Boston is a city of neighborhoods and none is more vibrant and colorful than Chinatown. Step through the red and gold Chinatown gate at Beach and Hudson Streets and you’re transported into, what is for many of us, a secret and mysterious world. We join Michael Topor’s Boston Food Tours on a Chinatown Market Tour to unlock some of those secrets.
It’s already hot on this August morning when we catch up with our Chinatown tour guide, Liang (pronounced “Lang”), in front of Ho Yuen Bakery. A group of five others are gathered around her on the bakery steps as she fishes small bakery bags out of her satchel.
“These are sesame buns,” she says, passing around pieces of soft fried dough covered with toasted sesame seeds. The taste is familiar, but the texture, a bit like a soft taffy, is curious, though not unpleasant.
Then come pieces of mochi, a gelatinous Asian sweet, moon cakes, a thin layer of pastry surrounding sweet thick lotus bean paste, and coconut buns, soft, pliable and lightly sweet dough that’s filled with a dense, buttery, and sweet coconut filling. “These are my favorite,” says Liang, as she bites into the soft coconut bun.
The 20-something guide is Chinese, speaks fluent Mandarin, and recently graduated with a degree in marketing from college where she often gave tour of the campus. It’s obvious that she’s comfortable being in charge, leading us around like a pro. We follow like little ducks trundling after their mother.
“Come over here where you can hear,” she says, as we move though the door of Nam Bac Hong Kong Chinese Herbs. She speaks rapidly and my jet-lagged brain struggles to keep up, almost like there’s a time lapse between what Liang says and what my brain registers. “This Chinese herbal shop sells traditional herbs that many Chinese use to stay healthy or to cure health problems they’re having. The shop has a traditionally trained herbalist who takes patients pulses and checks the skin, gums, and eyes. Then he selects the herbs you need for a brew that you drink for a few days.”
Around us, the shop is humming with customers. Behind the counter, men and women pour or count out leaves, dried berries, and herbs onto pieces of white paper. These are the herbal prescriptions that will become healing potions.
“My mother is an oncologist,” Liang,tells us “She uses traditional Chinese herbal medicine very successfully to treat things like nausea in cancer patients. She also uses it to help patients have a good quality of life until the end, so they aren’t sick.”
She moves around in front of boxes and bags of different medicines. Some are for colds, for gout or arthritis, or for quitting smoking.
“Some people take herbs to prevent illness,” she says. “Cooking and herbal medicine are very closely related. If you use many of these herbs in your cooking, you won’t get sick.”
Next up is Bao Bao Bakery and Café. This is the Chinese version of a Western bakery and the glass cases are filled with colorfully decorated cakes, cookies, tarts, and breads. But we’re not here for bakery items. We’re here to explore the world of bubble tea, that uniquely Asian sensation that started in Taiwan and involves adding gelatinous tapioca “pearls” (water, brown sugar, tapioca) to “tea” made from sweetened condensed milk and black tea.
“Some people are put off by the tapioca pearls because the texture is a little strange,” she says lining up cups for us to sample the taro, almond, and coconut bubble teas she has ordered for us. “I just tell people to think of the pearls like gummy bears. Once you relate them to something familiar to you, most people have no trouble with them.”
She pours about two inches of lavender-colored tea into a glass and hands us fat straws angle cut at one end. “Anyone want to try taro?” she say, offering the drink to the woman beside her.
The woman takes a tentative sip and smiles. “I didn’t know what to expect,” she says, “but it wasn’t this. It’s sweet, but not overly sweet. I like it.”
Liang nods, pouring some of the beige almond tea into cups. “A lot of people have tried poi, the taro paste served in Hawaii and they don’t like it, so they’re reluctant to try taro bubble tea. But starchy vegetables are very versatile and they change dramatically depending on how as you cook them.”
She passes around samples of the bubble tea and we sip, hesitantly at first, then more enthusiastically. One man in the group has trouble getting bubble pearls into his straw.
“Don’t be afraid to really suck it up,” Liang instructs. “Bubble tea is a meal inside a beverage. The pearls are very starchy, so it’s like a little snack. It lets you slurp, and drink, and chew at the same time.”
Soon we’re doing just that. Sip the tea, slurp up some pearls into the fat straw, and then chew. It’s unique and feels fun. The almond tapioca pearls, about half the size of marbles, have an intensely nutty almond flavor and a texture like, well, gummy bears. The almond tea has a softer almond flavor that’s slightly sweet and quite delicious.
Before long, we’re trading cups back and forth among members of our group, eager to taste the next flavor. The taro issurprisingly fruity, with a soft sweetness. The coconut tastes like fresh coconut.
Back out on the street, we pass a window with a small Buddha statue covered in cigarette butts. “This is a Chinese alter,” says Liang. “Can anyone guess why this statue has all those cigarette butts on it?”
“Does someone want to quit smoking?” a woman from Georgia offers.
“No, Chinese are elder worshipers,” she explains. “Our ancestors link us to the gods and talk to the gods for us. The altars honor relatives who have passed and they’re “fed” fed every day with things the elder liked in this
life. In this case, the ancestor probably really liked smoking. There are also oranges on the alter. That’s to sweeten the tongue so that the ancestors will say sweet things about us to the gods.”
We move into a small shop where a woman is pouring what looks like pancake batter into a looking waffle iron that has a couple dozen small, egg-shaped cups. The woman ladles the batter into the cups, closes the iron’s top, and then turns the iron so the little egg puffs bake evenly. In just a few minutes, she opens the iron and turns out a sheet of dough that looks like little brown baked eggs.
Liang hands the woman $3 for a sheet of the eggs. “These are the best pancake bites ever,” she says, passing around a brown paper sack with the dough. We break off three or four and pass them to the next person. “You don’t need butter, jam, or syrup and they’re a very popular street snack.”
I pop an egg puff into my mouth. It’s warm, with slightly crispy edges, and a soft, custard-like center and tastes like tiny sweet waffles.
Before we have time to eat all the egg puffs, we’re heading down the street to the C Mart Supermarket, the largest Chinese market in Boston. This is a whirlwind tour and Liang is keeping us hopping from one business to another, all the time adding tidbits of information as we walk along.
The grocery store is packed, mostly Asian shoppers moving through the aisles. Liang stops at the dairy case and says, “Many Chinese people are lactose intolerant, which is one reason why we developed soy milk. It’s a cheap, easy protein substitute. Chinese soy milk doesn’t taste like Silk you find in other supermarkets. This soy milk has a really clean, refreshingly nutty flavor.”
She moves through the vegetable department, pointing out fruits and vegetables I don’t recognize. Some are brown and gnarly, others are spiky, or wrinkled, or glass smooth. She points out durian, the “king of fruits,” a football-sized fruit that’s covered with fierce-looking spines and smells like garbage. “Durian is a savory vegetable,” she says. “The smell is very oniony, but the inside is sweet and tastes like the best custard you’ve ever eaten.”
One of the woman in the group nods in agreement. “If you hold your nose, it tastes sweet.”
Liang shows us dragon fruit, with its layers of bright pink skin, rambutan, a red fruit the size of a large marble that tastes like grapes, and Leeche fruits, a floral, sweet-tasting fruit.
She snaps the neck off a yam to show us the bright purple flesh inside. “These yams are really high in licopene, believed to be associated with longevity. People in Okinawa eat a lot of these yams and they often live to be 100 years old or more. You’ll pay $4 a pound for them at Whole Foods while they’re $1.79 in the Chinese grocery store.”
She moves through the store like a whirlwind, pointing, fingering, explaining. Standing in front of dozens of bottles of oils and sauces, Liang tells us that Asian cooking has four “magic” sauces: cold pressed peanut oil for frying, sesame oil for finishing dishes, black rice vinegar, (tastes like a cross between balsamic and Worcestershire sauce) for marinades and dipping sauces, and light and dark soy sauces (dark for slow cooking and sauces; light for all purpose cooking).
An African American woman who’s been staring at the wines for several minutes, notices Liang’s obvious knowledge and interrupts. “Could you help me?” she asks. “I don’t know what kind of Chinese cooking wine to get.”
Liang asks, “What are you cooking?”
When the shopper responds, Liang says, “Oh, you don’t need that wine. You need rice wine vinegar.”
She leads the woman down the aisle and helps her find the right brand.
Dim Sum: Point to the Heart
My stomach is growling by the time the supermarket tour wraps up and we head for our last stop, Hei La Moon Restaurant, one of the largest and best dim sum restaurants in Chinatown. Dim sum is China’s version of small plates. Waitresses push carts filled with bamboo baskets or plates of dumplings, buns, meats, rice, nd rolls. You point and server delivers the dishes, marking what you’ve purchased on a sheet.
“Dim sum means ‘point to the heart,’” explains Liang. “So just point to whatever your heart desires.”
Shu mai, delicate steamed dumplings filled with pork and vegetables arrive and we dip them into a light brown sauce. They’re followed by pillowy BBQ pork buns, lotus wrapped “tamales” of glutinous rice with chicken, deep fried dumplings, paper thin spring rolls-crunchy with shrimp and lettuce.
Each dish tastes fresh, distinctive, and surprisingly delicious. My taste buds are singing.
We wash down our treats with hot green tea. The sound of dim sum carts and diners eating and talking creates a din in the large restaurant, but we don’t mind. It only adds to the excitement of the place.
Liang passes around the last dish, pieces of green mochi, the gelatinous sweet treat. It’s filled with a yellow custard. I take a bite. The texture of the mochi is soft and silky with a bit of chewiness, but it’s the flavor of the custard that’s heavenly, like a soft vanilla pudding. “What is this?” I ask. “It’s wonderful.”
Liang beams at us. “It’s the durian we saw in the supermarket,” she says. “I told you it was delicious.”
— by Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor