At last count, there are three “official” Chinatowns in New York City- the oldest, Cantonese-heavy one in Manhattan centered around Canal St.; Flushing, Queens by Main Street station on the 7 train and the Fujianese-dominated branch in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. You could argue that the newest one is 5th Ave. in the 50s, but let’s not go there right now…
Thus, you can just imagine my disappointment when weaving through wet markets and supermarkets in China. The food that you can find there, they’ve introduced to this part of this world too. Almost. But this concept isn’t new by any means. Did you ever stop to think in which country/region your food originates? We’ve got pineapples from Paraguay, potatoes from the Andes, fava beans in North Africa, and melamine in China. A relatively common menu item in Chinese holes-in-the-wall is a dish simply comprised of tomatoes and eggs. Think that was being eaten hundreds of years ago?
So, what’s my point? Even though we’ve been able to find many of these products in Chinatowns throughout New York and the world since many decades ago, there’s still a vast assortment of ingredients and tinctures that haven’t quite been given a proper introduction to the mainstream. Let’s have a look at a few of these sideshows:
Jujubes/Red Dates (红枣/hóngzǎo)- I can’t get enough of them…the dried version, that is. In fact, I rarely saw the fresh kind, but the dried is a nice snack, not so much if you forget that there’s a pit inside. In China, jujubes can also be found in soups, milk and yoghurt, the latter two stylesbeing frequent cravings of mine. They often hail from the wild west region of Xinjiang. And you thought this was a picture of red-tinged termite queens. Slightly smoky, somewhat sweet and nothing like the popular Iftar snack.
Jellyfish (海蜇/hǎizhé)- This is the edible variety. Steer clear of the 水母 (shuǐmǔ), uh, as if this was news? I’ve only eaten jellyfish a couple of times, with the first being somewhere in Manhattan in the late 90s. It was colored orange, and you could slurp the tentacles much more skillfully than spaghetti. Unusual texture to be sure…salty lanyard, maybe?
Salted Duck Eggs (咸蛋/xiándàn)- Looks like I was taken to one of those scam-riddled gem shops, doesn’t it? Probably not. Even worse, it’s a bunch of preserved duck eggs packed in moist, salted charcoal. Because that’s a thing now. If this hasn’t already whetted your appetite, you’ll find that the egg has become gelatinous and holds a firm, bright yolk, perfect for representing the moon. In mooncakes. Nasty, but only when when a salted duck egg rears its unwelcome self in the middle of one filled with taro or coconut. Which reminds me, I’ve eaten a slew of possibly unusual foods, but a durian mooncake stuffed with a salted duck egg sounds like the edible equivalent of eating sashimi on the banks of the Ganges.
Kelp/Brown Algae (海藻/hǎizǎo)- more and more, I’m seeing this in health food stores, and it’s likely due to kelp’s high iodine content. In other words, it’s possibly beneficial to your thyroid. In other words, good for metabolism, hair and skin. Which is to say, in ten years, this will probably be disproved, but most importantly, kelp wouldn’t know that.
Turtles (龟/guī)- A symbol of longevity, but that’s history. Just like the turtles that used to be in those shells. So it could then be a picture of a 鳖 (biē), a soft-shelled turtle. Maybe it’s a pet store? If nothing else, they are organic, so Whole Foods might come a knockin’ soon.
Lotus seeds (莲子/liánzǐ)- it’s a bonus photo, because I only found these on the street. Seasonal yet plentiful, lackluster yet crunchy and generally not worth the small effort needed to be enjoyed. Cheap though, and could tide you over until your next kelp turtle sandwich. All you have to do is visit a city park and start picking away at the lotus pods.
See anything you like?