A Beginner's Guide to Chinatown, NYC
It’s not the kind of place you stop into on a tired Wednesday afternoon post-work; it’s where you go on a lazy Saturday afternoon post-brunch in the Lower East Side, when you’re feeling grounded and ready to get down with some serious bustle. And, that’s exactly what I did, after a macrobiotic inspired brunch surrounded by beautiful people at Dimes, I set off into some of NYC's most interesting, albeit dustier, streets. I only made one mistake: never wear white shoes in Chinatown.
First stop, dried herbs! Every block is stationed with numerous herbal dispensaries -- these are the shops lined with brimming buckets of funny looking twigs and mushrooms. My main advice for shopping in these stores is to not speak much English (at least not overly loud). And definitely don't attempt to speak Chinese. My initial inquiry of “Fox Nut, please?” was rejected by a head shake and an attempt to shoo me away. The same went for my attempt to show a photo of the herb, and my awkward pronunciation of its Chinese name quian shi. It wasn't until I presented the name in Chinese characters on my phone that I earned a smile and was lead to my desired bucket of herbs. Success. I continued to stock up on some other Spleen and Kidney strengthening herbs for the season to roast and blend into powder with my fox nuts (lian zi), wild yam (shan yao -- amazing for menstrual problems), as well as some dried cactus flower to brew one of my favorite teas (xianren zhang – very cooling, skin detoxifying and digestive-enhancing). I always make sure to pick up some healing mushrooms to brew into teas and soups: reishi (found in your Sakara Magic Musroom dressing!), cordyceps, and chaga pretty much rule the mushroom world and it's safe to say that I owe my strong immune system to these babies.
Next, I searched for the pre-concocted herbal formulas I needed. This is trickier. Most herbal dispensaries don’t sell herbs in pill form from other suppliers. So stumbling upon Kamwo Meridian Herbs (211 Grand St.) was a godsend. A clean, organized and well-equipped shop where everyone speaks English. They boast a wide selection of teas that are labeled organic along with medical consultations, acupuncture and various Chinese medical supplies. I stocked up on milk thistle seed tea (for some much needed liver detoxification), genmai cha (the ultimate nutty green tea blend), and my morning go-to, top grade Yunnan pu’er tea (a fermented, probiotic, gut healing tea: higher grade, higher probiotic content). I was happy to see that the high-grade pu’er was much less expensive than at more traditional shops where prices are set a little more whimsically. Kamwo also has a great selection of books, including two of my favorites that I recommend to everyone looking to learn some foundational Traditional Chinese Medicine concepts: The Tao of Nutrition by Maoshing Ni, The Web That Has No Weaver by Ted J. Kaptchuk, and of course the ultimate foundational books Tao Te Ching, and The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine. This spot is a must-go for herbalists and Chinese Medicine enthusiasts. It felt a little bit like heaven, and my wallet didn’t suffer either.
Tea-time is always at Teado (145 Hester St). Since Eastern Tea Culture was pretty much invented by the Japanese, I figure it’s a good idea to leave it to them. This is my go-to spot for healing brews in to-go cups, which I have yet to find available anywhere else in NYC. I’ll usually be found ordering a cup of aforementioned Pu’er tea or Chrysanthemum tea sweetened with a little bit of raw honey – one of the ultimate skin beautifying and liver detoxifying teas out there. The matcha, rose and taro green teas are amazing choices for a caffeine boost. The teas are brewed in accordance with Japanese tradition, rinsed and steeped at specific temperatures. 10 minutes of behind-the-scenes-tea-science later and you’ll have yourself a cup of high quality perfection. Keep in mind, it's cash only. The shop is tiny, so if you can’t get a spot at one of the two tiny tables, head directly across the street and chill outside the Wyndham Garden Hotel where there’s no shortage of outdoor seating. If the weather is warm enough to do this – make sure to order one of their Aloe juices, mixed with your fruit of choice – nutritious rarities like red plum and litchi are always fun to try. Their smoothie, slushy and bubble tea menu is enormous if that’s more your vibe – the Fresh Watermelon Smoothie, Green Coconut Bubble Tea and Taro Milk Bubble Tea are up there on my summer 2016 to-do list. Oh, and, they have amazing food. Salads, Onigiri (rice balls) and green tea cakes were scattered on the table next to me -- the menu changes everyday, but everything is made in-house with Japanese precision.
For aimless shopping, its worth a visit to Tony Moly (234 Canal St) to see what Asia has up its sleeves in terms of skincare. In my effort to discover the secret to a perfect Chinese complexion at this quirky skincare haven, I found out the secret ingredient the latest formulas attribute their success to: snail slime. A couple $9 packets of Timeless Ferment Snail Hydro Gel Masks later and you’ll understand why. I also discovered The Pureness 100 Hyaluronic Acid Mask Sheets which quickly become my new winter-dry-skin-cure obsession, and Bamboo Fresh Water Soothing Mist, which definitely deserves a spot on your in your bathroom cabinet, if the thought of absorbing Damyang Bamboo water into your pores gets you as excited as it got me. Most products at Tony Moly are pretty cheap, so you can experiment with all the funky products your heart desires and spend less than you would buying essentials at Sephora.
Dinner was at an under-the-radar NYC favorite, 69 Bayard (that’s the address too). A tiny spot with Sharpie-autographed $1 bills plastering the walls may seem like the last place to eat clean, but they respect your NO-MSG needs, and amongst the heavier Chinese delicacies, it’s nice to be offered brown rice, healing mushrooms, and a giant platter of steamed watercress for only $8.50. For something a little more refined, Mission Chinese’s green tea noodles are always worth the stroll too (171 E Broadway).
And for dessert? There’s definitely no shortage of fruit vendors in the area, but don't expect absolutely everything to be organic. I say, stick to the city’s health markets for that, but Chinatown is the spot for healing, exotic super-fruits like durian and mangosteen! The dragon fruit may seem tempting, but save the disappointment, as NYC doesn't always import the most flavorful variety. The persimmons are worth a try when in season – they tend to be a lot juicier than store bought ones. For something a little sweeter, Tokyo Mart (91 Mulberry St.) has a decent mochi selection and giant bags of organic chestnuts and dates for under $7.
Finally, I recommend ending the day at cocktail-chemistry-lab Apotheke (9 Doyers St), where I met up with my nearest and dearest to end my day of indulgence in my Chinese Medicine / culture obsession with an organic edamame and shiso cocktail. An entire cocktail menu with 100% organic, locally sourced ingredients is the definition of refined alchemy -- after a day in Chinatown, this is the closest to medicinal concoctions that you’re going to want to be for the night.
* Isabella is training as an apprentice of Qi Gong and Chinese Medicine under Grandmaster Hong Liu. Medical Qi Gong is a form of energy healing, a preventative and therapeutic aspect of Chinese Medicine. Prior to training, Isabella studied Eastern Medicine for four years.