Finding Love at a Food Stand

By / Photography By Miguel Pang Ly | February 09, 2017
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I met my husband at a street food stall in China.

It was late one October night and, after a few hours of partying and one too many glasses of baijiu, China’s notorious national liquor, my friends and I were all craving food. Half of our group swayed over to KFC, and the rest of us made our way to the nearby street food stand.

I had no idea what was roasting on the skewers over the grill – and my meager Mandarin skills didn’t yet allow me to ask – so I struck up a conversation with the guy next to me in line. Did he know if the skewers held potatoes, as I hoped, or something more unusual?

The conversation hasn’t really stopped since.

An American and a Scot, we were brought together unexpectedly by the food of a third country, the one we both temporarily called “home.” He was an American engineering student, in Tianjin for a six-month internship; I was a recent Scottish graduate, teaching English to Chinese high school students for a year.

Our tentative steps towards a fully-fledged relationship were accompanied by the taste, smell, and texture of northern Chinese cuisine: the slurping of huo guo near Tianjin’s Haihe River; the crunch of a fried bing after a night of cocktails in Beijing’s Sanlitun neighborhood; the doughy bite of a fat baozi for lunch.

But our time together there was limited, and in the years after we had left China behind and embarked on a transatlantic long-distance relationship, I hadn’t been able to recreate or rediscover those flavors anywhere. Not in Edinburgh, the Scottish capital; not in the vicinity of Gerrard Street in London’s Chinatown; and not even in the dim sum parlors clustered off Manhattan’s Canal Street, the ones I frequented on visits to see my New York-based boyfriend.

It was more than five years after we met, and a few months after I moved to New York to begin married life, that my husband and I took the 7 train to Flushing – and finally found the flavors we had been searching for.

Illustration by Miguel Pang Ly. Animation by Alexandria Misch.

Exiting the subway station at Flushing Main Street to the sound of Mandarin and the tantalizing smells of familiar foods was almost disconcerting. My shock at the familiarity was perhaps unsurprising; after all, the neighborhood is home to the fastest-growing Chinese community outside of Asia.

Some say that the sense of taste, like smell, can be a powerful way to rekindle memories. To me, the flavors in Flushing resembled a kind of alchemy, a time-traveling ticket to Tianjin, a ticket that took us back to those heady days when we were just getting to know one another.

On that first visit to Flushing, we stayed all afternoon and into Saturday evening, laughing and reminiscing, and of course, eating. We tried Happy Food Court first, loud and bright on the corner of 40th Road and Main Street, encouraged by the myriad options and its obvious popularity. The small space was packed, and we found ourselves crammed around a plastic table with strangers, delighting over the jiaozi, cho mian, and the unidentified dishes we knew by sight, smell, and taste, but had no words for.

That initial experience was capped with bottles of Tsingtao and skewers of chicken hearts at Biang!. We laughed over our memories, recalling that one of my husband’s early texts to me contained a tale about eating a “one thousand year old egg” (preserved for a few months in a saline solution, turning it dark and jelly-like), and remembering how we decided to travel to Shanghai together over a bowl of the city’s famous soup dumplings. Through the menus of Flushing’s restaurants, we were marking a new chapter in our lives together by revisiting the first, the one that started at a street food stall.

The next time, we ventured slightly further afield, opting for the spicy cumin lamb burger at Xi’an Famous Foods, hidden underground in the Golden Shopping Mall. Then, it was the freshly made pork and cabbage dumplings from Tianjin Dumpling House, an outpost of the city we owed everything to. Most recently, it was strips of lamb and fresh vegetables in a peppery broth at Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot, the restaurant tucked away unobtrusively in a shopping mall corner, next to an Applebee’s and a Starbucks.

My mind might have forgotten my Mandarin, but it hasn’t forgotten these intense flavors or the memories that are revived with each bite. And every time we eat in Flushing’s restaurants, I’m reminded of that first conversation, those few words over food that led to a new life, a marriage, and a long-lasting love of Chinese cuisine.

Happy Food Court: 40-28 Main Street, Flushing; 718.321.1389; M-Su: 8am-9am, 12pm-8pm, 10pm-12am.

Xi’an Famous Foods Flagship (formerly Biang!): 41-10 Main Street, Flushing; Su-Th: 11am-9:30pm; Fr-Sa: 11am-10pm.

Xi’an Famous Foods Original: 41-28 Main Street, Basement Stall #36, Flushing; Su-Th: 10am-9:15pm, F-Sa: 10am-9.30pm.

Tianjin Dumpling House: 41-28 Main Street, Basement Stall #33, Flushing; 212.518.3265; Sun-Th: 10am-9.15pm; Fri-Sa: 10am-9.30pm.
Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot: 136-59 37th Avenue, Flushing; 718.762.8881; M-Th: 11.30am-10pm; F-Su: 11.30am-10.30pm.

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