Let’s say it’s 1880 and your in-laws are in town. They want to “see the real New York.” So what do you do with them? How about a tour of Chinatown!
Long before the endless stalls of knock-off handbags, Chinatown of the late 19th century was a tourist destination. Gangs of middle-class city visitors would swarm to the Lower East Side to take guided tours, in which they might peek into an opium den, shop in import stores, or meet one of the “Irish Brides” of the mostly male Chinese population.
The tours were meant to titillate, even to shock. You were descending into a “foreign” country, just a few blocks below Houston Street. I often wonder how these visitations were received by the immigrant Chinese population: some, I’m sure, took advantage of the situation for financial gain. Others, perhaps, were even able to chuckle at the awe-struck outsiders. But how does it really feel when your neighborhood is filled with tourists, ogling and judging your way of life?
The tour would always end in one of Chinatown’s many eateries to grab a bowl of Chop Suey, a mix of pork, chicken organs, and vegetables which was considered the height of exoticism at the turn of the century. You can watch me (poorly) cook a turn-of-the-century recipe for chop suey here.
My colleague Bill Wander recently had an article published in Asian Fusion magazine, all about these “slumming tours” as they were known at them time. He did a little investigating into what a Chinese restaurant was serving at the turn of the century:
“The Oriental Restaurant at 3 Pell St in 1903 featured the inevitable “Chop SOOY” for 15 cents and a small chicken chow mein for forty cents. Birds Nest soup and shark fin soup were $1.50 and $2. respectively. The menu was ala carte, with rice or bread and butter at 5 cents. But the most unusual item on the menu might have been “Hong Sooy Un Doy” – Rice with maple syrup – 10 cents.”
You can see the full menu here.
Rice with Maple Syrup–I was intrigued! I like rice! I like maple syrup! And who has ever heard of that flavor combination before? It reminded me of a dish my mother used to eat when she was a kid: cooked rice in cold milk with sugar and cinnamon. Sweet rice, in my mind, is associated with rice pudding. To see it so simply dressed with sweet condiments, rather than savory, seemed unique.
So I cooked a pot of rice according to this recipe and drizzled real maple syrup on top. I dug in with a pair of chopsticks.
My first thought was “hot ice cream!” It had the creaminess and sweetness of ice cream, but with a comforting warmth. But after a few bites, the flavor became monotonous. It’s an interesting idea, but perhaps it needs some improvement. Perhaps a maple-pecan-bourbon rice pudding instead? Or maybe, a maple-ginger rice pudding; or maple-sezchuan-peanut rice pudding, to pull out the dish’s Chinatown roots. Now that’s worth thinking about.