Restaurants, Tea Shops Bring Pieces of Chinese Culture to New York City

Some business owners in New York are encouraging customers to try traditional Chinese food and drink.

By Caroline Hroncich and Tiana Hunt

Fortune cookie at Szechuan Garden Restaurant in New York City. (Photo by Caroline Hroncich)

There are a variety of Chinese restaurants in New York City. From storefronts touting grab-and-go dishes to sit-down restaurants and tearooms — Chinese cuisine is easily accessible in many neighborhoods.

While some dishes remain true to Chinese roots, others have become more Americanized. For example, in the United States many Chinese restaurants give fortune cookies to the customers at the end of a meal. But fortune cookies are not traditionally Chinese. In China, Chinese people often eat a slice of orange after their meal.

Szechuan Garden, a Sichuan restaurant located on 105th and Broadway in Morningside Heights is an example of this dilemma. Eric Xu, the owner and general manager of Szechuan Garden, said he tries to provide his customers with the opportunity to taste both traditional Chinese dishes and their Americanized counterparts. He emigrated to the United States from China three and a half years ago.

Xu said Chinese customers often prefer dishes such as pickled cabbage fish filet, beef with cabbage, hot and spicy lamb chops, and the crispy lamb. Water spinach and snow pea soup are also very popular. Regardless, Xu said, he always tries to push customers out of their comfort zone by encouraging them to try new dishes.

“The American customers they come here for sweet and sour chicken but I always force them to try new Chinese food,” said Xu.

Ye Zhang, a waitress at Szechuan Garen said she thinks American customers and Chinese customers have different tastes when it comes to Chinese cuisine. While Chinese customers tend to prefer spicier foods like fish filets roasted with chili peppers, American customers favor sweeter dishes such as sweet and sour chicken.

Lei Zhou, a customer, said that whenever he is in the Upper West Side he goes to Szechuan Garden because it reminds him of the traditional Chinese food in Beijing, China. “The food at Szechuan Garden taste the same as the traditional Chinese food in China. I love it,” he said.

Shane O’ Herron, 14, another customer at Szechuan Garden said that food in China is very different than it is in America.

“The flavors as well the food that were actually used was much more unique,” he said of food in China. “They weren’t all just beef and chicken and broccoli they were duck and unique type of fish and certain type of meat that you usually wouldn’t see in America.

Chinese Tea in New York City

Chinese tearooms like Tea Drunk in the East Village and T Shop in Nolita, try to bring a traditional side of Chinese tea culture to Manhattan. Both stores offer Chinese tea tastings, where hand cut tea leaves are steeped multiple times in order to bring out different layers of the tea’s flavor.

Shunan Teng, the owner of Tea Drunk, and Theresa Wong, the owner of T Shop, both travel throught various countries in Asia to work with local farmers and collect tea for their stores. This not only allows Wong and Teng to connect with farmers in China, but they said, handpicked tea leaves improve the overall quality of their teas.

According to Teng, good quality teas have aroma, a strong taste, residual taste and body. Teng said she feels tea sourced from local farmers in China does a better job fulfilling these criteria than processed teas.

“Tea needs to know who it is, and what it wants,” Teng said.
Chinese tea lines the shelves of Tea Drunk. (Photo by Caroline Hroncich)

In recent years, however, Wong and Teng both said they have noticed that climate change is impacting both the quality and the quanity of the tea produced by local farmers in China. During a trip to Asia last year, Wong says it got so cold that the tea leaves froze, limiting the amount of tea that could be harvested.

In a report, the United Nations wrote that extreme weather including droughts, floods, and sharp fluctuations in temperature are impacting tea cultivation. According to Teng, these sharp changes have made it more difficult for farmers to abide by the Chinese 24-season farming calendar, a historic calendar that allows farmers to determine the best time of year for agricultural production.

Both Wong and Teng feel it is their responsibility to educate their customers about tea. For Wong, this means teaching her customers about the complexity of tea.

“Often times I was telling customers, tea can be very simple, because it’s just leaf and water,” Wong said. “But it can get very complex because you have so many aspects behind it.”

Teng said learning about climate change’s impact on tea has made her more involved in the tea production process. She said she feels like she has an obligation to the beverage.

“I feel like we have an obligation to tea,” said Teng. “Also, our mission is definitely to [provide] open access to the highest level of tea, to people who otherwise would not be able to access. We hold it to a very high standard.”

Shops like Szechuan Garden, Tea Drunk and T Shop all serve different purposes in the greater New York City community. However, they are much more than just small businesses. These restaurants and tea shops serve as places where customers can learn a bit more about Chinese culture.