Cai Embraces Fall with Pumpkin Congee and Corn Dumplings
The last place you expect to find seasonal variation is in Chinese restaurants. It does happen—watch Sun Wah, say, and you'll see different stir-fried greens at different times of the year—but to the casual observer, it's the same bell peppers and bok choy month in and month out. I don't doubt seasonality exists in China, but not in American-Chinese restaurants for the most part.
So I was immediately curious when my friend Kenny Zuckerberg mentioned on Twitter that Cai, a big dim sum hall in Chinatown, had pumpkin congee. A fall vegetable! My first thought was, if congee tastes like pumpkin, then that's the first time congee ever tasted like anything. Congee, a thick soup made of rice cooked so long it disintegrates into mush, is kind of the grits of Chinese dishes, warm and comforting but basically flavorless until you do something to it. You can understand its nostalgic appeal as a texture, like Malt-O-Meal, but flavorwise it's a blank canvas.
And with pumpkin, which is to say little squares of orange squash floating in it, it tastes like... congee. Not much more. The idea that it would have a kind of pumpkin pie-nourishingness was not to prove true. But this is your moment to meet congee halfway. On your table is a little bowl of chili oil, deep orange with sludge at the bottom. You pour a little of that into your congee and stir it in... and now congee and squash begin to bloom with flavor. It's the spice that unlocks congee's appeal.
Skimming the picture menu, I noticed another new item which had a fall, even a Chinese-Midwest fusion, feel to it:
Corn, a seasonal vegetable even in a place that doubtless goes through canned baby corn by the truckload. And indeed the usual shrimp-and-egg-noodle-wrapper dumpling became fresh and novel again thanks to the heartiness of corn.
Which points to the real reason that every restaurant should reflect seasonality—because it's the difference between existing in a featureless now where the food is always the same, and serving food that connects with your diners as their lives advance through the seasons, too. For some reason that's what our culture prizes, food that's uniform from Maine to San Diego and from January to July, but you want to believe that a culture as old as China's knows differently. And now, when I spot it in Chinatown, I'll encourage it.