Chinese-Italian Inspiration

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

Other than as a source for ideas, I’m not one to slavishly follow others’ recipes; my preference is to innovate rather than replicate. (Not to mention that in doing so, no one can complain that I didn’t “get it right”. 😉) I was once asked where I find inspiration for my own concoctions, so apropos of that question, here’s a recent story:

I had been chatting with a charming woman who maintains a patch in a local victory garden. In the course of our conversation, she mentioned that she was half Chinese and half Italian. (Imagine being a kid growing up with two sets of holiday traditions – so jealous!) She offered me some Chinese long beans that she had grown which I eagerly accepted. I was pondering how to prepare them: I could adhere to some classic time-honored long bean technique but I felt inspired to do something more with them, perhaps to create a dish that might reflect the dual heritage of the person who had cultivated them.

So this was my process. Looking at the shape of the Chinese beans, long, thin, and cylindrical, it was a cinch to come up with an element from Italian cuisine that would match: a member of the spaghetti family was the obvious choice. For this application I chose bucatini (aka perciatelli) since when fully cooked it would be nearly as thick as a long bean.

Now for some vegetables: I decided that Chinese dried mushrooms (aka shiitake) and fresh Italian cremini would harmonize nicely so they became a significant component along with chopped onion and red bell pepper in the base because those are cross cultural, and garlic, of course. Lots of garlic. For a bit of protein, ground pork went into the mix since pork is common to both regions.

And a sauce to bring it all together: Was there one that made use of some ingredients associated with both cuisines? Sichuan Yu Xiang sauce would be perfect. (Yu Xiang means “fish-flavored” but don’t be misled by the phrase – it neither contains nor tastes like fish; rather this delicious blend refers to a combination of ingredients, a little sweet and sour, a little spicy and salty, often used in preparing fish.) It comprises an assortment of classic Chinese condiments including doubanjiang (chili bean paste), Zhenjiang black vinegar, Shaoxing cooking wine and soy sauce plus, the way I make it, some tomato based sauce, so that’s a loose nod to Italy.

IMHO, the dish totally worked.

That’s the cool thing about inspiration – you never know where it’s going to happen, but it always happens when you least expect it.
 
 
Only one question remains: Do you eat this with chopsticks or a fork?
 
 

Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival – 2021

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

A visit to any Chinatown bakery this time of year will reveal a spectacular assemblage of mooncakes (月餅, 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, celebrated this year on September 21. Here are two pandan mooncakes, one with preserved egg yolk and a mini version without, from Chinatown’s Fay Da Bakery.

Since 2021 is the Year of the Ox, known for his patience and resolution, I was determined to purchase (and eat my way through – no matter how long it might take me 😉) an assortment of these delicacies in order to compare them and ultimately share them, virtually, with you. For a deep dive into the holiday and these delicious treats, please check out my Chinese Mooncakes Demystified page detailing their similarities and differences in an attempt to shed some light (moonlight, of course) on their intricacies.

中秋节快乐!
 
 
Note: Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, some businesses may be closed – temporarily, we hope – and prices may vary. The Mid-Autumn Festival, however, will be with us forever – as long as there are autumns to celebrate!
 
 

Chinese Fried Pancake – Preserved Egg Sausage

In my last post, I wrote about Chinese Fried Pancake at 136-55 Roosevelt Ave and their humongous Mixed Grain Fried Pancake. (Correct me if I’m wrong but I think they opened sometime around November in 2020 when I was laying low.) Their signage for Preserved Egg Sausage caught my eye.

I’ve had a lot of experience with – and am a fan of – Chinese preserved eggs (aka century eggs, hundred year old eggs, thousand year old eggs, millennium eggs – do I hear epoch eggs?). When eggs are preserved in this fashion, they develop an intense flavor and aroma, the yolk turns a grayish green color with a creamy consistency, and the white becomes a gelatinous translucent brown. But I had never seen them in a sausage format.

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

They’re sold as a pair of links, 8 inches long and 1½ inches in diameter; for this photo, I left one whole and propped up a cross section of its twin for display. In terms of taste, I was surprised that it was devoid of any unpleasant sulphurous/ammonia overtones often associated with the original; in my opinion it was quite tasty and not completely out of bounds for the average Western palate.

The bluish grey body of the sausage has the texture of a regular hardboiled egg and is a little salty but not overly so; I’m honestly not certain what goes into the making of it. (Possibly regular egg white with something that alters the color?) Embedded within that are bits of century egg yolk that have the creamy, slightly textured quality of hardboiled egg yolk, and bits of amber century egg white.


Closeup of a slice in what passes for normal lighting in my apartment. You can see the century egg yolk near the top and the century egg white near the bottom.


Closeup of the same slice, rotated counterclockwise and backlit, because I love that color.


So aside from playing with it, I used it in the context of congee laced with chunks of lap cheong (Chinese sausage) and scallions.

You know me: always looking for something different. This counts. 😉
 
 

Chinese Fried Pancake – Mixed Grain Fried Pancake

Flashback to a couple of months ago when I set out to reconnoiter the changes in Flushing that had occurred during my pandemically enforced quarantine. The escalator was being refurbished that day, so I speedily clambered up the subway stairs with a plan to cover as much territory as possible and a list of new (to me) places to check out, keenly aware that I’d better keep moving, sharklike, if I wanted to fulfill my mission.

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

But practically at the top of the staircase, I spotted Chinese Fried Pancake at 136-55 Roosevelt Ave – not on my list, but certainly enticing. Hurriedly, I ordered their signature Mixed Grain Fried Pancake; I requested the “regular” which contained egg, “crisp”, scallion, cilantro, lettuce, preserved mustard greens, and black sesame seeds. But in my haste to cleave to my schedule, I had completely missed the part of the menu listing the available add-ons including tofu skin, shredded potatoes, pork floss, nori, spicy gluten, New Orleans (really?) boneless chicken leg, Spam, Taiwanese sausage, bacon, ham sausage, and more which would have undoubtedly elevated the experience. I definitely need to go back and do some customization.


In any event, it was huge, almost unwieldy, and very filling – but certainly not the way I had intended to start a day of eating my way through Flushing’s Chinatown.

They offer quite a selection of other dishes as well like popcorn chicken, grilled squid, stinky tofu and Dongbei cold noodle to mention some of the more appealing options.


Unfurled, revealing inner workings – telltale post-bite scallopy fringe in evidence along bottom.

But there was also signage for something even more intriguing called Preserved Egg Sausage that I knew would be a prime candidate for some domestic examination when time wasn’t at a premium.

Stay tuned to see what happened next….
 
 

It Knows It When It Sees It

A long time ago, in a century far, far away (or so it seems), there was an enduring earworm of a hit song entitled “Shrimp Boats Is A-Comin'” popularized in 1951 by singer Jo Stafford. (If you’re under 60 years of age, you can hear it here.) So being of a certain age and a lover of wordplay, the original title for Monday’s post about shrimp balls was, of course, “Shrimp Balls Is A-Comin’.”

Quite by coincidence, a couple of days before it went up, my webhost had dispatched a routine missive to their clients indicating that they had upgraded some underlying code and suggesting that we have a look at our sites to ensure that all was well. A healthy round of clicking revealed no anomalies, so I thought nothing of it.

Subsequently, I published the shrimp balls piece, apparently without incident, but although it looked just fine online, none of my subscribers had received the customary notification that a new post had dropped; everything else about it, text, photos, internal links and the like, worked as anticipated. I tried a repost. Nothing. I assumed that it might have something to do with the under-the-hood tinkering (perhaps involving the outgoing email system?) that had recently taken place, so armed with a steaming mug of coffee and prepared to spend the day staring at my computer screen while listening to music on hold, I called my webhost.

I’ll spare you the details because I’m certain that you’ve all been victims of Customer Support Abuse: scripted questions like, “Are you sure your computer is plugged in?” “Is the caps lock key engaged?” “Have you tried wiping it down with a soft cloth?” and finally, “All right then, I’ll escalate you to Technical Support…” [of course, I had already pressed 3 when I called initially] “…and when [WHEN?] we get disconnected, call us back. Please hold.” 🎶🎶🎶….

Mercifully, I was connected to someone who knew the difference between a plug and a jack, and we unearthed the answer: their mail server’s oblivious algorithm had dutifully flagged the title of the post as porn and refused to distribute the message! So to verify, while Tech Support was standing by, I hastily substituted the rather insipid but assuredly safe title “Another Chinese Snack”, reposted it, and Bob’s your uncle, the announcements were dispatched.

Clearly, algorithms are not programmed to include a sense of humor.
 
 
What follows is the post “Shrimp Balls Is A-Comin'” as it originally appeared; only the name has been changed to – ostensibly – protect the innocent.

Although in retrospect, I think the backstory is more likely to grab you. 😉


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

The Japanese inscription エビのボール reads ebi no bōru, shrimp balls, although it’s a Chinese product; the package shows a serving suggestion so don’t expect to find the sesame/cumin seeds or sprinkles of seasoning depicted in the photo. They bear some resemblance to the fish balls I wrote about in my post Goodness, Gracious, Great Balls of…Fish? (a particularly popular post among spammers, BTW – IDKW 😉) but rather than being something fished out of the freezer case destined for a soup pot or the like, these are a packaged item destined for snackin’ right out of the bag.


Individually wrapped as so many of these snacks are.


The inner workings. They’re moist, about 1½ inches in diameter, and actually pretty tasty; seems like there’s something more shrimp-related in there beyond what I’m guessing is mostly surimi masquerading as a higher form of seafood – plus the tiniest bit of spice. They have enough flavor on their own that I wouldn’t try to repurpose them into some loftier culinary creation; they might be more at home toothpicked with others of their ilk on a party platter.

 
 

Every Day Host Gluten Strips

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

Retrieved from another snack aisle in another Chinese supermarket, these were identified in English merely as Every Day Host Gluten Strips and something very approximately like Hand Ripped Lunch Strip Taste in Chinese, taken character by character. (Feel free to tag in, 朋友们.) About five inches long, the easily unzipped twin strips are a tad oily; they’re salty, sweet, and spicy – which comes as no surprise since the ingredients listed are wheat flour, soybean oil, salt, white sugar, chili and spices. As a matter of fact, the only surprise came from their unusual texture: chewy, puffy, airy, and a bit like biting into a sponge. They’re not bad exactly, just a little unusual.

Here’s the packaging (after I had removed most of the contents) in case you want to either try them or avoid them:

Sometimes, when I come across a product that is sort of okay but not so bad as to be trashworthy, I’ll try to invent a better use for it beyond its preordained destiny. For example, I had acquired some off-brand meat-stick Slim Jim clones. Again, not awful, but nothing to write home to Mom about. Turns out they made great stirring sticks for Bloody Marys – a triumph of snackish fulfillment.

No enlightened second life inspiration for these yet, but I’m open to suggestions!
 
 

Fat Cat Flatbread

Prowling around what remains of Flushing’s food court scene with an eye toward revitalizing my ethnojunket there, I visited Fat Cat Flatbread, stall #6 in the New York Food Court at 133-35 Roosevelt Ave.

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

As you might infer, their sole menu item is freshly made flatbread, at once crispy at the edges and yielding within, perhaps a little like a thin pizza crust; it’s available in seven varieties: pork, black pepper beef, preserved vegetable with pork, BBQ chicken, salted egg yolk & pork floss, maple sugar (really?), and red bean. Since I’m a salted egg yolk fan, I opted for that one. It was tasty, if a little monotone, and certainly more of a snack than anything else.

I wish I had chosen a different filling that might have held the promise of a heartier treat, but I imagine this is something you want to consume hot and fresh and the thought of downing two of them on the spot was daunting. There’ll be a next time.


Freshly prepared – scored…


…and folded.
 
 

Followsoshi

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

Yes, you do want this.

It’s a cross section of one of Followsoshi’s unique Roasted Cold Noodles and it tastes just as delicious as it looks. Construction is similar to that of a Jian Bing (they offer those as well) but significantly, this delicacy starts with a pair of white, striated, prepared “noodles” instead of a pancake:

It’s griddled, topped with a multiplicity of fillings and folded into the beauty you see at the top.

The slideshow chronicles the ingredients and procedure that went into our Meat Lover Roasted Cold Noodles – two eggs, followed by black sesame seeds and cilantro, then onion on the grill; it’s flipped and sauced, topped with parmesan cheese, bacon, crab stick, and BBQ sausage, then adroitly folded and portioned out:

The finished product – highly recommended:

In addition to the half dozen or so predetermined styles, there are 13 extra toppings from which you can pick and choose along with nine kinds of Jian Bing with three “Batter Upgrades” (green spinach, purple rice and red beetroot) boasting 18 optional fillings of their own.

There’s also a section of the menu called Chinese Gourmet that lists patties, rolls (ever had a “Rolling Donkey” rice roll?), bao, and braised dishes, but I’m saving those – and the Jian Bing – for a future visit.

Followsoshi is located at 135-24 40th Rd in Flushing, Queens. Of course. 😉
 
 

The Mystery of Fu Yuan

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

In today’s installment of “What Else Happened in Flushing While I Was Away?” there’s Fu Yuan at 135-43 Roosevelt Ave. It feels like that strip of Roosevelt Ave just off Main St has been playing musical chairs with a host of storefront snackish restaurant comings and goings for a while now. They don’t disappoint and I wish them all well.

Fu Yuan offers steamed rice noodle rolls (cheung fun, 腸粉) which appear to be enjoying tremendous popularity in NYC’s Chinatowns of late, as well as congee, some soups and a few other “side orders”. In addition to their traditional rice noodle rolls, they had a couple with the word “crispy” prepended which, of course, I opted for.


This one is their Crispy Roast Pork Rice Noodle Roll; the soft rice noodle is wrapped around crispy rice which is wrapped round the filling (shrimp is available as well as roast pork). Since I’m always a sucker for crispy, it totally worked for me.

But the real intrigue is the menu mystery that is “Stone Mill Noodle Roll”. I’ve returned more than once and each time I inquire, I’m told they don’t have it. Do they ever have it? Did they ever have it? That’s the enigma and I don’t have the Cantonese language skills to get to the bottom of it.

So, have any of you Chinatown roamers been luckier than I in solving this mystery?
 
 
And a reminder: New York City boasts at least six Chinatowns and perhaps a few more depending upon your definition of what constitutes a Chinatown; just pick one and go! Now, more than ever, please SUPPORT CHINATOWN!
 
 

Vegetarian Alert, Part 2

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

I wrote a post not long ago about some remarkable vegetarian “meat” and another about some incredible spicy peanuts that I found during a Chinese supermarket expedition and how I could easily see how they might figure into a stir fry.

I am thrilled to report that this experiment turned out so well – supremely simple and decidedly delicious – that I uncharacteristically wrote down what went into it. So here’s a somewhat compressed version of what I did:

Prep/mise en place: I boiled, drained well, and set aside some basic fresh Chinese noodles from my local supermarket (amazingly enough). Diced some onion and fresh red bell pepper. Cleaned and sliced fresh cremini mushrooms. Set aside a handful of those amazing peanuts along with their one-two punch of málà peppercorns and dried red chili peppers. Using two forks, I shredded the “meat” as if it were meat:

For the sauce: I usually keep a shortcut combination of ingredients ready to go in the fridge (yes, that’s cheating) for when I’m in a hurry, but if you have a favorite, go for it. This is what went into mine: soy sauce, Zhenjiang vinegar, Shaoxing cooking wine, microplaned fresh garlic, microplaned fresh gingerroot, sugar (trust me), MSG (yes, really), a little Yibin Yacai (minced preserved mustard greens, optional), and a hit of sesame oil.

Abbreviated procedure: Get your wok as hot as you possibly can (pro tip: I avoid using a wok ring – gets the wok closer to the flame). Add some peanut oil and heat to the smoking point. Stir-fry the onions and peppers to cook through, add the mushrooms and stir-fry to cook through, add the “meat” and continue to stir-fry, add the noodles and stir-fry, add the sauce (you don’t need much) and stir-fry, add the peanuts and mix in. (Proper technique would have you do this in batches, but I was all about improper in my rush to the finish line.)

I happened to have Thai basil on hand so that’s what I used for garnish along with some scallions, but it’s certainly not authentic. Of course, there’s nothing about this dish that’s authentic, but it was so tasty that I wanted to share it with you, at least virtually.

(BTW, you don’t have to be a vegetarian to enjoy it! 😉)