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Sufficiently Chinese

June 16, 2011

Mrs. Fussy and I don’t go out to eat nearly as much as we used to before having children. She works a lot. Plus now that our CSA has started up for the year, we will need to eat more at home if we have any hope of making it through our weekly share of produce.

I have no idea how we got basil so early in the season, but last night was our first “pesto” of the year.

Tuesday night we left the kids with my in laws, and enjoyed a night out by ourselves. Given that she almost never goes to restaurants these days, I let her chose where we should eat. Her answer was quick and decisive: Ala Shanghai.

Except there was just one problem. Well, maybe more than one.

It’s been so long since we’ve been out to eat, we were totally out of sync when it came to ordering dishes. Luckily Lanny, the guy who runs the place, brought us a couple of snacks to enjoy* as we debated what to eat. I recognized the aster salad immediately, and Mrs. Fussy was kind enough to let me have a few bites. But given her unfortunate distaste for cabbage, I was able to have the plate of cold spicy cabbage all to myself.

Obviously we were going to get an order of the pork soup dumplings, but the big question was what else were we going to eat?

There is this pork dish that I really really wanted to get, but Mrs. F. didn’t want anything with bones in it, or that had no vegetables. Yet she still asked me to choose. My second choice was the pork belly, but that too was a nonstarter for her. [Note: Over the course of the night I saw three neighboring tables receive the pork belly.]

I was also curious to try the Lion’s Head, which is a fantastic name for a dish that consists of three giant meatballs. I didn’t think that would fly either. Maybe it was the colorful imagery, or perhaps I had just worn her down with my previous suggestions, but oddly, this meat dish that listed no veggies was fine with the missus.

So we had planned to get that along with an order of bok choy and shitake.

This is where the next problem came into play. Because when Lanny was taking our order, he informed us that the Lion’s Head also came with bok choy, and perhaps we would want to reconsider our vegetable.

I panicked. It was a small panic. No hives were involved. No shortness of breath. But I answered reflexively without looking at the menu and asked for string beans.

There was something about that choice that didn’t sit well with Lanny. So in addition to what we had ordered, he brought out another vegetable dish for us to sample. One that he said was more authentically Chinese. And he rocked my world. Those are words that I don’t use lightly. Because what he showed us wasn’t just a new food, it was something I never knew could be eaten, and what that dish represents is something I never expected from a Chinese restaurant.

The dish: Luffa with Soy Bean

Lanny introduced this as a Chinese cucumber. Some have described it as Chinese okra. But it’s really neither of those. It’s the fruit of a vine. And when it is very young, like these were, it’s eaten like a vegetable. But when it’s mature the fruit is dried and turned into a sponge.

Whoa. That thing on the plate is the same thing that scrubs the backsides of Hollywood starlets, yoga moms and the ladies at the spa. Yes. Yes, it is.

And it’s delicious. If I were going to try to compare it with something familiar, I’d say it falls somewhere between summer squash and a very firm, yet tender Asian eggplant. They serve it in a light white sauce, which provides plenty of seasoning without overpowering this delicate vegetable.

But again, it’s only edible when it’s very young. There is a limited window during the year when you can eat it, and that would be now, in the late spring and early summer. Which is why, Lanny explained, he’s excited to have it as a new addition to his summer menu.

Wait. Let me say that again. Ala Shanghai has a summer menu.

Perhaps I’ve been in Chinese restaurants out west that have changing seasonal menus, but if they had, I was never aware of them. Yet we have one here? In Latham? That’s amazing! And now that this very exciting fact has been made clear, things from the menu that slipped past my filters started to materialize. Like for example the sauteed lily bulb with celery.

I’m embarrassed to have missed these, and I can understand why Lanny might have been a bit crestfallen by my choice of string beans.

Now I’ve got to get back. First, so I can finally get that pork dish I’ve been longing for. But also so I can try some of the other seasonal delights, like maybe the chicken with lily bulb and fungus.

* I know he’s a blog savvy guy, and I’m not sure if we got special treatment because he knows my blog, or if it’s just because he’s seen me in there so many times with Albany Jane. Maybe it’s a little bit of both. Either way, I’m committed to telling you when I get things as the result of this blog. So now you know.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    June 16, 2011 10:05 am

    Also the only place that has sea cuke (beche-de-mere).

  2. June 17, 2011 7:39 pm

    Love the pork soup dumplings. You’ve broadened my horizons. Thanks. BTW, I also like the Chinese restaurant on Central – Shining Rainbow. Am equally split between the two.

  3. June 18, 2011 4:41 pm

    I have a ton of basil already too … so nice.

  4. June 19, 2011 12:31 pm

    Seconding love for the pork soup dumplings, but then again there isn’t much on that menu my husband and I DON’T love. :)

  5. Mirdreams permalink
    June 19, 2011 11:59 pm

    I know what I’m doing for lunch tomorrow!

  6. Third Auntie permalink
    June 20, 2011 3:13 pm

    Happy to hear that you liked the luffa vegetable. In my Chinese dialect it’s called sing gua. Another name for the luffa vegetable is silk squash. It definitely looks like a gigantic okra. It needs to be peeled before cooking. I usually peel all of the ridges off and then leave just a little bit of the peel on. Sing gua is great in a stir fry with snow peas and chicken. It’s also good with beef and oyster sauce.

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