Flushing, Queens is part of the U.S., but just barely. This largely Asian community is alive with street signs in Chinese, Korean, and Japanese; and the invigorating bustle of residents, businesses, and most of all, great shopping reminds me why I love New York. I also love food, bargain hunting, and discovering new and wonderful ways to combine these passions. So when two of my favorite girlfriends, Grace and her daughter Venus, invited me to accompany them to the recently opened J Mart at New World Mall, I knew I’d struck the Mother Lode.
Originally from Hong Kong, the Mecca of all who love to buy, these two petite whirlwinds are black belt all the way when it comes to the thrill of the hunt. While it’s not absolutely necessary to go with someone who speaks Chinese and understands the culture, for me, it just made the experience that much more fun. For example, Grace explained to me that the bronze statue we admired in the Mall “represents the Chinese cowboy. He’s depicted as a gentle, playful child, much different than the Macho Men of the American West.”
Venus, a brilliant NYU student on summer break, patiently pointed out the different origins of the food available in the vast basement food court. “There are several different Chinese provinces represented, as well as Thai, Malaysian, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, and even Mongolian food we can buy and eat sitting at the tables.” I started to feel as overwhelmed as a cat in a fish store; and I thought I might swoon from all the enticing aromas.
In the end, I got treated to a delightful dim sum lunch at the elegant Grand Restaurant upstairs. I was dazzled by the formal chandeliers, and I thoroughly enjoyed having my chums order from the carts, which are wheeled, continuously around the floor. In this scenario, the offer and acceptance or refusal of the many dishes being proffered is carried out swiftly and without frills.
As Grace explained to me, “We’re not here to chat about our families, just to choose the food.”
If I had to pick a favorite dish, it would probably have to be the bright green pea sprouts leaves which reminded me of Swiss chard, or the little cookie crust tart which tasted like a mini-cheesecake. Perfection!
Having said that, at the end of the meal, there was a mistake on the bill. Grace and Venus were debating in their native tongue whether or not to pursue the matter, when a passing waitress admonished “Don’t let the waiter get away with this; talk to the manager!” The discussion was in Chinese, but I didn’t need a translation; some hand gestures and facial expressions are universal. Our admiration for this feisty senior citizen completed a delightful repast.
There is no reason to ever leave the Mall. In addition to a plethora of eateries and fashion boutiques, there’s also a foot rub establishment, a hair salon, an Apple store, a place to buy green powered bikes, and even a shop specializing in wedding gowns. But the crown jewel, without a doubt, is J Mart, the food store extraordinaire.
If you spend over $30, you can have your parking validated for two hours. The money is no problem; the time restraint is a challenge. In this huge expanse of seemingly endless varieties of food, you will hear not only Asian languages being spoken, but also Spanish, Portuguese, and several more I couldn’t identify. The reason is clear; any good cook knows that it’s rare to find such an abundant supply of fresh, exciting ingredients at such reasonable prices.
There’s the expected; enormous bags of rice ($18.99), are piled up toward the ceiling. Giant bottles of soy sauce ($3.99 for 54 fl. oz.) are so popular that there’s a limit of two per customer. And there are items that are just plain exotic to Americans. I don’t ever expect to see chicken feet ($1.38 lb.), beef and pork blood ($2.39 a container), pork long cut feet ($1.29 lb.) or preserved duck eggs (6 for $2.79) at my local Shoprite.
An interesting cultural fact is that, as a naturalized citizen, Grace is as American as I am; yet in everyday parlance, she refers to Caucasians like me as “Americans,” and invariably categorizes herself as “Chinese.” Maybe it’s in part because she doesn’t avert her eyes from the live turtles trying to escape their metal tubs, or flinch when her Tilapia (sold as a whole fish, $2.99 lb.) is whomped on the head with a mallet. Asian people value the freshest seafood possible, and they expect the fishmongers to kill the fish on the spot.
In fact, J Mart is a thriving hub for nearly every kind of fish. The iridescent tiger shrimp ($6.99 lb.) looked nearly irresistible; I wasn’t at all bothered by the idea of having the live blue crabs ($5.99 lb.) cooked up for my dinner; the prepared lobster balls ($4.59 lb.) looked tasty. And who could pass up those glistening salmon fillets ($5.49 lb.)?
The intense herby smell drew me to what seemed like acres of fresh vegetables. I watched a bin overflowing with bean sprouts ($.69 lb.) accept another bucket load; Grace instructed me to wash them very well, and then immediately refrigerate them in a bowl of cold water; she also educated me to the way that the bunches of Chinese Broccoli could be boiled or sautéed. I learned that Asian people rarely make salad or eat their veggies raw.
On the other hand, Venus informed me that the Chinese are not known for cooking fruit. The gorgeous Dragon Fruit (opening photo) looked almost too good to open, and the sunny golden melons would make a pretty dining room table centerpiece.
We passed rows and rows of every kind of tea imaginable. There was costly Organic Moa Feng Green Tea ($24.99 for 120 grams of loose leaves); the name means “fur peak,” after the silvery down that covers the buds. “It has a nutty hickory flavor, with a sweet aftertaste,” Grace apprised. There was an attractive purple tin of simple Chinese green tea ($2.29), Superb Dieter’s Aloe Vera Tea ($5.99 a jar), and boxed Chinese Jasmine ($2.99).
This merely scratches the surface of what could easily be an all day excursion. John Lennon once joked that Flushing was his favorite place name. If only he’d had the opportunity to visit J Mart in New World Mall, he might have realized how special this area really is.
J Mart in New World Mall
136-20 Roosevelt Ave, Flushing, NY 11354
Photo credit: Venus Chui
Michall Jeffers is an accomplished Cultural Journalist, a rabid shopper, and an unrepentant Foodie. She writes extensively, both in print and online. Her eponymous cable TV show is syndicated throughout the tri-state area, and features celebrity interviews, reviews, and commentary. www.michalljeffers.com