Photography by Jude Tan
It’s official! Lotus Blue is now open. Four months of researching and developing the menu, plus hiring and training of the kitchen staff finally culminated in our grand opening last Tuesday, February 21st. New York’s first restaurant serving a full menu of authentic and modern dishes from Yunnan province of China is now open… and I am having the thrill of a lifetime.
Go to a Japanese noodle shop or a casual Korean restaurant and you’ll find two noodle dishes with very similar names: Jajangmyeon and Jajamen. Not unlike spaghetti Bolognese they consist of a bed of noodles topped with a brown ground meat sauce often accompanied by julienned cucumbers. Few people though realize that this dish originated in China. Known as Zhajiang Mian (炸醬麵) in Mandarin it is a classic snack food from the Beijing region.
Juggling consulting work at Lotus Blue and other freelance consulting gigs, I almost neglected my own family’s reunion dinner for Chinese New Year. But since we were entering the Chinese zodiac’s dragon year it would have been improper not to have a grand celebration to welcome it. Among the flurry of my activities I staged a sumptuous Dragon Chinese New Year banquet for a small group of family and friends.
Precariously balancing an overly full tray of pineapple shrimp fried rice I got off the elevator and entered a high ceiling open space loft in the Soho district of New York City. Workstations with flickering screens were everywhere, and a meeting room hides behind walls rising half way up to the ceiling. In another open space I saw the original painting of Barry the berry on a horse back looking out onto a valley, which is the same picture attached to the about page of gojee.com. Although I have no idea what is the significance of this picture I knew this had to be the right place. I was in one of the communal office spaces of the New York City’s many technology startups. It was the home of the team behind gojee.com, a recipe search site with thousands of recipe listings from the best food bloggers.
What happens when the cooking of China collides with that of Burma, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam? The result is a fresh cuisine full of bold and explosive flavors. This is precisely what you’ll find in the cooking of Yunnan province of southwestern China. I’ve been researching and developing recipes from this region during the last three months. Indeed I took a trip to Yunnan in November last year to get a better understanding of the region’s foodways. Why the sudden interest in this cuisine? I’m glad you asked. I have great news to tell you about my involvement in the imminent opening of a Yunnan restaurant in Tribeca.
During Christmas, or Thanksgiving for that matter, many Chinese immigrant families like mine face a dilemma. Should we serve turkey or just simply make a Chinese meal? Turkey has always been an iconic American foods that the Chinese never embraced. Jeff Yang wrote in a Wall Street Journal blog post that his family serves both the big bird and “a long buffet line” of other Chinese dishes. This seems to be the most common solution for satisfying both the family’s preference for Chinese food and our desire to assimilate into the American culinary tradition.
When you think of a traditional Victorian English Christmas what comes to mind? The most likely images are Scrooge, Father Christmas, Christmas tree, snow and the Christmas goose. This traditional bird shows up in virtually every depiction of a Victorian Christmas dinner. The most common recipes call for onion and apple dressing and spit-roasting over a wood fire. During the nineteenth century, while Queen Victoria was supping on her goose, in the Chinese Qing imperial palace half way around the world one of the most beloved dishes was a stuffed duck dish known as Eight Treasures Hulu Duck. It was an elegant, sumptuous dish made from a deboned duck filled with glutinous rice and studded with eight other ingredients. It would have been a perfect Christmas bird for the Qing Dynasty’s ambassador to Victoria’s Court.
“Why don’t they remove the bones before they serve the fish?” is a common question I hear from friends whenever we go to Chinese restaurants. In fact on one occasion after finishing a steamed striped bass at a popular Cantonese seafood restaurant in Chinatown a fellow diner jested that the remains of our dish looked like Felix the Cat had swallowed the fish whole and pulled out a completely cleaned skeleton with just the head and tail left on. So why do the Chinese like to keep the bones in the dishes they cook?
On a misty dreary Sunday morning in September of 1971 soon after I arrived in Boston for my university study, a few college friends and I drove up to Kittery Point, Maine. It took us about an hour to drive there and it was barely noon when we climbed down a short set of steps from the parking lot to the Chauncey Creek Lobster Pier. The weather didn’t dampen my anticipation for my very first experience eating Maine lobster. We each ordered a one and a half pound lobster and feasted in our ponchos at the picnic table under a tent. The cost: seven dollars for each of our lobsters. That was an exorbitant price for a casual meal then.
Now that farmers’ market season is in full swing we are spoiled by an abundance of fresh produce. Lettuces, summer squashes and radishes cram the stalls of just about every green market. Sold in a variety of rainbow colors, radishes are especially plentiful, and they’re almost always sold with their greens attached. Most Americans, however, routinely ask the vendors to cut off the greens or they discard them at home. It’s unfortunate because these greens are delicious and nutritious. In northeastern China the slightly peppery leaves are used in many different ways, including in stir-fries, salads and steamed buns.