Last Wednesday, before the blizzard buried downtown New York, several hundred hungry revelers gathered at the Bowery Hotel to celebrate New Year’s. But if it was still February 2017, outside, here at the Bowery it was the twelfth night of the traditional fifteen days reserved for celebrating the Chinese lunar new year, in this case 4715. Clad in a sleeveless, elegant red shift — the unofficial color of luck and happiness in Chinese culture — Nancy Yao Maasbach greeted the partygoers: “Have you eaten yet?” The president of the Museum of Chinese in America (our hosts for the evening), she repeated her question, a literal translation of a colloquial Chinese greeting (Ni che la ma?), prompting cheers and applause from the crowd standing and eating at the museum’s first-ever “Night Market” new year’s feast. Under paper lanterns and in rooms adorned with fire-rooster imagery — this year’s Chinese zodiac sign — takeaway small plates of Chinese, Taiwanese, and Chinese-American food were dished up by a lineup of Chinatown superstars and newcomers to the city’s Asian food scene.
“We tried to come up with a balance of different dishes to showcase not just the restaurants, but Chinese [cuisine] in a sense,” says the event’s co-chair, Kian Lam Kho, the IACP award–winning cookbook author and James Beard Award–nominated blogger. “They all came up with suggestions.”
Proceeds from the evening went to the museum’s educational programs about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. “Immigration is on everybody’s mind,” says Herb Tam, curator of the museum’s popular current exhibition Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy: Stories of Chinese Food and Identity in America, which was recently extended through September 10, 2017. “It’s really important right now for visitors to the museum to learn that Chinese were once excluded from coming to America. Obviously, it resonates with the Muslim experience now. A lot of people don’t know this history, and I think maybe if they knew more about what happened to Chinese way back when, it might affect how they think about the current political situation.”
The breadth of variety here would pass muster with any Chinese food critic, as there were jianbing from Mr. Bing present (an omnipresent street food of a crepe-like pancake folded with scrambled eggs, scallions, sesame seeds, hoisin, and a habit-forming chile paste), poached chicken congee shots from Nom Wah Nolita, and mini rice bowls with minced pork from Taiwan Bear House. The cool kids from the city’s Chinese food scene were present: Jonathan Wu of Fung Tu piped a Sichuan eggplant relish onto house-made yucca chips, and the self-dubbed ‘Asian White Boy’ chef, Scotsman Paul Donnelly of the aptly-named Chinese Tuxedo (the restaurant is housed in a former opera house in Chinatown) served roast duck laced with Chinese celery and lychee dressed in a sweet-sour black vinegar dressing. Wu was aware of the cultural significance of this event: “I’m so excited there’s been a boom of Chinese-American chefs. It gives me a great sense of pride. This generation is pushing the envelope. They’re respecting traditions and building on them, but also being dynamic and doing different unexplored things.”
Kho was heartened as well. “It’s satisfying we’re giving recognition to the immigrant story of the Asian population. For many years, we’ve been invisible in a way, so I think it’s great to see now that the younger generation is a little bit more active. And as far as food is concerned, it’s really amazing how young chefs are rediscovering their roots.”
The young owners of Junzi Kitchen are hoping to replicate their success from introducing their hometown flavors from northern China to the local food scene at Yale University, where they met as students. The NYC outpost of their New Haven-based restaurant will open up by Columbia University in early spring. “[Chef Lucas Sin] is from the dongbei (northeastern) region, and they’re doing some really exciting stuff,” says Kho. Indeed, one of their Night Market dishes was a Jowl Lettuce Cup using wild rose vinegar and coastal sweet fern—perhaps noteworthy additions for 2017’s list of ingredients to try.
The other newcomer on the scene was Birds of a Feather, slated to open in Williamsburg next month, which offered a crisp-chewy bite of savory-sweet duck tongue slivers on a nest of fried shoestring-cut yams. The owners are behind Tribeca’s China Blue and Midtown’s Cafe China, both of which received acclaim for their authentic Shanghainese and Sichuanese cuisine, respectively, with their moody, romantic interiors inspired by 1930s Shanghai.
“We usually do a banquet-style event [to celebrate the Lunar New Year],” says Tam, about the new year’s feasts the museum has hosted since 2014. “We wanted to do something a bit more casual and informal this year, as there’s a different understanding of Chinese food now. Rather than the sit-down banquet or, on the other end of the spectrum, the fast-food takeout of Chinese-American food, this speaks to the growing popularity of the diversity of Chinese food that’s available in Asia.”
Kho credited the standard night market in Asia with bridging the gap between fun and delicious for this lunar new year event. “We could bring in not just the food, but the ‘feel’ with all the festivities and activities,” he says. Tam described the aesthetic of the hotel as “not at all Chinese” but noted that lanterns and swaths of red fabric and tassels made it “festive the way Chinese new year can be.” A noodle-pulling demonstration kicked off the night’s festivities, followed by a traditional lion dance that mosied through the rooms, clanging loudly as it went, flirtatiously batting its eyelashes and chasing away the ghosts of last year. The earlier portion of the evening was decidedly more wholesome—a caricaturist was stationed across from Chinatown Ice Cream Factory with the music contained mostly to quiet jazz and big band. As the night went on, the caricaturist left, more young people joined, and a DJ took over the sound system.
“I’m first-generation,” points out the Singapore-born Kho. “I feel very fortunate that I was able to come in and contribute what I can to America. We’re very short-sighted if we don’t look at the future and all these other future contributions an immigrant can bring into this country. The immigrants are what make America strong—not just someone [saying] we’re going to be great again.”
The Museum of Chinese in America
215 Centre Street