Last week’s blog was about driving to Madison to buy groceries for the Lunar New Year. I let myself get sidetracked about the holiday itself and didn’t write about the food we bought. We filled a grocery cart, so I won’t list every item, but there were fish balls, shrimp balls, cuttlefish, Chinese cabbage, oyster sauce, tripe, pork ribs cut differently from the way they are done in Western supermarkets, New Years candy, and a special sticky rice with grains that were more spherical than long. The store didn’t have any luo buo gao (蘿蔔糕) or turnip cake, so Manyu bought daikon and rice flour to make her own. The store carried the special kind of mushrooms Manyu wanted,  but we didn’t buy them because she didn’t think they were fresh enough. 

There were only two items I wanted, Tsingtao beer and white pomfret, but we didn’t get either one. The shelves where the Tsingtao should have been were empty, and the only pomfret in the store was not the white species, but the far less delicious gold. Just as well; white pomfret is being overfished, and I shouldn’t be supporting a non-sustainable fishery.

Before Manyu and I went shopping, we met Clare to take her out to lunch. Even though Clare is a pescatarian, she knows I enjoy hamburgers and rarely eat them at home. She was going to take us to a good burger place near her office. On the way, however, we drove past an Indian restaurant in a mini-mall, and my dreams of a juicy hamburger were dashed. 

The sign on the door of the Indian restaurant said, “Carryout only. No inside dining due to COVID.”  That didn’t matter, as we weren’t going to eat indoors in a public space anyway. Our plan was to eat in the car, which would have been difficult with Indian food, but the woman at the counter had disposable plates and utensils to give us. The only people in the front part of the restaurant were the Indian woman and her two small kids coloring pictures at one of the tables toward the back. No one else entered while we waited for our food, so the woman told us we could eat inside if we were willing to use the disposable plates and forks she’d given us. We sat down at a table, and she brought us, in addition to the food we ordered, vegetable samosas and bottled water. She also tried to give us more rice even though we had more food than we could eat. 

With a row of steam tables jammed in the corner of the dining room, it was obvious the restaurant had originally been set up as a buffet. COVID had wiped out their lunchtime crowd. From noon until 1pm, we were the only customers to walk into the place, and the problem was not the food. The chana masala, naan, and a spicy rice dish I don’t know the name of were all very good. Everyone knows the pandemic is hurting mom and pop restaurants, but it’s still painful to see firsthand. We left the woman a big tip, but I could have emptied my wallet and still not made up for an otherwise empty restaurant. 

Steven Simpson