The first time walked into Kam San in Flushing in 1986, I was pleased: it had meicai 梅菜, dried salted veg that I like to cook with pork. I just arrived from Hong Kong where food was stringently segregated. Cantonese, the Hong Kong Cantonese are very particular about their food. Any place [on the map] above Shanghai are considered northern food, hence were out cast, uncool.
I first lived with Aunt Ling in HK who had a Chinese maid, Luanjie. Sister Luan was very proper. She addressed me as 张小姐 Miss Zhang, (cousin Steve as 张少爷 Young Master Zhang) of course pronounced it Cheung, the Cantonese way.
First night when she served the soup, I was horrified. It smelt strange was so dark like the Chinese medicine where several herbs are boiled together and always taste terrible. I held my breath and gulped a bit because she was looking on fondly.
“I spent four hours stewing it.” The soups in Beijing, or north were mostly clear, and made within a minute or two. Never more than 10 minutes. Some were actually just the rinse off the wok.
After a week, when I began to appreciate the slow cooking soup, she asked me if I enjoyed her cooking and if there anything I’d like her too cook. I was only 18, and larger part of that 18 years was spent in canteen in a country that didn’t offer much to consume, except da baicai cabbage. When she pressed again, I suggested meicai pork. Miecai 梅菜 is a traditional cooking ingredients made of pickled mustard greens. I was feeling my way around Cantonese cuisine which I come to adore – no, come to love! – knowing meat ranks very low on their food chain. But I really miss the small, strong smell, dried, salty and dark meicai.
The following night when she began to serve dinner, Aunt Ling frown on the pork.
“Luanjie, what’s this?” Aunt Ling pushed up her glasses to inspect.
“Oh, Mrs. Ling, Miss Cheung said she wanted to eat meicai pork.”
Now it’s my turn to frown.
“This was meicai pork?” I asked dubiously. Why the color was so light and leaves so large?
“It is meicai.” Luanjie insisted.
Whatever. It tasted different, too sweet for my liking. I hardly touched it. Luanjie felt insulted. She had been with Aunt Ling for nearly two decades and took great pride at her work and cooking. Her soup, at first was like medicine to me – look wise and taste wise – needed 3+ hours to sim with many foreign objects :), like chicken feet .. But very quickly I also came around to enjoy. After Ling’s son left for a prep school in the US, she began to work part time, three days a week. She’s short and pleasant, born in Canton, would teach me Cantonese from time to time – Aunt Ling’s Cantonese wasn’t good. When she came to clean the table after the dinner, she asked if it’s right. When I reluctantly told her it’s not what I expected, she said, that’s the only meicai she knew and told me to buy the right kind and she’d make it again.
So there went my first grocery shopping adventure in Hong Kong. My Cantonese was almost non exist and the vendors were rude. After few attempts, an older man shoved a bunch of long stemmed semi dried veg into me,
“Here is your meicai.”
It was not right. The meicai I wanted was dry, dark and chopped short in a package. As I was debating if to buy it or not, he impatiently took it away,
“Try your luck next door.”
If you consider New York second is fast, you should visit Hong Kong.
An older woman saw the episode,
“Why did you have to be so rude?” She said to the older man then turned to me,
“Miss, try Shanghai grocery stores in North Point.” And confimred to me that that thing was indeed meicai, only Cantonese style. My tears dried up quickly.
Apparently not every Shanghai grocery store in Hong Kong carried the kind of meicai that were everywhere in Beijing. So, when I saw it on the shelve in Kam San in New York, I just congratulated myself one more time for picking New York as my home.
Back in the late 80s, hot pot wasn’t as popular as it is now in New York, same goes with karaoke too. But Kam San sold hotpot pot, dark Zhenjiang vinegar, thin sliced meat (when few other stores had it thick), etc. When I first met Golfer, he had never tasted the dark Zhenjiang vinegar nor had hot pot, but loves both ever since .. there goes my green card 🙂
Recent years (a decade or so), Chinese supermarket scene has been dominated by Wenzhou entrepreneurs. They emphasize on fresh produces in airy spaces with cashiers that are all young women, you see one you see them all. Kam San differs. It felt dated. Dull. But the people who worked there were really long term, you might not know their names but recognized their faces.
Few years ago, George asked me to sub for him at his winter tennis league, that’s when I first met Andy who owned and ran Kam San for 26 years, sold it on 12/31/2007. The Barron’s had profiled him and his brother years back. I joked that suddenly there are lots more cars on the road and shoppers in the stores, :). It’s quite telling when my Friday group came for dinner, ate out of the very same pot I bought from his store two decades ago.
I meant to write this one for few months, finally got to it. There are just too much to blog every day!! I still shop at Kam San, the same parking attendant is nice and able, the food court are still manned by the original people. Even the Quasimodo (Quasi in my mind, is a kind and gentle plebe that led an unfortunately life, who found his true love .. but it was an unrequited love ..) is there – I don’t know his name. I couldn’t help but pad on his arm and said,
“Hooray, you’re still here.”
He looked at me, replied
“Where else could I go?”
Obviously Andy treated his employees well.
A little tribute from a happy shopper as well.