Chinatown During COVID-19

This.

This.

This.

This was Saturday afternoon in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Saturday afternoon, people.

I’ve said it before. Businesses in Chinatown are struggling to make ends meet as potential customers’ trepidation over COVID-19 festers and deters patronage. Chinatown has been an ineffable source of delight, indulgence, and comfort to so many of us. Now is the time for all of us to do the right thing and show our gratitude and support for these businesses. If ever you’ve felt the desire to give back, this is your chance.

#supportchinatown #dineinchinatown #eatinchinatown #explorechinatown

Self-quarantining? I get it. So order in! #keepcalmandcarryout

(BTW, I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the conclusion of your confinement than a sumptuous dinner in our beloved Chinatown!)

All I’m asking is this: please don’t treat Chinatown restaurants any differently from the way you would treat any restaurant anywhere else. That’s the very definition of racial profiling.

#chinatown #chinatownnyc #chinatownnewyork #ilovechinatown

Over the next few days, I’ll post some photos of deliciousness from Chinatown’s restaurants, markets and street vendors taken during the past week. Stay tuned.

And thank you.


 
 
Note: This post was originally published on March 15, 2020 when the world was very different.
 
 

New Kam Man – Bean Curd Skin

Instagram Post 3/19/2020

Continuing my posts about Chinatown favorites:

In addition to all the great restaurants that are open for takeout and delivery in Manhattan’s Chinatown during the COVID-19 crisis (see a detailed list updated daily here), please remember to patronize the markets that are eager to serve you too.

The venerable New Kam Man at 200 Canal St has everything you’d expect in a celebrated marketplace including a complete line of Asian ingredients and kitchenware along with all the necessary cookies and sweets to help us all get through this together. Of course, the sidewalk window displays tempting siu mei (燒味) – barbecue/roast meats like roast pork, roast pig, soy sauce chicken, and ducks galore, but since I’ve posted a lot of duck photos recently, here are two treats from the prepared food section worthy of your attention, especially if you’re a vegetarian.

(Click on any image to view it in high resolution.)

Both are made from bean curd skin. When soymilk is boiled to make tofu, a skin forms on top, it’s skimmed off and dried and when it’s reconstituted, it has dozens of delicious uses from dumpling wrappers to “mock” meats. These two examples are unassuming but tasty. The first simply consists of layers of bean curd sheets, rehydrated with water, soy sauce, and sugar, then pressed together and sliced; it’s as much about the texture as it is about the flavor. The label reads “NKM Stewed Bean Curd Pastry”. It’s a little saltier than

these rollups which are similar but a bit sweeter. The package was identified as “NKM Braised Gluten Stick” although I don’t think gluten figures into it and I see rolls rather than sticks, mislabeled perhaps. Either way, yum!

I bought a bunch of stuff from New Kam Man for some COVID-19 cooking. Will post photos ASAP. So grateful that they’re there and open for us; please help them continue to thrive!
 
 

Chinatown COVID-19 Update

This too shall pass. Most of us 🤞 will emerge from this dreadful episode unscathed. But Chinatown businesses are taking a double hit because they were unfairly singled out at the very beginning of the COVID-19 scourge and consequently may have less chance of survival. We can help. Some Chinatown restaurants are still doing takeout and delivery and we can show our support by patronizing these establishments.


I realize this table may be difficult to read and it’s hardly dynamic, but you can find an even better, up-to-the-minute, printable grid view here. Note that all listings are subject to change as time progresses.

Learn more at the Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corporation and sign up for their e-newsletter. And check out Explore Chinatown NYC for more information.

If you’re on Twitter, you can follow the tweets from the Chinatown Business Improvement District @ChinatownNYC.

And you can see my original posts from early on, when restaurants were open but Chinatown was practically deserted here and here.

Stay safe and be well.

#supportchinatown #keepcalmandcarryout #supportsmallbusinesses
 
 

Support Chinatown!

These days, businesses in Chinatown are struggling to make ends meet as potential customers’ trepidation over COVID-19 festers and deters patronage. Chinatown has been an ineffable source of joy, gratification, and comfort for so many of us. That’s why I’ve organized a visit to one of the neighborhood’s stalwarts, Wu’s Wonton King, with one of my dinner groups to show our support. Now is the time for all of us to do the right thing.

Read Chinatown Needs Your Love More Than Ever Right Now in Food & Wine.
 
 

The Case of the Uncrackable Case

(One of my “Favorites” that never fails to resonate this time of year. If you enjoy reading it, there are more in the column on the right side of my home page.)

Gong Xi Fa Cai! The callithump of Chinese drums and cymbals played havoc with my ears as the pungent miasma of spent fireworks assaulted my nose. “These are my people!” I beamed. An equal opportunity celebrant, I was in my element.

I picked my way through the ankle-deep sea of technicolor metallic streamers and confetti. “Looks like a dragon exploded,” I mused. Shuffling from market to crowded market, each festooned with the accoutrements of the holiday, I searched for authentic goodies with which to welcome the Chinese observance of the Lunar New Year in style.

Definition: Chinese New Year, also known as Spring Festival, is a dazzling two-week long celebration occurring in January or February, a banquet for the soul that is laden with more symbolism than a Jungian interpretation of a Fellini dream sequence inspired by a Carlos Castaneda novel.

The shape of the holiday’s foods suggests their analogue: dumplings are crafted to resemble Chinese gold or silver ingots, long noodles emblematize a long life, melon seeds epitomize fertility. Color plays a significant role as well: mandarin oranges allude to the color of gold. Sweets are often tinted red, the color of good fortune in Chinese culture.

But nothing is more traditional to the Chinese New Year banquet than food-word homophones. As any precocious third grader will tell you, homophones are words that sound alike but have different meanings (for, four, and fore in English, for example). At these festive gatherings, a whole fish will be served, because the word for fish (yu) is a homophone for surpluses. Also gracing the table will be Buddha’s Delight, a complex vegetarian dish that contains an ingredient the name of which sounds like the word for prosperity.

(We don’t have that kind of thing in western culture, but maybe we should. Imagine if you rang in the New Year at an American restaurant by ordering the surf ‘n’ turf, a certain portent that this would be the year that you meat your sole mate.

Just don’t wash it down with wine.)

And no traditional food is more important than the ubiquitous Chinese New Year delicacy, nian gao, a glutinous rice cake sweetened with brown or white sugar and a homophone for “high year” — with the connotation of elevating oneself higher with each new year, perhaps even lifting one’s spirits.

Now, I had seen nian gao dished up and steamed in aluminum pie pans in every market in New York’s five or so Chinatowns. But one particular variation packaged in a six-inch wide container shaped like a Chinese ingot (as many items are this time of year) caught my eye and beckoned to me. As I inspected it more closely, I realized that I could not for the life of me fathom how it open it! This fact alone was sufficient bait; I stood in line with my fellow revelers, paid, and took it home.

With bugged-out eyes and a glower that betrayed both puzzlement and frustration, I turned the semi-translucent vessel over and over again like someone who had reached a cul-de-sac with a recalcitrant Rubik’s Cube. The object was fashioned of two mirror image concave pieces of plastic fused together — plastic somewhat thicker than that of the average shampoo container — too thick to squeeze easily, for sure, and inseparable along the seam. I could make out an air bubble which migrated as I shifted its orientation, so I had a clue as to the texture of its contents — typical semi-firm glutinous rice cake, perhaps with a little syrup around it. Searching for an instruction manual, I found that Google had abandoned me: either no one else on the planet had ever encountered these contrivances or everyone else on the planet buys them every year and I am the only soul who is too inept to persuade them to yield their bounty. There was a tissue paper-thin label stuck to the bottom that showed the “best before” date as May, so even allowing for my customary procrastination, I had some time to solve the mystery. As long as that case remained closed, the case was not closed.

Wait a minute. What if some sort of key was hiding beneath that slip of a label? A slot to pry the two halves apart or a helpful arrow embossed on the obdurate plastic? Slowly, carefully, I began to peel back the label. THHHHPPP! The tiny air bubble instantly expanded to fill half the case as air rushed inside. Could it be that this gossamer leaf was the only protection the rice cake had from the elements, furry predators, and me? Such was the fact.

But then, I was confronted with a further conundrum. Lurking beneath said label was a hole the size of a half dollar. (Remember those?) This carapace was obviously a mold constructed so that its contents would delight the eye when served. But the only way I could see to get to the goods inside was to dig the stuff out with a fork! Not what they intended, I was certain. Somehow, there had to be a way to pry the halves apart without damaging the springy contents.

I hooked my thumbs on either side of the hole and yanked. Gnrrgh! Nothing. I laid it on the kitchen counter and pressed down with as much muscle as I could muster hoping that it would split along some weak, unseen fault line without damaging the contents. Again, it did not succumb to my efforts. I grabbed my nastiest knife and attempted to slice through the case along the seam. Nope, that’s not it either, I thought as I licked my finger where I had cut myself when the blade slipped.

Silently, the ingot mocked me. Was it designed this way on purpose? Some sort of arcane object lesson about anything worth achieving is worth struggling over? Or conversely, was it perhaps trying to tell me that I would never achieve riches, no matter how much I persevered?

Frustrated, I stashed the thing in a corner of my fridge. Days passed. The days melded into weeks. It was time to begin plans for Thanksagaingiving.

Definition: Thanksagaingiving is a joyful, annual family ritual. Not content to celebrate the merely dozens of diverse international and American holidays, each with its own panoply of tempting traditional foods, I created one more.

Over many years, I have developed, tweaked, and perfected an elaborate Thanksgiving menu that I prepare annually, much to the delight of my clan. And over those many years, we would ask ourselves, why don’t we do this more often? Pondering the possibility, we recognized that just about every month has some delectable holiday or seasonal foods associated with it. But there is that frigid, desolate chasm between Chinese New Year and the promise of tender spring vegetables that cries out for a joyous — and delicious — festival to uplift us from our disheartened doldrums.

Enter Thanksagaingiving. When we give thanks. Again. And rerun the whole November spectacle.

Invariably, each day as I loaded the fridge with more ingredients for our feast, it became necessary to move the Chinese ingot around to make space for the latest bounty. Now onto the second shelf, the customary residence for leftovers, now far back into the lower left corner where that jar of homemade boysenberry jam had been languishing for the last three months, now precariously balanced on a tall bottle of pandan syrup lying on its side in the least accessible corner — where the ingot unfailingly teetered, slipped, and fell, locking its neighbors into an exasperating jigsaw of jars and urns that prevented anything from being extricated from the shelf.

I had no choice but to toss it.

Our annual Thanksagaingiving tradition came and went. We happily devoured our Roast Turkey with Chestnut Cornbread Stuffing, Dandy Brandied Candied Yams, Maple Sugar Acorn Squash, Corn Pudding, Scalloped Potatoes with Leeks and Bacon, and the subsequent procession of turkey sandwiches, turkey tetrazzini, turkey burritos, and turkey soup.

The fridge was once again barren. Wistfully, I gazed at the empty spaces that my forlorn little nian gao had been sequentially evicted from. Had I forsaken it prematurely? Would one more hour of negotiation have solved the mystery? Nostalgically, I remembered all the time we had spent together getting to know each other.

But then, I realized that all was not lost — come next Chinese New Year, I could purchase another ingot-encased nian gao and try again. I felt my spirits lifting.

And suddenly, I comprehended what had come to pass without my even being aware of it. In the light of that existential moment, the words “come next Chinese New Year, I could purchase another…and try again” echoed in my mind — and the cosmic meaning of this episode, the raison d’être for this tortuous journey became brilliantly clear:

It had been the maiden voyage of a new annual tradition!

 


(And speaking of maiden voyages, please join me on one of my ethnojunkets, food-focused walking tours through New York City’s many ethnic enclaves. Learn more here.)
 
 

Chinese New Year 4718 (2020)

Instagram Teaser 1/25/2020

(Click on any image to view it in high resolution.)

恭禧發財! Gōng xi fā cái!

The Chinese celebration of the Lunar New Year is upon us!

4718 is the Year of the Rat 🐀. I’m no Chinese zodiac scholar, but based on what I see in our subway system, rats are extremely talented when it comes to accessing food and are happy to indulge in a comprehensive variety of cuisines, never playing favorites.

I can relate to this.

And apropos of eating, there’s one aspect of this spectacular holiday that I particularly enjoy and that’s the way wordplay and homophones factor into the selection of traditional foods. An example is nian gao, a glutinous rice cake sweetened with brown or white sugar and a homophone for “high year” – with the connotation of elevating oneself higher with each new year, perhaps even lifting one’s spirits.

But there was one year when my inner rat was thwarted in attempting to access a particular nian gao – and what should have literally been a snap turned into a complete mystery.

Curious? Please read my very short story, “The Case of the Uncrackable Case!”
 
 

IGA’s Kalimantan Bazaar

Instagram Post 1/22/2020

Quick post about two soups selected by my dining pals at the Indonesian Gastronomy Association’s Kalimantan Bazaar this past weekend. (Incidentally, Kalimantan is the Indonesian part of the island of Borneo, shared with Brunei and East Malaysia, and will ultimately be the new home to Indonesia’s capital.)

(Click on any image to view it in high resolution.)

Soto Banjar is a delicious Indonesian soup from Banjarmasin, the capital of West Kalimantan/Borneo, with chicken, noodles, hardboiled eggs, crispy fried shallots and (I think, because I was distracted) perkedel, potato patties.


Tekwan. Fish soup with top-notch dumplings make from ground fish and tapioca flour, served with wood ear mushrooms and veggies.

Follow IGA on Facebook or on Instagram @iga_newyork to stay apprised of their schedule; find them at the Elmhurst Memorial Hall, 8824 43rd Ave, Queens, monthly.
 
 

The Making of Martabak

Instagram Post 1/20/2020

I’ve posted before about martabak (or martabak manis – manis means sweet), one of my favorite Southeast Asian desserts; it’s usually available at one of the three monthly Indonesian food bazaars, but this past weekend, the Indonesian Gastronomy Association (IGA) outdid itself by presenting a live demonstration revealing the way it’s made.

(Click on any image to view it in high resolution.)

Without giving away any recipe secrets, batter is added to a special lidded frying pan that cooks and steams the pancake; a leavening agent causes it to rise into its characteristic honeycomb sponge-like consistency. The green color comes from pandan (screwpine) paste; it’s my favorite variety and highly recommended.


It’s slathered with margarine (which is considerably more malleable and easier to work with on the sunny streets of Indonesia than in the chilly atmosphere of a capacious Elmhurst assembly hall).


The sweet stuff which can appear as any or all of chocolate sprinkles, cheese, nuts, and sweetened condensed milk is added over half; the plain side is folded over the top (and I do mean over-the-top) of the enhanced side…


…and cut into serving pieces.

More photos of the event to come.

Follow IGA on Facebook or Instagram @iga_newyork to stay apprised of their schedule; find them at the Elmhurst Memorial Hall, 8824 43rd Ave, Queens, monthly.
 
 

Pandan Durian Crepes

Instagram Post 11/21/2019

(Click on any image to view it in high resolution.)

Durian, as you may know, is that much maligned fruit whose reputation is “Smells like hell, tastes like heaven!” But if you’ve never actually tried it, you should, and you might discover that you actually like it; a number of folks I’ve introduced it to on ethnojunkets have experienced that epiphany. Sweet and creamy, you could think of it as the fruit that makes its own custard.

These plush pillows are pandan crepes, filled with durian and cream and might well be another gateway drug to durian devotion: no unpleasant aroma, just a delicious tropical fruit flavor. (IMHO, pandan and durian have an affinity for each other.) I found these at last Sunday’s Elmhurst bazaar presented by the Indonesian Gastronomy Association.

IGA-USA is a non-profit organization whose mission it is to introduce Indonesian culture to people in the US, particularly in New York City. They stage this event which is as much about the culture as it is about the cuisine approximately monthly, so follow them on Facebook or on Instagram @iga_newyork to stay apprised of their schedule. Maybe you’ll get to try these emerald treats too.

(And perhaps this post will satisfy those of you who complain that I don’t post enough greens! 😉)
 
 

Rendang Telur

Instagram Post 11/19/2019

One of Indonesia’s national dishes is rendang, and if you’ve ever sampled the cuisine, you’ve probably enjoyed it with beef as the main ingredient, although there are numerous variations including jackfruit, chicken, and egg. In my experience, egg rendang looks a little like a hard-boiled egg curry so I was surprised to see a package labeled Rendang Telur (telur means egg) at Sunday’s Elmhurst bazaar sponsored by the Indonesian Gastronomy Association looking exactly like a bag of well-seasoned chips.

(Click on any image to view it in high resolution.)

Crispy, crunchy, spicy, and tasting of eggs and coconut milk, they’re nearly impossible to stop eating. Trust me. I tracked down a recipe which, greatly simplified, involves making a flour and egg crepe, cutting it into chips, frying/baking the pieces to dry them out, then combining coconut milk, herbs, and spices, cooking that mixture down and adding it to the chips followed by more long cooking to achieve maximum crispitude.


Close-up shot.


The aforementioned package.

IGA-USA is a non-profit organization whose mission it is to introduce Indonesian culture to people in the US, particularly in New York City. They stage this event which is as much about the culture as it is about the cuisine approximately monthly, so follow them on Facebook or on Instagram @iga_newyork to stay apprised of their schedule.