The Mysterious Matter of the Missing Water Chestnut

In any grocery store in New Jersey or New York City you can find all kinds of ingredients. The abundance of food varieties is staggering, and we totally take it for granted. It’s inconceivable that you’d go into the grocery store and not be able to find Chinese, Indian and Mexican food ingredients waiting for you to pluck them off the shelf and put them in your cart.

In fact, I wrote about making my own vegan Chinese food on the blog back in February: https://cdeminski.wordpress.com/2015/02/12/unusual-ingredients-homemade-vegan-chinese-dinner/

But I’m not in Jersey City; I’m in Bonifacio Global City, a wealthy suburb of Metro Manila. And none of the grocery stores in all of BGC carry water chestnuts or bamboo shoots.

This is not a big deal if you have a lot of other vegetable choices, but vegetable choices here are more limited (in some ways) than what we have at home, but expanded in local Philippino green leafy veggies which (frankly) all look like variations on bok choy. Anyway…

A few days ago, a friend told me to check a high-end specialty food store called Santis. But that place emphasizes European imported goods, and European meats and cheeses. No Chinese ingredients.

I decided that this situation required me to be a bit radical. There’s a very good Chinese resto in my neighborhood called Sichuan. I stopped in.

The perplexed looking staff wondered why I wasn’t going to sit down for a meal, and I wasn’t putting in a take out order, but I wanted to speak to the manager. In the given tradition of over-staffing, about a dozen Filipina girls started whispering to each other about why I’d want to speak to the manager? Was someone in trouble?

Soon the “manager” came over, a young man in his late 20’s. I explained that I loved the food at Sichuan, and I had eaten there several times, but that sometimes I wanted to cook Chinese food at home, and I couldn’t find the ingredients I needed.

Before I could even ask, he said, “Would you like us to get these water chestnuts and bamboo shoots for you?”

“Yes,” I said, so happily surprised at his kind generosity.

“Do you need them right away?” he asked. Knowing how Filipinos can go very far out of their way for simple requests, I emphasized that I did NOT need them right away, and anytime they could get them would be fine.

“How often do you get deliveries?” I asked.

“Every day,” he said. And confirmed what I thought. If I had said I needed it “right away” I imagine he might have sent a courier for same day water chestnut delivery!

A few emails later, we confirmed prices and I was told my ingredients would be available the very next day for pick up. But, the manager added, the cans of bamboo shoots were “a bit” large, was that okay?

Oh sure, I wrote back. How big could they be, I thought?

It turns out, restaurant sized cans of Bamboo Shoots are pretty big

It turns out, restaurant sized cans of Bamboo Shoots are pretty big

Each one of the cans of water chestnuts in this photo is about 1.5 pounds, so, yes, the cans of bamboo shoots are huge.

And then, I opened one big can, and this is what I found inside:

The real deal - authentic Chinese bamboo shoots

The real deal – authentic Chinese bamboo shoots

I was thrilled! This is exactly what I had been buying in Jersey City, and so I knew how to process them. (For anyone not familiar with this ingredient, when you slice the bamboo shoot down the center, do it in the sink or over a bowl, they are filled with water inside. Then, once split in half, it’s easier to slice them up to prepare them for use in stir fry dishes.)

Incidentally, the restaurant manager told me where I could go and find these ingredients myself. “It’s very far from here,” he said. “Where’s that?” I asked.

Chinatown – in Manila.

I’ve heard of it, and I’ve been told it’s dangerous enough that it’s not a place for me to go by myself, so I have not ventured there – YET. I’m in the process of trying to convince some local friends to go with me, and when I do, I’m sure I’ll have more stories to tell!

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Unusual ingredients – Homemade Vegan Chinese Dinner

As a resident of Jersey City, New Jersey I am so lucky to be living amidst immigrant populations from a variety of countries. In particular because the raw – VEGAN – ingredients available to me in the local stores are amazing.

There’s a special Asian grocery (for locals, it’s called 555 Asian Supermarket on Tonnele Avenue) where I can get unusual and delicious supplies for home made Chinese food.

Here’s a sample of what I bought recently:

Some Chinese vegetables, prior to being prepared

Some Chinese vegetables, prior to being prepared

In the photo above, we have beginning from the top left…

Bag of bean sprouts, rice wine vinegar, Chinese greens

Pea pods, bamboo tip, onions, zucchini

Lotus root, ginger root, garlic, single Chinese green, shitake mushrooms

And upon preparation for cooking, here’s how the veggies look:

The insides of the bamboo tip, lotus root, and ginger root

The insides of the bamboo tip, lotus root, and ginger root

As you can see in the center of the second photo, when I slice the bamboo open (far right) it has these cool looking spaces where the bamboo plant stores water. In the very center of this photo, you see the peeled and sliced lotus root, which also has a distinctive pattern that emerges with each slice.

What’s also wonderful about each of these vegetables is that they have their own texture. Lotus root is firm and crunchy, while the bamboo is soft and tender. Both are relatively flavorless, and take on the spices and flavors of other veggies that cook with them.

Ginger root, on the other hand, is quite spicy and makes a fantastic addition to Chinese veggies. The two chunks of ginger in the photo above are peeled, but not chopped up finely enough yet to add to the dish. I chop ginger much as I would chop garlic, into very fine pieces.

Once all of my veggies are washed and clean, peeled and chopped or sliced as needed … into the pot they go. The most time consuming part of cooking the Chinese veggie dinner is the preparation of the veggies. Lots of chopping.

But in the end…a little garlic flavored rice wine vinegar, some soy sauce, freshly ground black pepper and lots of veggies turns into…

Home made vegan Chinese dinner is served

Home made vegan Chinese dinner is served

Dinner is served!