Plan a visit to San Francisco and chances are good that Chinatown will pop up on your itinerary. It’s a favourite with tourists. Yet unlike most tourist frequented areas, this also has a very strong local pulse. There are times in the day that this pulse becomes an aggressive beat, sort of like watching hundreds of people scramble to Iron Maiden’s Run to the Hills. Stand in one place and you are liable to get bowled over by carts unloading or old grandma’s armed with shopping carts. For Chinatown, among other things, is also a veritable treasure trove of a market.
Living in the next neighbourhood as I do, I had never really spent much time in Chinatown since the very first time I lived in the city. I passed through it often yet never lingered much. The tourist attractions hold none for me and the markets, bakeries and restaurants confused me. I have a comfort zone with food which I tentatively push and expand a little at a time, and will certainly not do under any duress. And the stress of trying to figure out what was in a particularly enticing bun always reduced me to a bundle of nerves. And in that condition, I reach for the old and familiar not the new and untested. So Chinatown and I went on like those ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing.()
An urge to try fresh noodles got me thinking about actually going to Chinatown to shop, though I was incredibly nervous. It is always a gamble to try to shop in a place where you might not understand the language. While practically every shop there boasts an English sign on the outside, the inside is a different story. And I’ll admit I still have a hard time recognising several vegetables without a handy little cheat sign. So I turned to my friend Marie who not only lives pretty close to Chinatown but is a frequent shopper there. Luckily for me, instead of telling me where to go, she offered to take me there. We made a lunch date and met at the corner of Washington and Grant on a bright weekend afternoon. After a super lunch where she was instrumental to my first taste of Chinese Broccoli, she also very easily showed me where to buy it (a whole bagful for a couple of bucks!). We discussed the merits of various noodles, tried the yummy desserts of a bakery and I got to shop confidently for ingredients with someone in the know. What a beautiful way to spend an afternoon. And economical because Chinatown is unbelievably inexpensive. Thanks Marie!
I kept changing my mind about what I wanted to cook. But Amey took one look at the fresh egg noodles I bought and decided they would become Hakka noodles. This is a noodle dish not seen on Chinese menus in American restaurants but is wildly popular in Indian ones. He had never tried to make them before but decided it had been too long since he last ate them. Hunting through old recipes, he found an orphaned one in an old stash of copies from college. With that and some improvisation, Chinatown Hakka Noodles was born, a San Francisco counterpart to the original Bombay ones. Dead simple in ingredients yet undeniably awesome in taste. We resisted the urge to finish the lot and had the rest for lunch the next day. Even better!!
Amey’s Chinatown Hakka noodles.
Fresh thin egg noodles – 1 pack
Ginger – 1 tsp, finely minced
Garlic – 2 tsp, finely minced
Carrot – 1 large, chopped into matchsticks
Green Beans – 1 1/2 cup, chopped
Green Pepper (Capsicum) – 1, de-seeded and chopped
Chinese Broccoli – 5 sprigs, chopped
Scallions (Spring Onions) – 3, chopped
Black Pepper – freshly ground, 1 tsp
Vegetable or Canola Oil – 2 tsp
Dark Sesame Oil – 1 tsp
Red Chilli Oil – 1 tsp
Red Chilli Flakes – 2 healthy pinches
Dark Soy Sauce – 1 tsp (or more to taste)
Rice Wine Vinegar – to taste
Salt, to taste
Chilli-vinegar, to serve (described below)
1 Scrambled egg
Pinch of Ajinomoto
– Chop all vegetables and set aside.
– Bring a large pan of water to boil. Add noodles to boiling water, separating them a little bit. They will cook quickly. As water comes to a second boil, move off the fire and drain. Then shock the noodles in cold water to stop the cooking. Toss with the sesame oil.
– Heat a large wok or pan on medium high.
– Add the canola and chilli oils, then add the ginger and garlic and fry for a quick 15 seconds. Add the rest of the veggies and stir to coat with the oil. Stir fry until cooked halfway.
– Add the soy sauce and a dash of rice wine vinegar and stir until completely coated. Cook until they just start to caramelize.
– Add the cooked noodles. Toss everything with tongs to incorporate. Sprinkle over salt, black pepper, red chilli flakes and the ajinmoto, if using. Toss together once more, then turn out into bowls. Sprinkle over scrambled eggs, if using. Douse with liberal amounts of chilli vinegar and enjoy!
To make the chilli vinegar, cut a couple of hot green chillies and place in a non-reactive bowl or jar. Cover with about an inch of distilled vinegar. This can be stored for a long time in a cool, dark place and the longer it sits, the better it will taste.This is a vital component to the dish even though it comes in at the end.
The soy sauce used here is specifically the kind we get in India and is key to the flavour of the dish. This variety has little or no salt in it and brings to the party only the umami of soy. I find it infinitely preferable to any other kind. If you can’t find it and use the soy available in supermarkets, don’t add salt until you have tasted the dish as there may be no need for it. This will be slightly different but will still work.
There is tremendous controversy over the use of Ajinomoto (or MSG) and some people are genuinely allergic to it. I am not and take no issue with minuscule amounts of it in rare instances. It does change the taste of the dish slightly and favourably in my opinion. Certainly, I do not urge you to use it if you choose not to, that’s why it is listed as optional. Do not however, let that factor stand in the way of enjoying this wonderful dish!