Dirty Sugar Cookies and Vegetarian Dim Sum

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When Ayun Halliday asked me to participate in her Dirty Sugar Cookies virtual book tour, I began to question how best to host someone virtually. Would I build a virtual platform and invite a virtual audience? Would there be a virtual punch bowl and virtual karaoke? No, this didn’t seem right.

So I turned the tables a bit. I asked her if we could go from virtual into actual and meet in real life for a meal. She said: “Sure!” and then suggested a million places. I narrowed it down to one: the Vegetarian Dim Sum house in Chinatown. We would meet there on Friday, June 9th, at 1 pm. I’d be the man in the large yellow hat with a pink flower pinned to my nose. I found her waiting for me on a bench just inside the door.

Ayun (pronounced Ay-in, like “Ann” with a drawl) recruited me to Chinatown because she read my post where I burned my mouth and wanted me to give it another chance. I’m very glad I did: my quick walk through daytime Chinatown on the way to meet her was quite charming. The Vegetarian Dim Sum house is on Pell Street with seems to be in the heart of it all. On my way, I passed fishmongers, lychee mongers and mung mongers (just kidding—I don’t even know what mung is. But wouldn’t it be fun to be a mung monger?) I love that I can hop on the N/R train, get off at Canal street, hop a few blocks east and find myself in such an exotic environment. I need to make that journey more often.

Anyway, back to Ayun. We greeted one another (she admired the flower pinned to my nose) and then we followed the hostess to a table. Ayun said she loved this place because she’s a vegetarian and at other places in Chinatown you never know if you’re getting meat even when you order something with just vegetables, but here you could be sure. She lifted the piece of paper on the table and began checking off boxes:

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This wasn’t the type of dim sum place where they come around with carts—it’s more like a sushi place where you check off what you want. Ayun suggested a few things, asked about a few things and then deferred to me for a few things. My first choice–“House Special Corn Congee”–just sounded cool. I had no idea what it was. Here’s what it was:

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Chinese grits! I loved the texture (kind of a cross between oatmeal and creamed corn) and Ayun and I agreed it would be soothing on a cold winter’s day. This was more like a hot spring day, but we didn’t mind.

Soon arrived our other choices: (from left to right) Half-Moon Pieces, Monk Dumplings, Treasure Balls with Assorted Flavor (that’s quite a name!), Rice Rolls with White Fungus and Golden Mushroom.

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My favorite were the monk dumplings because they were the easiest to eat and packed the most flavor. Ayun had her way with the rice rolls, which I found difficult to lift with chopsticks and she mocked my lack of facility. “I mock your lack of facility!” she said.

Something was missing, though.

“They forgot the sweet and salty dumplings!” Ayun declared with alarm.

Soon they were brought out. Here’s Ayun modeling them:

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They’re like savory doughnuts. Of course they’re good because anything fried tastes good.

For dessert, we had Ayun’s favorite: mango pudding. [Notice the artful spoon display.]

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“Mmmm,” she said. “Isn’t this good?”

It was good. Creamy, not too rich, and studded with sweet squares of mango. I could see the appeal.

And so what of our conversation? What did we talk about in our real-life non-virtual meeting? Well we talked theater (Ayun’s husband is one of my heroes, he wrote the book for Urinetown which is the musical I most wish I had written myself), we talked about past loves (guess what! Ayun dated Stephen Colbert in college…yes, that Stephen Colbert…color me impressed) and how cute her kids are. (She flashed photos from her wallet.)

And of course we talked about her book. I read the beginning and it’s lots of fun–colorful, full of life and energy just like Ayun. [I plan to read the rest when I finish the book I’m almost done with, “Operation Shylock” by Philip Roth—I have a love/hate relationship with it. Sometimes it’s hilarious and moves really fast and other times it goes on and on and on and I’m like “ok, Phillip, I get it–things are tough in Israel.” But I digress.]

We finished up our meeting with a visit to a Chinatown cookware store where they sold giant woks and chopsticks by the plastic bagfull. I bought a cheap mortar and pestle (what shall I crush in it!?) and one of those things you can put into hot oil to pull out whatever you’re frying, I forget what they’re called. Ayun bought something too and now I forget what. I’m forgetful at the end of this post. But what I won’t forget is that we had a great time and it was a pleasure hosting Ayun on her virtual/not-so-virtual book tour. Go buy her book!

Mouth Scars and Fortune Cookies: A Chinatown Dinner at New Green Bo

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I am embarrassed. I have lived in New York for two years now and how often have I taken advantage of the cultural opportunities just outside my door? How often have I journeyed up to Queens for Greek food or to try the famous arepas from the mythical arepa lady? How many Indian supermarkets have I been to? How many jaunts have I made to Chinatown?

The answers are humiliating–especially for a self-described foodie such as myself. The last question especially: my food writer heros (Calvin Trillin in particular) wax poetic over Chinatown like it’s a food lover’s paradise. And what’s the answer to that last question–how many times have I been there since I moved here? Once–for the video I shot with John and Lisa last year. Only once! I hang my head in shame. I’m no good for you—you should find yourself a better food blogger.

Or wait. Who’s that coming to our rescue? It’s Craig, the new man in my life, and he has friends from out of town visiting and meeting him in Chinatown. Would I like to come? Would I ever!

We arrive at New Green Bo on Friday night and Craig’s friends are not only at the table, they’ve already ordered. This is actually a blessing because ordering for a group this big can be a challenge. And Craig’s friends did an excellent job. There was cashew chicken:

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Fried rice:

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Some really cool noodles that had a texture unlike any I’ve had before:

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Beef and broccoli:

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Yes, it was all a success. Maybe, you might say, a bit too safe. These dishes are pretty standard American-Chinese fare. Where’s the danger? Where’s the intrigue? Where’s Kurt Russell battling a man with a puffy face?* [*”Big Trouble in Little China” reference, for those not in the know.]

Bang the gong and bring on the soup dumplings:

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Soup dumplings are all the rage in dumpling-loving communities. I have had them only once before: I had them delivered from Grand Sichuan and they arrived at my door perfectly packed and perfectly tempered. Each one was a happy soup explosion in my mouth.

“You have to be careful with these,” said Craig. “They’re VERY hot.”

I raised my eyebrow. How hot could they be?

“Here’s what you want to do,” he said, lifting a soup dumpling to his mouth. “Tear a little hole in it and then blow into the hole.” He demonstrated for us all.

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“Ok,” I thought. “I can do that.”

I lifted a soup dumpling with a spoon and as I lifted it to my face I began to wonder how they got the hot liquid into the dumpling. Did they inject it in? Did they form a little dumpling sack and ladle some in? Or didn’t I read somewhere that they make the broth into a gel and wrap the dumpling around the gel and boil it so it becomes a liquid?

As I pondered all this, I put the entire dumpling in my mouth. I bit down and the hottest liquid ever known to man squirted all over my tongue, my cheeks, and my uvula.

“Ahhhhh,” I whimpered. Craig and his friends all lifted their heads in horror.

“I told you not to put the whole thing in your mouth!” shrieked Craig.

It was too late. I was like the guy at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade who drinks from the wrong chalice. I literally expected my lips to melt and dribble down my face. Tears welled in my eyes.

When I finally got it down I managed to say: “Dah wath horrabuh.”

But everyone was too distracted eating their nicely cooled soup dumplings which they enjoyed tremendously. “Mmmm,” said a dumpling eater. “Let’s order more.”

They ordered more and I nibbled on fried rice which I struggled to lift with chopsticks. Lifting rice with chopsticks ain’t that easy. And it’s difficult to chew when your mouth is a blistering burn scar.

I suppose taking advantage of New York’s cultural opportunities takes work. On my next visit to Chinatown in 2008, I promise to be more careful.

5 Dumplings for $1 at Fried Dumpling

Let’s play William Safire for a moment and ponder the word cheap. I’m not using a dictionary here, but my guess is that cheap is defined as “inexpensive.” Therefore the opposite of cheap, it would seem, is expensive. If you call a woman cheap, it’s an insult. If you call a woman expensive, she’s a prostitute. If you call a prostitute, you’re Charlie Sheen. Wait: where was I?

Welcome to Fried Dumpling:

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It is impossible to talk about Fried Dumpling without using the word “cheap.” When Kirk led the lunch revolution again (see previous post) he suggested Fried Dumpling (after our souls were squashed by “Grave of the Fireflies” in our Animation class) saying: “It’s really cheap and the dumplings are pretty good.”

That pretty much sums up Fried Dumpling.

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