The history of Chinese immigrants and citizens in California is long, complicated and not entirely pretty. Like every nonwhite immigrant group (and many white ones), the Chinese were treated as second-class citizens. Quotas were low and citizenship was especially hard to obtain. Furthermore, there were restrictions on family members; the vast majority of early immigrants were men, living alone or in groups, but almost always without women.
Many arrived for the Gold Rush in the mid-19th century and stayed to build the railroads. Then followed a kind of Chinese diaspora spreading eastward and scattering small groups of immigrants throughout the United States. Discrimination and outright racism drove many of them to establish independent businesses, including laundries and… restaurants.
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If you walk in the east side of the recently renovated Grand Central Market in downtown Los Angeles, you are confronted by the snaking lines at the trendy Eggslut, which sells, as far as I can tell, glorified Egg McMuffins. If you enter on the west side of the blockwide building, however, you come across a time capsule: China Café, a lunch counter that serves Chinese-American food — egg fu yeung (a.k.a. egg foo yong), chow mein, chop suey and other old-fashioned former standards — to a clientele of mostly Latinos and hipsters.
China Café opened in the basement of Grand Central Market in 1959, and moved upstairs sometime later. (The best guess seems to be the early ’70s.) The menu hasn’t changed much over the decades, making it an island of Chinese-American food in the 4,000-square-mile sea of Los Angeles County, home to what is probably the continent’s widest variety of authentic regional Chinese food.
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On the advice of two friends, I wandered one day into Spicy Village, in Manhattan’s Chinatown, a restaurant that politeness prevents me from describing as anything other than “modest.” I stopped by a couple of years ago to have the not-at-all-bad $2 pork sandwich, a pile of sloppy-Joe-ish pork served on light, crisp bread baked by the proprietors — Wendy Lian and her husband, Ren Fu Li — but I rarely thought of it again.
This time, however, I ordered, as I’d been instructed by my friends, the No. 7, the Spicy Big Tray Chicken. It arrived on an aluminum tray (you eat it on a foam plate with a plastic fork or chopsticks), a mound of chicken nearly afloat in a bath of dark, spicy sauce that contained star anise, Sichuan peppercorns, chile, garlic, cilantro, a few mystery ingredients and . . . potatoes. This was like no other “Chinese” dish I’d had before.
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When “The Hakka Cookbook” appeared last year, I immediately set up a cooking date with its author, Linda Lau Anusasananan, who lives in the exotic and far-flung city of San Mateo, south of San Francisco.
The book’s subtitle is “Chinese Soul Food From Around the World,” which could mean almost anything. The Hakkas are sometimes thought of as the Jews of China, because they’re dispersed all over the place. But the Hakka people cannot even point to an original homeland (sources say “north-central China,” but that’s a big place), and the word Hakka roughly translates as “guest families.” These are itinerants, and you can find Hakkas everywhere. “Some people call us dandelions, because we thrive in poor soil,” says Anusasananan, who was born in California. She has also traveled widely to learn new recipes for the book.
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I first ate dim sum in 1968 at Nom Wah, on Doyers Street in New York’s Chinatown. (The place is still there.) The appeal of the service style was immediate and tremendous — why couldn’t every meal be an uninterrupted stream of small, exotic dishes brought to you on a gleaming (or at least functional) cart? I’m quite sure that I said, either on that visit or one of the frequent ones that followed, “Someone needs to do this with non-Chinese food.”
Tasting menus and tapas bars came close, but nothing quite captured the spirit of the dim-sum cart. Until last year, when State Bird Provisions opened on Fillmore Street in San Francisco.
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By Alaina Sullivan
In the time that it takes to wait for take-out, you could already be sinking your chopsticks into this savory stir-fry. Nothing more than pork and greens dressed in a garlicky soy-lime sauce, it is not only weeknight-dinner easy, but also a foundation for any number of variations (each more delicious and more fun than any take-out version). I used red chard here, but any green is fair game (bok choy, spinach, mustard greens, kale and collards are other great options).
The trademark flavors of lime juice and soy sauce create a bright, umami-rich sauce. If you want to give it extra kick, toss in a bit of lime zest and some crushed red pepper flakes. I also added a drizzle of toasted sesame oil (and sesame seeds too) for some nuttiness and extra crunch. Recipe from How to Cook Everything: The Basics.
By Alaina Sullivan
Asian and Italian cuisines aren’t often combined, but here’s a recipe that brings them together. Take the concept of Italian cannelloni – large, round tubes or squares of noodle, stuffed and baked (typically with cheese and a sauce). Instead of using fresh pasta (which most of us don’t usually have the time to make), swap in an Asian equivalent: the wonton wrapper. Commonly associated with the crispy exterior of dumplings or egg rolls (which are made from a larger version), the paper-thin noodle can just as easily be repurposed for stuffed pasta (think: ravioli, tortellini, cannelloni, etc.) Boiled or baked, wonton wrappers function much the same way as their Italian counterpart.
In this recipe, ricotta – a classic pasta filling – is mixed with fresh sage, Parmesan, salt and pepper. You can easily swap in any herb you like, but sage is particularly nice. Tomato sauce makes a classic accompaniment, but you can also enjoy it as I did – drizzled with balsamic vinegar and a generous amount of fresh black pepper (plus more grated Parm). Recipe from Mark Bittman’s Kitchen Express.
Heat the oven to 400 F. In a bowl, mix together a cup of ricotta cheese, a tablespoon of chopped sage, salt, pepper, and grated Parmesan. Put about a teaspoonful of this mixture in a wonton wrapper; roll into a tube, and put on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Brush or spray with olive oil. Bake for about 10 minutes, or until the wontons are crisp. If you don’t have tomato sauce to warm up, serve drizzled with balsamic vinegar and sprinkled with lots of black pepper.
By Alaina Sullivan
The combination of quick-fried tofu, sautéed greens and Thai-inspired peanut sauce brings a ton of texture and flavor to the plate. For the greens I used baby bok choy, though Chinese broccoli, tatsoi, or Napa cabbage, alone or in combination, would work just as well. The tofu (which you want to be as dry as possible) is pan-fried, which browns its exterior while the inside stays warm and soft. The peanut sauce is thick and rich, with tangy notes of soy sauce and lime. Recipe from Mark Bittman’s Kitchen Express.
Crisp Tofu and Asian Greens with Peanut Sauce
Slice firm tofu into strips or cubes and pat dry; roughly chop a bunch of the greens. Pan-fry the tofu in some vegetable oil until it browns on all sides, about four minutes; remove tofu from pan and pour off all but a little of the oil. Add the greens and pinch or two of red chile flakes, and continue cooking until the vegetables turn dark green, about three minutes. Mix together a half cup of peanut butter, a couple of tablespoons of soy sauce, and fresh lime juice to taste; add a bit of water if necessary to get a nice consistency. Add the sauce to the pan along with the reserved tofu and toss to coat. (You may not need to use all of the sauce, depending on how much greens/tofu you have). Garnish with crushed peanuts and serve.
By Alaina Sullivan
Departing slightly from the traditional dim sum version, this shrimp toast is made up of thick shrimp paste baked (not fried) on top of crusty bread. Scallions, soy sauce and sesame oil provide the classic Chinese flavors (I added some garlic and ginger for good measure.) Sesame seeds, scattered over the top, toast in the hot oven until fragrant and crunchy.
The moisture from the shrimp paste will inevitably leech into the bread as it cooks, so it is important that you pre-toast the bread initially to avoid an overly soggy middle. However, part of the magic of the dish is how some of the juices seep through, forming a delicious glue that fuses the shrimp and the toast into one perfect bite. Recipe from Mark Bittman’s Kitchen Express.
Sesame Shrimp Toasts
Heat the oven to 475 degrees F. Slice a baguette in half lengthwise, put the halves face up on a baking sheet, and set them in the oven while it heats. Put shrimp (about 20) in a food processor with some butter, scallions, soy sauce (about 2 tsp), a few drops of sesame oil (about 1/2 tsp), and a pinch each of sugar and salt. Pulse until the mixture forms a chunky paste. Smear the shrimp past all over the bread and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Bake until the shrimp paste is pink and cooked through and the bread is crisp, about 10-15 minutes. Cool a bit, then cut up and serve with a salad.
Makes: 4 servings
Time: 25 minutes
An unusual side dish that’s lovely with a nice piece of salmon or other full-flavored fatty fish. You can grill the bok choy instead of searing it if you like.
Other vegetables you can use: bok choy, Napa cabbage (cut lengthwise into long spears), endive (halved lengthwise), or radicchio (quartered).Recipe from How to Cook Everything.