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Persimmons & Papayas: The Ethnic Markets of Queens


Talks with Cindy P. Chan and Audrey Sequeira


Persimmons, Mass Roosevelt Food Corp., 2000.© Erin H. Moriarty


Durians, Mass Roosevelt Food Corp., 2000. © Erin H. Moriarty

The vegetable stands that line Main Street in Flushing are filled with an assortment of unusual vegetables, roots, herbs, and fruits year-round. Even as the snow piles up on the sidewalks, workers continue to stock these stands early in the morning with colorful arrangements of exotic foods. I spotted my first persimmon while making my way among the many fruits stands on Main Street. You can’t miss the squat, “caution-orange” fruits. The large, spiky durian (Durio zibethinus), is another eye-catching fruit that suspends dangerously above the heads of patrons)(one can find dangerously suspended above the heads of consumers. Large stalks of sugar cane (Saccharum officinarum) stand propped up in bundles against store doorways. Step into the stores that lie beyond these stands and you will find aisles packed tightly with ethnic foodstuffs. Look closely and you might also find a religious altar perched high atop a shelf or a “lucky bamboo” plant which reflect the cultural traditions of these store-owners. These ethnic markets cater to the large Asian and South Asian communities living in downtown Flushing. I invited two Queens’ residents to help me sort out this confusion of unusual foods. The following essay only touches on a few of the rich ethnic foods that are available in Queens. I encourage everyone to set out on foot to explore these markets and its people.

I began my “crash-course” in ethnic foods with Cindy P. Chan. Cindy has been a long time friend of mine; she gave me my first moon cake and introduced me to the rice cooker. In 1985, at the age of 8, Cindy immigrated to the United States from Hong Kong with her mother and older sister. Soon after immigrating, the family settled down in Queens and Cindy’s mother began work in a factory. Growing up in nearby Elmhurst, Cindy remembers special after school trips she would take with her sister to an outdoor dumpling stand on 41st Avenue. The Flushing Cindy remembers from her childhood remains largely unchanged. Ethnic business, especially ethnic food stores, continue to thrive in this neighborhood.


"Lucky Bamboo", Manna House Bakery Inc., 2000., © Erin H. Moriarty

Step into any Asian food market and you will find a large array of leafy vegetables. The majority of Asian leafy vegetables are Brassicas from the cabbage family or the mustard cabbage family. The many varieties of bok choy (Brassica rapa, Chinensis group), of which there are four main varieties, can be seen piled high in the vegetable stalls. The name bok choy (or pak choi), with its ivory-white stems and green leaves, means “white vegetable” in Cantonese. When harvested small, the vegetable is known as baby bok choy. Bok choy is sometimes dried and added to soups. Another popular green is Chinese cabbage (B. rapa, Pekinensis group). This vegetable has a variety of Chinese (siu choy, wong nga bak, shao cai, huang ya bai) and English (Chinese, Celery, Peking, Tientsin, and nappa cabbage) names. A pale yellow-green barrel shaped variety and a long cylindrical variety with broad leafstalks are the two most popular forms of this vegetable. Other greens include Chinese broccoli (B. oleracea, Alboglabra group) (gai lan), flowering cabbage (B. parachinensis) (choy sum), flat cabbage (B. rosularis) (tai goo coy), oil seed rape, (B. rapa, Chinesis group) (yau choy), watercress (Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum) (sai yeung choy), and mizuna (B. rapa, Japonica group) (siu cai). Many of these vegetables are used interchangeably in the Chinese kitchen as they can be steamed, boiled, or stir-fried (Ross 1996).Gourds, melons, and squashes of various shapes and sizes are also plentiful at the many Asian food markets in Queens. The Chinese refer to this group of vegetables with the word qwa. In Chinese cooking, winter melon (Benincasa hispida) (tung qwa), with its characteristic hard green skin and white flesh, is often added to beef, pork, or seafood broths and eaten as a soup. The melon can also be pickled and candied for traditional Chinese New Year sweets. Melons, with their cooling characteristics, are especially popular during the hot summer months. Bitter melon (Momordica charantia) (fu qwa) is recognized by its “warty appearance”. Some Chinese believe that this melon, shaped like a cucumber, is especially good for the skin. Chinese Eggplant (Solanum melongena) (ai qwa), a long slim variety, is popular in Asian stir-fries. The immature green papaya (Carica papaya) (muk qwa) is often used in Asian soups and salads. A native to Mexico and Central America, chayote (Sechium edule) (hop jeung qwa) is a popular item in Chinese cooking. It name in Cantonese describes the folded hands of a praying Buddha (Ross 1996).


Bamboo Leaves, Good Luck Food Market, 2000. © Erin H. Moriarty

During our tour, Cindy introduced me to various root vegetables that I have never seen before. In Chinese cuisine, Lotus root (Nelumbo nucifera) (leen ngau) is candied, pickled, boiled in soups, braised, or deep-fried. When sliced, the exotic root reveals a network of air passages that form a lacy pattern. The lotus plant carries much significance in Asian culture where it symbolizes harmony and peace. Lotus flowers represent man’s rebirth. Two types of taro (Colocasia esculenta) are sold in Asian markets: the large betel nut taro (woo tau) and the smaller red-budded taro (woo chai). When peeled and boiled the root is added to soups. In addition, the root is used to flavor ice cream, for making taro cakes deep-fried mashed taro cakes flavored with chopped meat, mushrooms, and bamboo shoots, and taro flour. Sweet Potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) (fan sue) (fan shu) can be found in ethnic markets almost year-round. This reddish skinned potato comes in many forms, their center varying in color from yellow, red to purple. The root of the ginger plant (Zingiber officinale) (tsee geung) is an essential flavoring in Chinese cuisine. It is used fresh to flavor many dishes (Ross 1996).

Piles of delicate sprouts, shoots, and beans rest in containers waiting to be bought by shoppers. Soybean sprouts (Glycine max) (daai dau nga choy), with their yellow heads and long, skinny pale bodies, are an essential ingredient in the Chinese kitchen. Pea shoots (Pisum sativum var. macrocarpon) (dau mui) are among the more expensive vegetables available in Asian markets. Since they are more expensive, pea shoots are mainly used on special occasions. Bamboo shoots (Dendrocalamus asper) (chuk sun), both small winter shoots and large spring shoots, sit peeled and ready to cook in large vats of water (Ross 1996). Bunches of herbs release their fragrances into the air. Scallions (Allium fistulosum) (tsung), sold in bunches, along with ginger and garlic, lend an authentic flavor to Chinese cooking. The herb cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) (yuen sai) is mainly used as a garnish on Chinese dishes. Garlic chives (Allium tuberosum) (gau choy) are used generously in dishes. Traditionally, this vegetable is grown in the dark to prevent the formation of chlorophyll, allowing the leaves to remain pale (Ross 1996).

In addition, to this large array of vegetables available in the Asian markets of Queens, various other items can be purchased. Rice (Oryza sativa) is bought in sacks, as rice is a staple in the Chinese diet. It is eaten for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert. One of the more interesting uses of rice is in the preparation of a rice porridge called "jook". Jook is often eaten with meats to flavor the bland porridge. Dried fruits, such as dates, are often added to make the porridge sweet. Thousand year eggs and preserved duck eggs are also added to jook. Traditionally, jook has been associated with the wartime and the poor, as it saves on rice consumption.


Various types of Ginger, Patel Brothers, 2000. © Erin H. Moriarty


Green chilies, Patel Brothers, 2000.© Erin H. Moriarty

A supermarket we visited on Roosevelt Avenue had an aisle dedicated to noodles of all kinds. These noodles, made from various types of flours including rice flour and wheat flour, are packaged dried or fresh and come in a full spectrum of thicknesses. Noodles are mainly used in soups and stir-fries. Special desserts for the many Chinese holidays and festivals can be found among the shelves as well. Moon cakes are sold during the Mid-Autumn Festival. The “yolk”, a bean paste, found inside the small cake symbolizes the moon. During the Chinese New Year, stores are flooded with many traditional sweets packaged in “lucky red”.

Beyond this predominately Chinese section of Main Street is a concentration of South Asian businesses. The term South Asian refers to the countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Tibet. Among beauty salons, specializing in eyebrow threading and mehendi, and sari shops, with displays of colorful Indian silks, are a large group of South Asian food markets. These markets sell primarily Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi products. The uniting of these three cultures in the United States is a somewhat interesting phenomenon. In Asia these cultures have long struggled to assert their independence from one another. Although many similarities arise among these cultures due to their shared history, they each remain a distinct culture (Harlow 2000). The variety of food that exists within these stores reflects the religious, cultural, and geographic diversity of South Asia (Anon 1997:225). For example, stores offering halal meat cater to the Muslim population in the area, mainly Pakistanis, who consume ritually slaughtered and prepared meats. Audrey Sequeira, a staff member at the Queens Botanical Garden, shared with me the subtle similarities and differences in the cuisine that characterize this part of South Asia.


Rosewater, Patel Brothers, 2000.© Erin H. Moriarty

South Asian cooking is known for its unique spices and flavors. The aromas of these flavors and spices are so strong that they can often be smelled on the sidewalks outside these stores. Coriander, both in the whole plant, seed, and powdered form are used. The leaves are added to soups, stews, and other dishes. The seeds are an essential component of garam masala, a blend of cooking spices. Cumin (Cuminum cyminum) (jeera) is also another essential ingredient in garam masala. Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is an essential ingredient in curry blends. Made from the dried stigmas of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus), saffron spice adds a vivid yellow color and subtle flavor to foods. Red chilies (Capsicum spp.) characterizes southern Indian cuisine. Bay leaves (Laurus nobilis) are used to flavor curries and rices. Fresh curry leaves (Murraya koenigii), different from the curry spice, are added to curries and vegetarian dishes. They are used in a similar fashion as bay leaves, in that

they are removed before serving. Mango (Mangifera indica) (rau) is often used to add a sour taste to certain curries. Amchur is a spice made from dried green mangos that have been grounded into a powder. Mint (Mentha sp.), bought in fresh bundles, is a popular flavor in dishes. Beets (Beta vulgaris) is added to many South Asian dishes. Some believe that it’s red color works to strengthen the blood. Jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus) is popular on India’s West Coast. The white flesh of the fruit is eaten raw, cooked, or preserved. Beans (Phaseolus sp.), such as red kidney beans (rajma), are an essential part of many dishes, as a large part of the Indian population are vegetarians. Onions (Allium cepa), ginger, garlic (Allium sativum), and tomatoes (Lycopersicon esculentum) are all essential ingredients in many Indian dishes. Onions are so essential in India that in a recent election a candidate won by addressing the rising price of onions. Finally, as in all Asian cultures, rice is a staple in South Asia. The long-grained and aromatic, basmati rice is very popular. Aged rice is also used in South Asian cooking. It cooks better, as it tends to remain whole (Anon 1997).

Various South Asian dishes require specific types of flours. This is why you see in many South Asian food markets shelves devoted to various flours. Among the different flours, rice flour is the most common. Dolka flour is often combined with yogurt to make a sour bread. Corn flour, millet flour, and gram flour, made from chickpeas, are also used.

Sweet desserts are most often milk and cheese based and vibrantly colored. For example, Laddoo, a round orange sweet filled with chickpeas, flower, milk and almonds, is often served during Indian holidays such as Diwali. Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) is a popular spice for sweets, although it is also found in main dishes. Cardamom can be bought whole or ground. Rosewater (Rosa sp.) is also a popular flavoring for sweet desserts. Coconut (Cocos nucifera) flavored sweets are popular at weddings and other festive occasions. These festive sweets are often coated in silver to signify the importance of the occasion (Anon 1997).


Luffa squash, Patel Brothers, 2000. © Erin H. Moriarty

While shopping among these ethnic food stores you might notice that many of the same fruits, vegetables, and spices can be found among Asian and South Asian markets. Green papayas, lotus root, sweet potatoes, ginger, and pomegranates are plentiful in both ethnic markets. Additionally, bitter melon is popular throughout Asia. It is widely used in Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines. South Asian curries often call for Chinese eggplant. Luffa squash (Luffa acutangula), characterized by a dark green color and ridges that run the length of the squash, can be found in both the Chinese and SouthAsian kitchen. Star Anise (Illicium verum) is a spice used by both cultures. With such an overlap it is not surprising that you may find an immigrant from India shopping at a Chinese vegetable stand (Anon 1997).

Foods are direct representations of culture and cultural traditions. The uniqueness and vibrancy of the many ethnic food markets in Queens attests to the diversity of its people. Within these stores we see ethic boundaries cross as people from varying religions, cultures, and regions come together at the marketplace. These stores have been able to maintain their individual cultural traditions, while at the same time, adapt to the changing landscape of their newly adopted country.


References


Anon. 1997. The Essential Asian Cookbook Canada: Whitecap Books.

Chan, Cindy P. Notes from conversation, 2000.

Harlow, Ilana. 2000. The International Express: A Guide to Communities Along the #7 Train New York: Georgian Press.

Ross, Rosa Lo San. 1996. Beyond Bok Choy New York: Artisan.

Sequeira, Audrey. Notes from conversation, 2000.

Additional Resources


Harrington, Geri. 1984. Grow your own Chinese Vegetables Vermont: Storey Communication, Inc.

http://www.ethnicgrocer.com

http://asiafood.org

 


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