Thursday, June 12, 2008

Pretty Lady's 'Recessions are FUN' Cookbook: #2, The Chinatown Solution

Welcome, darlings, to the next edition of Pretty Lady's Poverty Cooking! This week, we will deal with an oft-overlooked source of budget-conscious gourmet dining: Chinatown.

But, Pretty Lady! you say with alarm. There's no Chinatown where I live, you Big City Wench. No fair!

Really? Have you checked?

Chinese people are Not Stupid. They have a way of finding peaceful communities with low rents, they tend to cluster, and for obvious reasons a great many of them prefer not to live in China. Pretty Lady highly recommends that, if you are not aware of the existence of a Chinatown in your community, or a China Block, or a China Corner, that you start looking for one, pronto. Many rewarding adventures, and excellent meals for nickels a serving, could be yours as a result.

When in Chinatown, one must first simply allow the wonders to wash over one's head, in a vast wave of mini-tourism. One must not attempt to parse, too quickly, the large buckets of live seafood, the baskets of sinister-looking dried things, the rows of exotic fruits and vegetables, the jars of strange sauces and revolting-looking tofu, the teas, the herbs, and the good-luck trinkets. One just stands in the middle of it all, appreciating, and trying not to get mown down by little old ladies carrying six bags of vegetables in each hand.

Then, when you have recovered a bit, you start making Experimental Purchases.

Experimenting in Chinatown is one of life's great joys, because everything is so inexpensive that you never take too great a risk, unless you decide to start with Royal Tea. All you do is purchase a $2 jar of something or other, open it, sniff it, and mix a teaspoon of it with some stir-fried veggies over rice. It may be dreadful, it may be divine; life is full of surprises!

To start out with, Pretty Lady will provide her Basic Chinatown Shopping List.

Essential Condiments:
bottle sesame oil
bottle tamari (or low-salt soy sauce)
jar of chili-garlic sauce

These three bottles may very well last you the next three years, unless, like Pretty Lady, you think that everything goes better with chili-garlic sauce. An excellent, fast, easy way to use these essentials is to boil up a pot of noodles (rice or regular), throw in a few veggies and some lumps of tofu, drain, and douse with about a teaspoon each of sesame oil, tamari, and chili-garlic. The result is sublime, and the whole thing takes less than 15 minutes.

Essential Vegetables:
Japanese eggplants (the long skinny ones)
Green beans
Napa cabbage
Baby bok choy

These particular vegetables are notable for either soaking up things like black bean garlic sauce until they are juicily redolent of same, or holding chili-lime-sesame sauce with satisfyingly crunchy tenacity. The eggplants, green beans, scallions and mushrooms may be stir-fried in whatever sauce you're trying this week; the cabbage is best when washed, dried, chopped and doused in a torrent of beef, chicken or tofu which has been marinated and saute'd in a sauce made of lime juice, olive oil, apple cider vinegar, soy sauce and chili-garlic sauce.

Don't bother measuring amounts, just fling them into the bowl with wild abandon.

Essential Carbs:
rice noodles
jasmine rice
frozen pot stickers (excellent for heating up rapidly when Not In The Mood To Cook)
egg-roll wrappers (excellent for playing with when Really In The Mood To Cook)

One fills an egg-roll wrapper by putting a spoonful of meat and/or veggies, all cooked together in a sauce of your choice, in the center of the wrapper, folding it over, and sealing it with a little water pasted down with your finger. Then you sauté the egg rolls in a little oil. Your friends will think you are a genius.

Essential Teas:

Jasmine tea in particular makes a wonderful iced-tea, sweetened with a little honey. Green tea iced with milk is out of this world. If you are so lucky as to pass by a shop which sells bubble tea, try it. (Iced green or almond with milk and black tapioca pearls.) It is the favorite food of Japanese adolescent girls for a reason.

Essential Dinner Out:
Peking Duck
Mu Shu Vegetables

If someone else is willing to do the labor-intensive cooking, once in awhile, and not charge exorbitant fees, why complain?


Anonymous said...

Right on! I've felt this way for years, living first in NYC and then Philadelphia. A good Chinatown is a major asset to any city, and by far the best place to stretch your food dollar!

Also, soup dumplings are the best thing ever. Just sayin'.

Anonymous said...

Oh! Chinese candy and other assorted nibblies!

Sometimes, when I have been teaching a class of young folks, I like to go through the snack aisle and pick up a random sampling of treats. I take them to class and put them out and tell the kids that if they try something and they don't like it, they can toss it. Very rarely some child will bite into something and screw up their face in absolute distaste. Most of the time, this has been a great way to get kids talking and they love the colors, designs and packaging.

Did I mention that they are cheap?

MacLaren said...

You're absolutely in high-end groovy territory. For a long time I've been sampling Chinese culinary treats via the local oriental markets. It's amazing how much food you can get for a small amount of money. I regularly buy jasmine tea in tins. It lasts... and lasts... and tastes great. Not to mention it has a nice clean buzz, unlike coffee.

Good post.

MacLaren said...
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