And so to Flushing, Queens, home to the world’s biggest Chinatown. A Chinatown so big that it actually seems like China, but for the signs that still say DON’T EVEN THINK OF PARKING HERE. How do I know it’s the world’s biggest Chinatown? Because my pal Sarah told me so, and since she’s running the Queens beat for The New York Times, she should know.
Diving into noodle shops crowded together into warreny basements, we ate tea eggs, hot and just-pressed soy milk and the freshest vegetable dumplings I’d ever tasted before barrelling up to the main event: Hunan Kitchen of Grand Sichuan. Now Sarah — unlike us — is no tourist, and has a real taste for fire. There was a long discussion with our waiter about her order of Boiled Sliced Fish in Chili Sauce — a dish we’d spotted on a table across from us. Sarah kept assuring him that she wanted the real thing — as hot as they’d make it for any Chinese customer. He looked doubtful, and shook his head. But Sarah is nothing if not persistent and persuasive, and finally our man seemed satisfied. While we waited for the great dish, we ate pillowy steamed pork dumplings, and dry-fried string beans which inspire me to go back to my Magic Beans (see below) and throw in some hot red pepper. There was stewed eggplant too, sticky and garlicky and served in a bubbling hot pot.
But then the fish arrived, and all else was forgotten. A big metal bowl whose entire surface was scattered with whole red chilis, fresh coriander, and cumin seed: the liquid in the bowl was fiery red, and the steam that came off it — I kid you not — made my eyes burn. Sarah exclaimed with delight and the waiters looked on with some concern: until Sarah simply lifted out one of the whole chilis and chomped it right down. A home run.
It took me a while, I confess, to get up the nerve to try a sliver of fish and tofu, for all Sarah’s exclamations of delight. I am not Mrs Spicy. But I wasn’t sorry: the fire was ferocious but not unwarranted, a depth-charge of flavour that resonated through my palate in ways that most things don’t: tongue, throat, nose, they’re all involved in eating something like this. And so it seemed fitting that when we left the restaurant we headed for Rockaway beach to lie on our backs and watch the Perseid meteor shower put the lights of the planes taking off from JFK to shame. There’s one! Another! A web of bright threads in the New York sky, brilliance spicing the dark.