Far East Meets Deep South
photography by Chris Thelen
What a difference 11 years makes...96,360 little hours. That’s how long it took me to reach the inner circle of Augusta’s Asian community. Yes, instead of wishing myself gung hay fat choy over an order of take-out beef and broccoli, this Chinese New Year I rang in the year of the dragon with a group of friends that includes my new besties Ling, Kim (holler, Miss Hong Kong!) and Le Phuong.
Say what you will about me, dear readers, at least I’m persistent.
Eleven years ago Madame Editor and I agreed that a column on Chinese New Year would be an interesting piece for the January lineup. I have long loved the celebrations of other nations and cultures, particularly those involving food. So when she served up the opportunity all those years ago to explore the cuisine and traditions of the lunar new year, I eagerly accepted the offer. Little did I know that it would involve my being passed around by a group of elderly Asian ladies like a platter of “pigs in the blanket” at a redneck wedding.
I’m half German. I understand that ethnic communities can be somewhat exclusive. To this day, I believe the only reason I successfully convinced any German women other than my mother to let me interview them for an Oktoberfest article I was writing was they were trying to rope me into joining their folk-dancing club. While I do a vigorous rendition of the Schuhplattler, the non-German half of my DNA does not approve of these types of Teutonic shenanigans.
But I digress....
Recognizing that I might need a little help gaining entrée to the Asian community for my Chinese New Year story, I turned to my insurance agent, a well-respected member of the Chinese American community in Augusta, for assistance. Gene gave me the phone number of a lady he thought would be a good source, largely based on her age (advanced) and culinary prowess (significant). He even put in a good word for me so I didn’t have to cold call. Nationwide really is on your side.
The call went something like this.
Me: “Hello, Mrs. X, this is Deb Barshafsky, the writer from Augusta Magazine.”
Mrs. X: [silence]
Me: “Gene Tom told you I was going to call.”
Mrs. X: [more silence]
Me: “You know, to talk about the article about Chinese New Year?”
Mrs. X: [deafening silence]
Me: “The article that I’m writing for Augusta Magazine? About Chinese New Year?”
And finally, after another interminable silence, Mrs. X spoke. One simple sentence that should have signaled to me that she was the cat and I the unwitting mouse. “I know who you are,” she said. It was downhill from there.
Our interaction involved a protracted account of her husband’s health and, no matter how skillfully I maneuvered, I could not dissuade her from this line of conversation. And I’m pretty good at this sort of thing. As noted above, I was one bratwurst away from infiltrating the German folk-dancing circuit. I once bargained with an Indian shopkeeper so shrewdly that I was able to purchase a pair of handmade leather shoes for one 10th of his asking price. But I could not crack Mrs. X.
After dispensing the infinitesimal details of Mr. X’s ailments, Mrs. X unceremoniously handed me off to a friend of hers—we’ll call her Mrs. Y. I left a half dozen messages over the span of a couple weeks. Someone finally—mercifully—returned my call to let me know that Mrs. Y was on an extended journey to Taiwan. She suggested that I talk to a woman named Mrs. X if I needed traditional Chinese recipes. After I told her that Mrs. X had been my starting point and inquired if she herself could help me, she quickly directed me to Mrs. Z. And Mrs. Z? Well, Mrs. Z told me that the best person in town to help me with my story was her very good friend...you see this coming, don’t you?… Mrs. X.
Bewildered by my spin ’round the culinary carousel, I sadly realized that my only recourse was to once again call Mrs. X, this time appealing to her sense of pride, the fact that her friends felt that her cooking stood head and shoulders above all others. And after much cajoling, she finally (albeit reluctantly) shared a family recipe. It was for stir-fry.
I’m certainly no expert on the Chinese culinaria, but I had done enough research to know that rarely will you find food on a Chinese New Year table that has been divided. Leafy greens and noodles are never chopped. Chickens are presented with head and feet intact, fish with head and fins. Breaking or chopping food symbolizes dividing your luck—a definite no-no if you desire a bountiful new year.
Why would Mrs. X share a stir-fry recipe for my article about Chinese New Year food traditions? Had I become the unsuspecting butt of a joke? Was Mrs. X trying to punk me?! Were she and Mrs. Y and Mrs. Z sharing a laugh over a spirited round of Mahjong at my expense?
I share my tale to provide context, perspective that you need to fully appreciate the depth of my joy this Chinese New Year. I, born in the year of the dragon, rang in the year of the dragon in the kitchen of Le Phuong’s Washington Road restaurant, Thai Jong, being patiently tutored by Ling in the art Asian dumpling making.
For someone who loves Asian cuisine as much as I, manning the dumpling station at Thai Jong on Chinese New Year for our raucous family-style dinner was one of those mountaintop moments. As I struggled to create dumplings as uniform as Ling’s perfect parcels, I couldn’t help but think about Mrs. X. Perhaps she had underestimated this dragon.
The dragon, after all, is the sole mythical creature among the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac. The dragon stands as a symbol of potent and auspicious powers. It may have taken me 11 years, but I got my traditional Chinese New Year recipe.
Actually, I got a whole lot more—not the least of which is the warm embrace of new friends. So to Ling and Kim and Le Phuong, a hearty and heartfelt xie xie—thank you for a Chinese New Year to remember.
Deb’s Top-10 Picks
Number 1: Bi Bim Bap at Arirang
Everyone has a comfort food. For my boss, it is hamburgers. For my friend Jennifer after a long trip in a foreign country, it is pasta carbonara. For me, it is dol sot bi bim bap—rice, meat, vegetables and a fried egg, served in a sizzling stone pot so hot that it turns the rice at the bottom of the pot into a layer of crunchy goodness.
Over the years, it has been my mission to slowly convert my friends and colleagues into fans of Arirang. I invite them out for lunch and, as we stroll in, I call out the Korean greeting “ann-yeong-hasayo.” Everybody knows a few words of restaurant Spanish, but restaurant Korean? When we sit down and I smile at the waitress announcing “bae-go-p’a-yo” (which means “I’m hungry”), well, I know I’ve got an interested audience. And by the time they make their way to that scorched layer of rice on the bottom of the stone pot (the irresistible nurungji), I have successfully enticed another sheep into my bi bim bap-loving flock.
I have eaten a lot of bi bim bap at Arirang over the years. It remains my Number One pick among Augusta’s Asian eats, eateries and culinary experiences. These other delights round out my top-10 favorites.
Number 2: The International Shopping Experience at Jin Long Oriental Market
Sea snails. Dried croaker fish. Congealed blood. Periwinkle meat. More varieties of mushrooms than most people probably know exist. Mochi ice cream! The Jin Long experience is nothing less than mind-boggling, a surefire way to feel like you are far, far away from home. Whether you have a yen for ramen noodles (you’ll find dozens of varieties) or banana flower or salted shrimp fry, you’ll find it at Jin Long. Park in the front if you like, but the undercover entrance is in the back by the loading dock.
Number 3: The Lobster Spring Roll at Kinja 2 Sushi Express
Kinja 2 on Walton Way is a quirky little establishment: classical music bouncing off the bright green walls, a menu and special board with no descriptions of the dishes. We all know what’s in a California roll and spicy tuna roll is pretty self-explanatory, but what about the MCG roll? Or the blessing roll? That’s what I love about this place—the insider feel. Go early (they close at 8 p.m.) and order the lobster spring roll. It isn’t on the menu, but order it anyway. Trust me.
Number 4: The Godzilla Roll at Miyabi Kyoto Japanese Steakhouse
Another of my favorite “off menu” choices, the Godzilla roll is a savory concoction of avocado, eel and cream cheese. Paired with the Samurai roll and the Surf and Turf roll, this trio is the trifecta of Miyabi’s sushi offerings.
Number 5: The Asian Kitchenware at Kim’s Oriental Market
Kim’s Oriental Market is located on Lumpkin Road, part of a string of international markets that makes a sojourn to South Augusta so adventuresome. Kim’s is a wonderland of frozen fish, fresh vegetables, Asian junk food, sauces, spices and noodles. My most beloved section is the kitchenware aisle. Kim’s sells the requisite steamers and Japanese sake sets; and you can buy chopsticks by the gross. My current obsession is their line of Japanese porcelain bowls with vacuum seal lids. What an utterly civilized way to take a bowl of leftover pho or kimchi to work for lunch.
Number 6. The Bubble Smoothies at Pho Bac
You can order a bubble smoothie at Pho Bac, a Vietnamese restaurant in Columbia County, in a variety of tame flavors such as strawberry, mango or coconut. Or you can live dangerously and try the jackfruit, the avocado, the taro or (gulp) the durian. Andrew Zimmern, the host of Bizarre Foods, has described durian as “food that needs a toe tag.” I’ve tried durian as well—not in a smoothie—and can attest that if you like rotten onions, this is the fruit for you. My advice? Start with the avocado and work your way up.
Number 7: The Sake and Soju at Harvard’s Wine and Beverage
What’s a top-10 list without an adult beverage? Whenever I need a liquid accompaniment to an Asian meal, I head to Harvard’s and troll through their sake selection. They also sell soju, a Korean distilled beverage that is reminiscent of sweet vodka. While traditionally consumed neat from a shot glass, I like to mix up ginger thyme soju martinis to accompany an Asian feast.
Number 8: The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association of Augusta’s Cookbook
The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association of Augusta was chartered in 1927 and is one of the Southeast’s oldest Asian organizations. Their cookbook, Favorite Recipes of the Augusta Chinese Community, includes old family recipes and offers a historical account of Chinese culture in Augusta. Try Ida Tom’s mushroom chicken. You won’t be disappointed.
Number 9: A Quiet Lunch in the Oriental-Themed Garden at Westover Memorial Park
Dining in a cemetery seems like an odd choice for my top-10 list, but I have wiled away many quiet afternoons in the tranquil meditation garden at Westover Memorial Park. The Oriental-themed garden was endowed and created by the family of J.B. Fuqua in 1974 to honor the memory of their son, Alan. It is a great spot for finding some peace and serenity in the middle of a hectic day. Pack your own lunch or pick up cucumber salad and a volcano roll at Takosushi in neighboring Surrey Center.
Number 10: The Loquats in My Very Own Backyard
We have three beautiful loquats in the backyard, fruit trees indigenous to southeastern China. They’re firmly rooted and exceedingly happy in a raised brick planter that forms one edge of the patio. In late spring/early summer, we gather around the fountain and eat the fruit right off the branches of the trees. This past season, we had a bumper crop. Hundreds of loquats that we had to share with the cardinals and mockingbirds because, despite our best effort, we simply could not consume them all. This year, I’m armed with recipes for loquat ice cream, loquat cobbler and, yes, loquat martinis.
Cheers, friends, or as Le Phuong taught me, gan bei.