I first visited New York’s Flushing, Queens over 40 years ago in the blazing summer of 1970. From Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan’s 42nd Street, my friend and I took the 7 train back to his neighbourhood. He told me that Flushing is a rather quiet and accessible neighbourhood, and only a 40-minute train ride from midtown.
As the train pulled out of Manhattan, the train went above ground, travelling on an elevated track. Watching the houses go by as we entered the Queens borough, I felt only monotony and desolation: smatterings of two to three-storey wooden houses and seven to eight-storey brown brick houses made for a scene right out of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. Thinking back, much like the suburbs of Beijing today, the endless rows of housing gave off a modern sense of desolation, leaving one feeling overcome by waves and all rather lost and helpless.
The 7 train terminates at Main Street, Flushing. I guess back when this area was plotted out, it was meant to be the main thoroughfare for people and goods; it would grow in time into a business district, much in the way that a suburban marketplace turns into a town centre, complete with newsstands, provision shops, pharmacies and small malls.
When I moved to New York about a decade later, I heard that with the influx of Chinese and Koreans, Flushing had turned into a lively Asian enclave that could rival the Chinatown in downtown Manhattan.
Compared to downtown New York, Flushing was much quieter and duller; there were no cars or pedestrians to clog up the roads and definitely not the hustle and bustle of a city. It was rather serene in fact, much like a residential suburb. There were a few no-frills Chinese restaurants which seemed rather popular, selling the usual braised pork belly, braised fish, kung pao chicken, and moo shu pork. They also had American Chinese food like chop suey and egg foo young.
My friend brought me to a restaurant that he was familiar with. Soon after he went into the kitchen to greet the chef, a few dishes were served. My friend told me not to compare the dishes with what we could get in Chinatown and to just have our fill.
From what I recall, at that time, there was not a single Chinese restaurant in Flushing that was of a good standard...
The Asian enclave of Flushing, Queens
When I moved to New York about a decade later, I heard that with the influx of Chinese and Koreans, Flushing had turned into a lively Asian enclave that could rival the Chinatown in downtown Manhattan. Many of my Taiwanese and mainland Chinese friends were also drawn to the area and many Chinese were settling there. The language of communication became Mandarin — not Cantonese like in the earlier times — and the neighbourhood became home to new Chinese immigrants. So, I occasionally drove there to meet friends and stock up on Chinese food.
Before I left New York, there was a period of time when I used to meet two of my Shandong hometown friends — writers Wang Dingjun (王鼎均) and Chuang Hsin-cheng (庄信正) — for lunch in Flushing every Saturday. The three of us represented the pre-elderly, post-middle-aged, and pre-middle-aged generations from Taiwan. We would talk about anything under the sun, from the Xinhai Revolution to the secrets of Taiwan’s literary scene.
Wang chose the restaurant — it served northern Chinese food which was not very good but we made do. In that situation, the quality of food was secondary to the convenience of its location near the subway. There were also very few diners, which meant that we could stay to chat the whole afternoon.
From what I recall, at that time, there was not a single Chinese restaurant in Flushing that was of a good standard — none of the regional cuisines, be it Jiangsu-Zhejiang cuisine, northern Chinese (mostly Shandong) cuisine, Sichuan-Hunan cuisine, Cantonese cuisine or Fujian cuisine, tasted authentic enough. None of them could awaken my taste buds and I was better off steaming a piece of fish at home.
Ah, no wonder it had the familiar taste of the beef noodles I had in the 1960s at a beef noodle shop on Taoyuan Street.
Gradually, a Chinese food haven too
But it looks like a lot has changed since then. I recently flew to Flushing to visit some relatives. I learnt that a friend from Beijing had moved there and opened a bakery that also sells noodles. I decided to give it a try. I ordered a bowl of braised beef brisket noodles, and to my surprise, out came a bowl of noodles so big it could feed an army.
The broth was heavenly — aside from the fact that it already had a very fragrant aroma, it also had a certain richness reminiscent of northern Chinese cuisine. As soon as I tasted it, I was reminded of a century-old mutton soup from western Shandong. My friend said that the broth was made with beef bones and a secret concoction of pepper, star anise and chilli she had adapted from a Taiwan master’s recipe. Ah, no wonder it had the familiar taste of the beef noodles I had in the 1960s at a beef noodle shop on Taoyuan Street. In fact, it had an even richer taste, probably due to the higher-quality grade of beef she used. I confirmed my guess with her — yes, she used New Zealand beef. The noodles were springy like the ones in the north of China, which is hard to come by even in Hong Kong. My friend said they were of that texture as they were freshly handmade each day.
... it was best not to recklessly dive into the industry and get swallowed up by quicksand, so to speak. Otherwise, her life might “turn sour” and her yoghurt (酸奶, lit "sour milk") may turn into bitter tears.
After I finished the bowl of noodles, my friend asked if I wanted to try the yoghurt and pastries that she had made. I initially demurred as I was absolutely stuffed. But she said, “Just have a taste. You don’t have to finish it.” I took a spoonful of the yoghurt and it did not disappoint — its milky fragrance wafted from the tip of my tongue to my upper jaw; its smooth, sweet and creamy flavour hit my palate and rolled onward into my oesophagus from the top of my throat, as if infusing my whole body with the yoghurt’s rich aroma. Yes, it tasted like the yoghurt of Beijing, you know, those in ceramic containers that are fragrant, authentic, soft and smooth, and untainted by artificial flavours.
I was full of praise for the yoghurt, exclaiming that it must be insanely popular. I thought that it would be a big hit not only in New York but also throughout the whole country if it was marketed well. Why not mass produce it? She said that she had thought about doing so but someone warned her that large American dairy companies have monopolised the yoghurt industry, and with small- and medium-sized sales channels controlled by the Italian mafia, it was best not to recklessly dive into the industry and get swallowed up by quicksand, so to speak. Otherwise, her life might “turn sour” and her yoghurt (酸奶, lit "sour milk") may turn into bitter tears. She sighed, “I’ll just make less and make do with selling it in my own bakery.”
Never did I think that my friend’s jujube pastry would transcend the material world and enter the spiritual realm, and in fact go beyond gastronomic pleasures to lift my spirits.
The best jujube pastry in this part of the world
As we spoke, she brought out a piece of jujube pastry (枣泥酥饼), which was nothing much to look at, resembling a salted egg pastry. But once the shiny brown-black jujube paste oozed out from the core when we cut it into four, it seemed quite fascinating and extraordinary. I took a quarter piece of the pastry and inhaled deeply, as if sampling red wine. It had such a fragrant and lingering aroma that I couldn’t help but take a bite.
I rolled the pastry around the insides of my mouth to evenly coat my taste buds. I breathed in slowly at the same time, allowing my sense of smell to partake in the tasting as well. As if doing some zen meditation, I focused my energy and let my breathing technique do its thing. The jujube’s fragrance seemed to have transcended pure smell and taste, combining colour, fragrance and taste into one elevated realm.
Never did I think that my friend’s jujube pastry would transcend the material world and enter the spiritual realm, and in fact go beyond gastronomic pleasures to lift my spirits. I couldn’t help but tell her that I have actually been looking for delicious jujube paste ever since I left Taiwan.
Over the past 40 years, I have travelled south to Jiangsu and Hangzhou and north to Beijing just so I could find the jujube paste of my dreams. I even enlisted the help of my friends and family before finally finding some jujube pastry at Beijing’s Daoxiangcun about a decade ago. It was rather greasy and not that fragrant. Not to mention that the taste changed the second time we visited. While it was still jujube paste, it was rough and dry, as if biting into a mouth of kaolin clay. The search thus continued, until we found some produced by Gongyifu (宫颐府). The quality was okay, although it lacked a certain sophistication. But whenever my friends visited Beijing, I would always ask them to buy some so I could eat them in Hong Kong.
I truly did not expect Flushing to transform so much over the span of 40 years — I even got to try the jujube pastry of my dreams!
This article was first published in Chinese on United Daily News as “法拉盛的棗泥酥皮” in January 2012.
Related: Chinese economics professor: The New York I saw was not the New York I read about in books | From New York to Suzhou: A professor's guide to eating hairy crabs | Song dynasty emperor's brewing secrets in a cup of HK milk tea | When the cultural historian forgot about Chinese New Year | Cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai: A half-century journey around the globe to Hong Kong’s Wu Kai Sha | China's thousand-year-old mutton soup