Category Archives: Review

Ideal vs. Reality: Recipes -1

While I was at a restaurant in Flushing for my Xiao Long Bao (小龍包) exploration, I shared a table with groups of women.  They were all friendly and was open to answering my questions.

I saw a waiter bring in a new dish into their food counter and noticed that the two women who were sitting next to me were talking about the dish.  The dish was a Shanghai salted bean curd appetizer.  I asked them whether the dish looked good.  They said it looked good (it was only later that I found out that the ladies were just being polite).  I ordered the dish and when my bean curd arrived at the table two women started giving me a dirty look with some giggles.  To my inquiry, they whispered into my ears that I’m being ripped off ($3.95). “It’s a dish you can make easily at home!”

Bean Curd Appetizer

Bean Curd Appetizer

I’ve encountered scenes like this in some of the Japanese restaurants.  People ordering some easy and common dishes that are somewhat overly priced.

I believe there are one of those “what have you done to make it so expensive (or “Are you really ripping me off?” )” dishes in every restaurant.  They are something you can easily make at home and you have a good sense of how much it might cost to make the dish – low.  I rather make them at home and avoid having them at a restaurant.

One of the examples for such a dish would be Ohitashi.  Contrary to it’s mysterious name, Ohitashi is a simple dish.  It’s a boiled green (usually spinach) with bonito flakes and soy sauce.  Sometimes it comes with some dashi sauces but often times  these dashi sauces are not even home made.  You would just boil the veggie, sprinkle bonito flakes, and pour soy sauce over it.  If you were to pursue the perfect Ohitashi, I think you can make more elaborate Ohitashi by pursuing the perfect dashi, the timing of cooking the spinach, the best ingredients (soy sauce, Bonito flakes), and the treatment of the root part of the spinach.  Unfortunately, I don’t believe you can find such a high quality version of Ohitashi in Japanese restaurants in the US or even very rare to find in Japan.

There are two different theories on where this mysterious name Ohitashi came from.  One theory says it was derived from  the word “Hitasu” which means to soak something.  People soaked spinach in dashi sauces.  Another theory says it was derived from “Ohidachi” or “Hitachimono” – both referring to “one from Hitachi”.  There are three regions in Kanto area that are known for their soy sauce.  Noda, Choshi, and Tuchiura (Hitachi).  During the Edo period, people called the soy sauce from Hitachi as “Ohidachi” or “Hitachimono”praising the superb quality of Hitachi soy sauce.  The first theory is more accepted in general.

The bean curd dish I ordered was tasty but I shall not repeat this defeat of spending my money on the Chinese equivalent of “Ohitashi”.  Next time I should make it at home.  So, what would you do if you are an innocent “non-native-to-the-cuisine” individual who is at the mercy of the restaurant servers?  Always make sure you talk to the other customers and observe what they are eating.  Even if you fail to get a timely feedback, as was in may case, you will learn as along as you pursue.

So, what is the next step?  In my case, I had a strong confidant sitting next to me.  I asked the woman for the recipe since she said it was an easy dish.  My main concern was the sauce.  Usually, the sauce is the most difficult part of the cooking.   As you can tell from the photo, only ingredients for this dish were bean curd (some call it salted bean curd) and some cilantro.  The key to this dish is really the sauce.  Some sauce could be a very simple combination of common ingredients but this combination is usually governed by tradition and culture .  Most native-to-the-cuisine people select them unconsciously.  We usually are willing to pay a price knowing that we don’t have the insight of the native-to-the-cuisine people.

I got the secret from the woman and I was shocked to learn what was included in the sauce.  That easy?  Really? Wow!!  I have to try it for myself to see if this is true – unexpectedly simple.  My journey (and an obsession) to make my own version of the bean curd appetizer had now begun. Check out part 2 for the recipe.


Soup Dumplings (小龍包)

Reading a posting on two soup dumpling places in Flushing, I couldn’t ignore my urges to go and check these dumplings out for myself. So, after going to M.Night Shyamalan’s casting call in Flushing Town Hall, off I went to explore the two dumpling shops, Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao and Shanghai Tide.

Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao

Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao

Supposedly, this is one of the best soup dumplings in Flushing.  The size of dumplings are larger than the usual.  Because of this larger than the standard size, more soup is included in the dumpling and the higher risk of burning your tongue. Abundance of soup makes this dumpling very special.

Another reason that this dumpling stands out compared to other ones is because of it’s dipping sauce.  Usually, Chinese black rice vinegar is used as the dipping sauce for soup dumplings.  Here, the color of the sauce is a bit lighter than the black rice vinegar and also it’s sweeter.  You can tell that something is mixed into the vinegar.  One unfortunate thing about their dumpling was that I slightly tasted instant soup-ish flavor from the soup.  Very slight but reminded me of a ready-made cubic soup broth flavor. I felt a dash of western-ish flavoring which is foreign from Chinese flavors I’m familiar with (but I’m Japanese, who grew up eating authentic Chinese food prepared by my Chinese Friend’s family, so could be wrong).

As mentioned in some of the comments on the Serious Eats’ article the skin of the dumpling was a bit too thick for my liking.  Their price is also higher than the average Xiao Long Bao.  $ 5.25 for six pieces where most places charge under $5 for 8 pieces for the standard pork Xiao Long Bao (one without the crab meat.  I always test the pork version to compare and evaluate the soup flavors).  I’ll give 3.5 out of 5 stars for this dumpling.

Shanghai Tide

Shanghai Tide

When I walked into the shop, I thought I must have came to a wrong place.  It was almost empty and most customers were eating hot pots and not soup dumplings.  That’s a bad sign.  Oh, am I doomed?

Contrary to my observation, their dumpling was quite descent.

Dipping sauce was what you would expect;  100% Chinese black rice vinegar with thinly sliced chopped ginger.  Very dark unclear color.  Sizes of dumplings are standard.  Skin could be thinner but not as thick as the dumplings at Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao.  The soup tasted authentic Chinese (that I know of).  It was tasty and far better than I had anticipated but was not exceptional.  Sad thing was their Chinese cabbage.  When you steam the soup dumplings you put the Chinese cabbage onto the steamer to avoid the dumplings from sticking to the steamer.  Some find pleasure in eating this cabbage while enjoying the dumplings.  It’s not an official or formal way of eating the soup dumplings but you can see many customers doing this.  Some of the Chinese cabbage on my steamer was old, dry, and discolored.  Rather unappetizing.  I like having the healthy clean looking Chinese cabbage.  The price was $4.95, standard price.  I give 3.5 out of 5 stars for their dumpling, too.

I haven’t found any soup dumplings that I would give more than 3.5 stars, yet.  I hope to explore as many soup dumpling shops as I can.

Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao
38-12 Prince Street
Flushing, NY 11354

Shanghai Tide
13520 40th Rd
Flushing, NY 11354
(718) 661-0900