Last week, I went to Chinatown for the first time in years and when I turned onto Mott Street, I barely recognized it. There were single-source coffee shops and brunch-menu bistros. Nail salons. Vintage clothing boutiques. A few blocks further, I spotted some familiar sights: bins of dried shrimp and mushrooms spilling onto the street, tanks of fresh crabs, a couple of old ladies haggling over a pile of dragon eye fruit. And also tourists snapping photos of the local color? Dear Chinatown, please don’t turn into the next Lower East Side. Xie xie.
I went to Chinatown because I’d decided to cook up some jiachangcai, or homestyle Chinese food. Usually when I crave Chinese food, I eat out because Chinese dinners are multi-dish kinds of meals and lately I’ve been a one-pot kind of cook. But I’d been craving a dish SO simple, SO homestyle I’d never seen it on the menu outside of China: stir-fried tomatoes and scrambled eggs.
This most humble of dishes uses only a few ingredients: tomatoes and eggs. Scallions and ginger. Salt and sugar. Maybe if you’re feeling fancy, minced garlic and a drizzle of sesame oil. It’s tangy, sweet, and savory, with a sticky sauce that sinks into a bowl of rice creating hot, satisfying, delicious mouthfuls. It’s peasant food. Comfort food. Bachelor food. Akin to a plain plate of spaghetti and tomato sauce, most Chinese people can cook it without a recipe—and I’d wager that a large percentage of them have eaten so much of it, they hope to never see it again.
I discovered this dish while living in Beijing and working at an expat magazine. (Curiously, despite a childhood of Chinese food, I never ate this growing up.) My colleagues and I enjoyed daily lunches at cheap neighborhood dives, feasting on an array of salty, spicy dishes. The memory of that food—fresh from the wok, glistening with oil—still makes my mouth water. Xihongzhi chao jidan—as this dish is called in Mandarin—was part of the daily parade, one of my favorites.
But back to my trip to Chinatown. I didn’t need any special ingredients to cook this dish and I certainly didn’t need to make a special trip to the Chinese supermarket. But as I said, Chinese food is at its best a multi-dish affair and if you’re making one dish, you might as well make two. I decided that this Sichuanese celery beef would round out the meal, which meant hunting down a jar of fermented-bean-and-chili-paste called la doubanjiang. I found it at New York Mart, a newish supermarket that’s like a wonderland of Asian food, where I also picked up a five-pound sack of rice, two mangos, and a bottle of Chinkiang vinegar. And now my pantry is so well stocked, I can throw away the take-out menus! (Just kidding.)
Chinese stir-fried tomatoes and scrambled eggs
Serves two as a main dish with rice, or four as part of a meal with other dishes
5 large eggs
2 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
3 scallions, white parts only, finely chopped
1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger
1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
5 medium tomatoes, cut into a large dice
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons sesame oil
Beat the eggs until smooth. Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until hot. Add half the scallion, stirring until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the eggs and scramble them, forming large curds. Remove the cooked eggs into a bowl. Wipe out the skillet.
Heat the remaining tablespoon of oil in the skillet over medium-high heat. Add the remaining scallion, ginger, and garlic, stirring until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes and stir to combine. Sprinkle over the sugar and salt. Cook until the tomatoes have softened and started to release their juices—they should be soft, but not completely disintegrated into a sauce. Return the eggs to the skillet and heat through, stirring gently once or twice to combine. Add the sesame oil. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve with white rice.
PS Thanks to my lovely friend Lee Ambrozy for help with this recipe.
PPS New York Mart
128 Mott Street
New York, NY 10013
PPPS I’ve finally found a great Chinese restaurant in New York City. It’s called Café China and I’ve eaten there twice and am officially in love with the mapo tofu, shredded pork (yuxiang rousi), and Sichuan spicy fried chicken (Chongqing lazi ji)… I’m hungry just typing this.
13 E. 37th Street
New York, NY 10016