New York (Food) Minute

Chinese Cooking in the US: From Soy Sauce to Red Wine Lees

The variety of ingredients available has increased dramatically in just a few decades

By Kian Lam Kho

One of the biggest challenges in cooking ethnic food in the United States is finding appropriate ingredients. And that was precisely my problem when I first arrived to study at Boston University during the 1970s. Driving along US Route 1 in Saugus, Massachusetts, one could not possibly miss a huge entrance to a restaurant with an A-frame roof crowned by a Polynesian totem pole. Around the back, stood a smaller attached structure anchored by a 1950s Ming pagoda. This was the Kowloon Restaurant, which sported a mismatched architecture reflecting a mishmash of supposedly exotic Asian-Pacific food inside. It is still operated by the two generations of the Wong family and has been since they took over the restaurant in 1958.

A selection of dry goods at a market in Chinatown, in Manhattan. (Photo by Kian Lam Kho)

This confusing combination of Polynesian and Chinese-American food was the standard Chinese fare known by the locals then, and included classic dishes such as the pupu platter, crab Rangoon, sweet and sour pork, moo goo gai pan and lo mein. To be fair, there was some genuine Chinese food available. Relatively authentic Cantonese restaurants in Chinatown could be found, and the legendary Joyce Chen Restaurant in Cambridge served rather good Shanghainese and Beijing dishes. Still, I yearned for the flavors of my family’s home province of Fujian. To satisfy my craving, I turned to my family in Singapore for recipes, and sought out ingredients to make them.

A display of bottle gourds in a market in New York’s Chinatown. (Photo by Kian Lam Kho)

But alas, many of the Fujian regional ingredients were simply not available. Boston’s Chinatown at that time was mostly occupied by Cantonese immigrants, and their markets stocked ingredients predominantly for their cooking. Even then, only the most common sauces and spices were available. Soy sauce, cooking wine, oyster sauce, and hoisin sauce were readily available. Spices such as star anise, cloves, cassia bark, and dried chili peppers could be found in most markets. Curiously, Sichuan peppercorn was also obtainable in spite of being banned by the US government from 1968 till 2005 for fear that it could spread a citrus canker to American orchards. Other imported ingredients included canned goods such as bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, and mushrooms, as well as dried ingredients such as mushrooms and seafood. With limited ingredients available, I was only able to make basic braised dishes and simple stir-fries.

Then I discovered the Chinatown in New York City during the middle of my sophomore year. Encouraged by a few classmates, we drove down to the city for a long holiday weekend. Not only did I enjoy the Sichuan and Hunan restaurants that were beginning to open then, I also found well-stocked markets in Chinatown. Like a boy in a candy shop, I binge-shopped that weekend and started regular trips to New York City to stock up on hard-to-find items. Herbal ingredients for making soup, for example, were some of the prized ingredients not generally available in Boston.

Although New York City markets were amply filled with imported Asian products, they catered primarily to a Cantonese population. The introduction of Sichuan and Hunan cuisine in restaurants opened during the late 1970s by a few chefs from Taiwan stimulated the demand for more diverse ingredients. However, it was not until the late 1980s, when I moved to New York City and was pleasantly surprised by the gradual transformation of the products for sale in the Chinatown markets, that I realized a major shift was about to occur.

Celtuce, the stalk of a Chinese lettuce, for sale in Chinatown, New York City. (Photo by Kian Lam Kho)

After the opening of the People’s Republic of China in the 1980s, many new immigrants arrived from regions outside Guangdong [formerly known as Canton); Fujianese immigrants congregated along the East Broadway corridor in Manhattan, northeastern and western Chinese immigrants flocked to Flushing, in Queens, and many others from the Chinese eastern coastline scattered throughout the city. To cater to the new population, numerous new restaurants and markets opened. Produce markets started carrying a wider variety of Asian vegetables and fruits, either imported or grown locally by Asian farmers. Fishmongers also began to sell more exotic Asian seafood. This evolution significantly altered the Chinese grocery shopping experience in the city.

A fishmonger’s stall in Chinatown, New York City. (Photo by Kian Lam Kho)

For more than a decade now, I have enjoyed the ability to purchase all sorts of products from all over Asia. Red wine lees used in Hakka cooking and sweet white wine lees from Shanghai are now found in Chinese markets throughout the city. Soy products in limitless forms such as silky tofu, pressed tofu, tofu sheets, tofu skins, and tofu puffs are carried everywhere. Cooking wine comes in the common Shaoxing variety as well as laojiu (aged rice wine), white rice wine, triple-steamed rice wine, and rose-flavored wine. Because they have to carry products from all the regions of China, I can safely say that today, New York City’s Chinese markets offer a wider array of goods than most markets in China, which still tend to offer only regional goods.

Kian Lam Kho is a food writer, cooking instructor, and food consultant specializing in Chinese cuisine. His cookbook, Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees: Essential Techniques of Authentic Chinese Cooking (Clarkson Potter, 2015), won the Julia Child First Book Award from the International Association of Culinary Professionals in 2016. His blog, Red Cook, was nominated for a James Beard Foundation Award. He has served as consulting chef/menu designer for restaurants in New York City and Fayetteville, Arkansas. He teaches Chinese cooking at the Institute of Culinary Education.

You are reading:

Chinese Cooking in the US: From Soy Sauce to Red Wine Lees

Other articles in this edition of NYFoodStory: