Lessons from Chinatown
In the 1950s in Metro New York, Chinese restaurants sprouted like mushrooms and my family loved going out to them. The food was convenient, inexpensive, and delicious. We ate spare ribs and gnawed on the bones. I loved won ton soup, especially the pork dumplings in them, which we called “Chinese kreplach.” They were just like Grammy Razel used to make — stuffed with beef, fried in chicken fat — but made with pork. I cut them into pieces and drizzled each mouthful with soy sauce and a dollop of hot mustard. I was sophisticated enough to drop crispy fried noodles in the soup and eat them soggy. To savor every drop, I picked up the bowl and drank the broth, Chinese style.
I thrilled my brother and sister by eating hot mustard on the dried noodles, which annoyed my parents, who thought it would injure my mouth — which never happened, although it did clear my sinuses and elevate my mood. We explored the menu. We ordered shrimp with lobster sauce but were disappointed when we couldn’t find the lobster. So we learned to choose lobster with shrimp sauce, which was more expensive but had chunks of lobster that had been removed from the shell. Moo Shu pork or chicken were fun to order, arriving with thin pancakes and tangy plum sauce. I loved pork with bean sprouts. It was my favorite for years. We tasted everybody else’s food, so it was really family style.
Those were Cantonese dishes, and the party lasted for years. Szechuan cuisine arrived with hot-pepper, spice, and sharper fragrance and flavor. We loved a local joint called Sam Pan, in Great Neck, and got take-out every chance we got. Hot and sour soup. Cold sesame noodles. Spicy spare ribs. Shrimp fried rice. Oh yeah.
When I was old enough to drive there with friends, it was a quick run to Chinatown. There were hundreds of restaurants all walking distance from each other. I never found one that I did not like, but somehow settled into a favorite, called Hwa Yuan, at 40 East Broadway. I went there enough so that the owner let us in the kitchen for pictures one night in 1968. It was great.
Hwa Yuan served Chinese wedding-style feasts. No matter what we ordered, big platters of food kept coming for us to share.
The chef was full of surprises. Squid? Yikes. But it was great. Little tiny clams in black bean sauce, with cellophane noodles. I was convinced that it was authentic Chinese, because nobody spoke English there except for me and my friends.
My friend Tom Benedek reminded me that I once took our friends to the Apollo to see James Brown perform, then to Chinatown for a late dinner. I had no memory of that night until he produced photos of James Brown and of our elated group crowded into the restaurant kitchen.
Over the years my tastes have become more sophisticated. My next-door neighbor in Glen Cove, Long Island, was Chinese, and when our children played together, Su-Chen taught me how to make her recipes. Later, in Ossining, I made friends with Leslie Yu, the water-color artist who, when she was young, cooked her way around the world from Mexico to Switzerland, teaching Chinese cooking. We shared recipes, and mine were quite complex. She would ask, “If you could only use four ingredients, which four?” That gave my improvisations more focus.
My kids liked everything I cooked for them when they were growing up, and when they come to visit they still want their old favorites. Recently, when my daughter Heidi and her husband Javier were coming, they asked for my Chinese stir-fry. I got all the ingredients at our local food market.
I now live in the Hudson River Valley, a hundred miles north of New York City. The blue-oyster mushrooms are local, and so is all the produce. I think the soy sauce, dark sesame oil, Szechuan peppercorn, and ginger, if I could choose just four, were the essential spices. But I went all out and developed a more complex and layered flavor. It wasn’t like the Chinese-American food that I grew up loving, but like my trumpet teacher says, “Imitate, Assimilate, Innovate.”