10 Great Holiday Gifts from New York’s Chinatown
Chinatown is a treasure chest of wonderful things. I know this very well because I’ve spent 40 years exploring its multitude of intriguing shops, many of which have been lost this year to the pandemic, and others now struggling and in need of our support. A reality check: In April this year, 233,000 Asian businesses had already closed nationwide due to COVID, as reported by Business Insider. Here in New York’s Chinatown, several that have survived are small, multi-generational businesses with much to offer. To help them out, I urge you to explore the below websites for quality goods and sometimes unexpected delights. They all make great holiday gifts!
Po Wing Hong is a family-owned supermarket I trust for quality foods at fair prices. KK Discount — in business for over 30 years, known fondly in Chinatown as a mom-and-pop Target store — reliably stocks something for everyone. And relative newcomer Grand Tea Import, opened in 2007 by tea connoisseur Mr. Liu (aka “Teafucius”) specializes in small-batch teas and spiritual goods, all while serving as a cultural anchor for the community. And Wing On Wo, Chinatown’s oldest shop, established in 1925, has a selection of “Playful Cats” chopstick rests tucked away among its porcelain tableware.
Sadly, we could not list a store I dearly love, Ting’s Gift Shop on Doyers Street, because it is not online but I urge you to visit in person, if possible. You’ll find old-timey paper garlands, dragons, and lanterns, all great for table decorations. At 87, the shop’s founder and matriarch, is still working there. Wherever you go in Chinatown you’ll be warmly welcomed.
1. Traditional Chinese Cleaver with Wood Handle
Mr. Li of KK Discount reports this stainless-steel cleaver has become the first choice for Manhattan’s Chinatown chefs who shop at his store. I find it easy to hold and of a comfortable weight, excellent for cutting meats, poultry, and fish as well as for slicing, mincing, dicing, and shredding vegetables. You can also scoop up ingredients on the wide blade and smash garlic with the sturdy wood handle. I mean, it’s just so cool to have a cleaver!
Buy: Traditional Chinese Cleaver with Wood Handle, $29.99 at KK Discount
2. Red and Black Melamine Tableware
In Chinese culture the color red shouts luck, joy, and happiness, and here it is glowing in glossy, durable, and eminently affordable melamine tableware: bowls, plates, spoons and serving pieces. I use the larger size bowls for soups — noodle or otherwise; and the smaller sizes for everything from nuts and olives to edamame or cereal. The snappy, black/red color scheme brightens a holiday table— picture it with holly and candles — or adds a trendy art deco accent to everyday meals. Curate a set for yourself or a friend for the holidays!
Buy: Red and Black Melamine Tableware, from $1.25 at KK Discount
3. Ironwood Chopsticks
A set of personal chopsticks is a must-have for so many reasons. Yup, they come free with your takeout, but using a beautiful set of your own means saving the planet from disposable waste. This rich-brown ironwood (aka hardwood) variety is handsome enough for table settings, but also durable, washable, and endlessly reusable both for cooking and eating. I use my chopsticks to taste stir-fries in progress, or for enjoying a favorite lunch of soup noodles. This is a great stocking stuffer for your besties.
Buy: Ironwood Chopsticks, $9.99 for ten 9-inch-long pairs
4. Cabbageware Porcelain
Wing On Wo specializes in hand-painted Chinese porcelain — plates, platters, tea pots, and more — in dozens of colorful, often historic, now rarely available patterns. It’s where I first discovered this lovely cabbage-motif tableware, whose leafy, layered design dates from the 17th and 18th centuries, during the Qing and Kangxi periods. Is there an antiques collector on your list who’d love an exquisite piece of China’s porcelain history?
Buy: Cabbageware Porcelain, from $25 at Wing On Wo & Co.
5. Purple Clay Tea Set: Tea Pot, 6 Tasting Cups, 1 Justice Cup
This beautifully boxed tea set is made from fine, dense Yixing clay that is naturally tinged purple by its mineral content. For tea enthusiasts just learning the basics of tea serving, it’s a perfect starter kit. In addition to a tea pot and six cups, it contains a small pitcher, or “justice” cup, so called because tea is decanted into it before it is poured into the cups. As any tea maven will explain, this assures that the tea flavor is evenly distributed among the tasting cups, and there’s justice in that.
Buy: Purple Clay Tea Set, $35 at Grand Tea & Imports
6. Kitchen God Plaque
Chinese people believe the heart of the family resides in the kitchen and it’s there that the kitchen god presides, in a little shrine by the stove or hearth. He’s a bit like Santa in that during the year he decides who’s been naughty or nice, and reports to the Jade Emperor before Chinese New Year. You always want a good report so you offer him little bribes — oranges, sweets, or wine to get him a bit tipsy. (Feel free to eat or drink the offerings yourself, in due course.) The god can be a picture, a statue, or a plaque, like this one made of carved wood and beautifully painted in glowing colors. The Chinese characters translate as “kitchen god determiner of fortune,” so gift the plaque to those to whom you wish good luck.
Buy: Kitchen God Plaque, $16 at Grand Tea & Imports
7. Sticky-Rice-Scented Pu-erh Tea Mini Bowls
One of China’s most ancient and revered teas, pu-erh is aged and fermented to produce a mild, earthy, stress-relieving brew said to aid digestion and strengthen the immune system. Often produced with flavors added during the fermentation process, this variety is infused with the comforting aroma of a freshly cooked pot of sticky rice, a beloved drink of the Dai people indigenous to southern Yunnan, where pu-erh is grown. Each paper-wrapped “mini-tea bowl” pod — about the size of hummingbird’s nest — can be steeped to make two to three cups. I drink pu-erh with rich foods, like dim sum, just as my mother did, for perfect yin-yang balance.
Buy: Sticky-Rice-Scented Pu-erh Tea Mini Bowls, from $7 at Grand Tea & Imports
8. Dried White Shiitake Mushrooms
For me, dried shiitakes are a pantry staple. I use them for stir-fries, braises, and soups, and I love the substantial meaty quality they add to these dishes. As with all types of dried mushrooms, they must be soaked in cold water until soft to the touch before using. The soaking water is a flavorful bonus, not to be tossed out. Although dried shiitakes are widely available online, from numerous other gourmet food stores and Asian markets, Po Wing’s recently-launched online store guarantees top quality from a reliable source. A thoughtful gift for both seasoned cooks and curious beginners.
Buy: Dried White Shiitake Mushrooms, $10 for an 8-ounce package at Po Wing Hong Food Market
9. Goji Berry and Red Dates Herbal Tea Mix
We are all in this together, this age of anxiety, a time when a healing, warming, nourishing cup of tea can make a difference while distancing from loved ones. The Chinese have long brewed this anti-oxidant rich, vitamin-packed tea in which goji berries and red dates — considered a superfood — combine for a delicately sweet flavor. The Chinese say “three dates a day,” can help to keep you youthful. You’ll find a tea recipe in every package, reminding you to remove pits from dates before eating.
Buy: Goji Berry and Red Dates Herbal Tea Mix, $10 for a 10-ounce pack
10. Welcome to Chinatown’s Movie Theater Deluxe Snack Box
Chock-full of yummy treats from nine Chinatown shops, this goody collection reimagines popcorn and candy bars as a blend of Asian snacks an older generation of Chinese enjoyed in local movie theaters, now long gone. It is offered by Welcome to Chinatown, a New York nonprofit dedicated to supporting Chinatown’s economy by every means possible.
Snack items include: a mini mooncake with white lotus seed (Fay Da); bubble tea mochi (Grand Century Market); two packs of assorted Japanese candy (Tokyo Mart); lychee rose black tea (Sun’s Organic Garden); mango or lychee sparkling water (Sanzo); dried squid (Grand Century Market); black sesame paste for DIY black sesame ice cream (Soft Swerve); two stickers from the Asian snacks sticker pack (The Bao Bae Shop); and a miniature Chinese opera mask (Leekan Designs). All profits from this gift box will go towards Welcome to Chinatown’s Longevity Fund, a relief fund exclusively for Manhattan Chinatown’s small businesses, so desperately in need of help at this moment.