Queens for a Day: Tea and Dumplings

It’s New Year’s Eve. I have a cold and am exhausted after hosting our annual Open House. The bone-chilling cold has gripped the Northeast for a week now, so I don’t feel in the best of moods to pen my last blog post of my first full year of NYC SnackAttack (or what will surely be the first post of the new year).  So I’m going to set the clock back, to Wednesday December 28th and revisit what was a perfect day for the Chef and me, a day in which I felt fully present, attentive to the bounty in my life and in our wonderful city….

It Started in Flushing...

And it started in Flushing, Queens, Sino-hub  of our city. I was inspired to go there by an article on the Tea Expo at Fang Gourmet Tea. As you know, I’ve become a fan of loose-leaf tea. While the article emphasized the high end rock mineral tea pots made by a master potter and $180 per person tastings of fermented tea from the 1890s, it also said a tasting could be had for as little as $5.00/person.  Having glommed on to Ceylon teas as my favorites, I know nothing about Chinese and Taiwanese tea and was eager to try. With the stop-and-start sluggish service of the 7 to end of the line, Flushing-Main Street, we emerged hungry so decided to upend our intended order and eat dumplings first.

Like Fang Gourmet Tea, Tianjin Dumpling House is located in one of those mysterious Flushing mini-malls in which you enter from the bustling street into a warren of food stands, cleaners or shops selling ground up deer-antler aphrodisiacs. Immediately upon entering The Golden Mall we watched a magic act: a man pulling a thick rope of dough through his hands over and over until he had transformed it into a pile of spaghetti-thin noodles. This was the original Lanzhou Hand Pulled Noodle stand! Just past diners slurping noodles we found Tianjin where we sat on tiny folding chairs in front of metal trays full of smoked tofu, vegetables, and desiccated duck heads. As we ate the proprietor/cook would sometimes pluck at or rearrange the heads—dull army green with bright yellow feather bristles—with an ungloved hand. We looked around noting that not one of the stands had Dept. of Health rating letters.

Everything about Tianjin was as gritty and unceremonious as the tidiness and utter attention to ceremony that we later experienced at Fang. One can’t complain, though, about 12 juicy lamb and squash dumplings for $6.00 and another dozen pork/shrimp/egg dumplings for $5.00. They arrived on Styrofoam plates and the Chef and I chased them and snipped at the slippery dumplings with our chopsticks. Sometimes one would break open and a whole shrimp would spill out. “Toothsome,” said the Chef, about the skin, which is thicker, as in Northern Chinese style. They hit the spot for taste, price and speed even if the ambience was wanting.

Speaking of which, this is not the place to use a bathroom, so here’s a tip. Do your Flushing flushing at The Queens Library across the street. Use their cheery spotless facilities and wash the dumpling detritus off your face. There are also nice comfy chairs on the first floor where I had a blissful ten minutes updating things in my bullet journal as I charged my phone. And I got a charge, though, just being amidst the multi-ethnic Flushing community as people, young and old, paraded through this busy cultural center

Tea Mind Outside of Time

The Chef and I were ready to enter Fang and pay full attention to tea. I had no idea how much attention there was to be paid. It’s a small room brightened only by the displays of ceramic and rock mineral tea pots. There are only three wooden tables each with cushioned chairs, and the tea room abutted other small businesses so, thankfully, there was not the bustle of the food mall. We decided to taste two teas, a Dong Ding black Oolong tea and a High Mountain black tea, both from Taiwan ($10 per person/each—price for tastings varies depending upon the tea). I had not known anything about Gongfu, the Chinese tea ceremony, in which our patient instructor, a genial Taiwanese fellow, schooled us. He boiled filtered water and then discarded the first flush before it even met the tea, and he discarded the first steeped tea as well. To further ensure purity, a small piece of smooth wood—like a tree core— is used as a clean rest for lids and tea accoutrements. We sniffed the fragrant tea in its bamboo scoop before our instructor put it in a small lidded container called Gaiwan. The tea steeped for less than a minute before he raised the Gaiwan, used the lid to keep the leaves inside and poured the tea into a metal strainer within a small pitcher. He poured the tea from the pitcher to three small porcelain cups, like doll-sized pasta bowls, explaining that porcelain does not react with the tea to change its flavor.

After we sipped from our cups, the Dong Ding with its honey notes, the High Mountain with earthy and floral ones, our tea master told us to bring the small bowls to our noses. This was repeated six times—six steepings for each tea. We noted changes in color, depth, fragrance, and I felt outside of time during the whole process. As he unfolded the wet tea to show us how the leaves had changed, as he fussed with pots and lids, our guide told us about tea growing practices on the mountains of Taiwan. He explained how as the tea growers were forced to move higher up the mountain by the burgeoning Taiwanese population claiming land beneath, the tea trees had to cope with a colder climate; they became hardier and actually more flavorful. The Chef felt the High Mountain tea tasted unlike any tea he’d ever had. I was completely absorbed in the act of drinking tea. Only later I thought of a quote I love by the French philosopher Nicolas Malebranche:

“Attentiveness is the Natural Prayer of the Soul”

For 2018, my only resolution is to pay attention, and as I do, small food and drink snacks will continue to arrest my senses, and I’ll continue to pass my thoughts on them to you. Happy New Year!

Fang Gourmet Tea
135-25 Roosevelt Avenue

Tianjin Dumpling House
41-28 Main St (in The Golden Shopping Mall)