Welcome back to Ashok Kondabolu's (a.k.a. Dapwell) column, Aisle Check, where he focuses on the concept of "ethnic" grocery stores. Aren't all grocery stores "ethnic" in the scope of the world? And aren't they all just grocery stores?Saturday afternoon is the worst time to visit a supermarket in Chinatown in downtown Manhattan. But last Saturday, I had plans—to take photos in Hong Kong Market and saunter through the aisles to check things out for myself. Unfortunately, those aisles were (unsurprisingly) jam-packed with locals laser-focused on buying fresh goods and pantry items. It was also the only day Ho-Mui Wong, my friend and Chinese grocery expert, was available. Ho-Mui is a Brooklyn-based graphic designer who grew up in Virginia. Her mother is Taiwanese and her father is from Taishan, in mainland China.
Hong Kong Supermarket is located on a long stretch of Hester Street in the heart of Chinatown. People throw the term "in the heart of" around a lot, but I actually mean it: Several blocks in every direction is indisputably New York City's Chinatown. Beyond the sliding doors of the supermarket, there is an anteroom that's like a small deli for lotto tickets, blankets, shoes, and other non-edible items, like arthritis cream. Mmm. It felt like a grocery store speakeasy vibe. "Nothing to see here folks, there's no giant supermarket through these doors!"
The trip went smoothly, except at one point when we took just a hair too long posing for a photo when a twenty-something girl asked me rhetorically—and loudly—"Where are you from and why are you taking photos?" Ouch. I wanted to be like "I'm from Jackson Heights," on some "how you like me now?" tip, but that would have made me seem like even more of an anomaly.
As we scanned the aisles, I asked Ho-Mui a few questions about her relationship to Chinese food.
MUNCHIES: What kinds of foods did you eating growing up? Ho-Mui: We cooked a lot at home when I was a kid. On weeknights, we made things like steamed fish with soy sauce, ginger, and scallions; pork, chicken, or shrimp prepared in various ways; vegetables (whatever looked good at the Chinese/Korean market) obviously with rice; and brothy soup. Leftovers were usually folded into some sort of fried rice or a stir-fried noodle. On the weekends, we made noodles from scratch to be put into soup or stir fries. I also helped out my mom making pork dumplings, mantou, zongzi, and mei fun. When it got cold, we made hot pots for family gatherings.
Where do you shop for Chinese groceries? Here [Hong Kong Supermarket] or Kam Man, which is right down the street from here. For veggies I hit the street stalls around Chinatown.
How often do you cook Chinese food these days? I'll make a large batch of edamame or tofu dumplings about twice a year. Most nights, I make noodles or rice with vegetables and tofu. Generally, the meals are very simple and I don't always use Chinese vegetables, but I tend to cook with a Chinese flavor profile anyway.
Where is your favorite spot for dishes that remind of home-cooked meals in NYC? My favorite place for dim sum is in Bensonhurst, Queens, close to where my aunt and uncle live. I can't remember what it's called because I was with family so I had no part in any of the decision-making, but I'm 90 percent sure it's Good Day. East Harbor is excellent. In Manhattan, I love Xi'an Famous Foods and Fay Da bakery. I haven't found a Taiwanese Xiaochi place, similar to what we went to when I was growing up. It's hard for me to eat out because Chinese restaurants have always been a larger group outing kind of thing. Those excursions involve extended family who know what to order or will chat with the proprietor to figure out the best dishes. For most of the foods that I crave—dumplings and certain vegetables— I'd rather prepare them at home because I don't eat meat anymore and a lot of Chinese cuisine involves using meat to add flavor.
Do you dig Chinese-American take-out food? Nah, it usually doesn't have enough flavor. What I cook at home is better and cheaper. If I crave American takeout, I tend to gravitate towards other cuisines. But in a pinch, I'll order tofu, vegetables, and white rice.
We started off checking out fruits and vegetables on the first floor. We also looked at dry lily buds and dry mushrooms.
"The mushrooms are soaked and then used in stir fries, etc. It helps to create Umami and has a much stronger flavor than regular mushrooms."
"My aunt grows long beans. They look hilarious on the stalk because they grow so long. You chop them up and add them to stir fries with hot pepper, soy sauce, and ginger. It's really good."
"These are chive flowers. They tend to be a little bit sweeter and more tender than the actual chives."
"We usually steam whole fish and use a lot of ginger and scallions and soy sauce. White people get freaked out cause the heads are on it. The same goes for shrimp. We'd always have the heads on them. At Chinese restaurants they'd have deep fried ones, and my cousins and I would line up the heads. A little dark."
"This is the brand of soy sauce we'd use when I was younger."
"Longans are the same thing as lychees. There's a shell—these are canned, so obviously there's no shell—but you peel it and it's a soft fruit. It's really sweet; sweet and fresh is the only way I know how to describe it"
"Ah, the barbecue sauce aisle. It's not smooth like American barbecue sauce; it's got a little bit more texture. I think it says it has soybean paste and dried shrimp. We use dried shrimp in a lot of stuff just to give it a little more flavor. It's not really a dipping sauce unless you mix it with soy sauce when you're doing hotpot. You'd cook vegetables or meat with it. It's good!"
"This is a basic noodle. These cook in about three minutes in a stir fry, but you can also use them in a broth soup."
"I don't think they do this anymore because of botulism or something, but they used to have large tubs of tofu and people would scoop as much as they needed. These bean curd sheets are much stiffer than what you see in the tubs back there. It's a closer approximation to the texture of meat."
"For us growing up, mock duck or mock chicken (with gluten) was just another thing that we ate. It wasn't only for vegetarians. We'd slice it up and stir fry it as if it were meat. We'd serve it alongside meat dishes, too."
"We would always have dried shrimp growing up. It can be soaked and added to whatever you're cooking for added flavor. It imparts an umami flavor."
We finished off our excursion downstairs, inspecting cookware, novelty toothpick dispensers, and seemingly endless aisles of cakes and cookies. I've been to similar Chinese markets in Flushing, Queens, that are just as expansive and have the same product offerings, but emerging from this place in the heart of downtown Manhattan is not replicable. In the course of the hour that we spent in the store, there were less than a handful of non-Chinese customers. Not to fetishize "otherness," but there was definitely something to be said for spending time in a supermarket with such a wide variety of products located within a neighborhood known for its small corner stalls and utilitarian, rugged appeal. Hong Kong Supermarket is a fun place to walk around for a while, buy food, and a lotto ticket.
Just don't go on a Saturday.