Hot-Weather Comfort Food
Rice noodles with spicy pork and herbs. 香辣杂酱米线。
Simone Tong was putting together a bowl of cold noodles, heap by delicious heap — salty ground pork, crushed peanuts, tiny mint leaves, florets of pickled cauliflower — a jumble of textures, lit up with vinegar and chile. It was a simple dish, and one she affectionately described as homey in an earlier conversation, when I told her that it was one of my favorite things, and that I wanted to learn how to make it at home.
At the restaurant she runs in the East Village, Little Tong Noodle Shop, Tong drops glowing charcoal into hissing oil, so that the oil is infused with its flavor. This way, she can add something close to the specific seared quality transmitted by a hot, seasoned wok, even to raw ingredients. She cures, smokes and dehydrates egg yolk, so that she can shave it in frills, simulating the umami of bonito, but with no tuna in sight. The shop seems cozy and informal, but that's only because Tong is the kind of chef who doesn't like to draw attention to her technique; you enjoy the food without realizing how much work has gone into it.
在她位于东村的餐馆小唐米线(Little Tong Noodle Shop)，她把灼热的木炭放进烧热的油里，以便把炭的风味吸进油中。这样一来，她就可以做出一种特定的烧焦口感，就好像是用一口热的老锅做出来的，即便是对生鲜食材也是如此。她对蛋黄进行加工、烟熏和脱水处理，以便可以把它们刮成片，模仿金枪鱼的鲜味，但你却看不到菜里有金枪鱼。面馆看上去舒适温馨，轻松随意，但这只是因为西蒙妮·唐是那种不喜欢别人注意自己厨艺的厨师；你享受美食，而不会意识它们背后费了多少人工。
Tong was born in
Tong is from Sichuan, but many of the flavors at Little Tong have roots in nearby Yunnan, a vast and diverse province, scattered with small family farms. Tong spent months there last year Airbnb-hopping, getting around through China's ride-sharing app, Didi Chuxing, asking everyone she met, "What's good?"
In every town, there was a different answer: tarts filled with flower petals, eggs scrambled with young ferns, fresh cow's-milk cheese dabbed with rose jam, beautiful dry-cured hams, marbled with fat. Tong tried mushroom varieties she didn't have the words for, picked tea leaves to roast and realized it would be impossible to precisely replicate the food of the region back in New York. Instead she improvised, building the flavors of Yunnan into her menu like a guiding principle. "I wouldn't say what I do is authentic," she said, "and I wouldn't want anyone to think that's what I'm trying to do."
To make her version of the pork noodles, Tong ground fresh pork butt and belly and let the meat cook down with garlic, ginger and scallions. She added some fermented vegetables after a while, which gave the meat a level of depth and tang it could never have on its own. The noodle dressing was gently salty with soy, a balanced mix of black vinegar and rice vinegar, softened with homemade chile oil. Tong picked herbs, leaving the leaves whole, so that some bites would be bright and fresh, standing out against others, sharp and sweet and tingling with heat. She piled all the toppings over the noodles, along with sliced breakfast radishes and lacto-fermented cauliflower, cabbage and long beans, then used chopsticks to mix it all up.
When I got home, I tried to make something similar, using whatever vegetables I had around, cooking it differently every time I made it. This could be another way of saying that in the kitchen I can be lazy, and cut corners, and I'll do anything to avoid going food shopping at rush hour, which is often true, but Tong had encouraged me to swap and replace toppings according to mood and season. The essentials were pork, peanuts and herbs, she said, and everything else was flexible.
So I added what was around, what seemed compatible with vinegar-splashed rice noodles: chopped cucumbers, boiled soybeans, jarred pickled chiles, sliced watermelon radishes, leftover grilled corn, shaved off the cob. These versions were all a little different from Tong's, and from each other, but delicious. On a particularly sweaty afternoon, my appetite and energy curbed by the heat, I had all the components ready, so I washed herbs and assembled lunch. It was a comfort, but a luxurious one, like an hour in an empty, cool movie theater on a summer day when the air doesn't move and your thighs stick together and it feels as if the city is melting.