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Joyce Jue's Chinatown Tours
I recently enjoyed a tour of Chinatown in San Francisco, California, led by Joyce Jue, an internationally recognized authority on Chinese and Southeast Asian cuisines. Her most recent cookbook, Savoring Southeast Asia (Williams-Sonoma/Time Life Books, 2000) won the 2001 IACP Best International Cookbook Award. The tour was sponsored by Ramekins, a Sonoma Valley Culinary School and a dim sum lunch was included.
Our group convened at 9:30 a.m. in the heart of Chinatown on Kearney Street. We were told to wear comfortable shoes, bring a shopping bag and an appetite. Seventeen of us were ready! For the next 4 hours we combed the 10-12 square block area, which, we learned, is a self contained city. A hospital, both American and Chinese schools, funeral parlors, newspapers, barber/beauty shops and tennis courts are just some of the amenities contained within theses blocks.
We visited a mix of shops in Chinatown from Chinese-Asian grocery and produce stores to fish and seafood markets; from Chinese delicatessens to live game shops. Bakeries, a fortune cookie factory, cookware and hardware stores were also on the tour.
Of special interest was a paper store or 'joss' paper store that supplies locals with 'joss' (good luck) paper decorations. Paper images such as paper money or a paper Mercedes Benz to build at funeral, incense, table linens, altars, and other paraphernalia for various religious ceremonies and celebrations. A great place to find inexpensive decorations for a party with a Chinese theme.
We toured a two-block long alley filled with dramatic Chinese architectural designs, or Waverly Street. This is where the local Chinese socialize and interact. In its earlier existence,Waverly was once called the 15 cent street where one could get a hair cut at the local barber shop for that price. Previous to that was its most unsavory time when it had the infamous opium dens, brothels, and where 'tong' gangs existed. Nowadays, shielded by the pagoda style roof tops, the alley way is a respectable street housing many benevolent 'tongs' or family associations, religious temples, and many fraternal clubs of shared interests such as martial arts, mah jong, and Chinese music clubs.
After a few hours of walking and tasting, we were ready to sit down at New Asia, one of the old-fashioned Hong Kong style tearooms. There we experienced a variety of dim sum delights from savory to sweet and the high-energy of this large restaurant.
San Francisco's Chinatown, the largest Chinese community outside of Asia, is Jue's birthplace. She grew up in Chinatown and spent hours combing through the plethora of shops with her mother for their every day meals. Decades later, Jue says, "The faces of the shopkeepers have changed, their spoken dialects are no longer familiar to me but the sights, sounds, scents and ambiance of Chinatown persevere. I still delight in Chinatown and I admire the tenacity of its resident people. Today, I want to convey and share those special feelings and memories of my childhood in Chinatown."
Some of the highlights of the tour for me were the more unusual foodstuffs we saw or tasted:
Moon cakes-small, round, dense cakes of black or yellow soy beans or lotus seed marzipan-like paste stuffed with a salted duck egg yolk
Dried seafood-shark's fin, scallops, oysters, abalone (which can cost $350 to $850 per pound)
Dried meats-pressed duck and dried duck feet
Fortune cookies-the last of the Mom and Pop hand-folded fortune cookie factories
Live game-game birds are kept in cages along a wall-you order, they kill the bird and bring you your order
Black silky chicken-used to make very sweet-tasting chicken broth
Pig's snouts and ears-this and other odds cuts of meats
frogs and turtles-Chinese delicacies available at several fish markets