Another Country

I’ve been spending some time walking around Brooklyn’s Chinatown. It’s just 20 blocks from my house but unknown territory. English is rarely spoken, most shop signs are written in characters. We used to live in the neighborhood and I thought I knew every corner well, many of the shopkeepers by name. Our neighbors were Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, along with a few remainders from when the area was Norwegian and Irish. Then Mexicans slowly arrived. and the basilica offered more masses in Spanish. Beginning in the mid 90’s and picking up speed in the early 2000’s, immigrants from China poured in. Two market streets formed. One remained Hispanic and, four block blocks, the other solidly Asian, the dilapidated or abandoned storefronts transformed into a lively stretch of vegetables and fish markets, houseware stores, beauty salons and spas, and herbal medicine clinics. The transition was not always peaceful. Language and customs kept the two apart. Tension erupted at the sight of 19th century houses torn down or rebuilt to non-descript houses to accommodate the on-going influx. But then housing prices soared, making possible the dream of moving to bigger houses with bigger yards and the two sides settled down somewhat peacefully. Lately, though, a tangible sense of wariness threads through the streets with the recent rise in Anti-Asian hate crimes.

It’s a core belief that you can’t understand a people unless you grasp even a sliver of how they cook. I often throw together a stir fry for dinner but recognize it’s an abomination. It’s also true I don’t know the first thing about the complex offerings of Hunan, Cantonese or Sichuan dishes in the restaurants that generally make up the bulk of Chinese cuisines found in America. All this makes for an easy confession that I’m woefully ignorant as I begin to wander through the streets and cause minor traffic jams in staring at shelves full of indecipherable labels and unfamiliar produce.

The predominate population in our Chinatown comes from Fizhou providence. The taste of most dishes lean towards sweetness and, because it is a coastal providence, rich in seafood. I can somewhat recognize a few fish and shellfish, a lot of them delicacies in other cuisines and offered at half the price.

A good handful are still alive and it’s hard to figure out if they won’t be when purchased. The men at several stalls try to be helpful but we don’t understand each other, leaving me to contemplate the reality that I’ll have to overcome a generous dose of wimpiness if the bag they hand off is still wiggling and snappy.

Top from left: cat fish, prawns, crabs. Bottom, yellow eel.

That means the day results in a few jars of somethings I can look up, several types of mushrooms and a black chicken because how difficult can cooking chicken be? The bird is beautiful with fluffy white feathers, it’s tiny head topped by an impressive Mohawk. Under the feathers is inky blue/black skin. It’s bones are, too. Asian recipes divide between slow cooking, some into a mild curry. Most fall into the soup category, its broth considered highly curative for a variety of ailments.

As you can see on the right, upon opening the package I discover that the reason the broth is so flavorful and healthy is because Asian markets offer them with the head and feet attached. The black skin and flesh of the bird will be enough of a challenge to the husband. Seeing a head and two feet will give him unpleasant flashbacks to the lamb’s head incident. A young child on YouTube explains how to dismember it and I figure if this kid can do, so can I.

After that, the recipe I follow comes from What To Cook Today, Tried and True Asian Recipes and Tutorial. You may have to find your own local Chinatown for many of the ingredients but that’s something you should do anyway.

Black Chicken Soup

For the herb mix

6 Sichuan lovage root (chuan xiong)

3-4 slices dong quai (angelica sinensis)

10 pieces huang qi (astragalus)

12 small pieces dang shen (radix codonopsis)

1 whole black chicken, about 3-4 lbs thawed if frozen

3 slices fresh ginger

10 Chinese red dates, pit removed

4 Chinese black dates, pits removed

1/4 cup goji berries

Chopped scallions or chives (optional)

Cilantro (optional)

In a small bowl, mix the first four herbs together, tie into a cheesecloth.

Place the whole chicken in a large pot with the herb mix, ginger, and dates. Add enough water to reach about an inch from the top, or about 12 cups. bring to a boil then lower heat to a simmer and partially cover the pot.

Cook for 30 minutes or until the chicken is tender then add the goji berries. Season with salt to taste.

To serve:

Remove the chicken from the pot, remove the skin and cut into pieces or shred the meat. Garnish with fresh chopped scallions or chives and some cilantro leaves. Serve immediately.