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Friday, January 19, 2007

January Market Report: Chinatown



...market report.

Getcher spending money out because we here at Ye Olde Presse are now speaking to YOU, (fill in your name): the consumer, the target demographic, the household decision maker, the "lady of the house".

rrring! rrring!

Bacon Press: "Hello?"
Caller: "Hello, may I speak to the lady of the house?"
Bacon Press (in deep, gravelly voice): "Speaking."

What's in your wallet? A maxed-out credit card, a Hamilton, and a few Dead (First) Prez, you say? Well, don't fret, cause we're going pinkbaggin' in the mighty CT!!!!

Chinatown, BFFs!

Ah, Chinatown! How I love thee! Let me count the ways:

"Burberry" handbag for Mom: $15
Nightmarish, overcrowded bus ride: $1.50
Sound of old lady hawking the most righteous loogie: Priceless

Hmmm, what else do I like about Chinatown (food-related)? I like how there's not one large market that dominates with a few smaller scattered here and there, which is what Clement Street is like. The best part about food shopping in Chinatown are the many, many hole-in-the-wall markets, some smaller, some larger, but none of them imposing. In a way, it's almost as if the entire northern section of Chinatown is one big outdoor market.

There are times, from season to season, when you walk into or past one of these tiny shops and they – and only them – will have the best lychees or the best asparagus or some really cool, exotic, and delicious variety of peach which you've never seen before.

And then there are times when everyone will have the same "new" thing. When that happens, it's a really special time to be in the neighborhood. The whole place will be buzzing with enthusiasm for whatever's new...such as it is right now.

For the last week or so Korla Fragrant Pears - imported from a remote western region of China - have been all the rage, with even the chicken shops on Grant hawking them alongside chicken feet, necks, and whole birds.

Actually, I hear poultry and pears go together like birds of a feather.

Of course, my eyes immediately lit up when I saw these babies – not because I knew what they were, but because I knew what they weren't: the familiar.

And unless you're hanging in a window or still twitchin' in Jackson's grocery sack, Chinatown is no place to be a chicken about the unfamiliar. So I bought some, washed one, and cut it open.

What I discovered was a mildly sweet, extremely crisp, and insanely juicy, delicious piece of fruit. It's like biting into a crisp watermelon and tastes nothing like the pears I’m use to. These will be great to have around while they last, which I hope is a long time. Prices average at around $1.50 per pound. By the way, thanks to this guy's blog, I know more about these Johnny-come-latelys. Thanks Michael!

Korla Fragrant Pears (left) and Royal Beauty Ya Pears (right)

Even when we're talking about pears shipped halfway across the world, it's still all about freshness in Chinatown, which is my other favorite reason to shop there. Chinatown, other than the UN Plaza and Ferry Building farmers markets, is often my measuring stick for what's fresh and available in season. One of my co-workers, like a lot of people I'm sure, seemed to think nothing grew during the winter until I reminded him that fresh citrus, pears, kiwis, root vegetables, and all kinds of dark green leafy vegetables were at their peak (at least in Northern California).

By the way, crack is not now, nor is it ever, in season.

By now all of you know about the crapilicious weather we've had in California that's caused 1 billion dollars worth of damage to the state's citrus crops. That's a lot of orange sorbet. Enjoy your lemon custard and Duck a l'Orange while you can, because the Governator's declared a state of emergency in the Cahlee-fornee-ah counties hit hardest by the freeze and that means citrus prices could double.

On the flip side, stone fruit growers are enjoying a bit of schadenfreude at the citrus growers' expense and sitting pretty as a peach.

As for now, tangerines and valencia oranges are at $0.69 per pound.

As bad as the weather's been here, there are other parts of the country (and world) that's been worse off...and here's hoping you all are okay and coping with whatever Mother Nature throws your way.

Among some of the other edibles for sale:

Taro root and jicamas are plentiful and all look very good.

Left to right: small-variety taro, jicamas, large taro (could be tapioca? not sure), Kotobuki (Japanese) sweet potatoes

A lot of Cantonese dishes use taro either as a filling for dim sum or added to a stir fry. Of course, most Hawaiians use it for poi and some fancier places use it as a crispy fried side dish. Jicama is used mostly in Latin/Mexican cuisine.

I like to eat jicama (pronounced "hee-cuh-muh") shredded or chopped into salads with lots of lime juice, jalapenos, and some type of sweetener. If you haven't had it before, it's really crisp with only a hint of sweet flavor. It's mostly water, so it's a good vegetable for those trying to watch their caloric intake.

Jicamas and Taro

Obligatory Jicama side story:
I once lived with a crazy white girl (yes, in Berkeley) who got lost in the middle of Mexico with a friend and all they had to eat for 3 days was a large jicama. True story!

Also in season are water chestnuts, which are crisp like jicamas, but a little crunchier, watery, and sweeter.

Foreground: Water Chestnuts

Like jicamas, they have to be peeled before you can eat them. However, once peeled, you can keep them submerged in water in the refrigerator for a few weeks and they'll be just as good as the day you bought them. Water chestnuts are mandatory when making the filling for potstickers and give stir-fry dishes that certain I-don't-know-what.

Then there are your standard Asian veggies that always seem to be in season: bitter melon, Japanese eggplant, long beans, garlic and ginger, etc. This being California, many farmers who specialize in Asian vegetables have a virtual year-round growing season, especially since many of them are located down south around Fresno and the San Fernando Valley area.

The eggplants here looked pretty good.

Left to right: long beans, bitter melon, eggplant

What the heck are these?

Oh, it's arrowroot.

They're for sale at $0.99 a pound.

Along with turnips, daikons are in season and look particularly nice. Daikon is very versatile and can be eaten raw, pickled or cooked.

Daikon (left) and Garnet Yams (right)

I bought a huge one the other day for under a dollar, chopped it, boiled it in salt water, drained it, and then mashed it with butter, pepper, and cheese. Better than mashed potatoes! And unlike turnips, which have a tendency to be slightly bitter when cooked, daikons are very mild.

Leafy greens are on sale and abundant, including bok choy, pea tendrils, watercress, mustard greens (Chinese people salt preserve these like sauerkraut and use them in recipes as "preserved vegetable"), napa cabbage, and gai lan - aka "Chinese broccoli".

The variety of greens in Chinatown can be confusing if you don't speak the language, but there aren't too many surprises when it comes to the flavor of leafy green veggies, so I encourage you to buy "blind".

In the meantime, you can check out this cool PDF document that lists the Cantonese names for some of the green veggies for sale.

Actually, this link might be even better.

Whew! That was quite a market report!

Are you guys exhausted? I am.

If you're hungry and want to get something cheap, greasy, and tasty to go, check out Louie's Dim Sum on Stockton.

It's a total dive (like most Chinatown "dim sum to go" joints) and looks sketch, but for $5-even you get a big box of assorted dim sum, including large portions of siu mai and the chive/minced pork dumplings (gow choy gow). As long as you don't come for the har gow, you'll find that the dim sum here is fairly decent and the women who work there helpful and kind. There's a nice, young Chinese woman who sometimes works behind the counter who speaks perfect English and can help answer any questions you have. If she's not there, point to the plate on the countertop and tell them you'd like one (or two?)

From this point, you're on your own.



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