Tasting New York’s Chinatown Again

Typical Chinese Grocery Window in New York's Chinatown

For a blogger with an intended twice a week posting schedule, I’ve not done well lately.  However, we’re all friends and any blogger who reads this will know the feeling – so, with your kind permission, I’ll not apologize, I’ll just try to do better.

If I were to apologize, I guess I could use good wife Sandee as one element, but in truth, her breast cancer surgery went well, and the healing process is proceeding splendidly – her six week daily radiation starts Monday.  And I guess I could hide behind the fact that gardening season is here and is demanding a goodly amount of daylight hours, but in truth, my gimpy back keeps me from putting more than a few hours a day into that effort.  And we have just successfully completed the task of replacing an old refrigerator with a new one – only those of you who have done this will know that this is a much bigger project than one thinks it will be!

Allow me to interrupt myself to comment on the refrigerator replacement – our old unit, a ten year old, 23 cubic foot Maytag was slowly self destructing, from the inside out – what I mean is that the plastic used extensively in the interior box was simply not meant to last.  However, the unit has never given us a minute’s mechanical problem in the ten years we’ve used it, nope, just shelf brackets and drawer guides that eventually all cracked and broke – perhaps it’s the ‘planned obsolescence’ of the refrigerator industry.

(I wanted to slip in a pic of the new refrigerator here, but I discovered that it’s apparently impossible to take a pic of a stainless appliance with a simple point and shoot camera – or maybe my camera is just not good enough – or maybe it’s me that’s just not good enough.)

But I was simply amazed to discover that the old 23 cf Maytag, a classic freezer top, fridge bottom design, could actually hold lots more than could our new 25 cf, side by side KitchenAid.  How could this be?  After much serious thought, I’ve determined that this mystery is the result of two factors: one being that if you want an ice-maker in your unit, that can easily steal away 3-4 cubic feet in your freezer – but even that doesn’t make much sense, because our old freezer was only 7.7 cf, while the new one was over 10!  We literally had to pitch 1/3 rd of the contents of the old freezer (not really a bad thing – it deserved to be pitched), and the new freezer is immediately jam packed.

The 2nd factor is that the design of a side by side refrigerator is inherently poor – it results in an ineffective use of space, as opposed to the wider design of a full width door model.  And our two units provide a great example of that fact – the available fridge space in both units was exactly the same, 15 cf, but again, we had to pitch about 1/3rd of what we tried to transfer from the old fridge to the new – and again, that was not really bad, as it simply forced us to get rid of some stuff we’d never use anyway.

This, I’m sure, is why the currently favored refrigerator design is the French door unit, with a full width bottom freezer – the French doors open to a full width interior, giving a much more efficient use of space (except for the significant space dedicated to an ‘in the door’ ice maker).  We really knew all this going in, but were turned off by the significantly higher cost of the French door units (upwards of 40% more for the same amount of space).  And since we’ve owned a side by side previously, we knew well what to expect.  Truth is, I’m a ‘food collector’, and I do not admit that proudly – our hope is that the new fridge will teach us some new habits … fingers crossed.

OK, ‘nuf of that.  In the early days of this blog, I did an occasional post on America’s food heritage, of which I contended -and still do- could best be found in those little soft covered spiral bound community fund raiser cookbooks (of which I own easily more than a thousand).  True, one must tread through a mass of garbage to get at a few gems (this is not always true!), but still, this resource is the heart of America’s food heritage, handed down, recipe by recipe – and all of this was brought back to me as I perused a new cookbook in my collection, Molly O’Neill’s, ‘New York Cookbook’.

O’Neill’s New York Cookbook is not a new book – seldom do I buy a new cookbook.  And the reason I don’t is that eventually all the great cookbooks ever done will appear among the stock of what the book industry calls, ‘remainders’ – and remainders classically sell at ridiculously low costs.  But it might take some digging.  My favorite sources are the used books on Alibris, and Amazon.  For The New York Cookbook, I paid $1 on Alibris, plus shipping cost of $3.85, or so.  I don’t think that book sellers ever list remainders as ‘New’, but mostly list the condition as “Like New” or ‘Very Good’ – I think this is an industry standard that when a book is no longer selling as new, a seller will not list it as new.  But I can tell you that every used remainder that I’ve ever received has actually been in new condition.

The New York Cookbook is a truly fun book to read, even if one is not looking for a recipe.  It is, essentially, a collection of prized and valued recipes from New York City residents, chefs, or celebs.  It’s the result of Molly O’Neill’s five year effort to collect the most significant recipes reflective of the melting pot culture of NYC over the past 200 years.  And every recipe contains interesting background and banter which makes delightful reading – and if that’s not enough, O’Neill also includes large chunks of narrative describing in detail the history of New York’s foods and ethnic groups.  In this way, it is exactly like those little community cookbooks – only this time, reflective of a community that played host to millions of America’s early immigrants, their way of life, and their food.  It’s a delight to peruse.

My own perusal reintroduced me to New York’s Chinatown, a place where I spent an inordinate amount of weekend time while a college student in the early 60’s – and it was there where my lifelong interest in Chinese and Asian foods emerged.  As the pages turned, my eyes fell on a recipe for Soy Sauce Chicken – admittedly, this may not be the most exciting sounding of all Chinese dishes, but this simple dish contains a world of food history and heritage, besides being a damned fine way to cook chicken.

The history of soy sauce dates back some 3000 years, and its invention is clearly Chinese – it has emerged as one of the world’s great fermented foods, and in fact, the process of making soy sauce has not changed much in over 1000 years – and neither have the many of the dishes that use soy sauce as a base.  It’s easy to see the relationship of this simple recipe to a popular home cooking process called ‘Red Cooking’ , which simply means braising or slow cooking meats, or whatever in what’s called a master sauce .

A Chinese master sauce can be used over and over again – in fact, many Chinese feel the sauce simply gets better and better as it is used again and again.  Some master sauces are passed down from generation to generation.  I’m a little surprised that O’Neill doesn’t mention this here, but there is really no reason why this sauce can’t be saved and used again.  Perhaps it differs only in the somewhat smaller quantities used in this recipe, whereas a true master sauce would be ample enough to immerse a whole chicken or pork shoulder for cooking.  The only requirement for the reuse of a master sauce is that the spices are occasionally renewed and the fat removed from the top of a chilled sauce.

But of course, soy sauce and even the process of red cooking did not remain within the borders of China, but spread and influenced the cooking of the entire Southeast Asian area.  It is not at all difficult to see the influence of red cooking in the eventual development of teriyaki in Japan – this particular recipe is almost an exact duplicate of the process and ingredients used to make Japanese teriyaki – watch here as Jeff Smith makes Japanese teriyaki chicken, and note how similar are both the ingredients and the process to O’Neill’s, Soy Sauce Chicken.  However, I should also note that although this same process is used in Japan to prepare teriyaki chicken, the more common method there is one where the chicken is marinated in these same ingredients, and then grilled while basting.  And in the video above, Smith also makes teriyaki using the grilling method.  It’s an interesting history for sure.

So here’s Molly O’Neill’s, Soy Sauce Chicken, simple and satisfyingly delicious, but heavy with history and heritage – hope you get a chance to try it.

Soy Sauce Chicken


  • 1 Star Anise
  • 3/4 cup Soy Sauce
  • 1/3 cup packed dark brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup dry sherry
  • 1 Tbs honey
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 slices fresh ginger, minced
  • 1 chicken, well rinsed and patted dry

1. In a nonreactive pot large enough to hold the chicken snugly, gently boil 1 cup water and the star anise, covered, for 20 minutes.
2. In a small bowl, mix the soy sauce, brown sugar, sherry, honey, garlic, and ginger – and add the mixture to the pot.  Cover and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 5 minutes.  Add the chicken, laying it on its side, and bring the liquid back to a boil.  Cover and turn the heat to low.  Simmer, basting frequently, for 15 minutes.
3. Turn the chicken to the other side and simmer, basting frequently, for another 15 minutes.
4. Turn once more, this time breast side up. and cook until golden brown, 15 minutes more.  Remove the chicken and let cool to room temperature.  Reheat the cooking liquid and spoon out about 2 tablespoons onto each plate before serving the carved chicken.
Serves 4

My Notes:  I have repeated O’Neill’s splendid recipe verbatim here, but after years of making this and similar preparations, I much prefer to cut up the chicken beforehand – I think doing so makes this a simpler dish, and also shortens the cooking time a little – it also allows the use of one part of the chicken, such as my frequent use of all thighs, which I prefer over any other cuts for this dish.  If you do use cut up chicken, be sure to cook on each side for 10 minutes before turning each piece.  40 minutes total should be enough.

Eat well, my friends.

Photo credits:
top, Doug DuCap, Flickr.com
mid, http://www.forkfulofnews.com
bottom, j.murren


About drfugawe

I'm a guy with enough time to do as I please, and that my resources allow. The problem(s) are: I have 100s of interests; I have a short attention span; I have instant expectations; I'm lazy; and I'm broke. But I'm OK with all that, 'cause otherwise I'd be so busy, I'd be dead in a year.
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17 Responses to Tasting New York’s Chinatown Again

  1. Frances Quinn says:

    Welcome back, Dr. Happy to hear that your wife’s surgery went well and that she is on the road to recovery. I hope that goes fast and well for her, also.

    All of your non-excuses are gladly accepted for being away. I, like many others, I’m sure, am happy to read you back again and what a topic.

    First, I want to say that Jeff Smith is one of my all time favorite chefs. I have several of his cookbooks and, to be honest, his books are the first ones I go to for a recipe of any kind. As a matter of fact, I use his recipe to make Peiking Duck with all the trimmings (pancakes) and onion cakes. A lot of work but my son-in-law loves it. I have only made it three times and I guess its time is coming around again, now that I think of it.

    I believe tha Martin Yan did a show on red sauce and how long it is kept going and how the people just keep adding to the pot, much like the stock pot some chefs keep going.

    Don’t know if I would ever make the red sauce because I am not fond of sweetness in my entrees. I much prefer savory. I might try this without the sugar or at the least cut it to a third. Will see.

    In any event, glad to see you were not “raptured” and you and Sandra are still with us. Happy gardening.

    • drfugawe says:

      Hi Frances,
      Thanks for the welcome back – I think I must have all Jeff Smith’s books, as there was a time when they were all available for a buck or so. I have another fav Asian recipe of his for eggplant and a small amount of ground pork, for which I use a single bratwurst – it works perfectly. That dish is simply super.

      I shall find the Peking duck recipe and try it – we are duck lovers, but have never done Peking duck – odd, huh?

  2. Glenn says:

    Doc, as always a great read. Glad things are going well for the Mrs., send her my regards.

    And congrats on the new fridge, always nice to add a new appliance to the kitchen.

    As for that chicken, looks mighty darn tasty. I love Chinese, and yours look simple to make.

    And Frances, I’m glad we’re all still here too!

    • drfugawe says:

      Hey Tup,
      Thanks for the kind words – yeah, this one is so easy that once you try it, it sticks in your brain forever – in that way, it’s a real keeper. Has it stopped raining yet?

      • Glenn says:

        Hey Doc- The rains sorta stopped- had a few nice days, tomorrow looks like a washout though.

        We had tornado warnings yesterday, which is strange, being in the mountains. Didn’t see any though which is good.

        Feel bad about the folks down South- very scary.

        Hey Happy Mem Day! We’re heading up to the river after work, is it 3 PM yet?

  3. Anet says:

    Missed you.
    Happy to hear Sandee is on the road to R.
    Like the bread topics best but any item is tasty to read, especially if it contains soy sauce.
    Refrigerators are big items to research and buy — been there, done that.

    • drfugawe says:

      Thanks Anet, for the good wishes. San has just started her radiation treatments – from what I hear, that’s one of those ‘cures’ that can be worse than the disease, especially with her’s since it was caught so early. We’re just hoping for the best.

  4. Great to read you again Doc! We have a big fridge here by UK standards, a country where we marvel at the enormous volumes of American fridges and the size of their dinners, though we are catching up, not necessarily a good thing…

    I love Chinese chicken flavours too, only I tend not to use sugar in the marinades and mine are correspondingly less sweet, probably not very traditional but how I like it. Looking at all your pics makes me want to hop on the train down to London and into Chinatown though.

    Thinking of you both, hope all goes well 🙂

    • drfugawe says:

      Hey Jo!
      Many thanks for poppin’ in – yes, huge fridges are an American disease – kinda like closet space, you can never have enough. But both are simply reflections of a society gone mad with over-consumption. Our problem has much more to do with my compulsion to ‘collect’ food – easily half of the space in our fridge is devoted to condiments. I’m sure no one in this county has more than I. The silliness of it all is that most will never get used, they’ll just sit there so long that I’ll one day toss a few, but only after they’ve aged for about 5 years or so. Dumb.

      Maybe the new economy will shake some sense into us …, but I doubt it.

  5. Funny you should mention condiments. I was looking in the fridge today, feeling proud of myself for lack of condiments. Once upon a time I collected them as well, these days it’s pretty much homemade chutney, sweet chilli sauce and a bought mayonaise and mustard, and jeez it feels lighter!
    This chicken dish reminds me of one my mum used to make. I’ll have to give it a go.
    I hope Sandee handles the radiotherapy ok. Sending lots of healing vibes Doc.

    • drfugawe says:

      Many thanks, Brydie, for the good vibes – they are appreciated. We have looked carefully at our eating habits and determined that we must do better planning on using our leftovers before we cook new dishes – that will be hard for us, but I think we’ll be forced to do it.

  6. Doc, I’m glad to hear your wife’s surgery went well too – all the best for a not too arduous period of ray…

    Molly O’Neill’s book is one of my favourites! As you say, it’s a great read – so many great stories. I loved reading about the soup nazi – which I did well before the Seinfeld episode about him. And my all time recipe in the book is “Beth Pallazzo’s butterscotch brownies” – an absolute winner! 🙂

    • drfugawe says:

      Hi Celia,
      Thanks for the good thoughts – they are appreciated.

      I shall put a bookmark in the book and give those brownies a try – thanks for the heads-up.

  7. adnelg says:

    Sorry to hear that you and your wife are having to deal with this terrible disease, but glad to hear that she is responding well to treatment.

    I purchased a new refrigerator about 3 years ago and discovered that it too seemed smaller than I later needed. Unlike you, though, I think I just failed to really notice the dimensions and consider how I used the space. I let price and the “milk in the door” feature overrule my more practical considerations. It works okay but I’d love a “do over”.

    This recipe looks like something I could handle. I love chinese food. I’ve copied the recipe and am going to try it next week.

    I also have quite a collection of old cookbooks acquired mostly from yard and estate sells. I’m afraid I’ve been more of a collector in the past than a real user. I always seemed to run out of time and would revert to box meals and other emergency measures. I love to eat though and I’m trying to get more serious about cooking now that I have more time. Thanks for putting the recipe on here. I’m looking forward to trying it.

    • drfugawe says:

      Thanks for kind thoughts – all goes well, and spirits are high.

      I too have many cookbooks – I read them as some read novels – and I read them for inspiration. It may be a failing, but whenever I read a recipe, in the back of my mind is the question, ‘how can I make this better?’ And I will usually change something in it if I try it. And even when I make a dish that Sandee loves, the next time I do it, I’ll probably change it, in hopes of making it even better.

      Don’t know if I’m unique in this failing, but I suspect not.

  8. Sorry to read about your wife’s breast but glad the operation went well…sending good wishes down your way 🙂

    Good to see you around again!

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