It’s the Chinese name for China. It means “middle kingdom,” because they regarded themselves as a bit of civilization at the center of the world, surrounded by barbarians. Since they created one of the world’s greatest cuisines, in company with France and Italy, they’ve earned the right to their jingoistic pride. Certainly, the food served by a zillion run-of-the-mill take-out places is barbaric when compared with that which can be found in some of the larger urban Chinatowns.
Having had a life-long love affair with big city Chinatowns — New York, Chicago and San Francisco — I miss having access to the sort of restaurants and ingredients that are not easy to find in other places. Like where I live now.
Fortunately, Albany is not far away… and it’s possible to rekindle that old love affair whenever I want. Just off Exit Two of the Northway (I-87, for the numerically inclined) is Hong Kong Bakery. It’s at 8 Wolf Road, just off of Central Avenue. I haven’t even tried the dishes on their menu… because it’s impossible for me to get past the selection of dimsum.
Far too often, after ordering a familiar dish — like pork potstickers — I get thick dough wrapped around some fine-grained forcemeat. They may be tasty, in a pinch, that is if I’m feeling desperate. But it’s nothing like the real thing.
At the highest levels of Chinese gastronomy, texture is the defining characteristic. The dimsum at Hong Kong Bakery are textural treasures. Har Gow, shrimp dumplings, are not filled with ground shrimp forcemeat, the sort that is extended with cheaper ingredients. Biting into one, whole shrimp provide what an Italian would call an al dente experience. The simple soy sauce that accompanies it is of excellent quality… it’s good, but it is not the point. The juicy burst of pure ocean flavor of the dumpling itself is the real deal.
Steamed dimsum are not wrapped in wheat flour dough… they arrive in impossibly thin transparent rice noodle. The fillings — roast duck, chunky pork, beef shortribs, chickenfeet, shrimp and spinach — each have their own textures and flavors. Speaking of rice noodles… rolled sheets of delicate translucent noodle come drizzled with a simple soy sauce. That might sound simple, maybe bland, but the taste/texture combination is far from ordinary. The rice rolls come with several fillings — shrimp, roast pork or duck, beef, scallions, and crispy rice. I plan to try them all (‘though possibly not at one sitting).
Fried dimsum include the potstickers mentioned above… but they’re nothing like the ones you might find in a neighborhood take-out joint. They also have dumplings filled with shrimp and chive, vegetables or vegetable with beancurd skin, taro, roast pork. One my favorite fried items is the Turnip Cake. It’s tasty on its own, but it comes with a sweet-savory dipping sauce that might be hoisin and oyster sauce (either that, or it’s the best quality oyster sauce I ever had).
Eventually, I will work my way — happily — through everything on their menu.
I mention Hong Kong Bakery first because I highly recommend you stop there before going a few blocks further, to the Asian Supermarket (1245 Central Avenue). Whatever you do, don’t go here hungry. You will buy far too much of everything (and “everything” is something of an understatement).
Aisle after aisle of every imaginable Asian foodstuff — from China, India, Japan, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, and probably more (the selection is overwhelming). Meats, vegetables, mushrooms, and fresh seafood that you’ll never see in a supermarket. An entire case of sausages from China and southeast Asia. Pork belly. Chicken feet. Whole black-skinned silky chickens. Buns and dumplings and shumai of every description. An entire row of dried noodles. Eggs from ducks, chickens and quail. Fifty or more types of soy sauce. Hundreds of kinds of tea. An insane number of Japanese snacks, in flavors of which no westerner could ever dream. Seafood — much of it still alive — creates views and aromas that are not for the squeamish. But, if you happen to have a recipe for frog or turtle or conch or snails or crayfish, you’ll overlook a shopping experience that is nothing like the typical sterility of a shopping center supermarket.
At the front of the giant store, you can get hot food, ready to go: steamed buns, roast pork, glossy roasted ducks, fried crabs… just in case your dimsum satiety has passed, and you’re feeling a bit peckish. Not all of these treats are destined to make it home. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve ripped into them in the parking lot.
Here’s a small album of photos taken in the market:
Gary Allen’s most recent book is Sauces Reconsidered: Aprés Escoffier, a volume in Rowman & Littlefield Studies in Food and Gastronomy. You can find more of his speculations about things he has been known to (but really shouldn’t) put in his mouth — his own foot being a prime example of the latter — on his website: onthetable.us