Eats from the East

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WHEN I was young in the city, if you wanted fast Asian fare you ate Chinese. Now you eat sushi. Japan lost World War II, but it has won the grazing war. All the NYU kids and their employed elders eat in the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.

Chinatown used to go from Chatham Square up to Canal Street. The streets there had been laid out pre-grid, and some of them–Doyer, Mosco–had the air, short or crooked, of secrets. There were a few expansive places that rang a gong when the Peking duck came out of the kitchen. But the typical Chinatown restaurant was no-frills. You reached it down a flight of stairs. The fan in the bathroom was coated with grease and asbestos. The urinals stank. The floor was linoleum. You sat in a booth, or at a flimsy table, which, in the suburbs, would have been reserved for a child’s birthday party. Poker-faced waiters–all middle-aged men–took your orders. The tea was pure Lipton’s, plunked down in plain metal pots. Only the table settings attempted decoration. The chopsticks came in sleeves with printed directions for use, whose simplicity was negated by the fact that they did not actually explain how to use them. The placemats told what years A.D. were years of the dragon or the rat. The meal ended with fortune cookies. New York magazine once ran a contest for bogus fortunes; the winner was WISHING YOU AND YOURS A JOYOUS YOM KIPPUR.

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The food was pretty good. It was heavily Cantonese. Until 1965, it was entirely so, since before then immigration from China was practically restricted to the province in which Canton is located. After 1965, immigrants and restaurants began coming from Hunan and Sichuan, though in the days of Wade-Giles, the latter was spelled Szechuan. My favorite Chinese restaurant of the old days was Cuisine of Szechuan, in which I missed eating a whole pepper thanks only to the warning shriek of my girlfriend, now my wife.

Now Chinatown, like Beijing’s influence, has swollen. Little Italy, directly north of it, is a stage set–an opera, perhaps–the streets lined with Italian restaurants and touts. But the buildings all house Chinese. Yet Chinatown itself has become something of a sham. Old women the color of leather still occupy their corners, calling out one dolla, one dolla over boxes of bitter melons or scurrying animate fur toys, but more and more of the storefronts sell T-shirts or other generica, while more and more of the restaurants are Vietnamese or Filipino. The Chinese themselves have been moving to Queens or someplace, but they may also have shifted to other lines of work, for there is now a different fast food of choice.

Unlike Los Angeles, New York has no Japantown, for the Japanese came here after 1965, in the great national open house. So why pick only one neighborhood? Their restaurants are governed by a different aesthetic. No cheesy we-hope-you-enjoy-our-strange-customs hospitality. The sign of Japanese authenticity is table tops and counters made of natural wood. The nation of cars, cameras, and advanced robotics presents itself as an island of samurai Shakers. A few blue-and-white fish kites may not be amiss. Kids of both sexes constitute the staff–young Japanese on their Wanderjahr. Their work is hard because the tables are jammed together like bathroom tiles. Unless the restaurant is very small–and some Japanese places are true holes in the wall–precious space will be consumed by the sushi bar. The establishment makes up for the loss by lining the bar with stools where the patrons cluster like birds on a wire.

The food is good or bad depending on whether you like raw. There are cooked dishes–this or that teriyaki, soups, noodles. But the main attraction is sushi, raw fish or crustaceans sliced and rolled with rice, seaweed, or avocado, and served with ginger and hot mustard. Sushi combines piquant condiments with prime seafood the size of scraps. It is little packages of daintiness and chum. It is the ideal food for sharks who watch the Food Network.

Why has this fare ousted Chinese? Three factors explain the shift. First, the Chinese restaurant was family friendly. Children sat at those flimsy children’s tables (the Chinese ones always behaved). One of the sweet moments of Portnoy’s Complaint is a memory of going from Jersey to Chinatown, where the children of Israel were allowed to eat shrimp, according to the maternal lawgiver. The Japanese restaurant, by contrast, is for singles, dates, DINKs. The cramped quarters mimic the shared apartments they come from. You couldn’t stuff a baby carriage in there. What will they eat when they move to Brooklyn and start families of their own? Probably still Japanese, out of habit. It will be too late to woo them to Hunan Palace.

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Second, Chinese food is cooked. Going to a Chinese restaurant was a night out for people who cooked themselves. No flame touches the dockside treats of Seppuku. Bites of chilled, squirmy salmon or tuna seem like just the thing for people who don’t know how to boil water. If you have to order in, the little take-out boxes look just fine in the cavernous, empty refrigerator.

Third, the form that Japanese culinary dominance takes is appropriate to an age when strange is not strange. Chinatowns, in New York and elsewhere, flourished during the time of Charlie Chan. A quarter of the globe went from pigtails straight to “The East Is Red,” with only the briefest stop at Chiang Kai-shek. Chinese food was enticing, amusing, or unsatisfying, but definitely exotic. Japan was exotic once too, when Toshiro Mifune played in art houses. But now, when every suburban kid spends junior year of high school abroad, and every young hipster grows up with manga and anime, the Japanese restaurant is one more pit stop. Add quick, cold, and uncomfortable, and it’s just like home.