October 5th: The moon is full tonight. Some people may know this full moon as the Harvest Moon. Many people will not think of it at all. But in Flushing’s Chinatown, this full moon is the occasion for eating mooncakes.
Mooncakes are small, round cakes with a filling, often red bean paste or lotus-seed paste. Larger mooncakes (the size of the palm of a hand) usually have a salted egg yolk in the center. The origin of mooncakes is not very clear, but they may date back to the Song dynasty (tenth century).
This year the festival started on the 15th day of the month on the lunar calendar, or yesterday—so I went with a friend to Flushing to eat mooncakes.
The almost-full moon was dazzling, but life on Main and Roosevelt Streets showed few signs of change. As usual, fruit-sellers stood behind boxes of fruit, yelling their prices, and pigs’ feet and roast ducks were on display in shop windows and on tables in front of shops. Pirated DVDs were also on sale, and between a massage parlor and an herbal shop, a sign directed visitors to an “adult entertainment” shop up a flight of stairs.
But, as ever, the main attraction was food. In unnamed malls—corridors lined with tiny shops leading from the street to the back of the building—families sat in tiny, fluorescent-lit noodle shops having dinner out. The menus at these restaurants were remarkably long for such small establishments, featuring noodles with pork and vegetables, but also with every imaginable kind of offal, duck blood, pigs’ ears, and so on. And all along Main Street and its tributaries people stopped at bakeries, dumpling shops, and restaurants for food.
No corner in this neighborhood is too small for something interesting to develop. My friend stopped at a florist on Roosevelt Avenue and pointed out a tiny stall selling a variety of treats—but mainly douhua, or creamy tofu. Behind the window, a woman tended a vat of soy milk and a cooker full of hot tofu; cups of sweet ginger syrup sat in stacks to her side. I took a sample of this home. Mixing the sweet ginger syrup with the douhua makes an excellent treat—simple, mildly sweet, and very tasty.
We walked along 40th Road (where I’ve previously written about Shanghai You Garden), looking into the densely packed restaurants, many well-known, and eventually went into a door with a sign reading 天天 缃上 and a menu titled “Traditional Hunan Style.”
Inside was a long dining area with walls painted blood red, and screens painted black. Abstract patterns suggesting rolling clouds or waves were painted with black, angular strokes on some walls, along with a stylized painting of a river surrounded by houses. This river, I suspect, is meant to be the Xiang River (缃) alluded to in the restaurant’s name. (The Xiang is the largest river in Hunan.)
The menu offered mostly dishes from Hunan and Sichuan, as well as some intriguing dishes of unknown provenance, such as leaping fish (which I had not the heart to order) and frog casserole.
We ordered Mao’s Braised Pork, a classic dish of Hunan, and spicy Sichuanese fish.
The spicy fish came first, in a great bowl of soup filled with peppers, noodles, cabbage, and fish. It was hot, with a strong chili flavor, and a little sour. It was very good (although, alas, it did not have the distinctive peppercorn flavor that I hope for in Sichuanese food).
The braised pork came mixed with roasted peppers and covered in sauce. The first bite is surprising: a candied flavor, like honey-covered walnuts, fills your mouth. This is a captivating dish. It is no wonder Chairman Mao (a native of Hunan) liked it so much.
Finally, we had mooncakes, bought from a stall on Main Street. Mine was filled with lotus-seed paste, with a salted egg yolk in the middle. An excellent way to mark the harvest moon. (I think the text below just says, “egg yolk, lotus seed paste.”)
Soy Bean Chen Flower Shop
13526 Roosevelt Ave
Flushing, NY 11354
7am – 9pm every day
天天湘上 (Traditional Hunan Style )
135-23 40th Rd Flushing, NY 11354
11:30am – 11:00pm Sun – Thurs
11:30am – 12:00am Fri – Sat