A Very Brief Introduction to Food in Chinatown

Some of my favorite neighborhoods in any city are the Chinatowns.  Since childhood, not only have I been curious about the Chinese characters, but also the grocery stores, wet markets, and traditional Chinese medicine dispensaries.

Even though I’ve spent a significant time in China and Hong Kong, I still get a kick out of how easily one can find certain products a short train ride away.  So, here’s your crash course on some staples – and specialties – that might be at a Chinatown near you.

Chinese dates
A Pile of Chinese Dates, Changsha, China

Jujubes/Red Dates (红枣/hóng​zǎo)- I can’t get enough of them…the dried version, that is.  In fact, I rarely saw the fresh kind, but the dried is a nice snack, not so much if you forget that there’s a pit inside.  In China, jujubes can also be found in soups, milk and yoghurt, the latter two styles being frequent cravings of mine.  They often hail from the northwestern region of Xinjiang.   Slightly smoky, somewhat sweet and nothing like the Deglet Noors and Medjools commonly seen in the US.

supermarket jellyfish
Jellyfish for Sale, Supermarket, China

Jellyfish (海蜇/hǎi​zhé)- This is the edible variety; in other words, steer clear of the 水母 (shuǐ​mǔ)!

I’ve only eaten jellyfish a couple of times, with the first being somewhere in Manhattan in the late 90s.  It was colored orange, and you could slurp the tentacles much more skillfully than spaghetti.  Unusual texture to be sure…salty lanyard, maybe?

salted eggs
Chinese Salted Eggs, China

Salted Duck Eggs (咸蛋/xiándàn)- Looks like I was taken to one of those scam-riddled gem shops, doesn’t it?  Probably not.  Even worse, it’s a bunch of preserved duck eggs packed in moist, salted charcoal.  Because that’s a thing now.  If this hasn’t already whetted your appetite, you’ll find that the egg has become gelatinous and holds a firm, bright yolk, perfect for representing the moon.  In mooncakes.  Nasty, but only when when a salted duck egg rears its unwelcome self in the middle of one filled with taro or coconut.

Which reminds me, I’ve eaten a slew of possibly unusual foods, but a durian mooncake stuffed with a salted duck egg sounds like the edible equivalent of eating sashimi on the banks of the Ganges.

supermarket kelp
Two Types of Kelp, Chinese Supermarket

Kelp/Brown Algae (海藻/hǎi​zǎo)- more and more, I’m seeing this in health food stores, and it’s likely due to kelp’s high iodine content.  In other words, it’s possibly beneficial to your thyroid.  In other words, good for metabolism, hair and skin.  Which is to say, in ten years, this will probably be disproved, but most importantly, kelp wouldn’t know that.

turtle shells market
Turtles and Turtle Shells for Sale, Yueyang, China

Turtles (龟/guī)- A symbol of longevity, but that’s history.  Just like the turtles that used to be in those shells.  So it could then be a picture of a 鳖 (biē), a soft-shelled turtle.

Turtle shells were used historically in China to predict the future; the carapace (shell) would be heated, with the resultant cracks being interpreted by fortune tellers.  Furthermore, in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM/中药/zhōngyào ), the shells are used to “tonify” the kidneys and liver.

lotus pods seeds
Lotus Seeds, Chinese Street Food, Wuhan, China

Lotus seeds (莲子/lián​zǐ)- it’s a bonus photo, because I only found these on the street.  Seasonal yet plentiful, lackluster yet crunchy and generally not worth the small effort needed to be enjoyed.  Cheap though, and could tide you over until your next kelp turtle sandwich.  All you have to do is visit a city park and start picking away at the lotus pods.


See anything you like?

The Gac (Gấc) Fruit of Vietnam

One of the truly wonderful aspects about traveling is introducing your taste buds to new and/or fresh flavors.  Southeast Asia is no stranger to my passport; consequently, nor is its diverse array of foods nearly unknown outside of the region.

Today’s entry is about the gấc (roughly pronounced “guhk”) melon, also known as a “baby jackfruit.” This fruit is originally from Vietnam – the second part of its Latin name, Momordica cochinchinensis, refers to Cochinchin, or what some foreign countries used to call Central/Southern Vietnam.  However, the gac has also come to be planted in tropical and sub-tropical parts of Australia and China; in Chinese, it is called 木鳖果 (mùbiēguǒ), which unusually translates as tree freshwater soft-shelled turtle fruit.

The gac is a tricky one, because it doesn’t ripen off of trees, has a toxic exterior, and only the reddish aril (the extra flesh surrounding the black seeds) is edible.  Not to mention, the orange melon is typically harvested in two months of the year, December and January, thus it’s not always the easiest to find, nor the cheapest to try.

It was in Chiang Mai, Thailand where I first heard about and tried the gac, due to a menu calling my attention to it.

Yet, in order to make the gac fruit palatable – on its own the gac has more of an avocado/cucumber taste – other fruit juices have to be added.

In spite of its nearly unsweetened flavor, the gac has a couple of things going for it.  It is extremely high in beta carotene, good for your vision and immune system, and lycopene, an antioxidant; consequently, it has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries.  Additionally, it’s orange and red, red being a lucky color in its native region.  Thus, you would likely see a plate of xôi gấc, or red gac sticky rice for Tết, the Vietnamese lunar new year.

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