MaLa Project – Part 1

Instagram Post 3/25/2019

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I may be late to the game in terms of writing about MáLà Project, 122 First Ave in Manhattan, but that doesn’t stop me from working my way through their menu now. Their famous Dry Pot notwithstanding, four of us set out to explore other menu items, so we started with ten (count ’em ten!) dishes from the Appetizers, Snacks, Vegetables and Rice sections of the menu; I’m posting a barrage detailing the whole lot.

[1] I’ve been nibbling my way around roast poultry necks since I was a kid. At Thanksgiving, some families argue over politics; we argued over who’s going to get the turkey neck. So I was happy that there were enough MáLà Duck Neck joints for the four of us. I don’t recall these being particularly spicy though, neither má nor là. Good anyway.

[2] Husband and Wife Lung Slices. Fuqi Feipian 夫妻肺片 is a Sichuan málà classic. Choice of specific ingredients varies among chefs (not to worry, it never includes actual slices of lung) but tripe and tendon are traditional and ox tongue and beef shin can appear as alternate paramours – always two items though and always delightfully spicy.
 
 

Kung Fu Xiao Long Bao

Instagram Post 3/24/2019

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Soup dumplings, Xiao Long Bao, XLB, 小笼包, call them what you will, are universally prized regardless of the appellation. Literally “little basket bun” because they’re steamed and served in a little basket often made of bamboo, the wrapper encloses a tasty meatball (usually pork), sometimes with the addition of crabmeat and/or crab roe, swimming in a rich broth (usually pork).

Fans champion just the right skins (a little elasticity, not too thick but not so thin that it breaks upon dislodgment from the steamer), just the right filling (flavorful, proper consistency, and moist unto itself), just the right soup (savory and porky, not playing second fiddle to the meat), and just the right ratio of soup to filling. In short, sort of like Goldilocks’ appraisal of Baby Bear’s personal effects: “juuuuuust right”.

[1] An oft-cited favorite purveyor is Kung Fu Xiao Long Bao, 59-16 Main Street, Flushing. On this visit, we ordered the Crab Meat XLB, pork with minced crab meat and roe.

[2] The salmon colored bit of crab roe peeking out of the topknot is the telltale clue as to what awaits within.

[3] Further evidence of crabiliciousness!
 
 

Red Bowl Noodle Shop – Pork Roll

Instagram Post 3/10/2019

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I don’t know for sure if the grab-n-go goodies lined up in front of Red Bowl Noodle Shop, 40-52 Main St, Flushing, are a separate concession or part of the restaurant itself. I do know that they’re pretty tasty and it’s a breeze to buy a couple of items en route back to the Flushing Main St 7 train or the LIRR station at the end of the day.

[1] Here’s Pork Roll, wrapped in bean curd skin and filled with unusually sweet, finely ground pork seasoned with fish paste (no, it doesn’t taste fishy) and chunks of onion. It comes with a spicy sweet tomato sauce on the side, but if you use it, don’t overdo it.

[2] The inside scoop.

[3] I took this photo in 2010 when the iconic Red Bowl actually perched, precariously it seemed, atop the building.
 
 

The Case of the Uncrackable Case

(One of my “Very Short Stories” 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.

Thanksagaingiving 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.)
 
 

Yu Sheng/Lo Hei Prosperity Toss

Instagram Post 2/12/2019

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A self-professed equal opportunity celebrant, I relish the prospect of participating in international holiday traditions and Chinese Lunar New Year abounds in them. I was delighted to take part in one such ceremony recently, Lo Hei, also known as Prosperity Toss, which got its start in southern China and migrated to Singapore and Malaysia.

It entails an elaborate ritual involving particular foods selected for their cultural symbolism, the most important being fish in the form of a Cantonese raw fish salad. The Chinese word for fish, yu (魚), is a homophone of the word for abundance; Yu Sheng (literally fresh fish and the name of the dish) stands in for increasing abundance.

Shredded raw vegetables and seasonings, each with its own meaning based on appearance or name, are added one by one with appropriate phrases corresponding to each; good luck, wealth, eternal youth and the like appear in turn.

It climaxes with all participants tossing their ingredients in the air, the higher the more propitious, and chanting “Lo Hei” (pick it up) along with auspicious phrases for a bountiful New Year. Of course, the activity is more like vigorously tossing a salad where no ingredients are actually lost in the process: it’s the symbolism that counts.

Components:
Fish; Vegetables; Seasonings

The finished plate, dressed and tossed.

At Shun Deck Restaurant, 2332 86th Street, Brooklyn, all parts of the fish are used and are served in several courses. Very sustainable.

Skin; Fried bones (plenty of meat on these); Fish heads, collars, and tails. (Congee, rice gruel also made from the fish, is not pictured.)

恭喜發財! 新年快乐!
 
 

Chinese New Year 2019 – Home Cookin’

Instagram Post 2/11/2019

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More home cookin’. A few posts ago, I showed you some homemade soup I prepared for Chinese New Year that featured long luxurious noodles, traditionally symbolizing wishes for a long life. I also did a stir fry with those noodles which I’m happy to report turned out deliciously as well. I added some lap cheong (Chinese sausage) to kick up the protein (yes, I know, and fat) but the rest of the ingredients were either vegetables I had left over from making the soup or dried/preserved items I always have on hand.

[1] If you’re curious, you can play Where’s Waldo in the bowl with the following: Shanghai bok choy, bean leaf, shiitake mushrooms, black fungus (wood ear fungus), huang hua (dried lily flowers), ya cai (Yibin preserved mustard greens), scallions, flowering chives, cilantro, dried red chilies, peanuts, and sesame seeds.

[2] The wok in progress (forgive the pun 😉).

恭禧發財! Gōng xi fā cái!
 
 

Chinese New Year 2019

Instagram Teaser 2/5/2019

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

One aspect of the holiday that I particularly enjoy is how 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.

This is the Year of the Pig 🐷 which, of course, is my cue to taste every traditional delight I can get my trotters on, but there was one year when the means by which to sample a particular nian gao turned into a complete mystery.

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

 
 

Chinese New Year’s Eve 2019

Instagram Post 2/4/2019

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The Chinese celebration of the Lunar New Year, also known as Spring Festival, is a dazzling 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.

And that’s one of the elements that I love most about the holiday: wordplay and homophones figure into the choices for traditional foods (more about that tomorrow) along with their colors and shapes.

For Lunar New Year’s Eve (“Reunion Dinner”), I’ve prepared a duck soup with shiitake mushrooms, daikon, flowering chives, bean leaf, Shanghai bok choy, scallions, cilantro, dried red chili pepper, and too many seasonings to mention, but the focus is on the long noodles that are aspirational of a long life.

Stay tuned for more….

新年快乐! Xīnnián kuàilè!
 
 

Sweet Osmanthus Cakes

Instagram Post 2/1/2019

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Sweet Osmanthus Cakes (Gui Hua Gao, 桂花糕) are available in many markets throughout New York City’s magnificent Chinatowns. Used throughout Asia, osmanthus shows up in tea and tea blends as well as jams, liquors, and sweet gelatin desserts, often with goji berries embedded in gravity defying suspension. It has a buttery, floral fragrance with a subtle flavor – I’d describe it as somewhere along the apricot-leather continuum, if there were such a thing.

These delicacies are uncharacteristically sweet as Chinese baked goods go and have a coarse, slightly crumbly texture, cakier than a shortbread cookie and cookier than a cake – a biscuit, perhaps? Unsurprisingly, they are more comfortable in the company of tea than coffee (in my opinion, at least).

[2] The inside scoop.

[3] One brand’s packaging so you’ll know what to look for if you’re so inclined. I like ’em.
 
 

Manting Restaurant

Instagram Post 1/21/2019

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Mala Tang and Mala Xiang Guo are Sichuan dishes that are underrepresented in Manhattan’s Theater District, but those are the specialties at Manting Restaurant, 150 W49th St. We were invited to taste their renditions amid a selection of other items on the menu, and we happily obliged.

[1] They feature eight kinds of Mala Tang, the spicy, soupy hot pot, in ready-made versions such as beef, lamb, fish (pictured), seafood and vegetable. When I see “málà”, I expect numbing, spicy Sichuan peppercorns but the best I could tell was that this was ignited only by dried red chili peppers. Not complaining though: we requested very spicy and we actually got it. Spoon some of the sauce over rice for maximum enjoyment.

[2] Mala Xiang Guo, spicy dry pot, is a stir fry in which diners can choose from among 35 items that include meats (beef, lamb, chicken, tripe, kidney, for example), seafood (shrimp, fish fillet, squid), and a garden of vegetables (like mushrooms, cabbage, cauliflower, seaweed) and tofu. Choose your favorites, specify a spice level, and you’re set. Read the menu carefully regarding portion size and pricing: it’s priced per pound with a 1.5 pound minimum and a surcharge for orders under 2 pounds, but you’ll probably exceed those anyway if there are at least two of you. Common sense dictates that if you request many ingredients but the size of your order is modest, you may find only one piece of something you desired in the bowl. We decided to get two of these, one with meats and [3] the other fish based. Both filled the bill.

[4] We opted for the Scallion Egg Pancake appetizer, sort of an omletized scallion bing.

谢谢, Manting!