Boiling the Bird

Where the buffalo carp roam in Manhattan's Chinatown

Among the regional cuisines of China, Chiu Chow is the hardest to explain. Originating around the Guangdong port of Shantou, 150 miles northeast of Hong Kong, Chiu Chow is both a dialect of Chinese and a cultural group,many of whose members emigrated over several centuries to Thailand and Vietnam. One married into the Siamese royal family in the 18th century, cementing the group's semi-official status in that country. The immigrants sometimes returned home to China, bringing with them the tart and spicy flavors of Southeast Asia, overlaid on the blander Cantonese food they had originally eaten.

It's similarly difficult to put your finger on what's different about New Chao Chow Restaurant. The ducks in the window seem oranger than usual, the display of noodles more profuse and seductive. Emblazoned on the window are Chinese ideograms, but there are also Vietnamese words, with their prickly accent marks. Inside is the sort of decor we associate with the oldest Chinatown dining establishments: a steaming tea urn the size of a small car, round communal tables with the Formica partly rubbed off, waiters in white shirts and black vests, and a prep counter displaying diverse pig and duck parts. In the middle of each table rises a forest of powerfully flavored condiments, including two types of chile paste, Thai bird's eye peppers, and colorful vinegars.

At nearly every table someone is slurping "broth noodles" ($3.25), a Chiu Chow specialty known on the menu as "combination rice stick (soup on the side)." Filling the deep bowl, the thick rice noodles are heaped with ground pork, sliced pork, delicious homemade fish cake, and freshly cooked shrimp. Indeed, pork-seafood combos are a Chiu Chow passion. A green wad of cilantro sits on top, while bits of sour cabbage hide among the noodles. On the side there's a small bowl of tasty broth. The dish might be mistaken for a disassembled version of Vietnamese pho, except that the broth is so clearly Cantonese.

Suffering succotash: It's chow time.
photo: Shiho Fukada
Suffering succotash: It's chow time.

The duck (one-quarter, $4) is another of the restaurant's signatures, nothing like the crisp-skinned mahogany creature seen elsewhere in Chinatown. The orange bird has been braised in a rich soy sauce, and arrives moist and flavorful and garnished with sweet pickled radish. It comes with a fish-sauce vinaigrette, a cousin of Vietnamese nuoc cham, in which float flecks of garlic, ginger, and green onion. The same sauce accompanies the inglorious-sounding boiled chicken, an utterly white bird that carries the boiler's art to a new high. The resulting succulent flesh—not dry nor stringy in the least—would have astonished my Irish grandmother, who boiled a chicken every Saturday.

Ninety percent of the menu is recognizably Cantonese, departing from its prototype by being braised in a clay pot rather than stir-fried. The ceramic vessel originated in India before making its way to Southeast Asia. A particular favorite produced by this method is buffalo carp with curry sauce ($9), pieces of bulbous fish immersed in a gooey, fever-yellow sauce that contrasts nicely with the muddy taste of the carp, whose flavor reminded me of Mississippi-caught catfish. Then there are a handful of actual stir-fries and dozens of over-rice meals. In the latter category is the wonderful (and wonderfully Cantonese) beef and egg over rice ($3), irrigated with a salty trickle of oyster sauce. Proving that, having meandered all over Southeast Asia for centuries, the Chiu Chow still know how to dine cheaply and well.

 
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