A guide to Asian foods in Chinatown, NYC
Located below Little Italy and spanning from Broadway to Essex (the borders are debatable), Chinatown is a bustling area with tons of restaurants, cafes, and outdoor Asian markets. In this growing neighborhood, people will come across authentic Asian dishes and ingredients that can’t be found anywhere else in the city. Coming from a Chinese background on my mom’s side, I’m pretty familiar with Chinatown’s cuisine, but I can understand how non-Asians may find some of the traditional products to be a bit intimidating, or even downright weird. If you’re a newbie with an appreciation for food, travel and culture, here’s a guide to Asian foods in Chinatown.
Don’t be fooled by most of the dim sum menus uptown. In Manhattan, you’ll have to trek to Chinatown for the real thing. (You will find a host of authentic options in Brooklyn and Queens, however.) Dim sum, or “small, bite-sized portions,” consists of plates of food carted around while patrons select what they’d like to eat. And there’s always a pot of jasmine tea on the table.
Popular items are cha siu bao (steamed pork buns), taro cake, shrimp and chive dumplings, mango pudding, and my absolute favorite – shrimp and pork shumai. I could eat proper shumai every day of my life and be happy. They’re plump, juicy, and have an inimitable flavor.
Cream Custard Buns
Asian pastries are underrated. It doesn’t get much better than a fluffy portion of dough filled with either whipped cream or a thick, eggy custard. Stop by Lung Moon Bakery or Golden Unicorn..
Durian is probably the only fruit I refuse to try. Known for its strange taste and offensive smell, this large prickly orb is an acquired taste (to say the least). Even when my friend was visiting Thailand, she noticed the cabs had clear signs on the doors that say no durian allowed.
This seafood doesn’t sound too appealing, but I grew up with this stuff in Hawaii. Salty and slightly fishy, dried cuttlefish is eaten like any other snack – right out of the bag.
I haven’t tried this (and I doubt I will), but it’s definitely a signature Chinatown find. Traditionally, duck eggs are preserved by burying them (along with a salt mixture) for several months. The result? A strongly-flavored egg with a dark yoke and a brown, jellylike surrounding. (For the most adventurous eaters only.)
These bumpy, cucumber-like “fruits” are everywhere on Chinatown’s sidewalk produce displays. They also live up to their name in the sense that they taste extremely bitter. But for anyone who wants to give it a shot, my grandmother used to stir fry bitter melon with preserved black bean sauce.
If you watch Fresh off the Boat, you should know this one. It’s fermented bean curd. Enjoy.
I was obsessed with jelly cups as a kid. These bite-sized treats come in single-serving cups; and when you peel off the lid, you get a shot of jellylike goodness with a small piece of fruit in the middle. The texture is similar to Jell-O, but denser, and the flavors include mango, strawberry, and coconut. My favorite is the lychee, which I like to freeze for an icy version.
Special Hard Candies
Shop around the sweets section at any Chinatown supermarket, and you’ll find specialty hard candies imported from overseas – all, with fun and colorful packaging.
Many markets sell dried mushrooms, but Chinatown carries certain types that you won’t find in most places. These mushrooms are also one of the secrets behind that certain “umami” flavor you get in many Asian dishes.
My grandma loved these. They’re individually wrapped, and a combination of sweet and salty. Beware of the pit in the middle.
You name it, you can find it in Chinatown. Ginseng, dried persimmons, and chrysanthemum are only some of the herbs that can be used to brew medicines and teas. If you have a certain ailment, it might be worth looking up which Chinese herbs can help.
Have you experienced the abundance of Asian foods in Chinatown?