SECOND UPDATE: The mystery deepens…our two favorite dishes turned out to be Sichuan. My friend Sharon works in a lab with people from Dongbei, Hunan, and Guangzhou, and they said these dishes are very popular and common all over China but they are Sichuan in origin. “Yu hsiang” means “fish-flavored,” although there is no actual fish in the sauce, and recipes for “yu hsiang” pork and “jing jiang rou shi” can both be found in Fuchsia Dunlop’s excellent cookbook, Land of Plenty: Authentic Sichuan Recipes Personally Gathered in the Chinese Province of Sichuan. (I also highly recommend her memoir, Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China.) So a Dongbei cook making Sichuan food for a largely Korean clientele in Flushing, NY. My favorite kind of multiculturalism.
Flushing, New York is easily disorienting. It may not be the most ethnically diverse town in the borough of Queens, but it’s definitely one of them. The sidewalks of downtown Flushing are nearly as packed as in Times Square, with people shopping for durian fruit and eating $1 Peking duck buns. The dominant Asian ethnicities are obviously Chinese and Korean, except that doesn’t begin to describe who is actually living, working, and cooking in Flushing. Within blocks, sometimes within a few feet, you can move from Taipei to Chengdu to Hong Kong.
And this past weekend, I ate food from the border between China and North Korea. Some of what I ate reminded me of Korean food. Some of what I ate reminded me of Chinese food. None of it was like anything I had tasted before.
명찬동, pronounced “Myung Chan Dong,” can be found at 36-24 Union St., just south of Northern Boulevard. The name of the restaurant is written in Korean and Chinese; it’s been written up elsewhere in English as “Ming Chan Dong.” The outside of the restaurant is plastered with Korean letters advertising things like chive dumplings and boiled dumplings. The windows are filled with giant buns stuffed with kimchi. The dough is similar to the kind in Korean “wang mandu” or “giant dumplings,” but with pleating more intense than anything I’ve ever seen in Korea. (One food writer says it’s like a Klingon forehead.)
Inside, the signs on the walls sport mainly Korean writing—you can get sundubu or spicy soft tofu stew, or sundae, Korean blood sausage stuffed with vermicelli. At least that’s what I know those words to mean, but since I didn’t order these dishes, I’m not sure that’s exactly what I would get. The menu is entirely in Chinese and Korean, no English, but not every Chinese dish is translated into Korean. The waitress greeted us in Chinese, but when I said I was Korean, she switched easily and smoothly into Korean. Then when she realized my friend Jerome speaks Chinese, she alternated between the two, looking back and forth at us. (Alex and Salley, who are ethnically half-Chinese and Korean, respectively, understood nothing but ate everything.) The only other people who came into the restaurant that day were obviously Korean. I heard one of them order cheonggukjang, which is an especially smelly and intense version of doenjang or Korean soybean paste, that has fermented to the point it tastes like cheese.
And yet, nothing we ate that day was Korean. Actually, we were served four side dishes of spicy pickles that were very, very, very similar to kimchi. But otherwise, nothing we ate was remotely Korean or even Korean-Chinese, that sub-cuisine that Koreans love and own as much as Americans love and own pizza.
The first dish to arrive was pork in a sauce similar to jjajiang or black bean sauce, on a bed of freshly shredded scallions, that we were supposed to eat wrapped in paper-thin slices of warm tofu.
Judging from the translation of the menu provided by Lau on Chowhound, I think it was the “jing jiang rou shi,” which Lau describes as “shredded meat in Beijing sauce.” I don’t know what “Beijing sauce” means. I only know that it was absolutely delicious. The sauce was slightly sweet, just enough to notice but not enough to be cloying. The tofu was firm but flexible, and wrapping it around the meat was almost as much fun as eating it.
Because we were planning to eat at two more places that day, I asked her to recommend a vegetable dish. She suggested eggplant sauteed in garlic, but what we got was so much more. The eggplant was cut into thick, long pieces, almost like French fries. It was coated in egg then fried, so that the inside was creamy and the outside crisp, even when tossed in garlic sauce. The texture, especially with the crunchy-tender wood ear mushrooms, was as surprising and exciting as any dish created by a molecular gastronomist. We found out from the waitress that the dish was “yuhsiang” (translated by Chowhound Lau as “yu xiang qie zi”). Jerome said it’s a very common style of cooking, just one step up from “bulletproof Chinese,” but like us, he had never eaten anything like this before.
We also tried one of the giant kimchi buns, which to me tasted dry and not very memorable, but was at least really fun to look at.
My initial reason for wanting to go to this restaurant had been to try the Korean-style jjajiangmyeon and the Chinese-style side by side. Like taking a slice of American pizza and lining it up next to its Neopolitan ancestor. The Korean-style, though, looked nothing like I expected. The sauce was black and there were the requisite shredded cucumbers, but there was no pork or seafood or onions in the sauce. The sauce had good flavor but the noodles were poor, too mushy to support anything.
To our surprise, the “Chinese-style” turned out to be noodle soup! Jerome and Salley, who have had “zha jiang mian” said that what they had in mind were noodles with meat and a bit of sauce. This may have been a mistake in communication, though this blog post on a Dongbei restaurant in Kuala Lumpur makes me think that she was serving us dao shao mian in the way that blogger expected it, “floating around with greens and porky pieces in a rich broth.” The broth was good, as was the pork and greens, but the noodles again fell down.
At the end of our meal, the waitress asked us what we had liked best. When we told her we loved the pork wrapped in tofu and the eggplant, she said in Korean, “There are dishes that are yummier here, but I thought since you are new to our restaurant, you should try these. They are cheap.” She then turned to Jerome and told him in Chinese that the lamb dish was “the bomb.” For a minute, we considered ordering the lamb right then and there, but we decided instead to push on for Xi’an liang pi noodles and Szechuan wontons in chili oil at the Golden Mall.
(These are famous, especially as Anthony Bourdain is a big fan of the Xi’an food stall, so you can find out more about them elsewhere.)
In any case, I resolved to come back with a bigger crowd and eat whatever she told us to eat.
I think much of the menu is typical of “Dongbei cuisine,” which encompasses three provinces in northeastern China. From what I’ve read, the cuisine shows the marks of Korean influence—they eat a lot of pickles and food spiked with hot chiles and vinegar. They are also masters of dough, with wheat taking a more central place than rice. One of the most intriguing menu items to me was “옥수수냉면“ or corn cold noodles. Naengmyeon, or cold Korean noodles, are from North Korea, so it would make sense that the Chinese provinces would eat something similar. I’m dying to know if the noodles are made with corn or if corn is incorporated into the dish in some other way. Judging from what people have eaten at a self-identified Dongbei restaurant, corn as well as potatoes are staples, which would coincide with what I know about North Korean regional cuisines as well.
Yet it’s clearly not just a Dongbei restaurant. I’d wondered if it was owned by ethnically Korean people from China, or ethnically Chinese people from Korea. But it turns out the bilingual waitress is Chinese, has never lived in Korea, and speaks Korean because she was taught it in school. I guess it doesn’t really matter what we call the food Myung Chan Dong makes. The restaurant reflects the people who cook and eat there. No more, no less. I can’t wait to go back.