"Where are your preserved vegetables?" Oh, that way.
Four bottles to always have on hand: Shaoxing rice wine, toasted sesame oil, soy sauce, and Chinkiang black vinegar (similar in some ways to balsamic, but less sweet and syrupy). "Make sure you're getting pure sesame oil, not one cut with other oils. And the toasted variety is more flavorful."
"You can find dark and light soy sauce here. A single bottle of dark soy will usually last you forever; it's thicker and often used to color a dish. Light soy sauce, like this, is more used as a seasoning."
Tamari is a gluten-free soy sauce, which makes it a good choice for those with wheat allergies.
Lee Kum Kee Chili Bean Paste
"This is the most common brand of chili bean paste you'll find." Lee Kum Kee's chili bean paste may not be the hottest or the most complex, but it's a solid addition to your Sichuan cooking kit.
Most "cinnamon" sold in the U.S. is actually cassia bark, a more potent relative of c. zeylanicum with a spicy kick. You can find cassia bark in most Chinese supermarkets, as it's used to flavor broths and stews alongside spices like star anise. It's good braised with oxtail and chunks of daikon.
Dried Black Beans
Dried soy beans, specifically. They're salted and fermented into little soy sauce-like nuggets. You can use them for stir fries and braises.
More Black Beans
Also available in this nifty container.
New York Mart has about half a dozen bulk preserved vegetable options, including these mustard tubers in plain salted and chili-spiced variations. "You chop them up fine and add them to stir fries like green beans." The pickles have strong salty and sour flavors; it's easy to see why they're one of Fuchsia's "magic ingredients."
Fermented Sweet Rice Pudding
"Oh, you have this! You can use it for a few things. It's a sweet byproduct of making rice wine, and it's used in sweet dishes, such as a concoction of poached eggs and glutinous rice balls in a sweetened soup, a kind of boozy pudding."
This is British English, of course, where 'pudding' can refer to all manner of dessert.
Scouring the Refrigerated Goods
"It's hard to find some of these things in London." What, you mean your grocery store doesn't have ten kinds of tofu puffs?
"These are the shells of tiny dried shrimp—you can see their eyes there. They have a rather intense flavor, and are good for making stock." You can find them in New York Mart's refrigerated section.
This butterflied, partially mummified quail is something like jerky—it's meaty and intense, an example of how a small amount of meat can deliver deep flavor to a whole dish.
It comes in a duck version as well!
Smile for the Camera
"The pattern of these fish gills is gorgeous," she says, whipping out her camera to shoot some fish heads.
Sort of the Époisses of the bean curd world. "This is tofu that's packed in a brine that's been left to go off." 'Go off' is British for 'liquid that smells like death incarnate.' "But it's rather delicious when you fry it."
Pictured on the right are other forms of preserved tofu: spicy, fermented, and otherwise.
Stinky Tofu Face
We could smell it as soon as we broke the plastic seal on the jar. This stuff does not mess around.
Time to head out to the street stalls. Our first find: "This is a type of garlic used in dishes like mapo tofu. You cut it into horse ears—diagonal cuts—and stir fry it like an aromatic."
Take a Whiff
One of the best parts of shopping in Chinatown: two pounds of bok choy-like greens cost a few dollars, and they make a side dish almost by themselves.
"You rehydrate these mushrooms and use them for stock, and they're delicious to eat, too. Like porcini. These two here are different—one is marked as 'fragrant and crisp,' the other as 'fragrant and slippery,' but they're both good."
With some of these dried ingredients, you just need to take the plunge and buy them. Most are inexpensive, and they share a salty-meaty intensity not unlike more familiar ingredients like soy sauce and bacon. The rewards come pretty quickly.
Actually whole tiny fish. "Soak these in water and then cook them with eggs—it gives them such a savory flavor." As Ed points out, this is the "umami display" section of the stall.
"These are dried oysters, and it doesn't surprise me to see them around now [mid February]. They're cooked into a dish for Chinese New Year, because the name of the dish sounds like the Chinese word for money."
"What is that," Ed asked. "It looks like carpet."
"It's hair moss, and I guess it does, doesn't it? You can actually rehydrate it and cook it with those dried oysters."
When you rehydrate it, it looks like this.
"When these are fresh you can eat them like apples. Here, when they're dried, they're more of a tonic food, and can be made into a tea."
Fuchsia Makes a Friend
All that shopping got us hungry, so in we went to nearby Shanghai Cafe Deluxe, our favorite soup dumpling spot in the neighborhood. Fuchsia's favorites: the pork soup dumplings, rice cakes with pork and salt-preserved vegetables, and fish filets and mushrooms served with a starch-thickened rice wine sauce. According to Fuchsia, that fish dish is one of the predecessors of Americanized gloppy Chinese food: some Shanghai dishes are gloppy by design, and New York restaurateurs noticed that the easy-to-eat filets and thick sweet sauce appealed to Americans.
Meeting the Staff
The easiest way to get the star treatment here? Start speaking the language.