For a three-month period during my 12-year marriage when my husband and I were separated, I went to live in the basement apartment of a house behind a French restaurant in Hunter’s Point, Queens. Technically, I shared a kitchen with the couple who lived upstairs, my landlords, but I never used it; I didn’t feel like interrupting their happy twosome. They were strangers, and I was feeing low and antisocial.
I spent every morning at my desk, drinking coffee and writing The Great Man, while cooks and busboys came out to smoke by the Dumpsters in the courtyard. I sat at my desk below ground level and watched their feet through the window above me. After I finished the day’s work, in the early afternoon, I walked over the Pulaski Bridge to my old house. Dingo had stayed with my husband in Greenpoint, since my new landlord didn’t accept pets. He barked at me despairingly, questioningly every time I arrived. My husband had already left for the day; the agreement was that he did the morning and bedtime walks, and I did the long afternoon ones. Dingo and I sometimes roamed through the parks and the streets of North Brooklyn for hours. Every evening, I took him home and left him, and then I walked back to my self-imposed exile in Queens, wishing I could bring him with me.
Because I had no kitchen of my own, I dined in the unfamiliar restaurants of Hunter’s Point. I had no close friends during this time, or rather, I had allowed myself to drift away from my friends because I was too deeply immersed in the knotty problem of my own life to be good company, so I ate alone. Afterwards, I went back to my underground burrow and stayed up reading as late as I could. Finally, when my eyes started to cross, I went to bed to lie awake and wait for daylight and wonder whether a person could literally go mad from loneliness.
What saved me during that awful, dark time were three things. The first was the mathematically conceived structure of the novel I was working on, which I stole, loosely, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and which comforted me with its orderly precision. The second was the unquestioned, unswerving love of my dog, and the third was the Thai place nearby, Tuk-Tuk. It became my regular hangout in the evenings. Its vegetable green curry was good and cheap, and the waitstaff was friendly and kind. The simple warmth of the routine – a glass or two of white wine, a vegetable green curry, every night – kept me sane.
Years later, after my marriage ended, when I met Brendan and started to spend a lot of time up in New Hampshire, I sometimes thought of Tuk-Tuk with a funny kind of longing. I didn’t miss that painful, isolated time, and I didn’t miss the place I’d lived in. I craved the vegetable green curry, specifically.
Pork dumplings with scallion-ginger sauce
Rural northern New Hampshire is not known for its ethnic diversity, and its cuisine reflects this. I realized early on in my life in this foreign land, so far from New York City (a completely different kind of self-imposed exile from my sojourn in Hunter’s Point), that if I wanted a Thai or Indian curry or spicy rice noodle soup up here, I had to make it myself. And so, like the Little Red Hen, I did — as well as sushi, pad Thai, and spring rolls with peanut sauce. Brendan and I experimented with recipes, ordered online those ingredients we couldn’t find at the store, and gradually figured out how to make from scratch most of our favorite ethnic takeout items.
If you’re many miles from the nearest good Chinese restaurant and you want pork dumplings, do the following:
In a bowl, mix 2 cups flour (I use 1 cup Bob’s Red Mill gluten-free flour, 1 cup brown rice flour, and 2 teaspoons Xanthan gum; this is very good but not perfect and I’m curious about sorghum and millet flours), and 1 cup hot water. Add the water in three parts, mixing, so you don’t add too much, but it’s pretty much the right amount. Form a firm ball of dough, knead it a bit, wrap in plastic, and let rest 20 minutes.
Mix 1½ lb. ground pork with ½ cup minced scallions and a tablespoon each sesame oil, rice vinegar, and gluten-free Tamari. Stir in one direction only so you don’t perturb the meat.
Unwrap dough and cut in half. Rewrap one half and roll/slice the other into 12 pieces. Then, on a well-floured board with a well-floured rolling pin, roll pieces one by one into 3” sort-of squares. Fill each with a tablespoon of the pork mixture, wet edges with a moistened fingertip, and fold together and crimp.
Add 1 tablespoon of peanut oil to a hot wok and tilt the wok to coat it. Fry 6 dumplings in 1 layer till golden on 2 sides, about 2 minutes a side. Add ½ cup of water, cover, and steam for 7 minutes. Repeat with 6 remaining dumplings. Do it all again the next day with the rest of the dough.
Serve with Sriracha hot sauce, a soy-sesame oil dipping sauce, and
Francis Lam’s scallion-ginger sauce
I make this in quadrupled batches because it’s so unbelievably good, but you don’t have to. The proportions are: 1 oz. peeled, sliced ginger for every bunch whole scallions and ½ cup peanut oil. In a Cuisinart, mince ginger and stop before it becomes a paste. Do the same with the scallions. Put the scallions and ginger into a big, tall-sided pot – the taller the better, because this is going to be a flash mini-volcano. Add a lot of salt and mix — it should taste slightly too salty. Heat peanut oil until it smokes. Pour the molten oil into the pot and stand back. When it calms down, stir, let cool, and put into a jar. This amazing sauce keeps for a long time in the fridge and is fantastic on just about everything.