Food tours have become one of my favorite experiences in larger cities. I don’t consider myself a “foodie”, but highly enjoy cooking and trying new foods in my spare time. I discovered their existence via a tasting tour of New York City’s Chelsea Market several years ago. Food tours are designed for guests to partake in various tastes unique to local culture. They are a fantastic way to learn why certain foods are identifiable to specific locations, how select foods are prepared, and a locale’s gastronomic history.
On a recent visit to the Big Apple, my mother and I took the eye-opening “Tastes of Chinatown” tour through New York Food Tours. Candy, the Chinese-American tour guide, has resided in the United States since 1994. Since coming to America to pursue a collegiate education, Candy has led tours in New York City for several years and had a profound grasp on daily life in Chinatown. She explained Manhattan’s ethnic neighborhoods, once distinct areas based on ethnicity of immigrants and common languages, have slowly dissolved into multicultural areas since the early 20th century. Chinatown, however, is an exception. The culture remains concentrated around Canal Street and the Manhattan Bridge because of the Chinese language’s sharp contrast to English and the tourism factor.
This specific tour focused on Chinatown foods that reflected a variety of cooking styles based on various geographic regions in China. This concept is remarkably similar to American culinary sectors (New England clam chowder, southern fried chicken, New Orleans po’ boys, etc.). Certain areas in China are known for regional specialties, spices, and cooking styles. Americans are mostly familiar with Cantonese-style Chinese food, which originates in southern China and is more commercialized on an international level. It also uses less spicy ingredients, providing the consumer with milder tastes.
We made several stops inside Chinatown establishments an average tourist might miss if he or she even blinked.
- The Chinese dumplings at Tasty Dumpling on Mulberry Street can be filled with meats or vegetables; they are commonly eaten as appetizers to larger meals with optional soy sauce.
- Bayard Street’s New Beef King specializes in Chinese jerky, a delicacy of semi-dried pork or beef cut into strips and marinated in a variety of spices. While American jerky is typically dry and difficult to bite into, the Chinese prefer theirs moister and “juicier” according to Candy.
- The Chinese pancakes with green onions at Bayard Street’s Deluxe Green Bo Restaurant are delicious and come with a sweet sauce to pour on top. These resemble larger versions of American hash browns, which are eaten for breakfast or a snack.
- We visited two places for drinks. The Chinese are famous for tea, so naturally we stopped in the famous Ten Ren’s Tea Time on Mott Street for black, green, and fruit tea samplings. (I had visited this establishment during past visits to the Big Apple. It was here I discovered Chinese tea with “bubbles”, which are tapioca-jellied balls at the bottom of the glass.) We also stopped in Mango Mango Dessert on Bayard Street for an authentic mango smoothie. Since southern China is tropical in climate, many fruits are plentiful and used in foods and drinks.
- The melon cakes at Golden Fung Wong Bakery were unlike anything I ever tasted. Candy pointed out the difference between bread-based European pastries and rice flour-based, extremely soft Chinese sweets. This melon cake was about the size of my palm and was the softest baked good I ever felt. A very thin layer of pastry surrounds a light filling of winter melon and almond paste for this delicacy. This is quite mild compared to baked goods as Americans know them.
- Samplings “snacks” at Aji Ichiban right down the street from the bakery was an adventure in itself. This store’s walls are lined with little drawers filled with dried food snacks – fruits, candies, spices, and surprisingly meats (pork, beef, and seafood). Each could be sampled from a little dish on top of each drawer. I don’t recall ever having so many new tastes in my mouth at one time – my taste buds were overwhelmed! We purchased some dried plums, which were delicious.
- We stopped for a bowl of noodles with barbequed ribs and Chinese greens at Mott Street’s Big Wong quick service restaurant. Candy said places such as this were much more concerned with the quality of food than the service, which I found humorous. Indeed, the place is lively with abrupt servers and silverware only upon request after failed attempts using chop-sticks.
- Lastly, we had a quick sample platter of dim-sum at Nom Wa Tea Parlor on Doyers Street. This little place dates back to 1920 and is reportedly the first to serve dim-sum (bite-sized portions of appetizer-like food). Ours looked like dumplings we had earlier, filled with meats and vegetables with soy sauce.
Most Chinatown restaurants, markets, and stores are on the street level with multitudes of apartments and fire-escapes above. Just as fascinating as each establishment is simply taking a walk down the streets. Chinese businessmen in suits, busy shop owners tidying their street-side offerings, children scurrying about, and gawking tourists coexist in this frenzied and exciting area.
Manhattan’s Chinatown is home to the largest number of Chinese individuals in United States. Rather than whizzing by it on top of a double-decker bus or underneath on the Metro, walk the streets and venture beyond the touristy gift shops to learn its deep history. It will give Americans living proof that the United States is truly a “melting pot” of cultures, blended together through various ethnicities and cultural experiences. And, in my opinion, there is no other place in the country that embodies this trait better than the Big Apple.
For West Virginia travelers: New York City is accessible from West Virginia by air, train, and car. The most direct option for travel are flights to LaGuardia International Airport available from Charleston’s Yeager Airport with typically one-stop layovers in Washington D.C., Charlotte, or Philadelphia. Use the Canal Street station to access Manhattan’s Chinatown via the Metro or hail a famous yellow taxicab.
Visit New York Food Tours on the web at foodtoursofny.com for more information on food tours in multiple areas of the city.
Busy storefronts below various architectural apartment buildings make turning around each street corner an adventure in Chinatown.
Nom Wa Tea Parlor on Doyers Street has specialized in serving Chinese dim-sum since 1920. Dim-sum are small portions of food that resemble dumplings, filled with meats and vegetables with optional sauces.
Large containers of loose leaf teas line the walls of Ten Ren’s Tea Time on Mott Street. Customers can learn about tea history as well as purchase herbal, black, green, and fruit teas. Tea samples are available throughout the shop.
Ever wondered what authentic Chinese pastries look like? Wander inside the Golden Fung Wang Bakery on Mott Street and splurge. The melon cake in particular will give your taste buds a brand new sensation.
Step inside the Aji Ichiban snack shop to take an adventure; dried fruits, candies, and meats are the specialty here. So many exotic flavors are present that it is nearly impossible to find familiar American tastes here. Aji Ichiban is located on Mott Street near several other establishments mentioned in this article.