Friday, October 15, 2010

Farewell, Wonderful Chinese Food of New York! Farewell!

It is with a heavy heart that I bid farewell to the Chinese restaurants of New York. In a few hours I willbe soaring in the skies above Newark, NJ on my way back to Budapest, to poppy seed pastries, lard bread with onions, toxic red sludge, and Chinese food that couldn't hold a candle to the stuff we have been cramming down our hungry faces here in New York. The last week here has been crowded with dim sum, fried noodles, wonton soup, and fortune cookies with orange slices.We began just outside of the city, taking my parents to the Silver Pond Seafood Restaurant in Fort Lee, New Jersey, just across the George Washington bridge from Manhatten. Silver Pond fills up early on weekends with Chinese families out for the weekly dim sum feast, and they do an excellent job of it - the clams were perfect, the classic shiu mai light and shrimpy, and they even had fried soft shell crabs.I don't think there is any place in Budapest or any place east of Paris that even comes close to earning the title of dim sum in Europe - you have to have enough of a prosperous local Chinese community to make having a place like this viable. And then you need Jews - preferably of the Ashkenazic variety, about one generation removed from the absolutism of eating strictly kosher food. Once upon a time Jews did not eat Chinese food. That was a long time ago.
In fact, Chinese food more or less supplanted Jewish food in the Ashkenazic diet about fifty years ago - stir fried replacing long boiled, ginger replacing horseradish, wonton edging out kreplakh. There is even a well researched academic paper out that can be downloaded in PDF form entitled Safe Treyf - "New York Jews and Chinese Food: The Social Construction of an Ethnic Pattern" by Gaye Tuchman and Harry G. Levine. Beginning in the 1920s, New York Jews began eating at Chinese restaurants. Previous to that, observant East European Jews did not go out to restaurants because they did not know if the restaurant owners who claimed they kept kosher really kept kosher. But the sons and daughters of those immigrants, the first generation to be born in the United States, were a different story.One hurdle for Jews to get over was that Chinese food was filled with non-kosher ingredients like pork and shellfish. Some just held their nose and ate it, and I think after World War II, maybe in the late 1950s, there evolved this concept of “safe treyf.” Obviously, treyf is forbidden but safe treyf means it’s forbidden but OK. If you can’t see the pork in the wonton soup stock, well, it’s OK. Or if the shrimp in the shrimp chop suey is chopped up into little tiny pieces so that you really can’t recognize what it is, then it’s OK. On our last day in New York, we went out for lunch with two New York Jews who know an awful lot about Chinese food... in fact, they know an awful lot about a lot of aspects of New Yorks many Chinese communities, since Ethel Raim and Pete Rushevsky run the Center For Traditional Music and Dance, a foundation that promotes the music and cultures of New York's many immigrant communities. We met them at the Grand Sichuan Restaurant on Lexington Ave. in Midtown Manhatten where we had gone two nights before to have Sichuan hot pot for dinner. If you haven't tried hot pot, the drill goes like this: they bring out a bowl of boiling soup stock (half mild and half filled with red peppers) and you order items like fish balls, lamb, tofu, and vegetables to toss in the pot and then you fish them out with a sieve they give you and chopsticks and eat them with a variety of sauces. It's great for a party - heck, it is a party - one that leaves you splattered with hot sauce and soup.
All the Japanese papers in town rave about the Grand Sichuan's hot pot and Ma-po tofu, and theis place has been voted best Chinese restaurant in New York on the Serious Eats website as well as by Time Out! New York. So we had to see what the fuss was about. It was worth it. Pete and Ethel gave it the CTMD stamp of approval, a less than rare honor granted to only several dozen Chinese restaurants in the New York area. Incidentally, when they are not organizing cultural events, both Pete and Ethel are astounding musicians in their own right... Ethel Raim was on the of the founders of the womens singing group the Pennywhistlers, who first introduced Balkan and Bulgarian singing to American audiences during the folk boom of the 1960s. She followed that up by popularizing immigrant cultures and Balkan music in particular as a teacher and folklorist. You like Balkan Music? Ethel pioneered teaching this othwerworldly style of music to American ears. It was one of the unsung Crusades of the Great Folk Era of the 80s that we all learned how Bulgarian harmony and rythym worked from Ethel's workshops. Here the Pennywhistlers appear on Pete Seeger's "Rainbow Quest" network folk music television show around 1964 singng the now well known Macedonian folk song "Sto Mi e Milo." Ethel is the singer standing on the far right.Pete Rushevsky also gets around as one of the Klezmer scene's most active players and researchers of the small cimbalom in Klezmer music. He's been in these pages before, but never pass up a chance to spread some of his music around. Here is the lot of us accompanying Pete and Steven Greenman (Di Tsvey) for the midnight dance at the Ashkenaz festival last month in Toronto.


dan said...

I have heard about great Chinese food in New York, but have never had the luck to try it. Next time I visit, i am going to take your recommendations.

Language said...

Damn it all, I wish I were still living in NYC so I could have joined you for a couple of these outings, or at least followed in your footsteps! Both text and photos make me unbearably nostalgic (and hungry). Oh what I wouldn't give for some great mapo doufu...