For a good chunk of my life, I didn’t know that there was more to New York City than Chinatown. I assumed that the earth fell off at the edge of Kenmare Street, Frank Sinatra was singing about dim sum, and the Great White Way referred to Mott Street with its rows of fish markets full of pale creatures in white Styrofoam coolers. When I was little my family made countless day trips to New York City, but we never went to Macy’s or saw a show on Broadway. Instead we made a beeline for Chinatown and stayed there. After so many visits, I just assumed that the only thing to do in the whole of New York City was shop for groceries from busy street stalls and eat delicious Chinese food. That was my New York City and I liked it.
The very first visit sealed the deal for me. In Connecticut we prepped for a grand excursion. Dad loaded coolers into the back of the Pathfinder while telling us all about the exotic foods we were going to buy. Mom packed mini sandwiches for snacks and orange juice to keep the scurvy at bay. Mohan and I packed our travel Battleship and the tape recorder to officially document the trip. The ride felt endless. Like explorers on the open sea. Two and a half hours to the new world.
At six years old, I thought Epcot Center was another country. Arriving in Chinatown was akin to arriving on the moon. So loud. So crowded. So different from the suburbs. I was freaked out. But my dad grabbed my hand and we hopped into the stream of people, just as you would enter a vigorous game of double-dutch. And in the same way, it started to feel fun as we got into a rhythm. In and out of shops. Inspecting the dried shrimp and the kingfish. Comparing the prices on the cashews. We bought plastic bags full of fuzzy rumbutan and purple mangosteen and ate them while standing in the street. Rows of spiky durian hanging from mesh bags made us giggle as my parents tried to convince us that they were tastier than they smelled. Dad ran boxes of mangos back to the car while Mohan and I inspected the cheap New York souvenirs. I easily found a “Samantha” mini New York license plate. Mohan wasn’t so lucky. The afternoon ended at a cozy restaurant where we pigged out. Noodles. Seafood. Dumplings galore. After that trip, Chinatown was New York to me. Fun, hectic, and delicious.
I realize now that Chinatown probably felt familiar to my parents. The crowded streets and open-air markets full of fish and tropical fruit were as close to the streets of Kandy as they could get in the Tri-state Area. It felt like home to them. Today Gus and I live right where Little Italy and Chinatown converge. I feel lucky to live so close. It’s still busy and loud and remains my favorite part of New York. And now it’s home to me too.
My parents came for a visit a couple days ago. Their goals have barely evolved in 30 years. We weaved through the streets of Chinatown while Mom and Dad bought cashews and mangos. They inspected the fish markets and lamented the fact that they didn’t bring the coolers this time. Then we ate a giant Chinese lunch. The only change is that now we have somewhere to go for dessert. My apartment.
Coconut Raspberry Cupcakes with Raspberry Buttercream
1 1/4 cup cake flour
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup plain yogurt, at room temperature
1/4 cup whole milk, at room temperature
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup sweetened, flaked coconut, toasted
1 cup fresh raspberries
2/3 cup sugar
3 large egg whites
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into pieces
1/3 cup raspberry jam, heated, strained, and cooled
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a standard 12-cup muffin tin with paper liners. In a medium bowl, whisk together the cake flour, the baking powder, and the salt. Stir together the yogurt and the milk. In a large bowl, with an electric mixer on medium speed, beat the butter and the sugar until fluffy, about 4 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, then the vanilla. Stir in the coconut and the raspberries. Don’t worry if the raspberries break a bit.
2. Divide the batter evenly between the liners. Bake the cupcakes until a toothpick inserted into the center of one comes out with moist crumbs attached, 16 to 18 minutes. Let cool in the pan for about 5 minutes, then transfer the cupcakes to a rack to cool completely.
3. To prepare the buttercream, whisk together the sugar and the egg whites in the bowl of a stand mixer (or a large bowl). Set the bowl over a pot of barely simmering water. Make sure the bottom of the bowl doesn’t touch the water. Whisk the mixture over the heat until the sugar is completely dissolved and the mixture is warm. Rub some of the mixture between your fingers to make sure the sugar has dissolved completely. Transfer the bowl to the stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment and beat until you have stiff, glossy peaks and the mixture has cooled to almost room temperature, about 5 minutes.
4. Reduce the speed to medium low and add the butter, a piece or two at a time, and beat until smooth. Switch to the paddle attachment about halfway through adding the butter. Beat until smooth and creamy and lovely then beat in the jam. Don’t worry if the mixture is loose, it will firm up as you continue to beat it. If it curdles, and doesn’t smooth out over time, apply a little gentle heat to the underside of the bowl. A mini blowtorch works well. Or use a dishtowel soaked with hot water. Once the mixture is smooth, transfer it to a piping bag fitted with a large, open star tip. Top the cupcakes with swirls of frosting and enjoy.