Chien Chung Peng from Hong Kong opened the Chung Hing Oriental Mart on NE 163rd Street and Eighteenth Avenue ten years ago. I can't imagine anything even vaguely Asian that isn't on some shelf somewhere in the ten aisles of this sprawling, cluttered grocery. The diversity of foodstuffs displayed from China, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, the Philippines, India, Indonesia, and so on, is just downright staggering.
Chung Hing has got it all: a fresh produce area with bok choy, taro, purple eggplant, long beans, and lotus root; freezers filled with giant hearts of palm, lemon grass, bamboo shoots, pork buns, ice cream, and bags of shrimp; every conceivable food in a can, from cooked jasmine rice to rambutan; wonton skins, spring roll shells, dumpling wrappers, and oodles of noodles made from crab, lobster, rice, buckwheat, and anything you can imagine; live eels and droopy-eyed tilapia crammed together into a tank; implements and ingredients for making sushi (your first roll might look like the cigar that Road Runner hands Wile E. Coyote -- after it explodes -- but it'll still taste good); tempura batters, bamboo plants, rice vinegars, Chinese sausages, Japanese candies, almond cookies, miso soups, kim chees, mung beans, shrimp balls, satés, curries, tofus, ramens, rice flours, medicinal herbs, and Asian housewares galore. If you want to pick out a Chinese video, there's a section for that, too.
Chung Hing is comprehensive to be sure, but it isn't particularly well-organized. You might spend fifteen minutes picking out just the right soy sauce and sesame oil in one place, only to stumble across another dozen varieties later on in two different parts of the store. On the bright side, this only heightens the sense of discovery that dominates the shopping here. I discovered, among other things, dried yuk-jok slices, pickled banana buds, spicy fried gluten, vegetarian "mock" cuttlefish, a can of grass-jelly drink, and all sorts of things that I'll never purchase.
Some things that I do purchase: Maesri brand Prik Khing curry paste -- follow the directions on the side of the small green can and you can enjoy a dinner that rivals that of your favorite Thai restaurant; tea flavored with vanilla and smoked plum or chrysanthemum; lychee blossom honey; Café du Monde chicory coffee from New Orleans (I have no idea why this is here, but it's delicious and not that easy to find); green-apple bubblegum from Japan; melon-flavored soy milk (I'm not kidding -- tastes like a honeydew Creamsicle); and, most of all, anything from the take-out food counter in the back of the store, where barbecued ducks and chickens are cooked up each day by a veteran Hong Kong chef, who also roasts a whole pig on a vertical spit in the kitchen. Seeing the whole birds hanging from hooks and then watching as workers take them down and hack them with a cleaver into neat portions to go, is as close to a real Chinatown experience as you're going to get in this city. I mean other than shopping at Chung Hing itself.
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