Editor's note: Many people have been wondering what downtown Manhattan looks like after hurricane Sandy. Our offal-loving noodle columnist Chichi Wang was stuck down there during the storm. Here's her report on the food scene and community in Chinatown afterward.
What to eat before, during and following a major weather event:
Stock up on all the essentials. Water, batteries, food. And not the kind of food you think you ought to be eating, but the sort of food you will crave when the storm arrives. The night before the hurricane hit, I tried mac and cheese for the first time. I can't fully explain the forces which have conspired in my life such that I had never cooked and was never presented with mac and cheese. But my, it was very soothing, and just right for the dark and rainy night which lay ahead. (Mac and cheese, where were you during college and the lonely years since?)
Noodle and fatty foodstuffs are good things to cook in trying times. The next night, the night of the storm, I was cooking pasta with sausage when the lights flickered, once, twice. Then, darkness. The outage was forewarned, but there is the anticipation of something and then its realization. I think it had been more than a decade since the last time I lived in total darkness, and it was something to remember, the sense that nothing could be found with ease.
I woke up the next morning, cold and hungry. I dressed quickly and went outside. I walked along Battery Park, where high waters lapped against the embankments. The night before, the streets were flooded. Of course everything was closed, but my intuition was that if there was one neighborhood in Lower Manhattan which might still be open for business, it would be Chinatown.
I came onto Canal Street from the west end. The sidewalk was mostly deserted except for a few stalls hawking baseball caps and gloves and I-Love-New-York shirts. Besides those hawkers there was nothing, and the streets were quiet and unnaturally clean from all the rain. I started getting worried when I turned on to Mulberry, and still, nothing.
On Mott Street there was hope, hope in the form on wonton soup. It was being made and sold by New Wonton Garden, by cooks who'd set up portable stoves near the windows, their only source of light. People were lining up by the dozens for a bowl. A few blocks down, New Yeah Shanghai on the corner of Mott and Bayard was open for sit-down service. I was tempted to stop and eat, but service was slow, besides which, I wanted to see what else was afoot.
I walked further down south, down to East Broadway. From across Confucius Square, I saw it. People swarming on the corner on the corner of East Broadway and Catherine. At first I couldn't see what the fuss was about, there were so many people jostling to get closer. I saw a man perched on the storefront ledge, and then there was a break in the crowd and I got through and saw what the commotion was about. Bins and bins of fish, crabs, and eels being hawked for next to nothing. The fish were still alive, chests heaving, mouths puckering. A man tried to sell me a very large crab for five dollars.
I walked farther east, down the street on East Broadway. I saw butchers selling chickens for a dollar or two per bird, out of shopping carts wheeled onto the sidewalk. There must have been fifty or more chickens piled into the shopping cart. Further down the road were vendors selling fruits and vegetables. A few blocks down was another throng of people, also swarming, only this time, instead of fish being sold on the cheap, it was packs and packs of batteries being sold for a premium.
I walked back onto Mott. Besides New Wonton Garden and New Yeah Shanghai, there was one other place open. 49 Mott Street, which I have always thought of as the tofu man on Mott Street. There is a sign on the windowfront that says "hot taho," and it is one of my favorite things to get for two dollars and under in Chinatown. For years I have been eating their creamy bland tofu with sweet ginger sauce, which I do not so much eat as inhale the slippery mild substance.
But there was no tofu that morning, only rice noodles and turnip cakes. They were sitting in refrigerators—no longer cold, but cool, the cakes perhaps made the day before. Behind the counter, there was a man working with his wife and daughter, the little girl looking just a little pleased to be out of school that morning.
It was raining, still. I stood outside under an awning and ate my noodles along with all the other hungry people who'd ventured to Chinatown in search of food and something else. Comfort. Camaraderie. The assurance that people were persisting, in spite of the storm.
And the noodles? The noodles were pretty perfect, if you want to know. They were still warm. They were chewy and slick, with just a little bit of soy sauce, a tinge of sugar, and some bean sprouts thrown into the bargain. I ate them all, my lips slick with oil.
Back in the apartment, I pan-fried the turnip cakes in a dark little kitchen, which was so far from the window that I couldn't see a thing. (Light, wouldn't you know it, is an important part of cooking.)
The crisped-up slabs were starchy and filling. Sausage and dried shrimp had been added so parsimoniously that someone who'd never eaten a turnip cake before might not understand. They might not understand that you need all the filler to appreciate the savory bits. They might not understand what it is to sit alone and to feed yourself, to make yourself feel less empty and less cold than before.
About the author: Born in Shanghai and raised in New Mexico, Chichi Wang currently resides in Manhattan, where she divides her time between writing, cooking, and tracking down the best noodles in the city. Visit her blog, Mostly Tripe.