As a child, my family ate Chinese food regularly. I grew up near a HSF, which was known for its excellent Chinese-American cuisine. I remember a lot of egg rolls, spare ribs, lemon chicken, egg drop and wonton soups with those deep fried crispy strips—standard Chinese-American fare.
My father loved the foods of a traditional Chinese New Year. A few times, during Chinese New Year we went to a different Chinese restaurant on Madison avenue to celebrate and enjoy Peking duck. Oh yummy yum yum, what I wouldn’t do for that classic combo now.
My mother organized Chinese food theme birthday parties. One was in the party room of HSF with Chinese food, decorations and a clown. A few years later, in fourth grade, she organized a party at the original Silver Palace in Chinatown, since shuttered. We had the most outrageous dim sum with a table full of greasy plates, girls and giggles. It was the first time any of us had heard of intestine soup or fried chicken feet: we passed, thank you very much.
In high school, my dad and our neighbor Rob Roth discovered the most delectable pork product: cha-shu. It’s slices of tender roasted pork, drenched in a dark brown, soy/sugar sauce. Really, it's candied pork and perfect for a teenager’s palate.
I recall eating Shrimp in Lobster sauce, where the lobster was decidedly absent, over ten ingredient fried rice; or deep fried lemon chicken; or chicken and broccoli or any numbers of other eatables that didn’t make me allergic.
Then in my teen years, and for about 15 years, I stopped going to Chinese food restaurants altogether. I had become a vegetarian, I had stopped eating shrimp thinking it might make me allergic as I have some other isolated seafood allergies, the possibility of cross contamination seemed higher in a wok especially as a few times I found a claw in my Country style Tofu and really, anything that touched chicken and cashew could kill me.
And then, a few years ago, I began a tentative return to the Land of the Wok; only, really, to Ollie’s because it’s one of the easier, affordable options close to Lincoln Center. (I haven’t been to Chinatown to eat a meal in maybe 20 years.) I figured how badly could steamed veggies in a self-cntained bamboo steamer be mixed up with something allergic? To date, I have never found a nut or a claw in my steamed mixed veggie platter.
So here’s my question. As a child I ate Chinese food without fear: shrimp, deep-fried anything, egg custards with lard in the crusts [oh boy, oh boy] and didn’t have reaction that I can recall, nothing hospital worthy anyway. [There are a whole range of allergic response between itchy throat and something that is hospital worthy--so just because I don’t remember doesn’t mean that they didn’t happen].
Was it that my parents ordered well and didn’t get anything they thought would make me sick? Perhaps 30 years ago Chinese food was prepared differently than now? Certainly, cross contamination was always a possibility--but who really thought of those issues in 1978? And here’s the even bigger question: am I allergic to less than I think I am? And/or did my allergies change?
Fast forward to last night. I was heading to the opening night of the South Asian International Film Festival to see Hope and a Little Sugar. A big shout out each to the three guys who made the long wait, for a movie premiere that never premiered, go alot quicker: Nicoye Banks, one of the actors from the film, The Manager and Photographer Phil, who took our pix on the red carpet.
Before the red carpet, I stopped in at the Ollie’s on the Upper West Side and had my usual [my new usual]: sautéed bok choy with fresh garlic and ginger, dumpling sauce on the side and rice.
The sautéing is what make this dish potentially dicey for me—that cross contamination factor is high. Also, the dumpling sauce is all soy, sugar and wheat! Three things I don’t eat but have every once in a while hoping that a tablespoon will not make too much of an issue. And overall, luckily, I've had no issues with the sauce or the sauté. Yay!
So I’m left wondering if these visits to Ollie’s are a beginning, a slow trickle of the return of Chinese food in my life--like ten ingredient fried rice? I think the answer has to be no. There are TOO many cross contamination possibility points and I'm too aware of them. Hmm is this a Schrodinger's cat issue here? Additionally, there is too much wheat flour, sugar and nut useage.
However, the question of how I could eat shrimp then and why I don’t eat it now [kind of like the coconut issue] is one I will need to investigate further.