Ive biked through Chinatown almost every morning and evening for the last nine months. Ive lived in New York for four years. I dont know why it took me this long to park the bike, wrestle with the removeable saddle, clip the helmet to my bag, and wander around there. At Diamond Supermarket, the sea-cucumbers are dried or live. Two rows away from the Kotex you can browse a huge range of mysterious powdered things. Kelp. Red bean. Nori. Shrimp. Mung bean. The delicate white and jade porcelain that Id admired in a chi-chi Cobble Hill store is on sale for $12.95 a plate. The live eels are sluggish and overcrowded as kosher wieners.
In Pearl Chinese Department Store (gearing up to celebrate Year of the Dragon), more pretty porcelain. Embroidered slippers are ten bucks. Silk cheong-sams, $75is that the same one that Tea Leoni is wearing in this months Vogue (sniffily captioned A Chinatown find)? God forbid the advertisers find out.
Im dizzy with new stuff. I take my new laundry bag and wall-hooks to Pho Bang to celebrate with a bowl of Vietnamese noodles. The waiter is fatherly, and wont let me order tripe. We compromise on beef tendonshin? I flex my own shin idly while Im waiting. Too toned to taste good.
A plate of beansprouts and holy basil arrives, with a fork for the white girl. I take a few polite bites of this bland salad. Next to me, a two year-old in a garish Hello Kitty padded silk jacket laughs from her booster seat, then smacks her fist to her mouth and blows me a huge wet kiss; a new trick. Shes probably amused that Im eating my garnish before the pho arrives. The lone woman sitting on the other side takes pity.
You put that in your soup, she explains. I feel daft. I knew that.
Pho, fabulous pho. It is such fun to slurp and watch the comings and goings. I think of Anthony Bourdain, who fell in love with Vietnam in A Cooks Tour. I smell wet dog, realize that the parents of the little girl were allowed to order tripe, and decide to leave an extra dollar for my waiter-protector. A fifty per cent tip on my four dollar lunch, which I follow with tapioca tea. Black beads suspended in ice-cubes and jasmine tea, like chewy frogspawn. Im still wide-eyed at the produce stores.
When I moved to London at 18, I was lucky enough to fall in with a gay 38-year old roommate who took me to a different ethnic restaurant every night. My bland Irish palate revolted at this spicy, mysterious food, but I was too awestruck to say. I got to like most of it: Gujarati, Malaysian, Persian, Thai, Vietnamese. (Most Irish girls are not so lucky. My vegetarian sister finally overcame her egg gag-reflex yesterday and ate a mushroom and onion omelette. Her friend Jilly, visiting from Dublin, made a face. I dont eat vegetables.)
At 22, back in London with no Keith to show me around, I grew timid about restaurants again. Eating out was a treat, and I was too shy and cheap to experiment. London discourages it as much as New York demands it. I fell into the habit of going to the same branch of an Italian chain and ordering the same thing each time (roasted vegetables, then seafood cavatelli). I knew what it would taste like and what it would cost, and I knew how to use the utensils and order the wine. This seemed important.
Im sorry now that I was so afraid of making mistakes, and I wish I could thank the people who made me try new things anyway. I raise my tapioca tea to them all. (Its good.)