Events: Masters of Social Gastronomy do Chinese Takeout!

image courtesy Bunches and Bits {Karina}

Wednesday, August 28th
@ The Brooklyn Brainery, 190 Underhill Ave.
Doors at 6:30
$5 Tickets HERE

Every month, our MSG lectures take on the history and science behind some of your favorite foods. Up this month: Chinese takeout.

Chinatown is perhaps the only neighborhood in New York where $1 can get a full meal; a century ago, the same was true of Chinatown’s chop suey houses, whose entrees were considered exotic by droves of hungry New Yorkers. At this month’s MSG, Sarah will cover the history of Chinese take out, from dim sum to tea houses to the Jewish connection to Chinese food.

Soma will reveal the stories behind our modern American Chinese food experience, from the man behind General Tso’s to who put the magic in your fortune cookie. We’ll also take a step across the Pacific to see how American food adapts to the Chinese palate: what happens when Colonel Sanders meets General Tso?

And! We’ll be raffling off a copy or two of Diana Kuan’s The Chinese Takeout Cookbook.

(tickets here! Doors at 6:30pm, talks start around 7pm. This is a standing-room lecture; some limited seating will be available but get there early! $5 includes admission + a raffle ticket.)

Taste History Today: Nom Wah Tea Parlor

Dim Sum at the Nom Wah Tea Parlor.

In the midst of Hurricane Sandy, it’s been hard to have anything else on my mind. I was stranded in Cleveland for the storm itself and only made it back to Queens for the aftermath. My neighborhood and my apartment are fine, but many people I love and neighborhoods I know are not. Friends had water in their building lobbies up to their waists; others sat in the dark apartments while they could hear Ground Zero filling up with water. Buildings shook, tress came down, subways became underground oceans–it could have all been much worse, but we were hit hard.

Particularly the Lower East Side, a neighborhood that’s like my second home. In addition to the flooding and downed trees, residents of Lower Manhattan have been without power for nearly a week. After going out in the midst of the hurricane Monday night, the streets were dark until just last night, when the lights finally came back on.

Life has been on hold for a week, and it’s finally starting back up again. In celebration, I’ve decided to write about one of my favorite restaurants on the Lower East Side: The Nom Wah Tea Parlour.

Now Wah is the oldest restaurant in Chinatown, founded in 1920 It’s on Doyers street, on Chinatown’s south border, bumped up next to New York’s courthouse and government district, and a stones throw away from the old Five Points neighborhood. Walking up to the mouth of the street, it doesn’t look at place in the City. It’s not a part of the neat and orderly grid laid out in 1811; it predates it. It’s a single lane, that climbs a small hill; a short street, only a block, that bends at a wonky curve in the middle. That bend used to be called the “Bloody Angle;” this area wasn’t such a nice place in the early 20th century.

The entire effect is not unlike an Escher painting. It’s so old New York, that an inside source told me the sewer system isn’t even part of the city sewers–they’ve got their own, pre-government, antiquated sewage system.

Right at the crook in the street is Nom Wah; it’s only had three owners in its long history. The most recent owner, Wilson Tang, is young and hip; he took it over from his uncle and is dedicated himself to keeping tradition alive, as well as helping the business grow. The interior has remained largely unchanged since the 1950s, and the cash register counter has been there since the beginning.

The restaurant is a Cantonese tea parlor that serves dim sum,–or, various small plates of food meant to be shared. It’s a way of eating that has become more popular in America with immigrants that came from Hong Kong in the 1980s. It’s traditionally thought of as a brunch food, but Nom Wah is open until 10pm, for a new generation that “doesn’t want to get up early.”

The menu offers more than 50 different types of dim sum. I visited with my mother and an old friend from high school, and they put me in charge of ordering. I did well in terms of the types food I choose, but poor in terms of quantity. The menu in unclear how many of each item comes in one “order,” so by ordering three servings of everything, I ordered enough food for a small army. Oops. Be sure to ask your server for help in this regard.

The original egg roll.

In terms of what to eat, get the pork bun. It was our favorite–a sweet, yeasty steamed bun filled with savory, saucy pork. A close second was the egg roll, which Nom Wah claims to have invented, and is the delicious grandfather to a modern fast food roll. An egg crepe is stuffed with chicken and vegetables, and then rolled and fried, resulting in a particularly crisp, richly satisfying egg roll.

If you live in New York, the businesses here will need you. In areas that have been without power, they have lost a week’s worth of income, and their employees a week’s worth of work. Post power outage, Nom Wah has opened its doors again. So grab a group of friends, and get some dim sum. It’s cheap, it’s warm, it’s comforting–and it’s the perfect back drop to share our stories, and our bitching, about the last week.

The History Dish: Rice with Maple Syrup (Hong Sooy Un Doy)

Let’s say it’s 1880 and your in-laws are in town.  They want to “see the real New York.”  So what do you do with them?  How about a tour of Chinatown!

Long before the endless stalls of knock-off handbags, Chinatown of the late 19th century was a tourist destination.  Gangs of middle-class city visitors would swarm to the Lower East Side to take guided tours, in which they might peek into an opium den, shop in import stores, or meet one of the “Irish Brides” of the mostly male Chinese population.

The tours were meant to titillate, even to shock.  You were descending into a “foreign” country,  just a few blocks below Houston Street.  I often wonder how these visitations were received by the immigrant Chinese population: some, I’m sure, took advantage of the situation for financial gain.  Others, perhaps, were even able to chuckle at the awe-struck outsiders.  But how does it really feel when your neighborhood is filled with tourists, ogling and judging your way of life?

The tour would always end in one of Chinatown’s many eateries to grab a bowl of Chop Suey, a mix of pork, chicken organs, and vegetables which was considered the height of exoticism at the turn of the century.  You can watch me (poorly) cook a turn-of-the-century recipe for chop suey here.

My colleague Bill Wander recently had an article published  in Asian Fusion magazine, all about these “slumming tours” as they were known at them time.  He did a little investigating into what a Chinese restaurant was serving at the turn of the century:

“The Oriental Restaurant at 3 Pell St in 1903 featured the inevitable “Chop SOOY” for 15 cents and a small chicken chow mein for forty cents. Birds Nest soup and shark fin soup were $1.50 and $2. respectively. The menu was ala carte, with rice or bread and butter at 5 cents. But the most unusual item on the menu might have been “Hong Sooy Un Doy” – Rice with maple syrup – 10 cents.”

You can see the full menu here.

Rice with Maple Syrup–I was intrigued! I like rice! I like maple syrup!  And who has ever heard of that flavor combination before?  It reminded me of a dish my mother used to eat when she was a kid: cooked rice in cold milk with sugar and cinnamon.  Sweet rice, in my mind, is associated with rice pudding.  To see it so simply dressed with sweet condiments, rather than savory, seemed unique.

So I cooked a pot of rice according to this recipe and drizzled real maple syrup on top.  I dug in with a pair of chopsticks.

My first thought was “hot ice cream!”  It had the creaminess and sweetness of ice cream, but with a comforting warmth.  But after a few bites, the flavor became monotonous.  It’s an interesting idea, but perhaps it needs some improvement.  Perhaps a maple-pecan-bourbon rice pudding instead?  Or maybe, a maple-ginger rice pudding; or maple-sezchuan-peanut rice pudding, to pull out the dish’s Chinatown roots.  Now that’s worth thinking about.


Community Eating via Buca di Beppo

From the Buca di Beppo facebook page.

One of my colleagues at the LES Tenement Museum is collecting oral histories from Chinatown.  This excerpt about eating caught my attention:

Interviewer: I remembered when I came to this country, one day I was dining out in a restaurant in Manhattan Chinatown. I saw lots of people ate with a fork on a plate. I wasn’t very used to it. In Taiwan, we only used plates to collect bones we didn’t want.
Interviewee A: Ah…..that’s right.
I: In Taiwan, we ate from small bowls with chopsticks, not from plates with forks. (A & I laughed)
A: Yes, that’s a big difference.
Interviewee B:  In Chinese culture, we share dishes with everyone sitting at the table. The Westerners prefer to have their own dishes.
A: They prefer that everyone orders their own dishes and eats it separately.
B: It is individualistic. Sharing a dish with someone else is not something that would come to their mind first…… this is a cultural..uh..uh..
I: Cultural difference.
A & B: That’s right.
This conversation immediately reminded me of my experience with the opposite circumstance: seeing communal eating for the first time.  Sometime in the mid to late ’90s, a Midwestern chain restaurant called Buca di Beppo opened in the mall near my home town.   Offering “Italian Immigrant Cuisine,” the restaurant served  family-style meals: large dishes were brought to the table for everyone to share.  I remember my friends patiently explaining to me that I could not order my own, personal dish of cavatelli, that the table had to work as a whole to decide on several dishes everyone might enjoy.  As silly as it feels to me now, I know that night was the first time I had eaten out at a restaurant where the table ordered together and shared the food, as opposed to every individual ordering their own plate.  The concept was completely new to me.
Being young, I picked up on the method after the first time, and thereafter could laugh along with my friends when we told exasperated stories of how our parents and grandparents just didn’t get it.   I remember family members getting truly irritated: “But I want stuffed shells!” “Grandma, you’re going to get stuffed shells, but it’s too much for one person.  You share it with everyone.”  Many of my relations vowed never to return to that terrible restaurant, where they couldn’t order their own food.
Culinary historian Hasia Diner remarks on American eating habits in her book Hungering for America, a look at immigrant foodways in the United States.  Diner attributes the habit of eating individually to the bounty on food available in the US as compared to the relatively poor fare of the Italians.   She quotes the oral history of an Italian immigrant from the 1920s who said ” (back home) The meal was one dish, from which the entire family ate; here there is a variety of food and each person has his own plate and eating utensils.”
I believe that Buca di Beppo was the first chain restaurant to introduce communal eating to a main-stream audience.  It’s a way of dining that I still see as relatively uncommon in midwestern restaurants.  Since my teenage experience there, I’ve eaten Chinese, Indian, Greek and Ethiopian food;  styles that culturally require you to share dishes with the whole table.  Buca is not the perfect restaurant, but I do believe it gave me my training wheels to understand how other cultures eat communally.
Has anyone had a similar (or different) experience eating out?

NYHS: The Chinese Festive Board

I haven't decided if this image is racist or super racist.

“It would be well perhaps if we first altered some of our preconceived notions regarding the Chinese diet.  Many people think that the Chinese live entirely on rice; some believe that rats also occupy and important place on the daily menu.  Both ideas are mistaken and should be discarded.” – Corinne Lamb

In our ongoing look at the culinary holdings at the New York Historical Society, today we explore the The Chinese Festive Board published in 1935 by author Corinne Lamb.

Written by a woman who seems to have lived in China for a number of years, it’s one of the earliest books I’ve seen on Chinese cooking in China (as opposed to Chinese-American cuisine).  The first half is all about Chinese dinner customs and the second half is an extensive recipe book.   Lamb also includes helpful vocabulary for ordering in Chinese restaurants.

The tone of the book’s writing is bizarre: it simultaneously condescends to Chinese culture, while praising the deliciousness of its food.  The author straight-up uses ethnic slurs throughout the book.  Keep in mind, this is a time in our nation’s history when immigration was banned from China.

The book is a window into another era and we are definitely looking through the lens of an American perspective on Chinese life.  The recipes are interpreted to use ingredients readily available to an American housewife.  I decided to throw a 1930’s Chinese dinner party, following a sample menu from the book, as well as her description of a formal Chinese dinner party.

Below, a menu Lamb describes as a typical dinner in the home of a middle-class Chinese family:

Dinner parties, the author points out, were nearly always given in restaurants, and were nearly always for men alone; but since I wanted to cook and eat the recipes myself, I decided to bend the rules a little bit and have the party in my own home.  First, an invitation was necessary.  Lamb provide an example of one in her book, printed on an elegant piece of rice paper that had been gently pasted into one of the pages (see left).  Translated, it says: “The fifth month, the twenty-third day, one o’clock in the afternoon ‘the cups will be cleaned and your presence will be awaited’.  Mr. Ma Lien-liang respectfully writes: ‘The feast is arranged’ outside of Hataman Gate, Bean Curd Lane, No. 7.”

I should have mailed a beautiful rice paper square to my guests, but instead I just texted them.  They accepted: two friends from Brooklyn, Brandon and Madeline, the latter of whom spent a year living in China for work.

They came over on Friday evening, and while I finished prepping the food, I fed them peanuts and cups of green tea, which Lamb describes as the proper way to begin a feast.  Then, just before I began cooking the food, we sat down for a round of drinking games.

Lamb says drinking takes up only the earlier courses of the meal and is set aside once substantial foods come out.  The drink of choice is Chinese rice wine, which Lamb describes as being close to sherry, and Madeline describes as “gross.”  The liquor store didn’t have it, so I selected a nice bottle of sake, that I poured out in handsome shot-glasses, for lack of the appropriate vessels.

The game of choice in China is hua ch’uan, or “matching fingers”, a drinking game still played to this day.  It involves two people throwing fingers, similar to rock-paper-scissors, and each player “loudly shouts his estimate of the total number of fingers shown on both hands.”  If one player guess correctly, the other has to drain his glass.  Examples of hand positions are below:

It’s harder than it seems.

Madeline also mentioned that beer was now an equally acceptable drink in China, which Lamb mentions was gaining popularity in her time.  Madeline also said that drinking now seems to last through the entirety of the meal, accompanied by a tradition of toasting:  Madeline toasted me for having them over, and we both drank.  Madeline toasted Boyfriend Brian as well, and they both drank.  I toasted Madeline to thank her, and we both drank… and so on.  After we ran out of sake, and turned to beer, it begun to feel a little bit like a power hour.

Then, thankfully, it was time to eat.  Lamb describes her recipes as coming “…Mostly from well known restaurants in Peiping…”  known today as Beijing, in the north-east of China.  I got four pans going on my stove top, three melting lard, one with olive oil, and continued to play the drinking games while I cooked.  The recipes seemed so simple that they couldn’t possibly be delicious, let alone authentic.  But I was ready to find out.

Homestyle Chinese spread.

My menu was as follows, based on the recipes Lamb provided in her book.


I was nervous about this recipe, it being vastly different than the “one cup of rice to one and a half cups water” formula that I know of.  But I tried it, using my big Calphalan pot with the inset strainer.  And the rice turned out just as promised: not too wet or gooey, not too dry either.  Just perfect, with every grain an individual.  I was amazed.

Fried Pork Balls

I made these slightly differently, after looking at another of Lamb’s recipe for Pork Meat Balls.  I rolled them and then squashed them flat, which let me use less lard to cook them and allowed a greater surface area to get crispy.  These were hands-down my favorite.  Crispy on the outside, soft and tender in the middle; so savory with an appealing texture.  I ate the leftovers for the next two days and I would absolutely make them again.

Sauteed Leeks and Pork

String-Beans and Pork

The sauteed pork dishes were the favorites of my guests, who loved to combine them both in one bowl of rice.  The soy and ginger made a lovely sauce, and the string beans were cooked to perfection.

Eggs and Mushrooms

There wasn’t a recipe for this dish in Lamb’s book, so I created one based on the recipe she gives for “Scrambled Eggs with Shrimps.”

6 eggs
1 cup mushrooms, sliced
3 tsp Chinese Wine
2 tsp lard
1 pinch salt
1 pinch black pepper

With a pair of chopsticks, beat eggs thoroughly. Add salt, pepper and wine and beat again.  Heat the lard in a frying pan and sautee the mushrooms until tender, then add the egg mixture, and cook as you would scrambled eggs.

On Chinese wine, Lamb says “It will be noted that many of these recipes call for Huang Chiu. or Chinese wine.  Sherry is recommended as a substitute.  With the repeal of the 18th amendment it should not be long before Chinese wine will be available in every American city, and when that is so its use in in preparing Chinese food will be found preferable.”  It wasnt’ available at my local liquor store, so I used a Japanese plum wine that taste very much like sherry.  This, mixed with the eggs, was AWESOME.  I don’t even like eggs, and I hate  mushrooms,  but this dish was just as good as everything else on the table.  The wine was really a star when mixed with the eggs.  It was a surprise.

We ate in the way lamb suggests, Family-style, using only bowls and a pair of k’uia tzu, or “quick little boys,” or better known here as “chop sticks.”  We topped big piles of rice with the sauteed dishes, sometime two or more at once.  We ended in a very Chinese-American way with more tea and a few baked sweets: sugar cookies, lotus seed cakes, and “R-rated” fortune cookies; all of which were from Chinatown in Manhattan.

Madeline somehow found "R-rated" fortune cookies.

The food was delicious–really delicious.   But was it authentic?  I have no clue– but I’m looking in to it.

What do you think?

Appetite City: Chop Suey

A few things to know after you watch the episode:

1. I don’t know what I was talking about, or what happened with the editing, but a gizzard does not help a chicken digest “meat.”  It’s a digestion aid in general, where chickens store small stones to help them grind food.

2.  Some people enjoy the texture of a chicken gizzard.  It’s been described by people who love it as “crunchy,” which is exactly how I would describe it.  It was like biting into a meat apple.

By the turn of the century, New York had a large Chinatown, although its expansion had been frozen by the strict Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.  This law was the first to enforce a restriction on immigration in our country and did so on the basis of race.  Chinese workers, who were seen as a threat to the American economy because they would work longer hours for less pay, were banned entry to the United States.  They were not allowed to become citizens and were not allowed to send for their wives and children.

The result was a dominantly male enclave surrounding Mott street; many of the men worked and owned laundries and cooks, “female” work was one of the few jobs in which they could find opportunities.  Chinatown became an object of fascination for New Yorkers and tourists alike, and “slumming” parties (their words, not mine) were led through the neighborhood, complete with a guide and police escort.  In addition to viewing an opium-smoking demo, groups were almost always taken to the Chop Suey houses.  As a result, Chop Suey became a faddish dish in America.  By the 1920s it was an avant-garde dish for dinner parties, accompanied by an exotic “show you” sauce.  By the 1950s, housewives across American were stocking their cabinets with bottles of  Kikkoman and the dish became a weeknight staple.

The recipe I used for chop suey comes from a 1902 newspaper article that William Grimes dug up in his research for the book Appetite City.  You can read the full article, reprinted in the Pittsburgh Press, here.  Although the dish seems to be invented here in America, it’s one of those iconic foods whose origin is shrouded in myth.  Many stories exists, none of them seem to be factual.  But perhaps there wasn’t a single origin point; it seems more likely that America’s Chop Suey is the logical descendant of dishes available in China that use up little scraps of everything.  Perhaps no one before had named the adaptable stir fry that became so iconic to Americans.  From the Evening Post:

“Chop suey, the national dish of China for at least twenty-five centuries, bids fair to become a standard food in this country.  There are some 60 Chinese restaurants scattered over the different boroughs of Greater New York, whose cheif attraction is this popular composition, and several American restaurant have endeavored to take advantage of its popularity by adding it to their daily bill of fair.  There is a rediculous amount of mystery concerning the dish.  It is simple, economical, and easily made.”

Give it a try, and decide for yourself.


Chop Suey
From the New York Evening Post, 1902. 

1 lb pork
2 chicken livers
2 chicken gizzards
1/4 lb celery
1/4 lb canned mushrooms
1/4 lb bean sprouts
4 tb oil
1 tb chopped onions
1/2 clove garlic
white & red pepper
Worcestershire Sauce or Shoyu (Soy) Sauce

1. Make rice.

2. Cut pork into 1/4 inch pieces. Dice chicken livers and slice chicken gizzards.  Slice celery; finely chop onions and garlic. 

3. Put oil into a skillet over high heat. Add meat, celery, and fry until lightly colored.  Add 1/2 cup boiling water, onions, garlic and seasonings.  Cook approximately five more minutes, or until nearly tender, stirring constantly; then add mushrooms and bean sprouts and cook two minutes more.

4. Add a teaspoon shoyu sauce and serve over rice.