My family’s heritage is Russian and from an early age I was learning Russian, speaking Russian, eating Russian foods. My parents were not, however, born in Russia. My mum was born in Harbin, China; my dad in Lindau, Germany; my siblings and I in Sydney, Australia. Alongside the Russian influences, I also learned German in high school and ate a lot of great Chinese food.
As a kid, I remember frequenting our favourite restaurant in Sydney’s Chinatown, BBQ King. The jolly round owner would greet us with open arms and ensure we were seated straight away. By no means a fancy dining spot — it was furnished in plastic and imitation wood paneling — we loved its food and would order without glancing at the menu: fried salt & pepper squid, sweet & sour pork, stuffed bean curd, Chinese broccoli in oyster sauce, Singapore noodles, roast duck (my choice).
Sometimes we’d cave and take a peek at the ‘Chef’s Suggestions’, perhaps to order a plate of sizzling Mongolian beef or salt & pepper pork. It depended on how hungry we were and if we were with friends, who’d add their favourites to the order.
When not eating out, mum would make sure we had staples from the local Asian supermarket to enjoy at home. She’d make a weekly shopping trip and bring home packs of steamed pork buns, jars of preserved radish in chilli soy sauce, fresh tofu, which she’d later stir fry with bok choy. There’d be sponge cake for dessert. I also fondly recall eating Haw flakes. I’d peel away the pink paper wrapper from around the stout roll, separate each flake, then pop them – one by one – into my mouth. They tasted like raisins or some other kind of dried fruit and I just loved them.
Fast forward to New York, where I have indulged in a lot of Chinese food, which has never measured up to the standard of BBQ King. Perhaps it is because I’m nostalgic for my childhood, or maybe because the dishes are prepared differently in Sydney. Whatever the reason, I am always happy to enjoy a good Chinese meal in a city where it is normal to order take-out and have it delivered. I enjoy an occasional visit to Manhattan’s Chinatown to simply wander the food stalls and be part of the market buzz.
Now, I am definitely not talking about Canal Street, where tourists search for fake Gucci this and faux Burberry that. Nor am I referring to Bowery, a haven for traffic jams, and kitschy storefronts selling random paraphernalia. I am talking about the calmer part of Chinatown centered under and around the Manhattan Bridge, the part that runs along East Broadway in the Lower East Side.
Many of the newer Chinese immigrants that settled here came from Fujian province (as opposed to the Cantonese) , dubbing East Broadway ‘Fuzhou Street,’ after the province’s capital. The rare tourist can be found among the Chinese locals, who buy produce from the dozens of outdoor stalls brimming with fresh fruits and vegetables: persimmons, Asian pears, Durian fruit, oranges, apples, fresh greens. Fishmongers and butcher’s stores are interspersed in between.
What I like about this part of Chinatown is that I feel it’s as close I’ll get to China in Manhattan. Never mind that I cannot read any of the characters plastered all over the stores and buildings. There isn’t even any Chinese architecture. It’s just that the scene belongs to another country, and for a while I am transported from the norm.
Next to the fresh produce markets stand DVD stores, dumpling houses, electronic game repair booths, hair salons, restaurants, herbal stores selling all sorts of dried stuffs, beauty suppliers, bubble tea cafes…. and many wedding dress stores. I recently read that:
Luxury wedding ceremonies are traditional among the people of Fuzhou (capital of Fujian province). During Chinatown’s wedding season, which runs between late September and Chinese New Year, immigrants speaking the Fuzhou dialect host about 1,500 banquets and generate about $20 million dollars in restaurant business… In the late 1980’s there were no specialized bridal shops… By 2004, the number of bridal shops had increased to thirty-two, many owned by Fujianese. *
There is one food store that I always visit is called ‘New York Supermarket Inc’. Located at #75 East Broadway, it sits right under one of the Bridge’s archways. The complex is always bustling, and the sound amplifies when the subway rattles overhead. I like this place for its commotion alone. That said, I always browse the aisles and leave with a bag full of different Asian foods to try.
Just like mum, I love to buy steamed pork buns and sponge cakes. I have a few of my own favourite finds such as coconut creme (which my husband churns into ice cream); Japanese mochi balls, made of glutinous rice and filled with red bean, sesame, taro or peanut paste; vermicelli rice noodles; lychee gummi candy; and roasted seaweed. Hardly adventurous, I know, because I do pass by the rows of canned quail eggs, jars of sliced sour bamboo shoots, and packets of preserved duck eggs and think: “Should I?” But I always chicken out, partly because I fear trying them, and partly because I have no clue how to prepare such ingredients. I love to eat, but cooking isn’t my forte.
A little further from the supermarket, under another archway, is the popular Forsyth Market. Though I do not shop there myself, it is a busy because vendors sell produce at really low prices. Employing a “low-margin, high-volume model”, the market caters to residents and local restaurants who shop here daily. If you want to be served, you have to get in line. Yes, it’s that busy sometimes.
Unfortunately the market vendors here are under continual speculation and subject to ticket sweeps by the city authorities and city regulators. Without going into too much detail about it, you may read more about it here. Street Vendor Project: Spoiled !.
This, coupled with the spike in rents, means a lot of business has relocated to Chinatowns in Flushing, Queens and Brooklyn.
I’ll continue supporting Manhattan’s Chinatown because I like it for its vibe and food selection. It’s also easily accessible by foot, which makes for a great day of food shopping.
I will need to make a trip, though, to experience the other Chinatowns. I will post on those after I’ve visited them.
*Quote from: “The New Chinese America: class, economy, and social hierarchy.” By Xiaojian Zhao