Taste new foods and learn about the neighborhood on the Chinatown Market Tour
By Jody Feinberg
Gatehouse News Service
Posted Aug 05, 2010 @ 01:14 PM
BOSTON —Liga Aldins never considered eating chicken feet, but she took the challenge on a guided tour through the streets and shops of Chinatown. “I’m glad I tried it, and the taste was fine, like chicken wings with less meat,” said Aldins of Westwood. “I was thinking ‘this is my first chicken foot and it might be my last,’ but I would eat it again.”
The chicken feet were just one of many new foods Aldins sampled on The Chinatown Market Tour, a 3 1/2 hour tour operated by Michele Topor Inc. and led by guide Jim Becker. After experiences with taste, touch and smell inside a barbecue take-out, bakery, grocery, and herb store, the six tour members were hardly hungry when they sat down to dim sum at Hei La Moon. But all wanted to taste the steamed buns, dumplings, filled lotus leaves and other selections that Becker ordered from servers who roved the packed dining room filled with about 350 people.
“Dim sum means point to your heart,” said Becker, a former chef who lived in Shanghai and Taiwan and speaks Mandarin and Cantonese. “Whatever your heart desires, you point to the cart. A lot of families do this every week on Sunday. Generations will sit around the table for hours.”
Throughout the tour, Becker reduced the mystery of Chinatown, but not the fascination. He captivated his audience as he talked about the history of the Chinese in America, the development of Chinatown, the qualities of regional cuisines, the cultural significance of foods, and Chinese beliefs about spirituality and health.
“This was very special, and he was so enthusiastic and knowledgeable,” said Aldins, who grew up in Quincy and Weymouth and teaches French and Spanish at The Park School in Brookline. “It’s a great way to get to know the neighborhood, rather than wandering around aimlessly. I feel like it’s a lot more accessible now, and I plan to come back.”
At the start of the tour near Chinatown Gate (a gift from Taiwan for the U.S. bicentennial) on Beach Street, Becker explained that Boston has the country’s third-largest Chinatown, behind New York City and San Francisco, even though it covers only 46 acres and has a population of less than 6,000. The original residents were Chinese men who came from San Francisco in 1870 to replace striking workers in shoe factories in North Adams. When their contract ended, they moved to Boston. They, and most subsequent immigrants, came from the southern Guangdong (Canton) region, and the result is that most restaurants serve Cantonese food.
“The Cantonese are known for using exotic ingredients,” said Becker of Milton, the former owner of Rauxa Restaurant and Cava Bar. “And they use woks for stir fry and bamboo baskets for steaming – cooking techniques that need little fuel.”
At the small take-out shop, Great Barbecue, roasted chicken, duck and suckling pig hung from hooks, their skin glistening crisp. The samples of pork were pale, sweet and succulent, very different from the pink-dyed slices served in some restaurants catering to American tastes. Becker explained why the heads were left on the poultry and why oranges were placed near a small floor altar.
“The heads seal in the juices and they are left on because the Chinese believe that a living creature should leave life intact,” Becker said. “And they believe that you have to feed the ancestors, and what you enjoy in this life you should have in the afterlife.”
At Ho Yuen Bakery, four samples of traditional pastries were served: steamed buns, fried sticky rice sesame balls filled with red bean paste, yeast buns with coconut, and moon cakes, dense with ginger, mixed nuts and fruit.
“Pastries are not dessert in China,” Becker said. “They’re snacks eaten with tea, and they can be savory or sweet or a blend.”
Later, the group drank bubble tea inside Bao Bao Bakery and Cafe. The name is something of a misnomer, since the drink is often made with sweetened condensed milk and flavored with almond, coconut or taro. The bubbles are small balls of tapioca and brown sugar at the bottom, which are sipped through a straw with a wide opening. The group was surprised to find the drink refreshing and light.
Stopping outside Wings Live Poultry, Becker said shoppers select a live bird, which is then killed and prepared for sale. There are black, white and brown chickens, ducks, guinea hens, partridge, squab and silkies, a black-skinned chicken popular for its delicious broth and medicinal qualities.
“No Chinese would buy a supermarket chicken when they can get a live one,” Becker said. “You tell them what you want, and they get the bird ready for you.”
Inside Nam Bac Hong Chinese Herbs, a man behind the counter filled a prescription for a customer by measuring and weighing a variety of mysterious looking herbs, barks, leaves, stems, roots and seeds and wrapping them in a brown paper package.
“I’m guessing this is the type of shop you might not have walked in on your own,” Becker said.
He explained that traditionally, the Chinese practice preventive medicine and consult a herbalist about once a month, who conducts a physical exam to determine if their energies are balanced. If not, the herbalist prescribes a remedy, which patients brew as a tea and drink. The store also has many oils, and the group smelled a remedy for headaches called white flower oil, which is fragrant with lavender, spearmint and peppermint.
At C-Mart, the largest grocery store in Chinatown, there were rows of unidentifiable vegetables and fruits.
“We could do a three-hour tour just of the supermarket,” Becker said.
Instead, the 15 minutes introduced people to an array of possibilities: bright pink dragon fruit, a seasonal fruit which tastes similar to kiwi and is shaped like an avocado; water spinach, a leafy green that is a type of morning glory that grows in the water and is stir fried with garlic and shrimp paste; and luffa squash, a long curly squash that can grow to 9 feet and becomes a sponge when dried.
In front of rows of Chinese and Japanese soy sauces, Becker highlighted differences and called his favorite, Pearl River Bridge, “good enough to drink.”
“I just love learning all this,” said Dita Henderson of Hyde Park, a kindergarten teacher at The Park School.
At the dim sum, Becker explained the etiquette of tea pouring and of raising your plate to your mouth to eat slippery food. At the end of the meal, he passed out a tiny Chinese take-out box filled with an assortment of candies. And he gave everyone a hand-out with descriptions of the tour stops and other restaurant and bakery recommendations.
“It does take the mystery out of it,” said Kathy DeMarco of Malden to her husband, John. “We’re going to have to come back here.”
Reach Jody Feinberg at [email protected].
Read the original article online here.