Asian vegetables, pre-COVID vs. now

Having lived in three major metropolitan areas that have a decent sized Asian population, I have been quite spoiled when it comes to having Asian food nearby. I would always read food blogs of writers of Asian descent and how they relocated from a place like New York or California to a place that considered bok choy an exotic vegetable, where getting Indian spices like fenugreek seeds or coriander powder is at least an hour’s drive away; they would have massive nostalgia for being able to have these precious ingredients so close. Why would they relocate from what they loved so much? I always thought to myself.

At Wellesley, whenever I craved Chinese or Vietnamese food, Boston or Cambridge was just a quick 40-minute bus ride away. In San Francisco, you don’t even have to go to Chinatown to get Chinese food, as “mini Chinatowns” popped up in multiple areas, from Clement Street in the Richmond District to Irving, Noriega, and Taraval Streets in the Sunset. Here in New York, Manhattan Chinatown is a quick subway ride away from us; Flushing Chinatown is always a favorite destination of mine, but that leaves out Elmhurst’s budding mini Chinatown, Sunset Park in Brooklyn, and multiple Asian business studded streets of the Bronx. But without going to any of these so-called Chinatown-type areas, East Village, “Curry Hill” (Lexington in the 20s), and Koreatown (32nd Street between Broadway and 5th) are all extremely accessible and provide multiple options for Asian ingredients for home cooking. That doesn’t even include the random Japanese grocery stores that are sprinkled throughout the city.

Now, I have a slightly similar feeling to those relocated food bloggers I used to wonder about. Being in quarantine due to COVID-19 has made me feel more trapped than ever before when it comes to accessing foods and ingredients I want. While we are very lucky and have a full pantry, not to mention a packed fridge and freezer, there are always things I’m going to crave that are not going to be easy to get because Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Morton Williams, or Western Beef is not going to have the right market for Asian vegetables like water spinach/morning glory/kong xin cai, or dou miao/pea shoots. If I’m near the end of my beloved shiitake mushrooms, I can’t just hop on the subway ride down to Chinatown to get another bag of them. When I want to make Chinese taro or radish cake, well…. that just isn’t going to happen unless I can source Chinese radish or taro from a grocer that is willing to do delivery to my zip code. When Chris’s aunt posted on my YouTube channel, saying that she was still waiting for my mapo tofu video, I responded and told her it was nearly impossible to get the correct Sichuanese broad bean paste (pixian bean paste actually made and imported from Sichuan province!) that was needed to make authentic tasting mapo tofu during a time of shelter-in-place, so until I was able to source it, I wouldn’t make it a video for it because it just wouldn’t be right.

Some people probably would think I’m crazy to say that I am craving different vegetables right now because we don’t often associate “cravings” with vegetables. We usually associate it with comfort foods, which are normally carby, bready, meaty, fatty, filling. But I actually am having them now. My biggest craving is definitely for water spinach, as it’s one of my all-time favorite vegetables. I would really love to have yellow chives now. I would love to get my hands on some Thai basil and steam some gai lan / Chinese broccoli. But… these things will have to wait.

Once upon a time, I really was spoiled and super privileged to be able to have any of these above items and more pretty much a quick subway ride away. I felt like I could get nearly anything I wanted whenever I wanted, with the quantity I wanted. Now, that luxury has been taken away, if only temporarily. So when I finally do get my hands on some water spinach, I will hold it like it’s gold and chew it just a few more times to savor it all.

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