Great Taste Dumpling

Instagram Post 9/14/2019

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The sign read “Streaky Pork Old Bamboo Shoots Steamed Bun”. Kinda makes ya just wanna drop everything and rush out there and grab some, don’t it? Not me. Kinda made me just wanna drop everything and translate the Chinese characters.

See for yourself:

Here’s what I got:

手工切 = hand cut
五花肉 = pork belly
與筍 = with bamboo shoots
小籠包 = xiao long bao

Well, not quite the xiao long bao soup dumplings most of us associate with those characters, these are steamed buns filled with the aforementioned ingredients and Great Taste Dumpling at 4317 8th Ave in Sunset Park, Brooklyn’s got ’em. $2.75 for 6. And please, don’t ever change that glorious sign!

A quick snack for someone who was just passing through in search of Mid-Autumn Festival Mooncakes. (You did read my detailed “Chinese Mooncakes Demystified” post about that, didn’tcha?)

Chinese Mooncakes Demystified

Or, The Equal Opportunity Celebrant – Part 2

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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, colors, 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 attractive gift boxes or tins since it’s customary to offer gifts of mooncakes to friends and family (or lovers!) for the holiday. Since my porcine appetite apparently knows no bounds (2019 is the year of the pig – how appropriate 😉), 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.
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 a critical 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).

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.
Here are two pandan mooncakes, one with preserved egg yolk and a mini version without, from Fay Da Bakery at 83 Mott Street in Manhattan’s Chinatown.

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.

Then there are trendy snow skin 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.

It seems that each year brings a fashionable new interpretation, eye-catching and tongue-pleasing, and 2019 is no exception. These sweet multihued gems came from Fay Da Bakery, a chain boasting a baker’s dozen locations (some outside of Chinatown). Our fascination with desserts that gush when pierced is serviced by Lava Mooncakes clad in colorful skins. Purple on the outside, golden within, the durian flavor was perfect; the green matcha member of team proved sweet; yellow custard was eggy – almost duck eggy – and in terms of flavor, a fair hybrid of classic mooncake and this modern rendition; orange was less about lava and more about marmalade, riddled with bits of orange peel – a pleasant surprise.

The Snowskin Mung Bean Mooncakes were also a treat: mango featured a good balance between mung bean and mango; strawberry tasted like strawberry preserves from a jar, not that it was bad, just how it was; purple yam was sweeter than I anticipated and quite flavorsome; durian, like its lava mate, was not overpowering but decidedly durian.

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!


(Note: In 2019, the Mid-Autumn Festival occurs on Friday, September 13.)

Qin Jin Taste

Instagram Post 8/28/2019

Qin Jin Taste (秦晋味道) is the latest addition to the New York Food Court, 133-35 Roosevelt Ave, Flushing, ensconced in stall #26. I went shortly after they opened so they didn’t have many of the dishes I was eager to try (“Next week!”), but they were able to provide their signature item, the Crispy Burger; I opted for the cumin lamb, one of six choices.

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It struck me a little as fusion cuisine: the deftly seasoned lamb and the perfectly crispy roll clearly declared Shaanxi but the lettuce, tomato and type of mayonnaise delivered a distinctly American accent. Truth be told, it could have use more sauce of any stripe since it was rather dry (I requested an additional dollop); still tasted good though.

Crispy and flaky. A fine example of this style of roll; tasted freshly made.

Cute and authentic. My research indicates that there’s at least one more of these restaurants in China, at Nanshi Jie Station in Suzhou.

I’ll definitely return to explore the extensive menu, but…“next week!”

Lan Zhou Ramen

Instagram Post 8/24/2019

Quick note regarding three items from last month’s Elmhurst foray with friends to begin exploring Lan Zhou Ramen’s extensive menu – stall #23 in HK Food Court, 82-02 45th Ave in Queens.

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In addition to noodz, they do an admirable execution of BBQ skewers: this plate was for the veggie lovers, beautifully blistered green beans and eggplant with a touch of char – not too shabby.

Of course, we followed the mellow slick road to Cumin Lamb Stir Fried Rice Noodle. Something for everyone: noodles and veggies and lamb, oh my.

BKU Food Hall

Instagram Post 8/23/2019

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Foodies sometimes argue about how many Chinatowns New York City actually has; some reports make a case for as many as nine. One sure sign that a burgeoning Chinese community has established itself in the neighborhood is the presence of a food court hosting purveyors of a variety of regional Chinese cuisines.

Two such developments under a single ownership have been in the works for months in Brooklyn, one in Bensonhurst (BK Food Court, 2227 86th St) and the other in Homecrest (BKU Food Hall, 1809 Avenue U) where I was reconnoitering the organization’s progress yesterday.

Needless to say, I was delighted to see that headway has been made since my original photo was taken last spring.

A peek inside reveals palpable evolution. I’ll continue to check in; my experience with similar venues is that once the ball gets rolling, things happen fast. Stay tuned: many reports to come!

Bone Man

Instagram Post 8/11/2019

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It’s no secret that I’m pretty easy to please when it comes to almost any Asian style of fried chicken; this no-longer Secret Fried Chicken (and its attendant aroma) originates from Bone Man where you can get your chix fix on or off the bone, man. They’re the new kid on the block, 135-45 Roosevelt Avenue in Flushing to be specific, they’ve got their own style, and I like it. A lot.

They feature somewhat fanciful descriptions for their parts: chicken wing roots, middle wing, and keel along with less whimsical designations like wings and strips. I’ve tried the dark meat (dark meat only for me, please) nuggets and the on-the-bone pieces and both were yummy to be sure; it’s basically a single recipe (a tasty one at that) so your choice is really about form. The spicy version incorporates an undoubtedly secret (because it is distinctive) recipe that’s sprinkled atop your order. And they provide plastic gloves (a nice touch) for people who actually know how to eat 😉. Gizzards and French fries are available as well. Next time.

First photo was taken after my return from Bone Man. Pro tip: If, like me, you have cats, don’t try this at home, kids.

The original box, pre-feline opera.

The Bund

Instagram Post 8/1/2019

Named for the waterfront tourist destination in Shanghai that features modern skyscrapers alongside historical architecture, The Bund at 100-30 Queens Blvd in Forest Hills features Shanghainese cuisine alongside customary Chinese fare.

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My dining buddy had his heart set on hock, specifically The Bund Special Crispy Pork Hock – crackling skin, yielding meat, everything you’d want from a hock plus a gratuitous toss of broccoli florets on the side, presumably a colorful nod to healthiness. (Nice try.)

This cold appetizer is one of my favorite Shanghainese dishes. Called “The Bund Special Spongy Gluten with Woodear Mushroom & Peanuts” on the menu (a mouthful, both literally and figuratively), I know it as Kao Fu. Unpacking the description: gluten is made from wheat (you might have sympathy for seitan, a wheat gluten product) – if you purchase it straight in a Chinese market, it looks a bit like whole wheat bread; spongy, an apt adjective because this form soaks up juices as if it were one; wood ear mushrooms (aka cloud ear, black fungus, tree ear fungus, and a raft of other names) don’t have much flavor but they bring contrasting texture to this dish. If there were any peanuts to be found, I didn’t catch them; still, I liked it well enough.

Zheng Zhou Noodles – Chinese Fried Pancake

Instagram Post 7/28/2019

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Zheng Zhou Noodles, Stall #28 in the New World Mall Food Court, 136-20 Roosevelt Ave, Flushing, is arguably best known for its liang pi noodles, but I’m more enamored of this dish, called simply Chinese Fried Pancake. If you’re familiar with Malaysian kottu paratha, you’ll recognize its cousin here. It may look like noodles, but the difference is all in the chew; it starts with a thin pancake sliced impossibly perfectly into noodle-like strips, it’s available in beef, lamb, pork, chicken, egg, or vegetable versions, and it’s wonderful. My kind of comfort food.

Lao Jie Shi Fang (Old Street)

Instagram Post 7/27/2019

The (surviving 😢) big three Flushing Chinese food courts get a lot of ink (or bytes, I suppose) and deservedly so, but there are other, smaller, aspirants nearby that beg exploration. Queens Crossing Food Court, 136-20 38th Ave, is home to Lao Jie Shi Fang (Old Street) which features mostly light fare: a selection of fried (pan- and deep-) snacks as well as some noodle soups and málàtàng.

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My initial foray was okay. Shown here is Deep Fried Potato Cake which carried a little kick, I’m guessing from white pepper, flanked by a quartet of Fried Turnip Balls comprising long shreds of turnip, crispy outside and almost creamy inside.

Ham Egg Pancake: bits of vegetables like scallion for bite, carrot for sweetness, and teeny traces of ham on close inspection. Not pretty, but a sufficiently satisfying snack on the run.

88 Lan Zhou Handmade Noodles

Instagram Post 7/25/2019

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Sometimes, you just need to go back to basics. No roof to raise. No lilies to gild. Just quiet, reliable, mood food. These are fried pork dumplings from 88 Lan Zhou Handmade Noodles, 40 Bowery in Manhattan’s Chinatown. The waitress approached. I made my request. Silently, she walked to the back. She emerged with my order in less than a minute. Because when you’re famous for something, you’re prepared to provide. Very Zen.

The obligatory I-took-a-bite-and-of-course-it-was-delicious shot.