With the exception of the Traditional Xinjiang Barbecue cart (map) and its half dozen or so imitators, I’ve never been really impressed with street carts in Flushing’s Chinatown. That is until I encountered the Tsingtao Roasted Chestnut Man.
Actually his name is Ken, and he hails from the port city that produces the famous beer. (My apologies to anybody who thought the chestnuts were roasted in beer.) The combination of all the people lining up at the cart outside the Yat Chau Chinese pharmacy along with the sweet, nutty aroma, had a hypnotic effect and I was soon clutching a paper bag filled with a quarter-pound of roasted chestnuts.
I’d never even heard of roasted Chinese chestnuts, but I'm told they're a common delicacy on the streets of Hong Kong. As far as I can tell, they’re quite rare on the streets of our fair city.
The cart’s proper name is Tianjing Tang Chao Li Zi, or "sweet roasted Chinese chestnuts." As you might have guessed they’re imported from the city of Tianjing. Unlike the chestnuts sold by pretzel vendors, Ken’s li zi are unsplit. That’s because they’re cooked by being tumbled with hot sand. And nobody wants hot sand in their chestnuts. Apparently this is a common way of cooking chestnuts in China.
Since it is my Chinese zodiac sign, I’d been biting them open like a monkey. But as I learned the other day from Ken’s wife there is a better way. Hold the chestnut in one hand, run your fingernail down the center of the flat side and then squeeze gently to pop the whole thing out. Don’t worry. If they see you struggling to open one they’ll be more than glad to demonstrate.
Ken’s li zi have a sweet meaty taste. Even though they’re a tad expensive, I recommend buying a half pound, a quarter is just a tease. Not only are roasted Chinese chestnuts deliciously addictive; they’re good for you. The sign to the right of the prices touts their various benefits: high in vitamin B, good source of energy, good for metabolism, good for high-blood pressure, etc. I’m not sure if they’re a cure-all, but they are darn tasty. When the weather starts to warm up the Tsingtao Roasted Chestnut Man will close shop; so hop on that 7 train if you have a hankering for fresh roasted chestnuts.
Tianjing Tang Chao Li Zi (aka Tsingtao Roast Chestnut Man)
40th Road, Queens NY 11354 (at Main Street, map)
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