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Food Adventures in Chinatown

April 4, 2011

A few weeks ago, I was at the dim sum place I’ve been going to for pretty much my whole life on Elizabeth Street, when something shocking happened. I saw a dish that I had never seen before. It wasn’t that it was just a different kind of dumplings, or potentially one of those scary parts of an animal that come around now and then. I had never seen anything like it and couldn’t begin to imagine what it could be. The best I can describe it is that they were greenish-red balls on a stick. I know that makes them sound really appetizing, but I was fascinated. The Chinese group we were sharing a table with had two sticks of them. The best I could guess was they were some weird Asian vegetable, or maybe some kind of meat. Under certain circumstances, I might’ve just asked them what they were, but I was with someone I hadn’t seen in ten years, and I was trying to pretend that I wasn’t awkward. So, I waited for them to come around on the carts, but they were nowhere to be found. Disappointed, we left after a perfectly delicious but utterly normal dim sum meal. Then, a block down on Canal Street, I saw they being served from a street meats cart. I hesitated, but since I was trying to remain under that veil of normalcy, I decided I wouldn’t insist on stopping to try mystery meat on a stick right after we had just stuffed ourselves.

But, I couldn’t get them out of my head. I needed to know what they were, at least. Then, oddly, a day or two later, one of the food blogs I read, Food in Mouth,  posted about a sweet they found in Chinatown that looked exactly like the mystery dish, only if they were bright pink and candy. Apparently, it’s called tanghulu, and it’s four fruits from a Chinese hawthorn tree dipped in melted sugar and then rolled in granulated sugar. Wondering if maybe I had seen the savory version of a Chinese hawthorn fruit lollipop, and since the author is Chinese and I thought he might be able to help me anyway, I commented asking if he knew what they could be. He wasn’t sure, so I convinced myself I discovered something really exciting.

I didn’t have anything to do today, so I decided to go on a food adventure in Chinatown because, yes, I was still thinking about these mysterious balls. I strolled down Canal Street, keeping an eye out for hot street carts. The only ones I found, though, were selling halal meats, hot dogs, or these little cake things that I’m assuming are Chinese versions of beignets. Starting to feel desperate, and knowing that I couldn’t mime balls on a stick without getting arrested for public indecency, I resorted to the other go-to for communicating with people who don’t speak your language. I drew a picture. I showed it to a couple of vendors, but they all looked really confused. I started wondering if maybe I had hallucinated this dish, or if maybe it was this really elusive ingredient that was only in season for two weeks and now its time on U.S shores had come to an end. When I got home, I realized that they were probably confused because it kind of looked like I was asking them where to find anal beads.

Then I wondered if it was some weird ingredient that us whiteys didn’t care for, so the street vendor had decided to go sell them in the heart of Chinatown instead. So, down I ventured, making a pitstop at Prosperity Dumpling (46 Elridge St) for 5 pork dumplings ($1) and a sesame pancake the size of my face ($1) to accompany this treat, if I ever found it. I walked through the street market on Forsyth St, right along the Manhattan Bridge, but it was just a bunch of vegetable stands (with star fruits and dragon fruits that were hard to resist, but I decided they’d wait for another adventure), and one lonely street meat stand that looked like it was only selling the standard shish kababs of chicken or “lamp.”

I headed to the grocery store under the bridge, thinking that they might have them there like rotisserie chickens at Shoprite. Right next door, I stumbled across someone selling tanghulu! Of course I had to try one, especially at $1 a pop. Why not eat dessert first?

When I handed the lady my dollar, I asked her if she knew where I could find “the green, savory version of these.” She got mad at me, turned, and walked away. (No, I do not know why I thought a woman I knew couldn’t speak English would understand the word “savory,” but I figured it was worth a shot.) Anyway, back to the tanghulu. It was a little strange, but I didn’t feel so bad for not loving it since even the guy from Food in Mouth wasn’t totally enthusiastic about them. The fruit was weird, and had a crunch to it that made me a bit uneasy. What was especially odd was they got less appetizing the smaller they got. The first one was fine, but after the second one I decided to just suck the sugar off the last two, because I’m really healthy. The fruit sort of resembled lychees, and I decided that it would be awesome to make this same candy with lychees instead. Om nom.

I puttered through the grocery store, but to no avail. I had basically given up, and started my walk back to the park on Chrystie Street to eat my plain ol’ dumplings. But wait! As I passed by the street meat cart on Forsyth Street, there was a long line of people waiting and I noticed, among the skewers of chicken and lamp, THE BALLS ON A STICK!  I practically skipped to the back of the line, and when it was my turn I pointed to one of them simmering on the grill. When he handed it to me (for $1), I tried to play the game one more time by theatrically shrugging my shoulders and asking, “Chicken?” I was fully prepared to go down the whole list of possibilities, but he caught on, shook his head, and said “Fish.”

Fish balls! Of course! It seems so obvious now. I guess I had always filed them so strictly under Vietnamese food that they never even came up as an option in my mind for Chinese food. But still, I had never eaten fish balls before, so it was still exciting. I rushed over to the park for my little feast.

They were so. good. Whatever the spice mixture he sprinkled them with was, it gave them the perfect amount of heat, and the texture (which I had always expected to be kind of mushy and icky) was really satisfying, kind of like Swedish meatballs. I do wish they had ended up being something more exotic,  but, hey, they were tasty, and in the end that’s all that matters. I’m just glad I know where to find them now, and even how to ask for them.

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