender! So juicy! So smoky! The stuff that dreams are made of.


Spicy Szechuan Pork Dumpling

Thick, chewy skins if you, like me, appreciate them that way.


Griddled Hot and Spicy Rabbit

There’s a section of the menu headed “Grilled Hot and Spicy Pot”. There you’ll find about nine dishes named “Griddled Hot and Spicy x” where x can be chicken, beef, fish fillet, pork intestines, rabbit, lamb, cauliflower, frog, etc. They’re all pretty much the same format (see photo above) and they’re all good. Just pick your protein and get ready for some serious spice. (And no, I don’t know whether they meant “Griddled” or “Grilled”. Neither really seems appropriate here!)


Chengdu Fish Fillet with Pickled Vegetables

Don’t be misled by the name: this is a soup, and a spicy one at that. But the combination of mild fish, pickled vegetables and spicy broth is unique. It’s served in a large tureen so one order is more than enough for a large group.


Tea Smoked Duck

Another smoky offering. Like the ribs, it’s delicious too, but you should probably choose whether you want the duck or the Special Smoked Ribs (see above) – unless you can’t get enough smoke!


Dry Sautéed Pork Kidney

Very mild as kidneys go. I’d call this gateway offal for timid but curious would-be kidney experimenters. Light and luscious.


Ants Climbing the Tree

No ants were harmed in the making of this dish! I’ve had drier versions, but this soupy one is good as well. The “trees” are cellophane noodles made from mung bean starch and the “ants” are ground pork. I once made this fancifully named dish for someone as part of a mini-banquet and she refused to eat it. I asked if it was because she thought those were real ants in there but she understood that they were merely bits of pork. However, she couldn’t get past the idea that maybe, just maybe, those noodles were made of cellophane. After all, she said, they did come out of a cellophane package!


North Szechuan Bean Jelly

Spicy!


Tears in Eyes

Like North Szechuan Bean Jelly (above) but even spicier! You don’t need to get them both.


And some other dishes we liked:

Shredded Beef with Long Horn Green Pepper


Chicken in Triple Pepper


Chengdu Style Hot and Spicy Prawn


Dan Dan Noodle


Famous Szechuan Pickled Vegetable

A great change of pace.


Hot and Spicy Dry Beef


Beef and Ox Tripe in Chili Sauce

In Chinese, it’s fuqi feipian, literally husband and wife sliced lung, but there’s no lung in it. A Szechuan málà classic.
 

And yes, there were more!

Legend of Taste is located at 2002 Utopia Parkway in Whitestone, Queens.
 

Chinese Mooncakes Demystified

Or, The Equal Opportunity Celebrant – Part 2

 

A visit to any Chinatown bakery this time of year will reveal a befuddling assemblage of mooncakes (yue bing) in a seemingly infinite variety of shapes, sizes, ornamentation, and fillings, all begging to be enjoyed in observance of the Mid-Autumn Festival. Also known as the Autumn Moon Festival, this important holiday occurs on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month (around mid-September or early October on the Gregorian calendar) when the moon looms large and bright – the perfect time to celebrate summer’s bounteous harvest. They’re sold either individually or in eye-catching gift boxes or tins since it’s customary to offer gifts of mooncakes to friends and family (or lovers!) for the holiday. Being a curious monkey (2016 is the year of the same), I felt compelled to purchase an assortment of these delicacies in order to learn about their similarities and differences and to shed some light (moonlight, of course) on their intricacies.

The first point to note is that various regions of China have their own distinct versions of mooncakes. A quick survey of the interwebs revealed styles hailing from Beijing, Suzhou, Guangdong (Canton), Chaoshan, Ningbo, Yunnan, and Hong Kong, not to mention Taiwan and Malaysia. They’re distinguished by the types of dough, appearance, and fillings, some sweet and some more savory. In my experience, Chinese bakeries in Manhattan, Brooklyn (Sunset Park), and Queens (Flushing) favor the Cantonese style, but Fujianese mooncakes are easy to find along stoop line stands outside of markets in neighborhoods where there’s a concentration of folks from Fujian.
jinhua-hammoon-cake-mold
You’ll commonly find mooncakes with doughy crusts (golden brown, soft, somewhere between cakey and piecrusty, often with an egg wash sheen) as well as those with white, paper thin flaky layers that betray lard as an important ingredient; chewy glutinous rice skins (these aren’t baked); and gelatinous casings (jelly, agar, or konjak), the most difficult to find in the city. Golden-baked, elegantly decorated Cantonese versions are round (moon shaped, get it?) or square, are fluted around the perimeter, and have been created using molds made of intricately carved wood to provide the ornate design or an inscription describing what’s inside (see photo).

joyful-lotus-seed-pastejoyful-lotus-seed-paste-inside
Fillings among the Cantonese types are dense and sweet and include lotus seed paste, white lotus seed paste, red bean paste, and mung bean paste, sometimes with one or two salted duck egg yolks (representing the harvest moon) snuggled within. In addition, there are five-nut (or -kernel or -seed) versions, packed with chopped peanuts, walnuts, almonds, pumpkin seeds, and watermelon seeds as well as a variety made with Jinhua ham, dried winter melon, and other fruits buried among the nuts; its flavor was a little herby, not unlike rosemary, but I couldn’t quite identify it. These last two were particularly tasty. All are about 3 inches wide and 1½ inches high and sell for about $4.50–$6; mini-versions are available as well. A visit to Flushing exhibited all of these as well as some outstanding fruity varieties including pineapple, lychee, and pandan; these can be best described as translucent fruit pastes and are perfect for the novitiate – a gateway mooncake if ever there was one.
five-seed-pastepineapple-lychee-pandan

In another market, I found a white, flaky pastry version, Shanghai style, I believe; the filling was like a very dense cake with a modicum of nuts and fruits providing some contrast and crunch – certainly tasty.

durian-with-bean-paste-snowy-moon-cakeicy-moon-cake-boxes
chocolate-icy-moon-cakechocolate-icy-moon-cake-with-cream-cheesechocolate-pearls-in-pandan-flavored-bean-paste
Then there are trendy versions that hail from Hong Kong all of which are equally accessible and delicious. Think mooncake meets mochi: rather than dough-based and baked, the skins are almost like the sweet Japanese glutinous rice cake, but not quite as chewy. These snowy and icy mooncakes must be kept chilled. The snowy flavors are contemporary: strawberry, mango, orange, pineapple, honeydew, peach, peanut, taro, chestnut, green tea and red bean; one version featured durian flavored sweet bean paste with bits of the fruit and enveloped by a skin of sweet, almost almond paste texture and flavor. Icy mooncakes come two to a box (they’re smaller, about 2 inches by ¾ inch) with imaginative flavors like pandan bean paste with chocolate pearls (tiny crispy, candy bits, crunchy like malted milk balls, but probably puffed rice), dark chocolate bean paste (the skin is like mochi with chocolatey paste on the inside and a piece of dark chocolate or a bit of cream cheese nestled within), durian, mango, blueberry, custard, chestnut, black sesame, strawberry, and cherry. Prices range from $6–$9.50 each or for a box.

Even the Häagen-Dazs in Flushing’s New World Mall was touting sets of ice cream mooncakes!

fujianese-moon-cake-3-stampsfujianese-moon-cake-insidePerhaps the most unusual are the mooncakes found in Fujianese neighborhoods, particularly along East Broadway in Manhattan’s Chinatown. These round behemoths (about 8½ inches in diameter and an inch or so thick) are simple in appearance. Wrapped in a single flaky layer covering a more substantial crust (a mixture of rice and wheat flours) with red food coloring stamps on top to delineate varieties, they are an embarrassment of lard and sugar with the addition of chopped peanuts, dried red dates (jujubes), bits of candied winter melon and other nuts and fruits supported by sesame seed encrusted bottoms. I’m wary about cautioning you that these might be an acquired taste as they are certainly unlike anything you might find in Western cuisine and I don’t want to put you off; some friends liked them immediately, others had to think about it. In any event, the flavors will grow on you regardless of your starting point. These hefty disks exemplify the phrase “a little goes a long way” and a cup of tea nearby helps cut the oiliness. Cost is about $10 each.

I have to admit that I hit a wall in my attempt to decipher the inscriptions on the Fujianese mooncakes. Most bore a number of red sunburst shaped identifiers and were stamped, once, twice, three times or four. I was hard pressed to taste the difference between the single and double stamped versions; they were the simplest of the lot – sweet, lardy, and a little fruity perhaps. By the same token, the three-stamp and four-stamp versions were similar to each other and boasted the addition of sweet jujubes and other fruits – more interesting and better in my opinion, certainly sweeter because of the jujubes, but I couldn’t tease out the distinction between the two. Alas, there were other stamps as well – words, I suspect – but the color had run so they were undifferentiable to me. I have friends who can handle Mandarin and Cantonese, but not the Fujianese dialect, and none of the vendors had a word of English, so my questions were fruitless (unlike the 4-stamp mooncake). I’m not going to let this go, though, so keep an eye out for an update to this post.

Update as promised: Never one to be satisfied with “…and the rest” (as the theme from television’s Gilligan’s Island once crooned – but only for the first season), I had no choice but to return to East Broadway in Manhattan’s Chinatown where I had first tapped into the motherlode of Fujianese mooncakes.

On that visit, I had spotted one that displayed somewhat illegible writing rather than a mini-constellation of stamps but I had already purchased a surfeit of mooncakes that day and decided that I didn’t really need to buy one of each. Silly me; I should know better by now. So since that particular mooncake was eating at me (instead of the other way around), I hazarded $12 to try and solve the mystery.

This time the writing on the mystery mooncake was clear, but I’m still unsure about what it said. I see the character for “plus” over the one for “work”; if they were next to each other, it would mean “processing” (in addition to lots of other translations). In any event, it’s by far the best of any of that ilk that I’ve tried because of the ample addition of black sesame seeds and a plentitude of peanuts, so if you encounter it, that’s the one to get.

I’ve cobbled together a mini-glossary to help you decipher a few characters on some of the more popular fillings found in Cantonese mooncakes:

月                 moon
月餅             mooncake
白                 white
蓮蓉             lotus seed paste
紅豆             red bean
旦黃             single yolk
雙黃             double yolk
冰                 ice
冰皮             snowy
伍                 five
仁                 nut, seed, kernel, (benevolence)
金華火腿     Jinhua ham
棗                 jujube (red date)

Armed with these keys, you can combine phrases and discover the secrets hiding within. For example:

雙黃白蓮蓉 = double yolk white lotus seed
冰皮月餅 = snowy mooncake

So head to your nearest Chinese bakery and sample some of these autumn delights! If you can pronounce pinyin, say “zhōngqiū kuàilè” (which sounds like jong chew kwai luh). But in any language, here’s wishing you a Happy Mid-Autumn Festival!

中秋快乐!

 
 

Sponge Information

Kam HingI read the sign with no small measure of suspicion: BEST SPONGE CAKE IN TOWN, it shouted in all caps. Writing up this one will be a piece of cake, I thought, ignoring my own pun. Two words should do it: “Oh, really?” I mean, ya tried one sponge cake, ya tried ’em all, right? Eggy, airy, moist, a little sweet, and that about sums it up.

Seventy-five cents and one bite later, I began to wonder if I had let my prejudice get the better of me. Shouldn’t I at least compare this one with another if only to prove to myself that all sponge cakes are created equal? So I randomly entered another Chinese bakery (no shortage of those in Manhattan’s Chinatown) and emerged with a contender. The difference was subtle, but there was indeed a difference – enough to compel me to purchase a third rival. Again, the basic premise echoed the first two, but with a distinct personality of its own. With a sigh of resignation, it became evident that my story would exceed two words and I headed home to do some preliminary investigation.

The first order of business was to see what other NYC food writers had to say about the subject because attempting to taste every sponge cake at every bakery in Chinatown would be a herculean task. A few minutes of poking around on the web revealed that there are definitely a few favorites (four or so were always mentioned) among the experts. I made note of them and returned the next day armed with a list and the decision to hit up a few additional bakeries selected arbitrarily along the way just to be fair. I gathered nine examples (that’s all that would fit in my tote) and headed home to set up an Excel spreadsheet. (Those of you who know me are aware that I can get a little OCD sometimes, particularly when it comes to taste testing.)

I decided to rate them based on my initial definition of sponge cake characteristics: egginess, airiness (a continuum of spongy to cakey), moistness, and sweetness; crust and special features would factor in as well. My personal opinion of these qualities is that ideally they should be pretty middle of the road: eggy but not overly so, sweet but not too sweet – you get the idea – but above all, the cake should taste great.

I did a blind taste test and was amazed to discover that for the most part my independent research bore out the conventional wisdom. So I’m pleased to report that I stand corrected, disabused of any notion that sponge cake is sponge cake.
Sponge Cakes
If you’re an information sponge too, here are the details – my ranking in order of overall deliciousness (you won’t be disappointed in any of the top five):

Kam Hing Coffee Shop, 119 Baxter St.
75¢ (2 oz)
Yes, believe it or not, the one that claimed to be the best! Perfect balance.

Tai Pan Bakery, 194 Canal St.
$1.10 (2.5 oz)
Lemony! Almonds on top provided a little crunch and a lot of flavor.

Ka Wah Bakery, 9 Eldridge St.
$1.00 (3.25 oz)
Excellent as well; crust a little eggier than others.

M&W Bakery, 25 East Broadway
$1.20 (2.5 oz)
Very good; tight crumb but still moist.

Fay Da Bakery, 83 Mott St.
$1.20 (3 oz)
Pleasant “baked” flavor to crust; almonds on top.

New Golden Fung Wong, 41 Mott St.
$1.00 (3 oz)
A little more cakey; a little drier.

Simply Bakery, 70 Bayard St.
$1.10 (4.25 oz)
Sweet but average.

QQ Bakery, 50 East Broadway
$1.25 (3.75 oz)
Moist but average.

Good Century Café, 243 Grand St.
$1.00 (4.5 oz)
Biggest cake, smallest flavor.
 
 
Of course, now I need to investigate sponge cakes in Queens and Brooklyn Chinatown bakeries too. (Told you I was OCD.)
 
 

Faking Peking Duck

Duck Market

Before we expose this canard canard (got that one out of the way early!), let’s be clear that there is a significant difference between a proper rendering of Genuine Peking Duck and The Dish We’re About to Make.

Genuine Peking Duck is eminently shareable, incredibly impressive, and absolutely delicious.

Step One: The Chinese tai see foo (master chef) starts with a breed of duck (Pekin) that is specially raised for this dish. After plucking, eviscerating, and general cleaning, the duck is scalded in boiling water, dried, and air is pumped under the skin. Traditionally, the chef blows into a small hole that has been punched in the skin at the base of the neck, thus separating the skin from the meat (yes, essentially it’s a duck balloon) and then it’s tied off. This procedure ensures that the skin will be crispy because that’s what this dish is all about. The duck is then refrigerated for 24 hours. From there, it’s coated with a sugar-based glaze – maltose, honey, there is some latitude here – that coaxes the skin to brown during cooking and hung in front of a fan for as much as another 24 hours. Finally the duck is roasted. (And that’s the short version that omits detail, although in no version do we omit the tail.) – End of Step One.

The Dish We’re About to Make is eminently shareable, incredibly impressive, and absolutely delicious.

Step One: Go to your local Chinatown and purchase one of the Cantonese roast ducks you see hanging in the window. – End of Step One.

So you see why we’re Faking Peking Duck, right?

Note: as soon as you ask for a roast duck, the fellow behind the counter will take one down and brandish his cleaver in order to chop it up (for that is what one does with Cantonese style roast duck). STOP HIM! Perhaps he speaks English, or if not you can resort to sign language, or if you’re brave you can say “Mm sai jahm!” (Cantonese for “Don’t need to chop!”) – but you want it whole.

By the way, you might also see flattened ducks that look a little like Georgian Chicken Tabaka or like Daffy the time he didn’t get out of the way of the steamroller Bugs was driving. Those are pei-pa ducks, so called because of their resemblance to the Chinese banjo of the same name. Delicious as those BBQ ducks are, you don’t want one for this recipe. It also bears mention that the roast ducks have been more fully seasoned from within (think five spice, soy sauce, etc.) than true Peking Duck, so the flavor of the meat will be a little different.

At this point, the recipes converge and we can delve into presentation and construction.

In addition to the duck, you’ll need:
Moo Shu ShellsBaoHoisin
• Chinese pancakes (bing) for steaming. Moo shu wrappers are perfect; most likely they’re available at a store near where you buy the duck. White Chinese buns (bao) are great too.

• Hoisin sauce: I generally mix the hoisin with a little honey to tame its intensity and add a little sweetness. Same store.

• Scallions: slice into long julienne strips (about 4 inches).

• Cucumber: remove the seeds (even from a seedless) and slice as you did the scallions.

Preparation:
Whole Duck 3Duck Skin
Remove the skin from the duck. (I generally make one long slice down the middle, breast side up, and slip the skin off by sliding a finger between the meat and the skin, working my way around the duck. It’s surprisingly easy, but don’t worry if it doesn’t come off in one piece; you’re going to cut it up anyway.) Scrape away most of the fat adhering to the skin; it’s fine to leave a little.

Next, remove the meat from the carcass. You can either julienne it like the scallions and cucumbers (prettier) or just slice pieces against the grain (better from a culinary standpoint because the meat will be even more tender).

Now as I said at the outset, this is a trick, albeit a delicious one. Remember that genuine Peking Duck is all about the crispy skin and what you’ve got here is a succulent but flaccid roast duck. So here’s my secret: put the skin, fatty side down, in a pan and heat in a 275° oven for about 10 minutes. Remove from the oven; the skin will be only a little crisper than when it started out, but stay with me. Place the warm skin between layers of paper towels and set a plate on top to keep it flat. When the skin is cool, use kitchen shears to cut into small pieces (about 3″ x 1″). As the pieces air dry, they’ll get even crisper.

Steam the pancakes (or buns) according to package instructions. If you don’t have a steamer you can improvise one by setting a covered colander over a pot of boiling water. Incidentally, although the duck meat is usually served at room temperature, I like to warm it up in the steamer at the same time the pancakes are steaming.

Assembly:
Duck PresentationDuck AssemblyDuck Assembled
Now you’re ready to commence Faking Peking Duck. Apply a little of the hoisin/honey mixture to a steamed pancake. Add some meat, scallion, cucumber, and crispy skin. Roll up the pancake burrito style (fold up a flap from the bottom, then roll horizontally) and enjoy.

Of course, if this were the real deal, the duck would be used for two additional courses, one where the meat is part of a stir fry, minced or perhaps in a noodle dish (it might not even make an appearance in the pancake), and one where the carcass has been used to make soup. You can do all that if you want to, but we’re keeping this simple, right?

And I recommend that you do keep it on a small scale; you may find that it’s a perfect dish for two – eminently shareable, incredibly impressive, and absolutely delicious (see above). It doesn’t even have to be Valentine’s Day: if the setting is enchanting, and if you’re dining with the right Very Special Person, this could be the beginning of a most romantic evening. Share it – along with a bottle of red – with someone you love.

Trust me, this dish is decidedly seducktive.