What I ate for Lunar New Year

Happy Lunar New Year everyone! It technically doesn’t start until Friday, January 31st but my family celebrated early.

My mom asked us to save the date so the whole family could have lunch at our family friend’s restaurant in Clifton, New Jersey. Lao Ching has been head chef at Chengdu 46 for about thirty years and for about the same length of time, has been good friends and a loyal customer to my parents. As a little kid even I remember Lao Ching hanging out at the store and chatting for hours on end at Pan American Jewelry when the store used to be on the corner of Canal and Lafayette. These days the spot is occupied by an HSBC bank.

Chengdu 46 looks pretty plain but their windows are filled with old and recent write-ups in local newspapers. One of the best parts about coming here is that all the waiters and chefs know our family pretty well, and in their downtime they come out of the kitchen to hang out. I learned from one of the waiters that Lao Ching had been one of the chefs to serve President Nixon when he visited Western China. Isn’t that nuts?

Lao Ching really took out the stops this time. Almost everything he cooked was off menu and made especially for us. When old Ching finally appeared from the kitchen towards the end of the meal to greet the family, I thought my mom was gonna get in a fist fight because he said he wanted to pay for our meal. Now, sure there’s always a showy dance when it comes to who gets the bill, but this got pretty out of hand. It’s more or less expected in a Chinese dinner. However, I just want us to get on with our lives. My mother, the expert that she is, had to take out the big guns. She told him she’d never speak to him again if he took out his wallet one more time. That shut him up, but only after 5 minutes of the two of them at shouting level by the table. Meanwhile the rest of us continued eating and enjoying the delicious meal. Some things are better left to parents.

And now, this is what we ate:

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^ smoked (and fried) braised fish

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^ cold, sweet, napa cabbage.

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^ szechuan ban ban chicken, tossed with sesame paste and rice vinegar.

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^dried tofu, spicy chili pepper oil, slivers of celery

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^tiny, homemade jiaozi. Not spicy at all but a little sweet from a hit of black vinegar in the sauce. Finished with hot pepper infused sesame oil.

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^simple pork wontons in a simple, clear chicken soup. The broth is super concentrated and fortified, definitely made from scratch! I die. Even though I’ve made wonton soup from scratch before, I’ve never made a broth as beautiful and simple as this. Watercress on top was a killer way to make this soup taste fresh and bright.

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^absolutely no fat on this peking duck. I’m not sure how they do this, the excess must be removed by hand or otherwise rendered, but apparently the best places (such as DaDong in Beijing) serve their duck this way.
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Wrapped in a thin, rice flour-based skin, with a touch of hoisin and scallion shreds.
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Do you see this?? IT IS INSANITY. I have no idea how he got those lobster antennae to curl that way. This platter features THREE multi-pound lobsters served with the usual ginger scallion sauce as well as some hot peppers thrown in. ImageImage

Buttery and tender braised beef shortribs – soft enough to cut with a spoon. Sorry for the blurry pictures, we were all a bit too eager to eat!

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Luckily for us we also got some greens: baby bok choi, fresh shitake mushrooms, straw mushrooms, and baby corn.

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Red dragon fruit, cold oranges, apples, grapes, and the sweetest honeydew melon slices I’ve ever had.

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Check out this pacifier! You stuff it with peeled fruit and ice chips and as they chew it, the fruit squeezes out throw a few holes at the end. Baby’s first real food after rice porridge (jook)!

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