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(Re)learning Chinese

I’ve never been a fan of Chinese food, or at least not the stuff that generally goes by that name in the U.S. When I was little, my family often went to our nearby Hunan Chinese Restaurant, but I remember it less for the food than for the décor: the goldfish in the fountain at the center of the room; the tinkly click-click of the beaded curtains in the hallway to the bathroom; and Shawn, the maître d’ with tight, shiny skin and starchy chinos with cavernous front pleats. As for the food, I’ll admit to a pre-teen’s weakness for crispy egg rolls, sweet-and-sour chicken, and beef with snow peas, but I drew the line there. What I knew as Chinese food always seemed to taste the same—lightly salty, greasy, and slimy with cornstarch.

But in recent years, I’ve found myself enjoying many things I’d previously relegated to the “no, thank you” category, and I realized that I had to give Chinese food another shot. After all, my condescension was based almost solely on those childhood experiences in Oklahoma, a state much better known for chicken-fried steak than for Peking duck. For the sake of fairness, I had to give it another go.

Still, it wasn’t a priority. In fact, I managed to live in Seattle for two years without ever venturing into the International District, although I often thought longingly of things I’d likely find there: bahn mi, rice noodles, knobby vegetables, musty-smelling teas. Note, however, that Chinese food didn’t make the list.

But all that changed last Sunday, when Kate and I strolled from her apartment down to the “I.D.” (as it’s called around here) on a scouting mission for a cocktail party we’re scheming. Dear reader, we both know that I’m prone to exaggeration, but believe me when I say this: I was in heaven. We gazed through windows at menus; we stroked bagfuls of wiry greens; and I dragged Kate into all the Chinese bakeries, where I ogled the soft, round buns and brioche-like breads filled with coconut or taro. I could have stared into the bakery cases for hours, singing along dreamily with the easy-listening music (ahh, the sound of my childhood!) that seemed to follow us from storefront to storefront. Even Kate, half-Chinese and something of a regular in the neighborhood, was entranced by the brightly colored, eerily perfect cakes, although she was less impressed with my lip-synching.

Somewhere along the way, after the fortune-cookie factory and before the Chinese grocery, we passed a restaurant called Shanghai Garden. Grabbing my arm as though a bolt of lightning had surged through her body, Kate panted something about vines. From what I could understand, Shanghai Garden is apparently known for its stir-fried pea vines, a dish that Kate likens to catnip for humans. Recalling an exchange I’d read on eGullet, I asked if they served hand-shaved noodles. Kate nodded. It was a date.

So last night we two descended on a very full Shanghai Garden, its glass tabletops gleaming and requisite fish tank glowing. We were seated by the window, at a table bathed in surprisingly flattering neon pink light. Warming our hands against white ceramic teacups, we sized up the extensive menu. The pea vines were a must, and after some discussion and more panting, we settled on barley-green hand-shaved noodle chow mein with pork, as well as an order of vegetable steamed dumplings to start.

The dumplings arrived quickly, little doughy purses gathered into the shape of waves.

Their deep orange skin was a bit unsettling, but we didn’t ask questions. Pinching them with our chopsticks, we dipped them into a sauce of soy and sesame oil with shavings of ginger and, slurping up errant drips, bit into them gently to reveal their verdant spinach filling.

Then came the pea vines, hot and sleek with oil from the wok. They were sweet, barely wilted, and astoundingly green-tasting, as though they’d just been picked.

The hand-shaved noodles were less photogenic, thick green ribbons stir-fried with egg, Napa cabbage, ruffly carrot coins, and thin strips of pork and piled onto the plate like debris from an explosion.

But they made up in texture (soft, almost melting under the tooth, yet not at all gummy or slippery) and flavor (mild, earthy, comforting) what they lacked in visual sophistication. We had two servings of everything and picked our plates clean, working our chopsticks like long, graceful fingers. We also carried on as usual, howling and slapping the table, making faces and talking microfinance and modern capitalism, but that's old news by now.
Our fortunes were a bit vague and vanilla,

but between the table’s rosy pink glow and our full bellies, we were too happy to care. And anyway, now that I've learned my lesson, there’s always next time.


Blogger amylou said...

Vegetable dumplings, how I love thee. I admit, though, I usually get the fried variety. Unfortunately I can't find them around here. Nor can I indulge in my even greater love: scallion pancakes. Sweden's Chinese restaurants are, well, not my scene. I'll eat vicariously through your time in the ID.

12:50 AM, January 30, 2005  
Blogger Emmeya said...

(i came here searching for a bread recipe or something...) Veggie Dumplings! I lived in Boulder for 2 years and there was a place I ate at between probably 2 and 7 times a week called the Chinese Dumpling House...they were rounder than the ones you ate and 6 years later I still dream of them. I have found a passable substitute in the town over from me and I'm going to put on some clothes right now and get some! I really enjoy your diary!

8:47 AM, January 30, 2005  
Blogger Pusekatt said...

Ok, I think living in Australia has really spoiled me when it comes to Chinese/ Asian food in general. Don't know if you have a thing called Yum-Cha in the states...I think it is called Dim Sum or something like that. 1001 different kinds of dumplings are served and among my favourite are vegetable dumplings. I am also very partial to egg-custard tarts, freshly made...mmmm
Ok, I am drooling now.

2:23 PM, January 30, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

delighted and proud that seattle and it's half-chinese citizenry could best your oklahoma experience with 'aaaasian' food. go forth, you brave adventuress, you!

here's to knobby vegetables and diminishing the 'no thank you' category.
- kate

7:48 PM, January 30, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


yes indeed- there is amazing dim sum here- interestingly enough, most of the best dim sum is out in the (we thought) primarily white suburbs, but the international district is making a strong comeback.

i met my mother for lunch last week and thought i was going to die of happinesss- so many steaming carts! your descriptions of the australian version sound wonderful!
- kate

7:55 PM, January 30, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Amy, I will do my best to eat enough dumplings for both of us! And don't worry--I'll seek out scallion pancakes too.

Emmeya, thanks for stopping by! I hope your dumplings were tasty...

And Kate, dahhhlink, I can think of no better co-adventuress than you. That was definitely one of our finer nights, from eye twitches to the "shag" setting on the vacuum. And thank you for giving Pusekatt the lowdown on dim sum, since you're much more in-the-know than I am...

10:19 PM, January 30, 2005  
Blogger Su-Lin said...

Hi! I've been reading your blog but not commenting...until now. Love your writing!

amylou, scallion pancakes are quite easy to make:

I've had success with this recipe...or variants on it.

7:15 AM, January 31, 2005  
Blogger amylou said...

Su-Lin, you read my mind. After writing that comment I thought about trying to find a recipe for them. Thank you!

9:24 AM, January 31, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Su-Lin, thanks for reading--and commenting! I see from your blog that you recently went to Paris for the first time. I'm VERY jealous.

3:51 PM, January 31, 2005  
Blogger stef said...

Molly, I just wanted to let you know that right after I saw your post on the pea shoots and dumplings - I had to go back to Shanghai Garden for more of that same goodness :)

You really should keep exploring Chinese food :) You never know what you might find.


3:57 PM, February 06, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When you read your fortune cookies you are supposed to say "in bed" at the end of it.


9:41 AM, April 08, 2009  
Anonymous erin said...

YES!! Shanghai Garden!!
my daughter and i were down in Seattle earlier this spring to see Lily Allen and wanted to eat out beforehand. ended up wandering around for what felt like hours and ended up in the International District. stumbled upon this (what i thought was) dodgy looking chinese restaurant.
we ordered the hand shaved chicken chow mein and the ginger (or maybe tangerine?) beef -- soooo delicious!! i think between the two of us, we finished everything!!
loved it so much, we wanted to take my husband and son back there for dinner. in fact, made us wish we lived in seattle so we could visit more often. now we'll have two places to visit next time we're down there :)

btw, as a new discoverer of your blog - thanks to my aforementioned teenage daughter who discovered you reading my 'bon appetit', i have a bone to pick with you.... i do not enjoy the same willpower of which you boast; those chocolate covered macaroons with do me in for sure!!!!! (and i can hardly wait!)

9:14 PM, October 28, 2009  
Blogger LaLa said...

oh I have HAD those noodles. They were as amazing last week as they apparently were in 2005 - though no neon pink lights. Way to be brave and try the photograph anyways!

5:07 PM, May 14, 2011  

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