Thursday, February 7, 2008

My Chinatown Childhood

Strictly speaking, it wasn't my CHILDHOOD, but more my YOUTH, in Chinatown that I was thinking about recently.

I used to go to Chinatown regularly with S, my high school (and college) best friend. S was born in Shanghai, emigrated to Hong Kong and moved to the US with her family when she was in ninth grade.

We ate the most different (to me at the time) exotic delights. I remember clams with black bean sauce, punctuated with big pieces of spicy scallions and whole deep-fried crusty fish - I learned the cheek was the best part and the guest of honor always had the fish pointed in his or her direction, and, my favorite thing, moon cakes.

I preferred the ones without the egg yolk in the middle, which meant that there would be more of the sweet bean paste. The pastry was so flaky and I loved the (slightly unnatural I realize now) yellow color.

From time to time, I have searched for moon cakes of their equal. The last time was in San Francisco last summer and I was, as usual, disappointed. The pastry was dry, the filling wasn't sweet enough and it didn't taste freshly made.

But even better than the moon cakes was going to S's house and having her mother cook. We would be seated at the table with her sister and father. Dish after dish would emerge from the small kitchen, each thing tastier than the last, with many things that I had never had before - exotic vegetables, sea creatures and the most delicate fried rice imaginable.

Sadly, S's parents are gone, but she's still interested in great food, of any national origin. We meet occasionally for lunch, sometimes in great restaurants. But nothing has ever come close to those old the simple basement booths in Chinatown or sitting at her table being cooked for by probably the best cook I have ever known in my life.

Happy Chinese New Year!


Emiline said...

How cool! You should write a book.

Also, TAG! You're it! No excuses.

The Short (dis)Order Cook said...

What a beautiful post. I've always been sort of distressed over my lack of sophistication when it comes to authentic Chinese food. In my childhood "real" Chinese food meant a restaurant with red silk on the walls and mai tais on the menu (with accompanying illustrations). In recent years I have been trying to educate myself and find some more authentic recipes. Of course I do hit some roadblocks with that "exotic sea creature" thing. I think it's wonderful that you had the experiences that you had.

S from "My Chinatown Childhood" said...

I am so touched! You know Chinese food and customs better than my children. You are always adveturesome and would try just about anything. Love reading the post.

Sue said...

Thanks Emiline,
You're a sweetie. Have a moon cake for me.

Am I IT for the thing I was supposed to do WEEKS ago? Ok,I'll get on it.

Hi Rachel,
You're so nice. The real thing I was lucky at was my choice (or theirs!) of friends.

Love you.
Love, Me

Jennifer said...

Aww, what a beautiful post! I haven't been to the Chinatown in San Francisco in years, but i've heard people either love it or hate it. They have a Chinatown up in Seattle as well, I haven't been there yet either.

Sue said...

Thanks Jennifer...Of course, I was referring to the REAL Chinatown in New York. I know, I know other folks may disagree. I thought the one in San Francisco was pretty great and very authentic, but those hills could kill you...