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The Flavors of San Francisco's Old Chinatown

Chinatown in San Francisco | Thomas Hawk via Flickr

One of my favorite foods from my days of growing up in San Francisco’s Chinatown during the 1950s was siu-yook, or diced squares cut from a whole roasted pig. There used to be a shop on the 900-block of Grant Avenue that cooked up on the second floor. A worker would attach an entire slaughtered pig to a chain before lowering it into a roasting pit. Guided only by practice and experience he would always know exactly when it was done. Once raised from the pit, the pig it would be glistening golden brown from head to tail.  It would be quickly cut into manageable one-eighth sections to be brought downstairs. These were hung on hooks behind the service counter. Mouth-watering aromas lingered by the entryway to tempt passers-by. Those lured in would request the weight of meat desired. With a deftness seemingly locked within his DNA the counterman would unhook a section and use a heavy cleaver to vigorously, yet precisely, cut it into small pieces, weigh them and wrap it all with waxed butcher paper. A piece of siu-yook was typically a two-inch square topped by a crunchy layer of brown skin. Beneath the skin was a shiny layer of fat which was followed by a pinkish-brown-hued portion of pork. The siu-yook portion ended in a thin bottom of bone.

Once the customer had paid and gone, the counterman would sweep the residue of the just chopped pork into a waste bin with the edge of his cleaver. A few brisk swipes would do the trick. The cleaver’s blade would get a quick wipe from an increasingly discolored and greasy towel or from the edge of the counterman’s increasingly stained apron and set aside for the next order. 

At home, the squares of siu-yook would be neatly arranged onto a platter and brought to the table. The platter would be placed alongside other neatly prepared dishes. With filled rice bowls in hand, diners would nimbly retrieve their preferred morsels with their chopsticks.

Siu-yook (diced squares cut from a whole roasted pig) | Ron Jung
Siu-yook (diced squares cut from a whole roasted pig) | Ron Jung

My paternal grandfather, Yeh-yeh, and my grandmother, Ngin-ngin, had a one-room apartment a short walk from where I lived with my parents. They often came over

Edmund Wong's paternal grandfather | Courtesy of Edmund Wong
Edmund Wong's paternal grandfather | Courtesy of Edmund Wong

with dinner. Rather than cook in their building’s communal kitchen, they preferred to buy prepared dishes at various shops along their route.

My grandparents went only to specific places for each particular dish. For example, they would only get See-yew gai (soy sauce chicken) from a place on Grant Avenue that never changed its original sign: the Italian Market. Their preferred vegetable dishes came exclusively from the Ping Yuen Supermarket which was also on Grant. Yeh-yeh never failed to stop at the 900-block of Grant for my siu-yook. By the time they had made their rounds, my grandparents would be in possession of a full family dinner.

My father once told me that back in China most meals were vegetarian. Except for odd bits like a foot, neck or tail, meat and poultry were too costly. Fish, my father said, was a treat whenever he got lucky enough to pull one from a nearby pond. He was glad that Ngin-ngin was a prolific gardener and a creative cook.

Ngin-ngin worked in a Chinatown gai-chong (sewing factory). She and her fellow workers sat for hours on end churning out clothing for pittance wages. The women eased the burdens of boredom and monotony by chatting with one another over the rattle of their machines. They especially liked sharing recipes for cooking with ingredients that they rarely or never saw in China. This was how Ngin-ngin first heard about hom-yue jee-yook beng(steamed pork patty flavored with salted fish). In other group conversations the seamstresses would talk in detail about cooking techniques and about how their dishes turned out. Over time they guided one another to levels of culinary prowess that blended art with magic.   

To make her jee-yook-beng, Ngin-ngin started with a good-sized chunk of pork. I sometimes stood on a footstool by the kitchen table to watch her make it. Using a cleaver against a heavy chopping board, she first cut the meat into slices. Then with an uncanny blur of speed, Ngin-ngin chopped into the meat to mince it. Pok-pok-pok-pok-pok was the sound of steel on wood through pork. When done, she placed the meat onto our curved platter with the blue carp design and shaped it into a thin patty. She next placed a rubber eraser sized piece of dried salt fish onto the patty’s center. She followed with fresh sliced ginger and a splash of soy sauce. The dish then went into a pan holding a shallow layer of water. The pan was covered and set onto the stove while Ngin-ngin tended to preparing rice and greens.

I quickly learned how to take a bit of the pork with my chopsticks, dip it onto the rice in my bowl and chomp! A dab of the salt fish, strong and pungent, was next.  Just a tiny bit went a long way. Pork, rice, salt-fish, rice and repeat. It is hard, even today, for me to choose between siu-yook and hom-yue jee-yook beng for an absolute favorite.

Jee Yuk Beng (steamed pork patty flavored with salted fish) | Judy Lee
Jee Yuk Beng (steamed pork patty flavored with salted fish) | Judy Lee

One evening when I was about 14 my father announced that he was going to serve something different for our dinner. It was something that he had never made before, and he was excited to try it. I asked him what it was and he replied, “Sweet and Sour Chicken.” Astounded, I asked if such a thing were really Chinese. His reply was, “Well, I’m cooking it and I’m Chinese and you’re eating it and you’re Chinese, right?”

Cleaver and dish | Edmund Wong
Cleaver and dish | Edmund Wong

Maybe my father saw or knew something. Foods like his sweet and sour chicken along with egg-foo-young, egg rolls or chop suey, while not truly Chinese, had been around in Chinatown for a long time. Eventually, a boom of newer hybridized Chinese fare that includes the likes of General Tso’s chicken and pineapple shrimp have seemingly muscled the siu-yook and jee-yook beng of my youth into oblivion. Along with its food, Chinatown itself has also changed a lot since I was growing up. New businesses, more reflective of downtown or the financial district, have migrated into the Chinese village in which I once lived. More non-Chinese have begun to move in as many former residents who are Chinese have moved away. Italian Market, Ping Yuen Supermarket and the Grant Avenue siu-yook place are long gone. Ngin-ngin and Yeh-yeh have also passed on.

In recent years, a number of talented chefs, among them Brandon Jew of Mr. Jiu’s, have established new restaurants in Chinatown. They say that they hope to rekindle the knowledge and techniques that ruled Chinatown kitchens a half century ago. Their menus continue to feature dishes that some would say are less than authentically Chinese and they also offer dishes that blend old ingredients and flavors with newer or less-than-traditional ones. Still, they say their favorite childhood dishes were those I grew up on and loved as well. When talking about their restaurants they mention history, culture and the legacy of old Chinatown food. They say that they want to preserve or bring many of the old dishes back. More than a few of my Chinatown contemporaries feel that these new kitchens can never be anything like those of our grandparents and parents. Others have expressed dismay at what they see as a “gentrification” of good old everyday fare. Still others worry that nobody, certainly not they, would pay high-end restaurant prices for it.

I, however, find the willingness to revive old Chinatown favorites extremely heartening. It has been decades since my last taste of siu-yook like that from 900-Grant. I have a cleaver and a blue-hued carp platter, but no Ngin-ngin to make anything for me with them. If Mr. Jiu’s or others like it can live up to their own expectations, I would, my own chopsticks in hand, be back to Chinatown in a flash.

Top Image: San Francisco's Chinatown | Thomas Hawk via Flickr

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