2018 Primetime Emmy
& James Beard Award Winner

Comfort Food: Good Even When It’s Bad

Comfort Food: Good Even When It’s Bad

Jianbing in Flushing

My eyes take in the food stalls as I walk though the dingy underground shopping mall. Dumplings, pork, and chives hugged in freshly kneaded dough bubble in a foamy pot. Tempting, but not what I’m looking for. Spicy wood ear mushrooms sprinkled with chili peppers and other Sichuan cold dishes beckon to me, but my mind is elsewhere.

The options in Flushing’s Golden Shopping Mall are endless, and some stalls, like Xi’an Famous Foods, have even become tourist destinations for those seeking something unfamiliar. But my purpose here is different. I’m not searching for a window into another culture, but a reminder of my own past.

I used to visit Shanghai every summer. I was born there and moved to the U.S. when I was four. In Shanghai, muggy August days bled into crisp, cicada-filled nights. As the sun rose over my grandmother’s home, I would have the heartiest meal of the day. There were breakfast staples, of course; bowls of steaming whole milk sprinkled with black sesame powder, hard-boiled eggs drizzled in soy sauce, and endless steamed white buns—man tou, bao zi, and hua juan. Even though that was enough to send me into morning food comas, my grandmother would occasionally pick up something extra on her journey back from the local farmer’s market. My favorite was jianbing, a thin crepe filled with egg, fried crackers or Chinese crullers, scallions, coriander, and mustard pickles, slathered with a generous helping of hoisin sauce. A popular breakfast option in northern provinces, my southern grandmother could not make it at home. This made jianbing all the more of a luxury.

Three years later, I meander my way towards the back of the shopping mall, the buzz of the crowds fading into the walls of steam and smoke. Sadly, I no longer visit China as often. My search to relive those memories has led me to this mall and I find myself at a lone stall with no customers. Although advertised as a tea shop, their concise jianbing menu catches my eye.

Option B and sweetened soy milk, I tell the owner. I decide to add sausage, switching out the cracker for lettuce in a failed attempt to be healthy. Hot or cold, she asked, meaning the soy milk. Hot, of course, just as they serve it in China.

The lady jumps into work, smearing the crepe batter over the sizzling griddle as I hungrily watch the thin film bubble and rise. When she hands over her creation, the whiff of the fragrant scallions hits me. Sinking my teeth into the delicate dough, the sticky hoisin sauce adds just the right amount of sweetness, while the sausage provides a much-needed bite. I wash it all down with soy milk, feeling the warmth trickle down my body. Maybe this isn’t the best jianbing, but nothing tastes better than nostalgia.

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