5.31.13 Orient Express

Chinatown 790 xxx
photos by gluttonforlife
It was a sweltering day in the city yesterday but I had a bee in my bonnet about getting down to Chinatown to score some young ginger. I was so inspired by this post but I despaired of getting my hands on the right ginger, and then a Japanese friend told me the Chinatown street vendors had it. Having lived in close proximity to New York City's Chinatown in my time, I'm quite familiar with how the heat ratchets up its already heady perfume and by midday it was quite ripe. But so were the beautiful tropical fruits!

It's been two years since I was in Asia (remember?) and I yearn to traipse through sultry streets to foreign markets where unknown produce is piled high and the sweet scent of tuberose mingles with those of smoke, sweat and cooking. How amazing it is to feel like a visitor in an exotic land just walking up and down Canal Street. If you've never shopped for mangoes, yellow chives or fresh lychees down there, you must treat yourself to the experience.
Ginger 790 xxx
the young and the restless
The young ginger was the first thing to go into my bag. You can see how its tender golden flesh peeks through ruddy skin that is suprisingly thin and papery. It's much more succulent than older ginger. I can't wait to use it in everything! I may pickle some for this salad.
Rambutan 790 xxx
strange fruit
G is mad for rambutan, the juicy and translucent white fruit hidden beneath a hairy reddish skin. They taste of the tropics, with a sweet, mildly acidic flavor not unlike grapes. Inside is a single glossy brown seed that can be eaten raw or cooked, though we never have.
Lychees 790 xxx
bundles of joy
My personal favorite is the fresh lychees, which I love icy cold. The rind is bumpy and leathery—almost reptilian—and the flesh is pale and translucent, much like that of the ramubatan, though the flavor is much sweeter and more floral. For thousands of years lychees were the great favorite of Imperial China. Lie back popping them into your mouth on a summer's eve and feel like a pampered concubine.
Crabs 790 xxx
crab walk
Canal Street also has many seafood purveyors and this seems to be a moment for crabs! I was fascinated by the blue-clawed beauties with their egg masses exposed. I never buy anything here any more because the provenance seems very unclear and I have become quite picky about that sort of thing.
Crab legs 790 xxx
leg it
I will say that these king crab legs and much of the other seafood looked and smelled very fresh.
Crabs 2 790 xxx
shell game
Wax apple 790 xxx
wax apples
I almost always discover something new when I venture into Chinatown. Yesterday, it was these fascinating wax apples (Syzygium samarangense), native to Malaysia and prized all over Asia and India. Transfixed by their lustruous sheen, I bought just one for a taste. (75 cents) It looks like a cross between an apple and a pear but is like neither. Inside it has very crisp, watery flesh that is a bit spongy like a watermelon. It is not sweet but has a pleasantly refreshing quality. I crunched my way through one but didn't buy more.
Jackfruit 790 xxx
hit the road, jack
Jackfruit is actually related to the mulberry family. It bears a light similarity to the very stinky durian but is actually a totally different fruit. Beneath its thick pebbled skin is a starchy, fibrous pulp that tastes something like a banana, pineapple and apple combined. It can be cooked when young, but ripe jackfruit is naturally sweet and is often used in desserts. 
Cherries 790 xxx
so cherry
Lots of people were buying cherries, shipped in from California, but I will try to wait for our local ones in July. (If I can bear it.)
Shrimp 790 xxx
I was thrilled to come across a shop selling these dried shrimp. There were several bins of them out front, each holding different sizes of them. I like the ones that are about as big as my thumbnail. They are perfect for green papaya salad and for adding a bit of savory funk to stir-fries and other Southeast Asian dishes.
Greens 790 xxx
leafy greens
A vast assortment of greens includes different kinds of spinach, bok choy and watercress, and there are usually gorgeous long beans and herbs.
Bundles 790 xxx
bundle up
Bundles of steamed rice and bags of fried tofu are the closest thing you will see to fast food here. I've been known to pop into one of the bakeries for shrimp chips or a rich and filling pork bun, but these days that's not my thing. Too worried about where that pork comes from.
Water chestnuts 790 xxx
new chestnuts
Besides the ginger, I'm most excited about coming across these fresh water chestnuts. Always a fan of the canned variety, I can only imagine these will be crisper and more delicious! It's amazing what you can discover when you venture beyond your usual haunts. Most cities have a Chinatown, so I recommend a visit soon to expand the possibilities in your kitchen. Or at least so you can feast on fresh lychees!


Hi Laura, Good to hear that you got these!!
tomo on May 31, 2013 at 2:12 pm —
Thanks for the tip, Tomo!!
laura on May 31, 2013 at 2:30 pm —
Oh, where to start? I love me a grocery safari as you know, and that is one of my prime locations you speak of. Brought my son home a wax apple last time I was there! We love a lychee/rambutan festival around here--have you ever had a mangosteen? There is a woman growing ginger here in the Berkshires and it is ambrosial--yet another reason for you to visit come summer! And as for a fresh water chestnut--Millie introduced me to those and they are heaven. Is there a word limit on these comments???? xo
janet on May 31, 2013 at 6:52 pm —
Not for you! Wax away to your heart's content. Will be by soon for some of that ginger. xo
laura on May 31, 2013 at 9:51 pm —
Wonderful! Thank heaven for Chinatown. I have had a bag of those tiny shrimp in my freezer for a month and keep saying I will do a green papaya salad with them. Do you have a recipe? Do you think a mandoline would shred the papaya properly?
David on May 31, 2013 at 9:31 pm —
I promise to post the definitive green papaya salad recipe very soon. And, yes, a mandoline works!
laura on May 31, 2013 at 9:53 pm —
Thanks for the inspiration! I'll definitely go to our chinatown to see if I can find some of that young ginger and a few of these other treasures.
Mily on May 31, 2013 at 9:54 pm —
Wok on!
laura on May 31, 2013 at 9:56 pm —
Hey, you found it! And a lot of other wonderful things... You've got me craving exotic juicy fruits now. The loquat trees here are bursting with fruits. May have to head out in the dead of night with some clippers and poach a few...
cultivated days on May 31, 2013 at 10:11 pm —
Oooh, loquats! My grandmother had a tree in Southern California and made jelly every year...
laura on June 1, 2013 at 7:33 am —
Loquat jelly?! A family recipe!? Is it secret...??
cultivated days on June 2, 2013 at 5:19 am —
Tragically, I think she took it to her grave, though I will check with my sister to make sure.
laura on June 2, 2013 at 7:11 am —
http://malaysianfoodguide.com/2007/04/30/tropical-fruits-jambu-batu-and-jambu-madu/ It's different kind of guava named in malay is Jambu Madu.
Lim Lynn on July 23, 2013 at 9:58 pm —
Huh, you're totally right! Turns out that, like guava, wax apples are part of the Myrtaceae family. Thanks so much!
laura on July 23, 2013 at 10:59 pm —