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Chinatown USA

by Helen Rich

Personal Perspectives

Fall Volume: 2000 Issue: 7(3) page(s): 13 and 14

Walking down Main Street in Flushing on a Saturday afternoon, I am in Queens, a borough of New York City, but could easily imagine being in any major Asian city. Rows of Asian food markets, restaurants, banks and businesses line these busy streets, sporting colorful awnings, and exciting window dressings projecting vibrant Chinese Characters. Want to buy a book in Chinese? You’ll find it here. Asian music on cassette or a good Chinese video? Or perhaps a fine pair of jade earrings? The street vendors can provide you with whatever you need. The big draw here, however, in this perky part of town sometimes referred to as the 'Queens Chinatown' is what brings me here on a regular basis. It is the rows of delightful Asian food markets where thousands of people of all backgrounds do their daily food shopping.

On just one block alone on Main Street there can be as many as five food markets carrying the very same produce and food products, yet none will be wanting for customers. Indeed, at any time of day or night these markets will be overrun with shoppers who have come to purchase fresh produce, fresh seafood, and a variety of imported products. One wonders how there could be enough business for all. But food--and fresh food at that--is important in a culture where "Chi fan lo mei?" says "Have you eaten yet?" or more literally, “Have you had your rice today?” This is as common a greeting as a when westerners "Hey, how ya doin?"

As I share these streets with hundreds of Taiwanese and their Chinese brethren across the straits, Asians from a plethora of other countries, and also many non-Asians, there is hardly a square inch of space to spare. I have brought a double dose of patience and civility tucked inside my empty linen shopping bag which I hope will be full of goodies by the end of my sojourn. But there is no pushing or shoving here and no one seems to be in a hurry. Joy permeates the air and I find it easy to enjoy the crowds.

Finally, I arrive at my favorite market and, as usual, I am in awe of the dozens of fresh fruits on display outside. Some fruits are familiar like the common orange or tangerine which are popular in China. Eaten most often at the end of a meal, these are thought to bring 'sweet things' in life. The papaya, which some associate with Latin America, is part of the everyday fare of many Asian cultures. The Vietnamese are known for their wonderful papaya salad, where julienne cabbage and lettuce meet with succulent slivers of pulpy pink/orange not-ripe papaya meat. The Chinese use the papaya in many ways (See an article about this fruit in Flavor and Fortune's Volume 7(2) on pages 17, 18, and 28. They use it as a soup base, a tonic to detoxify the body, and for other purposes. Priced at three for less than six dollars, it’s a deal and I pay for two medium sized ones and slip them into my bag.

Unknown to most Westerners, the imported fruit called durian, from Thailand, sits regally at the far end of the fruit stand; enjoyed by many Chinese both here and abroad. One durian is the size and shape of a football. With its heavy spikes, it looks something akin to a porcupine. Wrapped in a bright yellow net, the durian is known for its strong and offensive odor when ripe. The unattractive smell of a ripe durian, likened unto the fragrant aroma of sweaty socks, has led many major airlines to prohibit passengers from boarding with one of these. Still, at just under two dollars a pound, the average durian weighing in at ten pounds, this fruit is something of a delicacy. Many durians are sold everyday, but a word of caution, true or not: I once heard that if the durian is taken with alcohol it could result in death.

As I survey the wide assortment of fruits before me, I am reminded that while Westerners tend to think of food’s effect on taste buds and bellies, the Chinese realize that foods have both curative values and restorative properties. I think about this prominent treatment of food in the Chinese culture, have read about it in previous issues of Flavor and Fortune, and am cogitating about it now while I join the other patrons in fondling the fruits as part of the purchasing process.

"Do not buy!" the Chinese woman next to me cautions as I boldly run my hands over an oval, bright canary yellow fruit, resembling a winter squash. Slightly larger than an Asian pear, with elliptical carvings in the thick outer casing, this unfamiliar fruit weighs heavy in my hand. "What is this called," I ask. "Do not know. Do not buy. Not sweet," my fellow shopper says with a grimace as her friend looks on, nodding her head in agreement. "Too much water," her companion adds confidently. I put the fruit down because this hefty fruit is sold by the pound, and today I am not that eager to experiment. Later on I find out some people call these fruits Korean melons. I make a mental note to research it as it surely must have several redeeming qualities.

Fish is next on my shopping list. Fish is a symbol of prosperity in Chinese culture, and great care must be taken in its selection. Inside the market, the floors are wet from the constant hosing down of live fish and crustaceans set out in large wooden barrels and wicker baskets at the market’s entryway. I eye a basket full of small green crabs, each one tied decoratively with a crimson sash. A lovely presentation and practical as well, as the thick ribbon strategically binds the legs and the claws of the crabs to keep them from fleeing. The fresh razor clams in their elongated shells rest quietly in water waiting to be bought, and conch lay nestled in their enormous shells next to their tiny cousins, the snails. But in containers next to these silent fellows, a circus is underway. I observe the live shrimp as I would a sideshow; they nervously jump about in their hollowed casks. Several leap out of their baskets and land at my feet. I am amazed at the life and movement in these baskets filled with live seafood.

While the shrimp are jumping, several barrels away the lobsters fervently climb over one another. Suddenly one renegade lobster strays too close to the edge of his bin. Seeing him teetering so close to the brink, one of three attendants paid to stand guard over these energetic sea creatures, makes a lightening move to catch the dissident. He places the critter on his back so he can roam no more. Meanwhile, adjacent to the lobster bin are large red crabs--the third ring of this three ring circus. Traipsing over one another, slowly and deliberately, they freely exercise their unbound claws.

One courageous Chinese woman picks a crab up by the underbelly, then another and another, jiggling each ever so gently, testing their weight, trying to assess how much meat there may be inside. She has much difficulty making a choice. Just then, the crab she holds in her hand closes his claws on a nearby lobster, causing a bit of a commotion. The crab’s tight grip takes hold of the lobster’s own claw, which unfortunately is bound shut, leaving him defenseless. This is the crab I want, the woman indicates to the attendant; and this particular crab she must have. The limber young Chinese man who just moments earlier had rescued a dissident crustacean now must try to pry this lobster away from the crab’s unrelenting grasp; no easy feat. Finally, after several unsuccessful barehanded attempts, a pliers is found and the lobster is painfully torn from the clutches of his adversary. I am suddenly reminded of Grace Young who recounts how her grandfather, in accordance with Chinese culture, spends the entire day searching for the feistiest fish for a special celebration so that the family may be blessed with good fortune.

I once again turn my attention to the shrimp that by now have settled down, lying motionless in their crib. Seeing this, the man in charge of these sea creatures digs his hands into the barrel; up to his elbows in live shrimp, he turns them over, agitating them. I watch hundreds of little shrimp legs feverishly begin to writhe, and soon the show begins again. To the squeamish, the little feet of the shrimp continuously wiggling and jiggling and the subsequent acrobatics can easily take the appetite away. Many Americans live in denial that the food was once alive; but Asians like all good chefs, prize the freshest foods—those still with the breath of life in them.

In the middle of the market next to the iced fish counter and across from the long row of fresh vegetables, sits a fish tank of medium length filled with fresh filtered water and an assortment of unusual fish and sea creatures. I peer inside the crowded tank and see a small brown fish with a face only a mother could love. Beside it is an odd looking creature with a long, muscular body and a hard outer shell. Indeed, the latter resembles an elephant trunk stuck inside a clam. Finally, a third-generation Chinese gentleman, the only one there that seems to speak English, identifies this creature for me as a rock clam. Satisfied with this answer after a seemingly endless search for an English speaking guide, I turn to the next category on my shopping list—vegetables. Later I learn that the long neck belongs to a clam called 'gooey duck' that is spelled 'geoduck.'

Scanning the fresh produce section, I immediately recognize the fresh water spinach with its delicate green leaves and thin stalks. There are many types of spinach and greens here, many used in stir fry dishes. My favorite preparation of fresh greens is as a side dish, braised in a rich vegetable broth with chopped garlic and light soy sauce. This is a wonderful accompaniment to steamed whole fish—-in a nice ginger sauce, perhaps? I finger the ginger and its firmness tells me it is fresh. I fondle the garlic bulbs and could swear they were just pulled from the ground. Inching my way flavorfully down the vegetable aisle, I am eye to eye with a Chinese turnip and suddenly remember the fresh turnip cakes selling down the road for a song. I can feel my mouth water and I add this item to my ever growing shopping list.

The assortment of Chinese vegetables is amazing. I admire the stately winter melon, known best for its role in winter melon soup, a delicious and wholesome blood purifier. The bitter melon no longer frightens me with its harsh quinine flavor. I have learned to avoid the bitter dark green melon and choose the milder lighter colored melon which I blanch before using to reduce its bitterness. I scoop up a fuzzy melon and wonder how I will prepare this novel food item with its soft hairy bristles. I grab packages of oyster mushrooms and one of shiitake mushrooms, their prices a bargain. I leave behind the small Chinese eggplants, the chives, the taro root, and even the fresh mung bean sprouts. I say adieu to the snow peas, bok choy, and Chinese parsley. There is only so much food I can prepare in a week.

As I make my way home, past the corner of Main Street and 46th Avenue, Asian music seductively calls to me like the snake charmer’s song, drawing me nearer. Suddenly I forget that I am only a short distance from home and imagine myself at a street fare in Shanghai or Hong Kong examining exotic mushrooms and gingko nuts. In the midst of my deep fascination I remember my shopping list. The magic spell is broken and I am again a woman with a mission--the fresh turnip cakes await me. I resume my stride enjoying crowded market strewn streets and remind myself this is Chinatown U.S.A.
Helen Rich earned a degree at Queens College in Family and Consumer Sciences. Before that, she worked in Spain's Canary Islands for seven years. Now living in Flushing, part of New York City's borough of Queens, she delights in uncovering authentic Chinese fare. She has quickly become a fan, and reports it is a “marvelous culture and a sumptuous cuisine.”

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