The Bad Egg Roll

The Bad Egg Roll

I ate a lot of Chinese food during my time in New York City.  I started using chopsticks at age six while eating dim sum at HSF on Bowery.  I was taught by two old guys sharing a table with us, amused at my struggles with a slippery Har Gow.  We were a “sophisticated” family of Chinese diners, angling to always find the secret menu, pointing to dishes on other tables and fending off waiters who assured us that we wouldn’t like what we wanted to try.  Most of the time the waiters were wrong and we discovered great dishes like crab in milk with flowering chives; however there were a percentage of dishes that tasted like rubber bands stewed in dishwater, which we would try to get down just to avoid the waiter giving us the “I told you so.” When we traveled and ate Chinese food, we would haughtily tell the wait staff that we were “from New York” and to cook the same for us as they would Chinese customers.  I am sure most places thought we were idiots, but in Phoenix, Arizona, a grateful chef prepared a Cantonese feast for us of all off-menu items. It was amazing and he came out of the end of the meal just to thank us because he was so sick of cooking Chow Mein.  I felt great embarrassment at 11 when a friend of mine ordered Egg Foo Young at Paradise Garden Rest located in the little arcade that ran between Bowery and Mott. I believe my father simply ignored the poor kid’s wishes and ordered the streamed flounder in black bean sauce. To my shame,  I cut off this friendship over this culinary breach.

Over the past two decades New York became blessed with such an incredible diversity of regional Chinese styles that it almost seemed silly to call it all “Chinese”.  Between Flushing, Sunset Park and Manhattan’s Chinatown (not to mention to dozens of other enclaves throughout the boroughs) I ate everything from Uyghur lamb chops to the weird German influenced cuisine of Quingdao; I celebrated a birthday with Szechuan hot-pot rife with freshly made shrimp paste and once a week dined on the Henan food served at Spicy Village, which was down the street from my old shop on Forsyth Street (which I wrote about even before my hero Robert Sietsma discovered it!).  Some weeks we would go the food courts in Flushing and try out dishes never before seen; other weeks we would head to a big Cantonese seafood spot in Bensonhurst for Dungeness crabs and shrimp. Suffice it to say, I got deep with my Chinese food and tried every possible regional variation at one time or another.

Oddly, I have not much missed these obscure specialties since arriving in Tokyo.  The majority of Chinese restaurants here are a sort of Japanese-Chinese fusion and I really love them for their simplicity and cheapness — gyoza, perfect fried rice, liver with onions and pepper.  Obviously, ramen — in all of its variations.  I’m sure there are also super authentic places, and certainly specialities like Xiao Lum Bao are represented.  Perhaps the crazier regional specialties are here as well — I just have not been motivated to find out. What I have missed about New York Chinese food is the shitty eggroll from Ling Ling Chinese on Henry Street — a decidedly old-school Chinese-American restaurant so incorporated into our Carrol Garden’s neighborhood that they served a scungili salad. We did not order from there often.  Only when a day went awry and you did not even feel like figuring out what to eat, so a call and ten minutes later: spare ribs and Chicken Lo Mein. And I would get that egg roll.  This was a bad eggroll from a bad restaurant  that arrived in wax paper stained with grease which no one else in my family wanted. It was hot, big, the skin crackly and chalky like the fried wontons that used to be served gratis at Chinese restaurants (which mothers and fathers would routinely warn their children to stop “filling up on” before dinner).  It was bland, mainly filled with shredded cabbage, reconstituted shrimp and was made to be eaten with sweet duck sauce and a dab of chinese mustard.  It was most assuredly an eggroll and not that new fangled Spring Roll that became popular around 1981.  And I loved it.  Somehow, despite living in the capital of wonderful food and despite coming from New York, which can only be described as the second capital of wonderful food, I have ended up missing the least remarkable, perhaps most embarrassing object of my multi-varied food lust. There is no end to the absolute mystery of being human.




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