...continued from Part I
One of the most fascinating aspects I enjoy in regards to Chinatown, are the grocery stores. And the reason I find such joy in rummaging through them is because they really give you a glimpse into the traditional foodstuffs and expose the cultural tastes of a particular ethnic group.
I also find that foodies generally tend to veer away from the grocery aisles and congregate more towards the places where they can actually see, smell and get an immediate taste of the food on hand. Purchasing a sealed can of preserved duck liver, sight unseen of what lies within, is only for the most adventurous sort.
If there's one aspect of myself I find quite reassuring, it's the fact that unless all foodstuffs in all forms disappear from the face of the earth in one grand swoop, I will never starve.
That fact slaps me in the kisser like the cold hand of reality each time I walk into an ethnic grocery store and pick up something like a container of Almond & Fish snacks (shown at right) and audibly hear myself utter, "Um, these look good."
But truthfully, I don't think there is. I'm just not squeamish about any aspect of being at the top of the food chain.
But even so, that doesn't mean that even I don't consider some things odder than odd on the odd scale.
Take for instance, those darling little dried anchovies (shown at left) which can be bought by the family snack-pak, containing eight perfectly portioned packages.
Where are these eaten? And just who eats these as a snack?
For some reason I have a hard time envisioning groups of Chinese school children pulling these out of their backpacks at recess and munching on them through toothy grins.
Am I that far out of touch? Am I that misguided? Other than myself (and admittedly, I'm a human garbage disposal), just who eats this stuff?
I am a seafood lover. In any way, shape or form, fish is by far my favorite protein. Keep the steak, keep the burgers, keep the poultry - I'll take fish every time.
And on some level, I can't help but feel Asians are of similar mindset.
But even so, in wandering through the aisles of an Asian grocery store, I realize they truly take fish to the "nth" degree. They package it, deliver it and consume it in ways you could never imagine, and some ways that just seem downright odd.
If there's a way to stuff a fish into a can, jar, container, bag, bottle or receptacle of any kind, they'll figure it out. Any when they can't, they simply dry it out. It's like fish-on-the-go!
In all sincerity, I'm perhaps being slightly dramatic as I do not find their methods of packaging seafood products all that odd.
I grew up in an authentic Italian household, and similar fare graced our tables on a regular basis, particularly over the holiday season.
Dried, smoked, canned, jarred or preserved fish was no stranger to my home.
We would eat what is called Bacala, which is nothing more than dried and salted cod fish. Stiff as a board, it would have to be soaked overnight (and sometimes longer) to get rid of the salt content it absorbs to preserve it, as well as to soften it up in order to make it edible.
And there was hardly an antipasto that sat upon the holiday table that didn't contain smoked oysters, smoked mussels and anchovies wrapped around capers, all having been delivered from sea to table via a can or a jar.
My point is, odd as this all may seem, it is no more out-f-the-ordinary than my own upbringing may appear to another ethnic group.
Veering from the canned good section, I meandered to a portion of the store that displayed neat rows of dried fish of all varieties in Plexiglas shelves. Beneath the shelves, were more rows of dried fish displayed in clear plastic bins.
If you stood back and gazed upon the scene as a whole, it held the appearance of one big, colorful edible mosaic.
But come closer, and the beautiful hues of the dried seafood products burst forth.
I remember as a child, breaking off a piece of Bacala and sticking it in my mouth as my mother's shopping cart slid past. For me, its salty goodness was a treat along the lines of a sea-going pumpkin seed.
On this day, forty-something years later, I'm somewhat ashamed to say I fought back those very same urges. However, this time thought better of it and refrained.
Of particular impressiveness were the dried shellfish. There were numerous varieties of mussels, oysters, conch along with various types of snails.
My mind started racing with all the possibilities for the wonderful fish stocks I could prepare using this array of ingredients. But that would be on a subsequent trip; another tale for another time.
My senses were completely alive in this environment and I was particularly taken by the marvelously colorful hues emanating from a bin of New Zealand Dried Mussels (shown at left).
There was so much to take in at this market. So much I inspected and enjoyed.
I'm going to save you the boredom of details and focus on a few of the highlights:
But by now, the pangs of hunger were returning ever so slightly and if browsing food aisles was to be the order of business, I wanted it to be food aisles where they encouraged you to taste. And I knew just the place...
Aji Chiban deals in dried and cured specialty items that encompass everything from miniature dried crabs and pork jerky to salted kumquat and dried ginger to preserved rose petals and preserved olives. And anything and everything in between is there as well.
And the greatest thing about this place, is they actually have sample bowls of everything they stock and encourage you to taste before purchasing.
Always crowded, the store often resembles one large tasting party.
Going right to the crab bin, I was delighted to find tasting samples were available.
Labeled as "Dried Crab", they were perhaps no bigger than a quarter. I was mesmerized by their tiny size and couldn't help but smile. I looked them over and noticed a seasoning which felt slightly sticky. With no reservations, I popped one into my mouth and bit down with a crunch. And then another.
It was slightly fishy, but not at all unpleasant. The predominant flavor was definitely of the sweet/salty variety.
As a side-note before I move on, something happened between that first bite and my next bite the next day.
You see, I got home and put the bag of crabs in the refrigerator. When next I opened the bag, I was hit with a magnificently strong, putrid fish odor. Perhaps it was a reaction of the coldness or perhaps it was just the smell of that many of these little buggers together in one place. But they stunk.
However, never one to be put off by smell, I popped one in my mouth. Ugh! I tried another. Blech! At this point I thought that perhaps these weren't the taste sensation I initially imagined them to be nor did I like them as much as I thought I did.
On this visit, I breezed passed those little fellas and decided to focus on all the other goodies. I began with the proteins.
I tried a number of items in this regard like Dried Sweet Codfish and one form of cod of particular note; a round waffle-like patty perhaps 1/8" thick.
It tasted almost like a "fish matzo".
For me, the highlight among the dried meats was the Pork Jerky. I never before experienced it and it takes on a different form than more common jerked meats like beef, venison, elk, or even turkey, in both look and texture. There seemed to be a more cured or smoked element to it, that when coupled with its sweet flavor, was extraordinary.
Moving from left to right, there were bins which held an array of dried fishes.
The dried offerings came in the form of squid, cod, whitefish, teriyaki fish, ginger fish, fish strands, crabs (which I previously touched upon) and a number of others, including my personal favorite - Dried Fish Satay.
Now, because I say it was my favorite, doesn't deem it scrumptious. It was just the best among the bunch - for me. Like the other fish offerings, it had a prominent fish odor and a flavor that could only be enjoyed in small quantities.
Again, it's not something I would snack on in front of the TV watching Seinfeld reruns, but it was a unique flavor sensation I enjoyed trying.
Once past the dried fish, there were a group of bins which held the tastiest items in the shop - beans and nuts.
Seasoned legumes and nuts abounded in a variety of offerings - spicy chick peas, dried peas, sweet and sour nuts; but by a wide margin, the most delectable item in the store were the Wasabi Cashews.
These monster-sized cashews were coated in a wasabi coating that was perhaps, the greatest wasabi coating I've ever had. I say this because we're all familiar with wasabi tears; you know, "bite down and cry."
Rather, every morsel exuded a smooth wasabi flavor in each bite. Also, atop each nut's coating was a dusting of some sort of powdered salt which gave it a "bet you can eat just one" quality. I couldn't.
These are a must have for any visitor.
Moving from the nuts, I began tasting a variety of dried items which I normally enjoy the flavor of - ginger, kumquat, mango - but these offerings I found mainly unpalatable.
And it wasn't due to the fact that any one taste particularly bad, but rather, their flavors were so much more concentrated in dry form that they were impossible to enjoy, and ultimately, swallow.
For instance, items like the ginger, which I normally love, tasted like ginger X 1000 and created a very unpleasant, antiseptic mouth feel.
However, there was one gem I discovered in the bunch; Preserved Rose Petals.
It had a beautiful, bold color and its flavor was far more subtle than I anticipated; fragrantly sweet.
The texture it exuded when bitten into, I can only describe as a crisp Gummy Bear, and its delightful, floral-like scent escalated in your mouth in a most pleasing manner when you chewed it.
Again, it's not something I could consume regularly or in large quantities, but it was quite the pleasant surprise.
The last row of items featured some of the oddest offerings with some with the most potently concentrated flavor I experienced all day - Preserved Olives.
There were a variety of these olives; green. black, yellow, white, large, small, and in truth, although I am an olive lover, none seemed very appealing to me. In fact, they brought to mind dried testicles.
But like the trooper I am, I tried each variety, and some twice for verification.
I relate here, none were better than any other.
Leaving Aji Chiban, it was time to wander next door to N.Y. Chung Chou City at 39 Mott Street to check out their large stock of teas as well as their array of dried fish, roots and herbs. But that will be covered in the next installment of - Odd Eats! Chinatown, New York City.