Gandhi had the caste system, Mandela had apartheid, Che had capitalist pigs, and Fukuyama had history. I, Isadora Tang, have the eradication of ignorance as my great calling in life. Ignorance of what, you, oh naive reader, may ask. Of how to eat good Chinese food, doi! HOW-TO-EAT-GOOD-CHINESE-FOOD, and how to do it well.
Most people of a non-Chinese heritage background seem to not know that a world beyond general tso's chicken exists. And if they do know about this world, they know not how to enter - "oh yes, i was told by a wise old man about the existence of this magical fantasy land. i am still waiting for peter pan to come take me there in my sleep one day." NO!! WRONG!! There is also that strange hybrid non-Chinese person that i have seen in my eating travels. He is the one that I am shocked to see sitting beside me and my Chinese brethen in our hidden gem of a restaurant, who manages his chopsticks with such masterful elegance, who exudes in all directions supreme confidence in his food-ordering ability. Then his dishes (or, as is sadly too often the case, his sole dish) are served, and my mother and i turn to look at each other, wipe the quizzical looks off our chubby faces, and proceed to laugh heartily over this white fool's sad misadventure.
You see my friend, eating good Chinese food is an art. With my guidance, we will, together, learn how to refine this fine and ancient art in the always-smells-like-fish-or-dorian-fruit mean streets of Chinatown, New York.
Chinatown for Beginners: Shanghai cuisine
Mondays host my weekly dinner with mom. This past Monday, since I was feeling under the weather, I requested that we duck into the first Shanghainese restaurant we could find, so I could immediately soothe my sore throat with some delicious soup of dumplings. We went to Shanghai Cafe, on 100 Mott Street. We couldn't agree on whether or not we had been there before, but we decided to give it a shot regardless.
The decor of Shanghai Cafe is typical weird Chinatown - neon purple ceiling lights, industrial metal tables and chairs, big log cabin like wooden booths, all mixed into one nonsensical aesthetic. What differentiated this restaurant was the very very friendly waitresses, who answered our probing questions politely and helpfully, and who oooh and aahhed over my mom's watch. This is indeed a rarity in Chinatown, and I feel obliged to pay the waitresses of Shanghai Cafe homage here. What strangely good service.
What We Ate
These soup dumplings were okay. I would say the skin was too thick, not even clost to paper thin. We also didn't order the crab-pork dumplings, which was our own fault - those were probably a lot better. But in terms of satisfying my craving and my throat, they did a pretty good job of it.
This dish is called "Shui Li Hong," or, as listed on the menu in English, "Bean Curd Skin with Preserved Vegetable and Green Bean" (trust me, the name is much more appetizing in Chinese). It's traditional Shanghainese fare, and delicious! Basically, its tofu skin lightly sauteed with edamame beans and this salted Chinese vegetable called snow vegetable that is only grown around Shanghai. This is one of my favorite Chinese dishes.
Okay, so this is not a great picture. I need a better camera, ok?
This dish is nian gao, or sticky cake. On the menu it's listed as "Shanghai Rice Cakes." Rice cakes are another Shanghainese specialty. They are little oval cakes that are made out of sticky rice, so have a very sticky texture. In the Shanghainese version, there is shrimp, chicken, bamboo, carrots, and onion. It is a hearty helping of gooey goodness
Soup is a big part of Chinese cooking, especially in Canton, where a woman's worth is measured by the quality of her homemade soup. Unfortunately, there were no Cantonese women to be found. This soup is called "Stuffed Bean Curd Skin & Puff with Minced Meat." Basically, it is like an eggroll made out of tofu skin and filled with meat, and a fluffy tofu variety also stuffed with meat. I was really disapointed with this soup - it was so salty that you couldn't even taste anything else, and the texture was just off. I would not order this here again.
Shanghai Cafe: B