Monday, July 30, 2012

Ready, Set, Slurp: Adventures in Chinatown

It started with a dragon fruit. "What does it taste like?" my two-year-old daughter Zoë asked after she saw a picture of the fruit. I had no idea. I'd seen dragon fruit at Chinatown fruit markets during walks through the Lower East Side, but I'd never eaten one. This provided a perfect opportunity for a downtown adventure. We would try a dragon fruit and see where else our wandering, or our stomachs, took us. Zoë took our mission seriously and asked to wear her Chinese blouse with frog buttons. I let her try on the Chinese dragon slippers my parents had given me when I was four, but they slid off her feet so she agreed to leave them at home. She also brought along her book Yum Yum Dim Sum for our subway ride.

We took the D train to Grand Street, and when we left the subway station I immediately spotted a dragon fruit at a corner market. However, I wanted Zoë to find the fruit and set the course for our adventure. And what did she notice first? Fish! Zoë wanted to see them up close, so we parked her stroller near a tank teeming with gaping tilapia, and she jumped out to examine the catches of the day. She peered into a basket of blue-claw crabs but avoided getting pinched. She couldn't resist touching the conch shells spread out like a beachcomber's treasure, and she felt a few silvery fins of fish glinting in the sun. When a customer asked for a squid, we watched the fishmonger scoop it up and let its tentacles dangle a moment before dropping it into a plastic bag. It left an inky blot on the ice where it had rested a few moments earlier.

"Now is it time for dragon fruit?" I asked. "No, it's time for soup dumplings!" We headed to Shanghai Cafe on Mott Street for lunch, and the waiters cooed over Zoë's outfit and told her, "You look like a Chinese girl!" We ordered a basket of steamed pork and crab buns, and when they arrived Zoë announced, "Ready, set, slurp!" As soon as I vented her dumpling with a chopstick, she slurped away. During lunch Zoë leaned into me and confided, "I saw a dragon fruit on the way to the restaurant." We were both delaying our dragon-fruit gratification!

After we'd finished lunch, we agreed to finally get our dragon fruit. But then Zoë discovered bins of dried sea cucumbers, which she decided made perfect stacking toys. I urged her to play gently when I noticed the price per pound of the various sea cucumbers ranged from $29 to $89. Next, we stopped to examine a durian and Zoë ran her fingers over its hard, spiky rind. I was relieved that she didn't ask what a durian tastes like, since I lose all culinary bravado when I recall stories of its infamous smell. Instead she cried, "Look, dragon fruit!" She picked one and handed three quarters to the vendor after he weighed the fruit. Then, look! "More dragon fruit!" We stopped at another vendor and Zoë chose a dragon fruit that had long, curling tendrils. After spending another 75 cents, we walked to Sara D. Roosevelt Park to eat our long-anticipated treat. We paused to watch the men playing on the handball courts and then found a spot to eat our fruit. When I cut it open, Zoë exclaimed over all of the seeds and she smiled after her first bite. I thought it tasted like an apple or pear, but Zoë felt differently. (See her comments below.)

But that isn't the end of the adventure. "I'm ready to go to the Lower East Side now," Zoë said after finishing her dragon fruit. I had told her about a LES pickle shop near the Doughnut Plant, and pickles and doughnuts are two of her favorite foods. We stopped at The Pickle Guys on Essex Street and first Zoë had what she called a "regular pickle." She ate it while perched on top of a barrel outside the store, which delighted her just as much as eating the pickle. Then we went back inside to try some pickled mango. We both enjoyed the sweet-and-sour mango and then Zoë declared it was time for The Doughnut Plant.

I had to sit out this part of the eating tour and ordered a matcha green tea doughnut to take home. Zoë, however, could handle the next round. Her only requirement was that her doughnut be pink. The wild blueberry doughnut has a pink glaze, so I got her a blueberry "dough seed." This smaller doughnut is still substantial and as a bonus, is filled with custard. While Zoë waited patiently for her treat, the woman next to me in line complimented her and then asked me, "Did she choose her outfit herself?" I explained that she had dressed for her trip to Chinatown. She probably wondered why she hadn't changed into something with a doughnut print for this part of our adventure. 

After we left the Doughnut Plant, Zoë wanted to stop at The Pickle Guys again and tell them "thank you." The mango pickles (and sitting on the barrel) had made a big impression. The pickle man appreciated the kind words and gave Zoë two temporary tattoos. "The pickle has a face!" Zoë laughed when she saw the design on the tattoo. Then she showed him the temporary tattoo she was already sporting. He admired it but admonished, "I don't want to see you getting any real tattoos. And don't bring any motorcycle guys in here, only men in suits!" The advice was happily lost on her.

Now for some exercise. We went to Seward Park to climb, play tag, and see how often I missed catching Zoë's new yellow rubber ball. And before going back uptown, I introduced Zoë to the Chinese department store, Pearl River. She didn't know where to begin: "Look, Angry Birds toys! Look, dragons! Oh, I want to show you something really crazy!" The something "crazy" was a waterfall cascading down a wall. I bought her a pair of Chinese slippers that fit her properly and matched her blouse, and then we finally made it to the subway. When I told Zoë to say goodbye to Chinatown, she said she didn't want to leave. I'm sure we can think up a reason for another Chinatown adventure soon. As long as it isn't to find out what a durian tastes like.

I had told Zoë that I would blog about our dragon-fruit adventure, and after she finished her doughnut she asked for my pen and notebook. She explained, "I want to be a blogger today. I want to write down everything we ate!" She did scribble away but I also took notes. Here are Zoë's comments:

On the fish market: "I liked the crabs because they pinched. The fish was swimming around on the ice. The fish smelled 'yums.' They looked red, silver, and white. I liked the fish swimming around. I liked the conch. The shell felt cold." 

On Shanghai Cafe: "I feel happy here. I liked the soup dumplings because they were very, very chewy."

On sea cucumbers: "They come from the ocean and people pulled them out. I like to play with them."

On dragon fruit: "I picked that one because it had spikes on it. It tasted a little like a blueberry."

On the pickles: The mango pickle "tasted sour." "I liked it because it was so good. I like that they [the pickle guys] made it."

On her doughnut: "I like that there's cream inside."

At Seward Park, Zoë said, "I'm going to tell you a joke that will make you laugh really hard." Here it is: "Pickles eat cupcakes!"

When we got home, Adeet asked Zoë, "How was Chinatown?" Her response? "Amazing!"

photos by Kate Deshmukh

New G.S. Food Market (fish market)
250 Grand Street • Manhattan

Shanghai Cafe
100 Mott Street • Manhattan

Sara D. Roosevelt Park
East Houston Street to Canal Street, between Chrystie and Forsyth Streets • Manhattan

49 Essex Street • Manhattan

379 Grand Street • Manhattan

Seward Park
Canal Street, Essex Street, Jefferson Street, and East Broadway • Manhattan

477 Broadway • Manhattan


Tushar Burman said...

So great, I'm hungry now! That pickle fellow is rather closed-minded though.

MItali said...

I want to go on an adventure with Zoë

Roni said...

Pitayas, mmmmm.... That's how we call them down south. But they're the pink variety.

papiyama said...

Wpw! What a fantastic adventure you guys dod together! Zoe-Smi, When I come to NY in September with Uncle Pit Pat, can you PLEASE...... be our tour guide to Chinatown...? Please.... But no fish for me please ... only the dragon fruit.... And what a lovely dress you were wearing......