Last December, well before the pandemic, a Greenwich Village restaurant called Lucky Lee’s closed, after less than a year in business. Its opening had been followed by deserved public outrage over its marketing campaign—Lucky Lee’s proprietor, an influencer-type nutritionist, claimed that the restaurant’s Chinese food was different from the rest in that it was “clean” and “healthified.”
Chinese food has long been misunderstood in this country, and the coronavirus hasn’t helped. Bigots have perpetuated an unsubstantiated claim that the virus arose from a wet market in Wuhan. “They have these markets where they were eating raw bats and snakes,” said the Fox News anchor Jesse Watters on air. “They are very hungry people.” Anti-Chinese sentiment is surging as our own President has assigned the virus a nationality. This troubles Lucas Sin, the chef at Junzi Kitchen, a fast-casual mini-chain that serves rice and noodle bowls and stuffed wraps known as bings,hg0088 with three locations in Manhattan. In March, after New York’s restaurants were ordered to close their dining rooms, Sin designed a tasting menu, available for pickup or delivery, entitled “Chinese Food Is Good for You,” which included chicken broth perfumed with apricot kernel and red dates, and yams stewed in osmanthus tea.
hg0088It was the first in a series he’s calling “Distance Dining: A Crisis Delivery Pop-Up.” Before the shutdown, Sin, who grew up in Hong Kong, had been hosting ticketed dinners featuring elaborate seven-course meals that examined Chinese food culture and history. (For one, he re-created the famous meal that Nixon ate during his 1972 visit to Beijing.) The weekly “Distance Dining” dinners comprise a more manageable three courses, cooked but cold—to demonstrate how to heat each dish at home, Sin logs on to Instagram Live.
On a recent Friday night, I watched as he mixed a cocktail with gin and calamansi-flavored sparkling water. Sin had enlisted his colleague L. J. Almendras, Junzi’s “food designer,” who is Filipino, to collaborate on a menu that explored the culinary influence of Chinese immigrants on the Philippines. I dug my chopsticks into a tangle of pancit palabok—chewy rice noodles slick with shrimp-head sauce and laced with tender beech mushrooms, smoked herring, and chicharrónes—as Sin explained that the word pancit, which means “noodle” or “noodle dish” in Tagalog, comes from the Hokkien for “convenient food.” Almendras suggested using a stovetop to heat the arroz caldo, a rice porridge they’d made with rooster stock, to get it boiling hot. The porridge’s Spanish name is a reflection of centuries of forced European rule, but the dish had arrived by way of China: it was congee.
hg0088A week later, I gnawed on pork ribs in a black-bean-char-siu glaze, topped with a green mojo sauce that Sin had made with Junzi’s Puerto Rican culinary director, Anthony Nichols. On Instagram, Sin pointed out, excitedly, that there’s a fine line between mojo, which consists of cilantro or parsley chopped with garlic and salt in olive oil, and the ginger-scallion sauce often served with Chinese barbecue. Both chefs had grown up eating bread pudding, so it was an obvious choice for dessert, soaked in coconut cream and studded with golden raisins.
Because Junzi has investors and suppliers in China, Sin and his colleagues saw, to some degree, what was coming. “After a couple of weeks,” Sin said, “people who are ordering food go a little crazy. It’s less, ‘Hey, I’m gonna help out my favorite restaurants because they’re having a tough time,’ and more, ‘What’s new?’ Just because there’s a crisis doesn’t mean you can’t cook creatively.” Sin was ten years old in 2003, during the SARS epidemic, and the fact that his memories of the lockdown in Hong Kong are hazy, and even happy, makes him optimistic. In addition to offering “Distance Dining,” plus an à-la-carte takeout menu, Junzi is delivering daily meals to health-care workers, funded by donations. In early March, Sin’s parents suggested that he fly home, where things seemed safer. “I can’t leave,” he told them. “I have too much to do.” (“Distance Dining” dinners $28.) ♦
A Guide to the Coronavirus
- How to practice social distancing, from responding to a sick housemate to the pros and cons of ordering food.
- How the coronavirus behaves inside of a patient.
- Can survivors help cure the disease and rescue the economy?
- The long crusade of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the infectious-disease expert pinned between Donald Trump and the American people.
- The success of Hong Kong and Singapore in stemming the spread holds lessons for how to contain it in the United States.
- The coronavirus is likely to spread for more than a year before a vaccine is widely available.
- With each new virus, we have scrambled for a new treatment. Can we prepare antivirals to combat the next global crisis?
- How pandemics have propelled public-health innovations, prefigured revolutions, and redrawn maps.
- What to read, watch, cook, and listen to under coronavirus quarantine.