Whereas some regard President's Day as an opportunity to load up on steeply discounted electronics, my wife and I spent this last one shopping for weird groceries in Chinatown, where things are steeply discounted no matter what day it is. After meeting a pal for some sumptuous dim sum at Triple 8 Palace, we spent the next several hours bouncing from one Asian grocer to the next, and the bounty we arrived home with is what formed the crux of last night's incredibly satisfying (and cheap) dinner.
We hit Kam Man Market for some essentials, and also to ponder what we might do with a child-sized jar of dried sea scallops, were we to, y'know, just happen into one. From there, we detoured to Aji Ichiban to take advantage of their free samples of unusual (and in several cases, gross) candies and snacks. Although I was more than willing to toss a few preserved olive and honey slices down the gullet, the dried crab flakes and fishy pineapple bits were less of a success -- a fact reinforced by my wife's refusal to come anywhere near me and my new bad breath for about an hour afterwards.
From the Mott Street storefront, we headed back into the brisk February air to pass countless restaurants, vegetable stands, and cooking supply stores. In all the years I've spent lurking around Chinatown, I still think my favorite personalities are the scrappy old Chinese ladies who seem to live in a perpetual state of grocery shopping. I love watching them muscle their way up to the front of an open air grocer to bark some orders at a hapless guy with a cigarette who, in turn, wraps an entire fish in a sheet of newspaper, and fires it like a fastball into the woman's open shopping bag. Unlike a number of ill-informed tourists I've witnessed over the years, I know better than to tangle with these ladies, so when one of them shoves me out of the way, I take it as a point of pride.
With so many ethnic shops and food markets condensed into such a small geography, one might assume the available goods would be pretty much the same from one store to the next. But speaking as someone who once threw a major hissyfit on Pell Street after hours of searching for a jar of freakin' palm sugar, let me stress that each market definitely has a particular specialty, though it may not be immediately evident just by perusing its shelves. You should consider yourself lucky if you can find a guide who's able to confidently navigate Chinatown's steam-filled alleyways and dubious-looking basement bazaars. If you're a recent transplant or just a newbie to Asian groceries, start getting comfortable with the idea of lots of trial and error.
At a nameless shopfront somewhere on Doyers Street, this meal's lynchpin ingredients eventually revealed themselves in the form of one small can of Maesri brand Masaman Curry Paste, one bag of dried Thai rice noodles, and two cans of Chaokoh coconut milk (all for much better prices than you'd pay at the regular grocery store, let alone somewhere stupid like Whole Foods.) Perhaps intuiting our culinary ambitions, the shopkeeper (who had been undulating to a techno version of "Smuggler's Blues") asked if we desired lime leaves to round out our shopping expedition. Now, my wife has taught me most of what I know about proper Asian cooking, and by following her orders and poaching the notes from the numerous Thai cooking classes she took back in Boston, I've learned that lime leaves are like the secret weapon ingredient to distinguish your creation from a P.F. Chang's disaster. As such, we were happy to accept the small ziploc baggie of green foliage the shopkeeper produced from beneath the counter, and what follows is a play-by-play of how we put everything together to create the final dish. (Pause to admire author's resistance to obvious joke regarding additional types of green foliage commonly dispursed via ziploc baggie.)
- Approx. 3 cups of coconut milk
- 1 1/2 - 2 lbs of boneless chicken thighs or breast (we used some of both) or beef, cut into 2" cubes.
- 1 small tin of Masaman Curry Paste
- 4-5 small red potatoes cut into fourths (we forgot to buy these, so we used two large baking potatoes.)
- 1 medium sized onion, cut into fourths
- 1/2 cup roasted peanuts (unsalted)
- 3 tablespoons of fish sauce
- 1 1/2 teaspoons lime juice
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 2 lime leaves
- 3 tablespoons of fried shallots slices (optional)
- Fresh Thai basil leaves (for garnish)
- Heat oil in large wok and brown the meat well.
- Add the coconut milk, bring to a boil, then lower heat, cover, and simmer for about 5 minutes.
- Scoop 1 & 1/2 cups of the hot milk mixture into a small frying pan. Over medium heat, whisk in the curry paste until the fat from the coconut milk rises to the top and it looks like this.
- Pour hot curry mixture back into the wok and mix well. Add fish sauce, sugar, lime juice, lime leaves, onions, potato wedges, and peanuts. Cover and cook on low for 15-20 minutes or until potatoes are cooked through.
- Remove from heat, remove lime leaves, and serve on top of rice or Thai rice noodles (see above). Garnish with shallots and lots of fresh Thai basil.
Presto. Dinner was piping hot, comfortably spicy, plentiful enough to produce two subsequent lunches, and only slightly more complicated than making English muffin pizzas. And the total cost of all the non-staple ingredients clocks in somewhere refreshingly below 10 bucks, which evens out to two bucks and change per food coma.
After making our final purchases below Canal Street, we ambled uptown and stopped at a bar on Houston for late afternoon drinks and a grim discussion of the current economy. After a few rounds, we marched further north towards Union Square. Passing through the East Village, we started sentimentally namechecking stores and restaurants that have been recent victims of the local financial meltdown (Mondo Kim's, Old Devil Moon, Marion's on Continental), until a vision of utter absurdity snapped things back into focus for us: A group of 10-12 crusty punks -- the kind with studded leather jackets and CRASS t-shirts that I used to see and routinely crash into at the ABC no RIO hardcore matinees of my early 20s -- all seated outside a Starbucks cafe, looking despondent, and sipping lattes.
The world is a mess.