Bob and I just spend an entire day in Flushing wandering the streets and visiting Chinese restaurants and grocery stores with our friend, Jacqueline M. Newman, Editor-in-Chief of Flavor & Fortune magazine, the only English-language magazine about Chinese food and cuisine. www.flavorandfortune.com
While Manhattan’s Chinatown is an important historic neighborhood on the lower East side which became the new American ‘home’ to one of New York’s major immigrant populations in the late 19th century, Flushing is now the ‘new’ Chinatown and where the most interesting restaurants and best markets are located.
Flushing has what Chinatown Manhattan lacks – a vibrant food scene comprised of intriguing, small, family-run restaurants that feature the ethnic cooking of several of China’s lesser-known cuisines, such as Fujianese, Dongbei and Hunnan. Each time I visit Chinatown Manhattan I am disappointed by the dull and jaded vibe of the place. So were were happy to have the opportunity to spend time in this new environment and see what is going on.
There is only one train stop in Flushing, so immediately one is thrust out into a very busy street that is lined on both sides with food shops. We enjoyed wandering in the markets, where we watched speedy fish mongers gut and clean sparkling-fresh seafood of all stripe, and where crowds of shoppers quickly grabbed first of the season fresh lychees.
Larger restaurants are located on street level ( and even these are relatively small ) but there are also independantly operated food stalls located here and there in pockets of space located one level below the street. As we ducked through a doorway and headed downstairs we entered a world of smaller ( and more clastrophobic ) versions of the hawker foodstalls in Singapore.
Here, cooks were busy and customers milled around waiting for their food. Most food we eyed was cooked to order, and in fact, the dumplings and hand-pulled noodles were made from scratch each time an order was placed. From the various stalls one could choose from rich brothy soups, noodle dishes embellished with vegetables, meat or fish, and all manner of hand-rolled and stuffed meat dumplings. The smells were enticing, and more than one hungry shopper flopped onto a chair to slurp a quick bite. Others left with a multitude of containers that had been gathered from several stalls, perhaps to bring food back to work for co-workers to share or to stock the home fridge.
We went above ground for lunch to two places that Jacqueline particularly wanted us to try. First up at Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao, where no one spoke English. But fortunately she visits Flushing often and knows her way around. And, as we learned, simple menus are available in English, but the bland descriptions did not do justice to the vibrant and delicious food.
Here, we had glorious pork and crabmeat Shanghai soup dumplings that were rolled, filled and steamed ( in the tiniest kitchen imaginable ) while we waited. Soup dumplings are served piping hot, and it takes a little manuvering to sip the hot soup from the dumpling without dribbling the hot broth down the front of your shirt and or scalding the inside of your mouth.
While we would have been content sitting there eating these luscious, thin-skinned dumplings, other dishes were calling. Next up was a visit to Golden Palace Restaurant, a very non-descript, a dime-a dozen-looking Chinese food kind of place. But, this restaurant is run by a couple from the northeast region of China known colloquially as the Dongbei region, and they serve the unusual and delicious food from their distinctive homeland culture.
We started with a platter of their sour cabbage filled house dumplings. The dough was thicker and coarser dough than the previous dumplings, and not as elegantly pleated. But the flavor was tasty and delicious, and quite a change from familiar meat fillings. Next, we had a hot and spicy green chile and potato dish ( made with long, noodle-like strands of potato ) which is another vegetable that is enjoyed in the northern part of China but one that we had never encountered in our travels around China.
But the most glorious dish was the crispy flounder with chili pepper, which came to the table garnished with a layer mouth-watering and spicy chili paste. The paste featured scallions and cumin as well as chili, and it was absolutely stunning and very distinctive; not too hot but very spicy, and reminsicent of something that one would be served in Turkey or Morocco, not China. I hope the next time we visit this dish is still on the menu !
For those who wish to learn more about Donbei cuisine, Jacqueline has written a very detailed and interesting article titled: China’s Dongbei Cuisine, which is featured in the Spring 2009 issue of Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture.