Chatting in Chinese with Flushing Cooks

Editor's note: We asked seafood expert and fluent Chinese speaker Trevor Corson to chat with cooks and restaurant owners in Flushing after they were lauded in a recent New York Times spread. Are they excited about the recent fame? Trevor found out.


Photograph by Trevor Corson

As Serious Eats noted recently, food-minded adventurers are suddenly descending on Flushing in search of authentic Chinese, clutching a copy of the big July 30 New York Times spread by Julia Moskin. They now know details about many of the hole-in-the-wall cooks in Flushing who specialize in mostly northern varieties of Chinese cuisine.

Having lived in northern China for a couple of years, where I survived on extremely tasty but occasionally sketchy food from hole-in-the-wall shops and street stands, I've long wished more Americans would warm to this wonderful stuff. But it was kinda funny to actually go to Flushing again now and do some eating with a couple of friends, after the highfalutin Times hoopla. Some spots are just a counter in a basement with a few folding chairs, now proudly posting copies of the Times spread on the wall with their eatery's mention circled in red ink.

As I normally would, I chatted in Chinese with a few of the cooks. One of them, who had received glowing attention in the Times, immediately noticed my northern Chinese accent—which I had acquired while living in Beijing—and took me into his confidence. He lowered his voice and began talking dirt about the proprietors of the food stall across the hall—they had also received glowing attention in the spread for the showmanship of their preparation techniques.

"Sure, people see their technique, and it looks good." He shook his head. "But they're not northerners. They're from southern China. They don't understand the flavors. People come by, watch them, and then decide to eat there. But they don't come back to eat there again. Me, I make the real flavors, the northern flavors." He paused.

"My food goes back thousands of years." I pointed to a dish of heavily seasoned meat he'd served. "How old is this?" I asked. He hesitated, then said, "Probably about a hundred years old."

I assumed he wasn't talking about the meat itself, but at the next stop, also a place that had earned high marks in the piece, I enjoyed another absurdly tasty snack and then hung out next to the kitchen in back for a few minutes, chatting in Chinese with the women on duty. They let me in on a debate they were having.

The discussion centered on how many small black pills one of the cooks should take from the medicine bottle in her hand. I asked if it was Western medicine or traditional Chinese medicine. "Traditional Chinese," she answered. "What for?" I asked. "Diarrhea," she said. I laughed. "Have you been eating too much of the food here?" I asked, intending it as a joke. She smiled sheepishly, then nodded.

A few minutes later, as my friends and I strolled through more Chinese food shops in the nearby mall—feeling completely overstuffed, our bellies uncomfortably close to bursting, we were stopped in our tracks by a mesmerizing Chinese-language video playing on a large widescreen TV outside a store selling robotic toilet seats.

With great attention to detail, the computer-animated video depicted exactly how the squirting stream of high-pressure water could unclog your stuffed-up—and these words were offered in English alongside the Chinese—"rectal vault."

As we strolled dumbstruck out into the sunlight, my friend said, "It gives a whole new meaning to Flushing."