Here now is an exclusive excerpt from Eater senior critic Robert Sietesma's upcoming book New York in a Dozen Dishes. In the book, Sietsema winds his way through the history of 13 (a baker's dozen) of New York's great dishes, from pizza and bagels to guinea pig and dosa. Each chapter is dedicated to a specific dish, chronicling its history before Sietsema offers up his list of the best places to eat it — as well as a recipe if you feel like making it at home. "A city can be defined by its superlative dishes," writes Sietsema in the book's opening, "the ones that induce pride among the citizenry and excitement among visitors and speak eloquently of its history and current condition." The excerpt below includes the book's introduction, plus part of the chapter on egg foo yong. Read on and pre-order here.
I've noticed that people who move to the city from elsewhere often make the most avid New Yorkers. That was certainly the case with me. I arrived in the late '70s having washed out of a graduate program in Wisconsin and made a beeline for the East Village, where I found a neighborhood teetering on the verge of dissolution from drugs and decay, but with wildly cheap rents. Within one week the city's worst blackout occurred, which found residents of Stuyvesant Town across the street lowering buckets from their windows to get drinking water. A few days later, an illegal curbside welding operation saw a car burst into flames that shot up past my third-floor tenement apartment, causing me to leap out of my kitchen bathtub and run naked to the window. Becoming a New Yorker seemed a baptism by fire.
I didn't have much money, and I soon discovered that tasty and interesting food was one of the cheapest delights the city had to offer. Zeroing in on the fare of recent immigrants, I purchased a bagful of subway tokens and was soon traveling the five boroughs in search of unreconstructed ethnic eats. I joined a rock band and soon had companions on my treks of urban exploration, which found us feasting en masse on Peruvian beef-heart kebabs, delicious Indian vegetarian pancakes called dosas, tamales furtively sold by Mexican women from shopping carts behind the Port Authority, and hand-pulled Korean noodles stumbled upon on one of Flushing's most obscure streets.
In 1989 I began to publish my findings in a quarterly journal called Down the Hatch, surreptitiously photocopied on colorful paper at one of the offices I worked at as a temporary secretary by day. It was the forerunner of the modern food blog. It wasn't long before the Village Voice came calling, and in 1993 I was installed as its resident restaurant critic, a job that was to last 20 years. Other freelance gigs followed in profusion, from Gourmet, the New York Times, Lucky Peach, and a dozen other publications, including Eater New York, where I am currently a full-time New York restaurant critic.
A city can be defined by its superlative dishes, the ones that induce pride among the citizenry and excitement among visitors and speak eloquently of its history and current condition. This book presents a dozen dishes (actually 13, a baker's dozen) that framed my appreciation of New York food over the years. Some of these, such as pizza and fried chicken, are well-known, though their full stories have yet to be told. Others, like guinea pig and veal brains, will never be popular enough to become lunchtime favorites, but nonetheless contribute to a full appreciation of what makes this the most interesting and diverse place to eat in the world. More than anything else, this book recounts my culinary journey through New York City over three decades, and I'm grateful to you for undertaking it with me.
Egg Foo Yong
The doorbell rings. You look through the peephole in your apartment door and, done up in helmet and slicker, it's the Chinese delivery guy dripping wet, just arrived on his motorized bicycle in the rain. The transaction is rapid: He hands you a white plastic bag, you fork over eight dollars plus a generous tip due to the weather, and he runs back down the stairway. You set the bag on the table and unload it, hands trembling in anticipation. Inside — if you're lucky and your carry-out place is obsessed with details — there will be one squat plastic receptacle and two bone-white trapezoidal paper cartons, the tops sealed with interlocking flaps and crowned with an aluminum wire handle. (No one has yet figured out what the handle is for. Are you supposed to pick up the carton and parade it around your apartment like a purse?)
The plastic receptacle brims with brown gravy, like the kind you might expect to find on a Salisbury steak. The first paper carton contains white rice, still fluffy. In the second are three patties the size and shape of hamburgers, tightly wedged so you have to turn the carton upside down and shake it to get them out. Welcome to your splendid dinner: egg foo yong!
Many places give you only two cartons, so that the patties swim in gravy and get completely soggy somewhere between the restaurant and your place of residence. I've chosen the carryout Golden Woks in Greenwich Village, not for its proximity to my tenement apartment, but because the place deploys the three-container system. I arrange my dinner on the paper plate also provided, the rice in a giant mound, the patties atop, with the entire pint of gravy cascading over the top, like floodwaters choked with alluvial dirt — but great-tasting dirt! Poking at the mass with chopsticks is useless. Violating the most basic principle of Chinese dining, egg foo yong demands to be attacked with a fork.
The patties are delicious, crisp and brown and dotted with small shrimp, and the salty gravy screams "Umami!" — livening up and enriching the repast immeasurably. The rice soaks up all the extra gravy. This is fast-food nirvana, and it arrives, as most Chinese meals do, so hot that you have to blow on it before you dig in. Time was, this excellent dish enjoyed enormous popularity in takeout containers across the city, but its popularity has declined precipitously in recent decades.
The Anatomy of Egg Foo Yong
The dish is a curious one, but it perfectly represents Chinese-American cuisine as developed by Chinese restaurants all around the country over the course of more than a century. Currently in total disrepute among foodies due to their preference for purer and more authentic regional Chinese cuisines, the sainted canon of Chinese-American food includes familiar dishes that may have originated in China but were aggressively adapted for American tastes: egg rolls, chop suey, fried rice, pepper steak, sweet-and-sour pork, chow mein, fried wontons, sesame chicken, orange chicken, stir-fries such as beef with broccoli (a vegetable virtually unknown in Asia), and, most recently, General Tso's chicken. The last was invented in the '70s in midtown Manhattan at either Peng's Restaurant or Shun Lee Palace, depending on whom you believe. Unfortunately, Chinese-American cuisine ceased to evolve after the 1970s due to a number of factors, and though the iconic dishes remain supremely delectable, it's now moribund.
"If we were to categorize egg foo yong generically we'd have to call it an omelet."
The standard recipe for egg foo yong involves pouring beaten eggs — into which soy sauce, salt, sometimes sugar, finely ground white pepper, and (if you're lucky) MSG, have been added — into a wok seething with cooking oil, making a loud hissing sound and sending up towers of steam. Next, some combination of bean sprouts, cabbage, and bamboo shoots gets tossed into the middle of the egg mixture as the cook keeps the blossoming patty confined to a disk in the center of the wok by pressing it inward with a spatula. Minced ham, shrimp, chicken, beef, or pork is then added to the vegetable-and-egg mélange, and voilà! A perfect egg foo yong patty is deftly flipped from the wok; two more are made in quick succession, since three is the universal serving.
If we were to categorize egg foo yong generically we'd have to call it an omelet. But while a French omelet is cooked in clarified butter at relatively moderate temperatures, the Chinese version uses much hotter vegetable oil to caramelize the exterior of the beaten eggs and create a crispness alien to soft and squishy Western omelets. The sprouts provide a bouncy matrix and attenuate the most expensive ingredient — eggs. By today's way of thinking, they also ramp up the "healthiness" factor. The gravy is clearly inspired by English or German gravy — nothing else in the world could be so dense and brown, verging on the texture of pudding — though sometimes a bit of fish sauce is added to make it taste more Chinese. While the rice and its cooking method are entirely Chinese, the totality of the dish is perfect East-West fusion: a French omelet with Teutonic gravy cooked in a Chinese wok with that most quintessential of Asian ingredients, bean sprouts.
The name egg foo yong itself (sometimes transliterated egg fu yung, egg foo yung, or egg foo young) straddles two languages: egg is good grunty Anglo-Saxon English (probably originally Old Norse), while foo yong is Cantonese for hibiscus, referring, perhaps with ironic humor, to the flowerlike appearance of the patty as it crinkles and puffs in the wok, like a flat bud turning into a 3-D flower. On the other hand, in the Cantonese dialect of Guangdong, a southeastern coastal region where many of our early Chinese immigrants came from, foo yong also means "egg white," so we may have a pun at work here, with the meaning boiling down to something like "flower of egg."
According to a chapter on Chinese-American food in the Time Life book American Cooking: The Melting Pot (1971):
At its best, with the crispness and stringiness of celery dispersed through a rich gravy and the whole ladled steaming over a bed of white rice, [chop suey] can be a roundly satisfying one-course meal.The same can be said for egg foo young, shrimp chow mein, fried rice — each has its Oriental antecedent, yet each underwent a sea change during the long Pacific crossing into something that, if not precisely exotic, is somewhat more Chinese than American.
Thus egg foo yong, along with its gravy and rice, was intentionally packaged as a one-course meal aimed at American diners accustomed to the same proportions of protein, grease, and starch in what they considered their normal diet. It became a cognate of the all-in main courses being plated across the United States, much like the bland meat-and-potatoes Anglo-German-Irish-Polish food I grew up eating.
When I lived in Minnesota in the early '60s, Chinese food was not unknown to my family. On a few occasions, we carried out fried rice and meat-vegetable stir-fries in the iconic white containers. We loved the exotic taste, squirting on the plastic sleeves of soy sauce in an attempt to make the salty food even saltier. But our main exposure to Chinese fare came through the battling supermarket potentates La Choy and Chun King. Via their boxed and canned meals, these brands familiarized us for the first time with such ingredients as fried noodles, bean sprouts, water chestnuts, and bamboo shoots, incorporated into chop suey, chow mein, and subgum — a catchall term we endlessly pondered. Was it related to chewing gum? Or something inferior, as the prefix implied? (The meaning in Cantonese is "numerous and varied.") As I eventually realized, Chun King and La Choy represented a processed and canned version of the cuisine developed by legions of Chinese immigrant restaurateurs, totally lacking in the inventiveness and freshness that made Chinese-American food great. But the seed had been sown by these supermarket products for cravings that were to become more intense as my life proceeded.
Some articles on the subject maintain that egg foo yong first became popular in the 1930s, as Chinese restaurants catering to middle-American tastes first spread throughout the country. But it certainly seems much older than that. Apparently, egg foo yong possessed just the perfect combination of the familiar and the unfamiliar to appeal to Americans accustomed to bland, overcooked meat, lots of starch, and vegetables from cans. Seasonings aside, what could be more American than beaten eggs cooked quickly and served hot out of the pan? Chinese-American food can also be said to have whetted American appetites for other seemingly exotic cuisines — and, later, for the regional cuisines of China itself — brought here by immigrants late in the 20th century.
Around the same time that Chinese food was becoming a staple of the American diet in the first half of the 20th century, glimpses of Arab and Mexican cuisines were providing similar culinary diversions. But even when I lived in Dallas in the late 1960s, any kind of foreign food was still hard to come by, mainly limited to a string of strip-mall chain restaurants slinging Tex-Mex platters swimming in canned chili gravy and cheese, and a single Japanese joint wowing Dallasites with beef teppanyaki, delivered with a floor show of flying knives and somersaulting shrimp by chefs wearing red toques that sat like mushrooms on their heads. Chinese food was part of this exotic mix, though rarely eaten in the restaurant it came from — much more often delivered by automobile. Miraculously, it arrived still piping hot. There was something thermodynamically magical about those white carry-out containers . . .
Excerpt from NEW YORK IN A DOZEN DISHES by Robert Sietsema to be published on May 19th by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Copyright © 2015 by Robert Sietsema.