It was one dìyù of a week – dìyù is Mandarin for “helluva” — watching Laura Sun get ready for her native country’s biggest holiday of the year at Sun Shui, her restaurant in Bedford. Traditionally a week-long celebration to herald the new year and the coming of spring, Chinese New Year is also a time to reflect on one’s ancestors and strengthen the bonds of family. What better way to accomplish the latter than through the breaking of bread? Or, in the case of the highly superstitious Chinese, the breaking of “lucky” dumplings, “longevity” noodles, and “surplus” fish. (Chinese don’t count on fortune cookies for their fortunes, only Americans do that.)
2015 is “Year of the Sheep,”according to the Chinese zodiac, but 30 seconds with Laura Sun and you know there’s nothing sheepish about the svelte 50-something native of Beijing who moved to the United States less than 20 years ago for more opportunity. She’s the consummate host, tending to her customers like a mother Peking duck watching over her flock, whose stick-to-itiveness rivals sticky rice in her determination to defy the odds as a single, female immigrant restaurateur completely comfortable calling the shots.
Like selling her first New Hampshire restaurant venture, Shanghai Osaka, in Nashua, after only three years in business.
“I didn’t sell because it was bad. I sell because it was good,” there’s an irony in her smile. She goes on to explain that, as good as it was, it wasn’t good enough for the concept she ultimately had in mind. Laura Sun banked the proceeds and flew back to China to gather her family, her thoughts, and her country’s astonishing “menu” of regional dishes, dishes largely unknown by Americans. For two months her culinary excursion, hither and yon, through city and village, took her taste buds back to their Asian roots and only made her passion that much stronger, to share the experience with members of her “extended” family in the United States.
By all accounts, she was on to something — a restaurant that served both authentic Chinese and the not so. Szechuan twice-cooked pork or chicken with sour cabbage side by side with their Occidental counterparts, one named after a venerated Chinese general by the name of Tso, i.e. General Tso’s Chicken, and Pork Lo Mein. There’s a respectable cadre of Korean and Japanese specialties on the menu, too, including sushi.
“I love food,” declares Laura Sun, “and so do Americans. But they don’t know real Chinese food, only Americanized kind. I want them to taste my country.”
And that’s exactly what they’ve have been doing since Sun Shui opened in October of 2014 at 410 South River Road in Bedford, thanks to Laura Sun’s vision and smarts. Starting with the name. A lucky name, I’m told, “shui” meaning water on the mountain, the image of which is thought to bring good fortune. Laura cleverly combined it with her surname, Sun, “doubling her luck.”
She laughs deeply, a bit of a comedian sharing an inside joke. I think she’s laughing all the way to the bank. Come on. Two highly talented chefs certified in China? Genius. Weekly forays to one of New England’s biggest Chinese grocery stores for the freshest, most exotic and authentic ingredients? Very smart. The careful planning and execution of not one but two specialized reservation-only, Chinese New Year celebrations? One for the Chinese and Chinese-American community with deeply symbolic fare and another, more casual, for a more American-centric palate.
Very ambitious, both sold out.
This might be as good a time as any to say I’ve “woked” around the kitchen a few times in my epicurious life attempting to recreate both Americanized and authentic Asian dishes. Every December 31, I spend a good part of the day at one of Nashua’s many Asian markets buying all sorts of strange and wonderful things to cook up for friends. I’ll usually indulge in a little too much sake, plum wine, or Thai beer, and make a three or four course meal which I insist must be eaten around the coffee table in my living room, sitting on pillows. I’ll make homemade ground pork sausage with minced leeks, hot peppers, and sesame then stuff pre-made won-tons in rich broth. Thai basil chicken and green curried shrimp rice with mango coconut sorbet for dessert. One year I made Szechuan tofu with fermented black bean sauce and long green beans.
Nothing, absolutely nothing I’ve ever shopped for, or made, compared to the day I spent with Laura Sun and her friend, Judy Yang, shopping at C-Mart in Boston’s Chinatown as Laura Sun prepared for Sun Shui’s Chinese New Year. Neither the two-hour drive in bumper-to-bumper traffic or the streets reduced to one-lane mazes with 10-foot snow mounds could dampen this foodie geek’s sense of adventure. Heck, with “food tourism” accounting for $12 billion in sales by U.S. consumers alone, what better tour or tour guide could I find in my own back yard for the taking?
I mentioned in my opening that New Year is China’s biggest holiday. Apparently, every Chinese immigrant and Chinese-American decided to hit the grocery store the same day we did. It only added to the already insane but jovial experience as shoppers, along with fellow restaurateurs, plied the colorful, jam-packed aisles for what seemed an infinite variety of those auspicious foods to feed their families and customers.
Take the dumpling, for example. Formed to resemble money, the more dumplings you eat, the richer you will become. You would need an encyclopedia to categorize all the different sizes and fillings for dumplings but suffice it to say that Laura Sun is such a purist that instead of buying the ready-made kind, enough to sink a fleet of sampan, she bought, instead, 50 pounds of rice flour for the restaurant to make the dumpling dough from scratch. Paper thin and not at all easy to do. The pinched crescents – luckier still – are stuffed with, among other tasty bits, exotic dried mushrooms, shredded pork, and special peppers she has flown in from a special grower. It is customary to call, “Zhāo cái jìn bǎo!” when stuffing yourself with New Year dumplings, which is to explain that you are merely “bringing in wealth and treasure.”
Let’s talk noodles. Story goes, the longer the noodle, uncut, the longer the life. Laura Sun was going to make damn sure her customers were going to live a long, long life judging by the cases she bought including a Korean crowd-pleaser, sweet potato noodles.
As for the fish, she chose flounder, fish with eyes close together. The Chinese word for fish, yú, coincidentally sounds like the Chinese word for surplus, so that must be a very good sign indeed as far as New Year’s foods go. Steamed, boiled, braised with broth and/or hot sauce, tradition holds that it should be eaten last with some left over as a symbolic gesture acknowledging the hope that one’s fortune will last until the end of the year and into the next.
I felt very lucky indeed, just to be with Laura Sun in what felt like a completely foreign land with a woman so fluent in the language, the language of Chinese food. And what does this passionate woman love more than serving it? Talking to people about it. Anyone who will listen. Her cart is brimming with treasure. “Look! Just look at long, green beans?” she thrusts them towards me as if a gift. “You like, right?” Before I can answer she says, “Chinese way the best.” Peppers. All colors. Mostly of a hot variety. “Peppers very, very, very important to Chinese cooking.” She is dead serious. I nod as if on command and then it’s off to the dried mushroom aisle. An entire aisle. Seems as long as a football field. “So many kinds,” she sighs, as if recalling their names would overwhelm me. She’d be right.
After settling her account she barrels out the door with the loaded cart followed by an employee with a hand truck stacked to the top with cases of noodles, broth, and other goodies. I wonder how it’s all going to fit but it does. Still, there’s one more stop. A Chinese novelty shop where she buys beautiful decorations to dress Sun Shui up for the holidays. Ornate, red lanterns with tassels and caricatures, “Year of the Sheep” signs to post on the door, and the special red envelopes traditionally given to family with money enclosed.
Single and without children, she tells me her employees are her dear family and they deserve gifts in appreciation. “I want you to pick out a red lantern for your home,” she insists, “Anyone you like.” I choose a small one, she’s been so generous already, and thank her with all my heart. After all I’ve learned about Laura Sun and her lucky restaurant, Sun Shui, I think I’m going to be celebrating Chinese New Year all year long. Pass the dumplings.
About The Barking Tomato: Carolyn Choate loves to chew on food. Literally and figuratively. In the kitchen from her garden in Nashua or her favorite market, a restaurant across town or across the globe. When not masticating, Carolyn is likely swilling wine or spirits as neither is far from her heart – or lips. Forget diamonds and Louboutins, she’d rather blow a wad on Pinot Noir and grass-fed filet with fresh sautéed morels. And write about it. You taste the picture: The “Barking Tomato” aspires to push your “foodie” button. Carolyn’s day job is producing local affairs programming for WYCN-CD. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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