Fond And Familiar

I've figured out how to get things done around here: you just invite people over. Seriously, the only reason we got our act together and drove to IKEA and picked a coffee table a few months ago was because I spontaneously decided to host a dinner party, and Sean, sweetheart though he is, couldn't abide the thought of people sitting around on our new sofa with magazines piled up around their knees on the floor. Actually, I lie, Sean could totally abide the thought of that. What he couldn't abide the thought of, however, was me complaining about it. For weeks and weeks and weeks.

We've been needing a new table in the hallway for...well, ever since we moved in and bought something entirely inappropriate and ridiculous to fill the space JUST SO WE COULD GET OUT OF TARGET (Dear Self, why were you stupid enough to go to Target on a Sunday? What did you expect? Love, Self), but it wasn't until I remembered that we had some friends coming over on Saturday night that we actually did something about it. (Look, a new table! In the hallway! Not from Target!)

Sunday afternoon was incredibly warm and sunny, and I decided to wander down to Chinatown; it's only a 15-minute walk from where we live, and I really wanted to see if I could find some ingredients for this chili-basil-chicken thing my mother makes, and which I've tried to replicate on numerous occasions, always with disastrous results. (On this, I blame the store-bought coriander and crappy green chilies. Hence, I decided to wander Chinatown for the proper stuff.)

Holy Mother of God, I love Chinatown. And I think we should clarify that I'm not talking about the tourist mecca of Grant Street, with all its two-dollar I LOVE SAN FRANCISCO t-shirts and its gaudy gold buddha paperweights and its plethora of housewives from God Knows Where, mooning over shiny ill-fitting cheong sams that do nothing for their hips. In fact, if you go to Chinatown in San Francisco, you must go to any street aside from Grant Street; go up Stockton or Kearny or any of the myriad alleys in between. Hustle elbow to elbow---or elbow to earlobe, as the case may be---with diminutive octagenarians carrying spiky durians the size of their heads; slip on mysterious seafood-related substances on the floors of jam-packed fish shops where half the stock is still alive and jumping; pick bunches of glistening herbs from troughs waist-deep. Alternate holding your nose with deep, grateful breaths.

This is how I grew up, accompanying my mother to the bustling, bursting Chinese markets in Hong Kong between the ages of seven and thirteen, haggling over lettuce, bargaining over plums. Half the time when I feel homesick, it's Marmite and Cadburys and Winegums I long for; the other half, it's Pocky and Yan-Yan, Koala biscuits, Calbee Potato Chips, the cacophany of Cantonese and Mandarin, the unadulterated stink of a fish market, the musty medicinal lure of an apothecary. One of the things I love so much about San Francisco is that once you get into a certain section of Nob Hill, the advertisements at bus stops are all in Chinese. Every week, I make a renewed commitment to sign up for Mandarin lessons, to find someone on Craigslist who'll teach me words beyond "toilet" and "no seafood please" and "how much is it?", someone who'll help bridge the gap between the familiarity I feel on certain sections of Stockton Street, and the reality of how ridiculously out of place I must look.

Wandering the bowels of Chinatown on Sunday, I still felt like a goddamn tourist, a stranger, an interloper, a silly white girl strolling about with a list that read chilies, coriander, rice noodles, peering cluelessly at brands of condensed milk. I needed basil, a big, flowering bunch of purple basil, but I was too scared to speak up, to look like the silly gwailo who had to ask for it. Eventually, I decided I just needed to buy something, anything, so I could be carrying the cheap pink plastic bag that set me apart as someone who needed ingredients for dinner, someone who lived nearby, someone who knew what they were doing. I paid for a bunch of coriander, which cost 34 cents, and muttered a hurried xie xie under my breath. Then I panicked that I'd been gauche in using the Mandarin, patronising perhaps. But no-one reacted either way.

As well as the coriander, the chilies, the various bits and pieces of glistening greenery, I also bought a coconut, just for the sheer, romantic joy of buying a coconut. When was the last time you bought a coconut? Screw a glass of wine, I guarantee that buying a coconut will make you happier. Mine is sitting on my kitchen counter at the moment, waiting for Sean to take it out into the communal garden and smash it with a hammer, the sweet milk splattering the squashed grapefruits that have already fallen from the tree out there. I have no idea what I'm going to make with it, or if I'm going to make anything at all. It was enough just to have it, I think. You know how that is sometimes.

The spoils of Chinatown!

1
silverblue
Aug 21, 2007

That was a beautifully-written entry, Holly. Almost none of the things you wrote about are familiar to me (asia, markets, having had more than one home), but I could FEEL them. I could understand and empathise and feel the emotions you experienced.

You have such talent.

(Also... thank you for writing here so regularly! Should we also thank Sean a little for your diligence?)

2
gina
Aug 21, 2007

Oh, do I know. Living overseas is like one big longing all the time for what I used to have. Finding anything that reminds me of home is like finding treasure and I think just to have it near me sometimes is comfort enough, just sitting there on a shelf or on the table next to me while I read.

But in Hong Kong, were there green coconuts? or brown ones? I thought brown coconuts were the only kinds in the world (go gringo!) What kind is more popular in Asia? Here (Brazil) it's only green.

3
Jess
Aug 21, 2007

Long time reader, first time commenter. I live in South Korea and your words perfectly describe the way I feel everytime I go shopping. I think it would be useful for me to learn the symbols for coriander instead of just guessing and ending up with something random.

4
zan
Aug 21, 2007

This is beautiful. I love your apprehensive nostalgia, your appreciation for all things cultural and invigorating. This is so vivid, and darn it if my mouth isn't watering for that dinner. Even at eight o'clock in the morning.

5
jive turkey
Aug 21, 2007

Delicious entry & photo!

I love Pocky too! My friend used to bring it back to the states for me from Korea.

6
Erica
Aug 21, 2007

So did you make the dinner and did it turn out to be delicious with all of the fresh ingredients?

7
leandra
Aug 21, 2007

I remember the very first time I bought a coconut, what an adventure. I got it home and had to drill it then smash it with a hammer, all in the outdoor hallway of my gram's condo complex (I lived with her while in college in FL). Absolute pain in the butt, but the sweet flesh was totally worth it. I think I am due another lesson in coconut wrangling. :)

8
Nicole
Aug 21, 2007

Have you found a place to buy British candy here yet? Let me know; I know a few places.

9
Type (little) a
Aug 21, 2007

Although you have one over on me for knowing what foods to buy in Chinatown with intention actually cooking them, I used to love going to chinatown when I lived in Manhattan. They had the same touristy crap on Canal Street as you do on grant st.

My biggest "score" was in 1996 or so. At the time, there was this hot new "fat dissolving" soap which sold in department stores for $40 a bar. I found them in Chinatown for $2.50. I wish I'd known about ebay back then.

Sigh.

I know absolutely NO mandarin, but it wouldn't have made a lick of difference in NYC Chinatown, as most people speak Cantonese. Which I don't know either.

10
Bethany
Aug 21, 2007

Beautiful entry as always. I think I want your entire apartment, decorations and all. It's always so beautiful.

This entry really makes me wish that the country hadn't become so WalMart-ized, that all the elbows you brush past aren't just people trying to buy a cheap box of twinkies.

11
erikka
Aug 21, 2007

hey, would you mind sharing your recipe with me? it sounds great! my email is smadaakkire at yahoo dot com. i don't know you, but i found your site thru my friend kelli's site and now read you regularly. i have a friend moving to san fran who i also recommended your site. cheers!

erikka
http://theextraordinaryeir.blogspot.com/

12
Chiada
Aug 21, 2007

I am soooo with Bethany on the "Walmartized" thing. Ugh. I've only been to one Chinatown, and that was in Portland, OR. And I didn't get to see much of it because we went there at night for dinner, which was awesome, of course.

Love the post and the photo - it is very neatly arranged with the colors and all. It also cracks me up how some people call it "coriander" and others call it "cilantro". Same thing, isn't it? Well, at any rate, mmmmmmmm, sounds good. Love love love Indian, Thai, Asian food. Anything curry. Cheers!

13
DM
Aug 21, 2007

Is coriander the same thing as cilantro? It can't be...I was thinking I might need to try some coriander and I hate cilantro. Sigh. I think I would like to visit any part of Chinatown, just to see it outside of Big Trouble in Little China.

14
rosie
Aug 21, 2007

Speaking of touristy Chinatown crap, my mother, having just been in San Fran last week, showed up at my house this weekend with TWELVE cutesy kimono wine bottle covers.

I think she might have been one of those housewives on Grant Street :)

15
Diane
Aug 21, 2007

Love the table and the lamps! I have a similar vase and I have couple of girlfriends that covet it - and I must search them every time they leave the house.

I love fresh coconut - on almost anything. However don't waste the coconut milk as it great to mix in with curry or in other caribean recipes. It is liquid gold and very yummy! I can no longer have coconut in our house as my beloved is allergic to it. Since I like him as much as coconut - I had to say good bye to ever having the joy of purchasing a whole coconut of my own.

16
Kristin
Aug 21, 2007

Seriously, Holly. Where did you get the cute table?? I want furniture not from Target!

17
heidikins
Aug 21, 2007

Wandering around Chinatown is perhaps my favorite thing to do in SF, and reading this is giving me a wave of homesickness!

18
Ana
Aug 21, 2007

Yum, coconut! You can eat with some lemon and chili powder. So refreshing!

19
Lisa
Aug 21, 2007

I'm new to your blog and it was fun reading this because as soon as you said Chinatown I was like "ooooh another New Yorker!" then realized there is a Chinatown in Toronto (where I'm from). And... in... every city. There should be a Chinatown SHOW DOWN. See which city could be most Chinese! I vote either Beijing or Dublin.

20
ScottsdaleGirl
Aug 21, 2007

Coconut is the devil. I say just smash the bejebus out of it and smile a smug little grin.

21
Luisa
Aug 22, 2007

Lovely, lovely post. I feel the same way when I get to Chinatown here in NYC. Wishing I could spend more time there and get someone - anyone! - to let me in on the language so that I don't feel like I'm sticking out like such a sore thumb...

22
superblondgirl
Aug 22, 2007

I love me a Chinatown, too, or any of those Asian markets that are springing up around here lately (casinos make for an influx of other cultures, esp. Chinese, for some reason). Going there with a kid helps, I think - the people always smile at his amazement at the fish on ice, the fruits he doesn't recognize, the aisles of fascinating candy. Also, 5 year old + coconut + hammer = bliss. We have so much fun with coconuts, even though scraping the meat out is always such a bitch for me. I know I'm doing something wrong there, but I've never figured out what.

23
laurenkie
Aug 22, 2007

I'm from South Africa, and we have to go and buy Winegums and proper Marmite from the South African shop. Good thing Australia has Cadbury's though. They even have flavours I've never heard of. Rocky Road? Rocky Road CHOCOLATE? What the heck are they even talking about?

24
laurenkie
Aug 22, 2007

I'm from South Africa, and we have to go and buy Winegums and proper Marmite from the South African shop. Good thing Australia has Cadbury's though. They even have flavours I've never heard of. Rocky Road? Rocky Road CHOCOLATE? What the heck are they even talking about?

25
laurenkie
Aug 22, 2007

oops. sorry, double post. >

26
smoness
Aug 22, 2007

Oh, I know what you mean. We had some friends invite themselves over for tonight; and I couldn't be more ecstatic that they did because it made me reorganize surface tops. And it gave me another excuse to vacuum... =)

27
Heather B.
Aug 22, 2007

I discovered pocky yesterday and suddenly I feel your pain.

28
molly
Aug 22, 2007

Pocky is good sh*t for sure!
If you get adventorous/brave/bored, I'd recommend checking out Oakland's Chinatown. It's been ages since I've been there, but my grandmother looooooved it and used to take us out for dim sum and we'd have these awesome dinners at crazy lacquered places and the parade on Chinese New Year is INSANE...I can't vouch for the shopping or vendors, but it's totally worth a BART-jaunt.

29
metalia
Aug 23, 2007

Um, yes...I do believe I'm drooling. This was not the post to read on an empty stomach. ;)

30
Pam in SC
Aug 24, 2007

What to do with coconut? Pina Colada!

31
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