A Vegetarian Exploration of Manhattan’s Chinatown

As one of the largest enclaves of Chinese residents in the western hemisphere, Manhattan’s Chinatown serves as an amazingly diverse center for Asian culture in NYC.

Chinese Buddhism has one of the earliest claims to vegetarian cuisine in human culture (dating to before the turn of the millennium), so not surprisingly, Chinatown also contains an impressive array of vegetarian resources.

Some (Non-Vegetarian) Background

Manhattan’s Chinatown exists as a rare NYC neighborhood whose origins can be traced back to its original inhabitant. Though not the first Chinese-American to appear in the region, nor the first Chinese New Yorker, cigar-salesman Ah Ken is the undisputed founder of Manhattan’s Chinatown. Arriving to the city in the late 1850s, he built a business from cigar peddling along the fence of City Hall Park, eventually establishing a storefront on Park Row.

Ah Ken’s success as an entreprenuer allowed him to open a boarding house on Mott Street that rented beds to the city’s first wave of Chinese immigrants, creating the original link between the area and the ethnicity.

Early Chinese immigrants to NYC faced a storm of challenges, especially racially-motivated physical violence. The early community reacted with the founding of mafia-esque protection and support groups. These “tong” associations supplied physical protection on Chinatown’s streets, as well as loans, professional connections, and other assistance to recent immigrants.

Modeled after the triad criminal syndicates of mainland China, Manhattan’s tongs were particularly active in sex trafficking. Beginning in 1882 with the federal Chinese Exclusion Act, immigration restrictions created a severe gender imbalance within the community (in 1900, fewer than 3% of Chinatown’s population was female), and tongs began organizing prostitution rings in response.

Gang warfare between competing tongs led to the creation of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA) in 1883 in an effort to quell violence. Though hostilities continued well into the 20th Century and the tongs retained their criminal activities through at least the 1990s, the CCBA survives as fundamental institution for NYC’s Chinatown. Acting as an umbrella organization for providing community services, the CCBA acts as the quasi-government of the neighborhood (and its president has the unofficial title of Chinatown’s “Mayor”).

Immigration limits remained until the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, after which the area’s population boomed and expanded into traditionally Italian and Jewish communities. Though Manhattan’s rising property costs have driven many new immigrants to Flushing, Queens or Sunset Park, Brooklyn, Chinatown in Manhattan remains a cultural heart for the population.

Vegetarian Resources

Perhaps Chinatown’s greatest gift to the NYC vegetarian world is the May Wah Vegetarian Market (213 Hester Street between Baxter and Centre Streets). The store carries every imaginable manifestation of faux-meat: mutton, smoked duck, bacon, coal-roasted sausage, crab steaks, grilled eel, chicken nuggets – the store’s freezers are a treasure trove for urban vegetarian kitchens. Some of our favorite finds include the “beef” jerky, the black pepper steaks, and the breaded fish filets.

Only a few blocks away lies the Hong Kong Supermarket (157 Hester Street between Elizabeth Street and the Bowery), a two-story emporium with both standard groceries and ethnic specialties. The store serves as a great source for Asian flavors and seasonings (a full 12 feet of shelving is dedicated just to different types of soy sauces), as well as for less common ingredients (glass noodles are offered in about half a dozen varieties, in quantities ranging from individual portions to bulk-sized bags).

While the supermarket also sells produce, cheaper prices on fresh foods can be found by travelling south of Canal Street into the core of old Chinatown. On the stretch of Mulberry Street between Canal Street and Columbus Park, a block of greengrocers offer both Western and Eastern fruits and vegetables at bargain prices.

Stores selling Chinese cookware also abound in the neighborhood. Woks, clay pots, bamboo steaming trays, reusable chopsticks, tea sets – all the tools of Chinese food and drink that can be found at reasonable costs (Hung Chong Imports at 14 Bowery is one with which we’re most familiar).

For the tea-loving crowd, Chinatown has a number of specialty tea shops. We particularly love Sun’s Organic Tea Shop at 79 Bayard Street (between Mott and Mulberry Streets). The small store has an amazing inventory, with tall shelves of store-made herbal tea blends. The jars are well labeled with the ingredients, the anticipated flavors, and the expected medicinal properties of each blend, so browsing can be really fun. The staff are well-informed, and can help you in finding an appropriate tea for any circumstance.

Almost all of Chinatown’s restaurants and bakeries have a myriad of vegetarian options on their menus, and the area bristles with bargains. The simply named Fried Dumpling (at 106 Mosco Street just east of Columbus Park) is Chinatown’s incarnation of the soup nazi,with the notoriously gruff owner showing no mercy to her patrons (but the cheap scallion pancakes are very well-regarded). Directly across the street, Everything Frosted at 105 Mosco Street (on the second floor) bakes impressive desserts using some distinctly Asian ingredients (black sesame, lychee, taro, and jasmine being just a few of the Asian-influenced flavors found in their products).

Three neighborhood restaurants are strictly vegetarian. The House of Vegetarian at 68 Mott Street has a large menu with reasonable prices, but their kitchen is not well refined. We strongly favor the other two venues. Buddha Bodai at 5 Mott Street cooks delicious Szechuan cuisine, including vegan versions of all typical Chinese restaurant dishes like General Tso’s chicken and pork fried rice. Just around the corner, at 24 Pell Street, the Vegetarian Dim Sum House provides a culinary adventure, giving vegetarians an opportunity to fully explore the world of dim sum.

Getting There & Getting Home

The 6, J, N, Q, R, and Z trains all stop at Canal Street, with the center of Chinatown only a few blocks east of the station.

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