Friday, January 18, 2013
I was in the mood for Chinese take-out yesterday. Well, no, I was really in the mood for General Tso's chicken and didn't feel at all like cooking for myself.
I walked into the Asian take-out place close to my subway station (did I ever mention that I walk, on average, five miles a day just because it's so much faster and more convenient to get anywhere than with a car?).
"I'd like a small General Tso's to go, please."
Taking the time to study the menu printed behind the counter, I found quite a few unknown dishes, some that turned out to just have a different name in this part of the world and some that I'd never seen before. There were some universal constants, of course- sweet and sour chicken or pork still exist, but one of the things I thought would be a constant, the dearly departed General Tso's favorite chicken dish, wasn't among them.
Oh, dear. My body had told me quite clearly over the course of more than six hours that nothing else would do. I wasn't looking at anything else that was even slightly enticing me to want to eat it, but I would have to have some food soon.
"Could you maybe tell me what's in it?"
The question startled me. I had a vague idea of rice wine and rice vinegar, soy sauce and lots of red chili paste but the exact recipe eluded me. I just wanted that gooey spicy pseudo-Chinese thing of my NYC days.
"Something with these ingredients, the meat is cubed and there is broccoli," I said.
"Hmm... if you don't mind waiting for fifteen minutes, I'll make it for you. I'll have to make some chili paste because we don't sell too much of the very spicy kind and the store-bought varieties all have MSG in it."
Wait- no MSG?
He pointed to a sign above the counter that stated that all dishes were cooked freshly without MSG. Oh, I had said that out loud. Sorry.
"You can request we add it, though," he stated, "a lot of our customers do."
"No thanks, I'm a little sensitive and... I don't mind waiting at all." It gave me a chance to observe proceedings at this tiny take-out restaurant.
People swarmed in every five minutes, coinciding with subways arriving. Three cooks sharing a three-wok cooking space threw handfuls of fresh vegetables into what I could read was extra-virgin sesame oil, adding spices, each to their own variation on the restaurant's recipes.
The friendly person taking my order came back out of a small room in the back carrying a mortar and pestle filled with a coriander chili paste so fragrant I could've just munched it with some kroepoek straight from the mortar.
"No garlic," he said, "didn't think you'd go for it. I put ginger, shallot and black sesame in instead."
"May I please have the recipe," I begged. He laughed and handed the chili paste over to one of the maestros at the wok. He confirmed again that I wanted something really, really spicy and went to work.
I got a whole container full of carefully cubed chicken breast in the most mouthwateringly smelling sauce ever, and a separate container full of cooked-to-perfection broccoli, Chinese cabbage, carrot cubelets and freshly sliced chilies.
Not the thing I set out to get, but one of the very very best Chinese dishes I ever had. I sat down in front of my TV, loaded the DVR'd Federer second round Australian Open match and dug in.
I could've had another portion because it was just that good.
Sweet and spicy, Mirin counterbalanced with the tartness of something citrusy overlaid by the amazing chili paste. Notes of ginger enhanced by the earthiness of black sesame and cardamom. Vegetables, as crispy and tasty as any Michelin-starred variety I ever had, and much more plentiful. Fluffy basmati rice from a third container I hadn't even realized had been packed for me. Succulent, moist chicken.
A fourth container, labelled simply "dessert", with caramelized mango on a small portion of coconut sticky rice and a note asking me to give my feedback on whether they should start including this dish in their menu.
And a phone number, with a winking smilie attached.
There was a note of mint in the mango sticky rice, it was as divine as the rest of the meal.
WHY didn't I go there before?
Oh, yes, the whole not going out to eat and cooking for myself instead resolution thing. I'll say this restaurant is a viable alternative though- they cook pretty much like I would, only on a more professional scale, and even with dessert I didn't blow my calorie range.
YUUUUUM! I have to be very strict with myself not to call right now and order in.
(I still miss my not-healthy-at-all General Tso's, but it's more of a theoretical concept of home being missed now. You know you're in an alien nation when... The General has lost his chicken.)