I started writing this column on an early Sunday morning. I like to meander around China Alley at that time and on that day. It’s quiet and the morning’s stillness makes it easier for me to hear the quiet humming of the timeworn, but still beautiful buildings. Sometimes in my mind’s eye, I see the stories from their history played out in the morning light. Other times I sense the spirits of the past, fleeting, like butterfly kisses.
That Sunday morning I savored the memory of the time I ran into the spirit of my great-grandfather in the Alley in front of the Temple museum. I peered through a window in the old Chinese Pagoda restaurant in hopes that he would look back. No such luck. But my gaze wandered up to the door of his noodle house and followed the skyline of the buildings along the north side of the Alley. I saw something I hadn’t thought about in a while, and it is a fine piece of evidence of the very early days of China Alley.
I have written about Sue Chung Kee, a prominent Chinatown businessman, in numerous columns. He was the leading Chinese merchant not only in Hanford, but in all the area between Hanford and San Francisco. He established his mercantile store in China Alley in 1890, where he sold groceries and other merchandise and also specialized in Chinese herbs and medicines. I have also mentioned several times that his store was located where the Imperial Dynasty cocktail lounge, itself now still as a Sunday morning on the Alley, is located.
As I contemplated the skyline I was reminded that this particular building tells its own story and it’s out there for all to see. If one stands across the Alley and looks up at the Imperial Dynasty lounge building, you can see the remains of a painted sign. It didn’t hold up over the decades. The sign is not intact and some of the letters are gone, others faded, though some are still legible. But there it is, telling the history of the beginnings of this building – Sue Chung Kee and Son Company.
I turned and wended my way back down the Alley, returning to the Tea Room to write. Once again the magic of China Alley had spoken. My Sleeping Beauties have such history and so many stories. We shall continue to discover them and savor them all.
Before I returned to my typing, I took one more glance up at the door to Great-grandfather’s noodle house and then down to the Chinese Pagoda. For a moment I am lost in a memory of a kitchen with a line of sizzling woks. The memory reminded me of the bounty of summer vegetables waiting for me at home.
We had a box full of eggplant so I’m sharing a recipe for Sichuan eggplant with mushrooms this week. A popular vegetable dish in Sichuan cooking, it is sometimes listed on menus as “garlic eggplant.” The literal translation of its Chinese name is “Fish-Fragrant Eggplant.” Not exactly the most salivating inducing name for a dish, but this recipe doesn’t include fish, nor does it smell (or taste) like fish. The name stems from the method of cooking in Sichuan cuisine is usually associated with the preparation of fish, which results in hot, sour, salty and sweet flavors all in one dish.
There are a few ingredients in this recipe that I have in my kitchen, but some of you may not have them at the ready. Globe eggplants can be used instead of the long Asian ones. If Sichuan peppercorns are not available, a healthy pinch of red pepper flakes may be used. Chinese black vinegar may be substituted with a young balsamic vinegar or cider vinegar. I’ve noticed a huge increase in Korean condiments and spices on grocery store shelves. Although it’s a different animal, gochujang paste could stand in for the Chinese chili bean paste. These substitutions won’t make the dish authentic, but it will still be mighty tasty for you and your family and friends, and in my book, that’s what counts.