Friday, September 9, 2011

A Cook's Tour of Chinatown.


Walking up to the intersection of Grand and Elizabeth I surveyed the group. They were mostly older, wearing rain jackets and clutching paper and pens. One woman, standing quietly off to the side was Chinese, wearing a big floppy white hat and wearing enough concealer she looked like a mime. I wondered if she was hiding from friends, too ashamed to admit to them she didn't know where to get ginseng or maybe just hiding from the sun. Even though it was going to rain. One couple was visiting from Australia, the husband wore a hat with a spinny propeller on it and a shirt that said Santa Cruz. I thought, well, maybe he'll be fun. It was 10am on a Thursday, so the random group was not a surprise. Standing there we passed around a bag of sweet buns from a local bakery, buns I had never tried. They were round like a dinner roll. and the top was crusty with yellow crackly stuff. Knowing the Chinese put pork in everything I was a little hesitant. I sniffed it and looked up at the lady with the bag. "Think there's pork in them?" She shrugged, "Don't know." I gambled and, thankfully, pork free.

"Hey everyone. Thanks for coming," Ross said, introducing himself as the head chef for the 92Y, "I'm not an expert on Chinatown. I certainly can't tell you about everything we're going to see but I come here often and can show you the things I like. I mean," he continued in further evidence of his non-expertness, "I have friends who are Chinese and we cook together sometimes." Sometimes. His intro was so bad I wanted to step forward and say, "Hey guys, I've lived near Chinatown for the last 4 weeks and I have never eaten here, but I used to work near Chinatown in San Francisco, how 'bout I show you around." I resisted my urge to give him a few helpful pointers and have him start again.

A few weeks ago, in a flurry of making new-in-New York plans, I booked a tour with the Tribeca 92Y to walk around Chinatown with a chef and had been looking forward to it all week. I expected the motley group of older people, but, I hate to even admit it, I also had an eensy hope that the chef would be some cool, hot guy I could flirt with. This guy was a mix of my dad and Louis CK. Not exactly what I was looking for.

As we set off I quickly sidestepped the old ladies with carts and did my best to keep up with Ross. He pointed out places we could buy tofu, Chinese sausage, dried mushrooms and ginseng. All individual store fronts that specialized in one thing. That's what I love about Chinatown, small stores with the expertise of just one thing. I had been looking for a tofu shop and quickly jotted down it's location so I could make it back there. Then we walked over to a jerky place. We went inside and Ross told us a little bit about how they made jerky. Apparently it's ground up (whatever different "it" type meats that is) like sausage, then pounded out flat. They add sugar, spices and something that makes it bright pinkish orangeish plus a dash of something chemical sounding that's supposed to ensure we don't get sick. I can't wait. It was a spectacularly non-meat, non-nature occurring pink color. Ross bought some, had her heat them up over a grill and we dug in. It was good. Chewy and sticky with a hint of a rubbery meat feel to it. Hot doggy. If I knew what Spam tasted like I might say it tasted like that.

Eventually we made our way into a huge supermarket. Walking around Ross pointed out the different greens and vegetables and how we could work with them. "This is Kabocha," Ross said, picking up a large dark green squash, "what I like to do is peel it and steam it till it's soft, then I mash it between my fingers, put it into a mold. Then you chill it for several hours and later, slice it and serve it for dessert. It's really delicious. We would do this in Japan." A fan of all things Kabocha, I couldn't wait to try it.

The array of sauces, noodles, fish stuff and green things was overwhelming. I got antsy to leave. Before we walked out of the market Ross bought some salted squid for us to try. When we get out to the sidewalk we broke into the bag. It tasted like cardboard that had been wet, liberally coated in kosher salt, and doused with a splash of chili peppers and fish sauce. Normally these are all things I like, but I couldn't get beyond the feeling that I was eating a salty box.

Moving along we explored a once mysterious set of tunnels off Doyers Street. Underground is a small enclave of business offices: a dentist, an acupuncturist, a tour operator, a chiropractor, and so on. What would it be like to work somewhere with no natural light? I tried to imagine coming down here for work in the morning. There's not enough coffee in the world that could get me through that mental image. And, just as quickly, we were back up to Mott Street, right back to where we started.

At the end of the tour Ross bid us farewell and the group just as quickly dissolved into thin air. I, of course, wanted to have lunch. I tapped the Australians on the shoulder, "Hey, I'm going to go for lunch at Great NY Noodletown. Want to join?" The husband looked at me like he didn't speak English and mumbled something about wanting to go to the courthouse. This made no sense and he didn't offer an explanation so I said goodbye feeling weirdly embarrassed for being friendly. Before I could wander off, the wife quickly said she'd like to join me and later she explained that her husband used to practice law and he liked to go into the courthouse and watch trials. Ah-hah. And off we went, in search of our next meal.

Great NY Noodletown on Bowery

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