A sweet and sour history of Boston's Chinatown

This ethnic enclave is home to the third largest Chinese community in the US, yet it's little explored. Kate Simon takes a new culinary tour to gain a rare insight
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The Independent Travel

The tale about New York's hotels being almost full in the run-up to Christmas and therefore prohibitively expensive has been well reported. Consequently, other east-coast cities are mopping up the excess of transatlantic visitors eager to cash in on the weak dollar, including compact, walkable Boston, which offers mall-phobic Brits street-side shopping along pleasant avenues of 19th-century town houses.

But a trip to Boston shouldn't be confined to the boutiques on Newbury Street or the bargains at Filenes Basement. The home of the American Revolution and a centre of anti-slavery activity, this city has more than enough non-retail diversions to tempt the fleeting visitor away from the cash registers for an hour or two. Now joining the panoply of trails on offer is a new culinary tour of little-explored Chinatown, which not only provides a tasty introduction to Far Eastern cooking but also an insight into the city's rich history of immigration.

For the Chinese fare served up in Boston and the stories of the people who brought it to the city are inexorably linked, as our tour leader, Jim Becker of Food Tours of Boston, reveals. A professional chef, former restaurateur and lifelong student of all things Asian, fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese, Jim is well placed to describe the flavours we will encounter and put them in their social context on this morning-long tour.

Our small group assembles on the plaza at the edge of the neighbourhood, a part of the new Rose Kennedy Greenway which has been designed in Asian style, coloured red and set with bamboo and waterfalls. Jim kicks off with a palatable history lesson. "The ground we are standing on was once tidal flats," he explains, at once pointing out that the effect of immigration on the city has been so profound it has even altered the topography. For in the mid-19th century two of Boston's three hills had to be levelled to fill in swamps and solve a land crisis caused by the huge influx of incomers, doubling the size of the city.

The Chinese, however, were not among the first to settle in this east-coast port, Jim tells us, charting their movement in the late 1800s from the west coast to Massachusetts via the railroads that they built. He reveals that their role as strikebreakers at a shoe factory in nearby New Adams won them few friends, yet tells us many stayed, arriving by train in Boston at South Station, just around the corner, in 1875.

Jim leads us into Beach Street, Chinatown's main drag and so called because this was once the waterfront. We stop at Hing Shing Pastry. It's Sunday morning and the shop is packed, but our intrusion is tolerated by the staff as Jim shows us the wooden mould used for moon cakes, a favourite Chinese sweetmeat, and buys a few for us to try stuffed with mixed nuts. He explains that the Chinese devised the method of steaming pastries to solve the problem of a lack of fuel to fire ovens.

We head on, passing Wings Live Poultry, its window dressed with ducks suspended from their beaks, trays of pigs' intestines, and white chickens that have been poached with aromatic herbs and spices. Some of the group turn as pallid as the chickens. Jim tells us that most Chinese food served in the US is Cantonese, from the south, where most of the immigrants came. They prefer to stir fry, roast and steam. Wok, it turns out, is the Cantonese word for the open pot they use, and etymologists debate that the term "ketchup" is a melding of two Cantonese words.

Around the corner on Harrison Street, we call in at Nam Bac Hong Herbs, a pharmacy packed with herbal remedies for everything from pimples to the menopause. Then Jim dips into the Hong Kong Eatery to buy us some cha siu roast pork basted in soy sauce and honey before showing us the multicoloured delights of Bao Bao Bakery, a Taiwanese shop which also serves Bubble Tea, a teeth-tingling concoction of tea, honey, condensed milk and tapioca.

Harrison Street is one of the main roads where the Chinese settled in the late 1800s, along with Beach and Oxford Streets. But those first Chinese who arrived on the train made their home with the resident Syrians on Oliver Place, now called Ping On Alley. Jim takes us to see the drab little street with no mark to highlight its significance.

We get back on the food trail and call in at Eldo Candy House, an unusual sweet shop to Western eyes with its pots of dried fish and candied fruits. And we pass by Lu's Sandwich Shop, a Vietnamese shop selling subs stuffed with pts and pickles at $2 a time to more Westernised palates.

The last stop before we tackle the etiquette of a dim sum lunch in a local restaurant is a tour of a supermarket, where Jeff tutors us on the produce. A young woman admires his description of the different melons on sale. "That's a very nice explanation," she smiles.

But most customers look bewildered by our presence. Perhaps today's Chinese community doesn't expect such interest in its culture. After all, there is nothing visually extraordinary about Boston's Chinatown. Only the Chinatown Gate, a traditional paifang, offers some visual relief in an otherwise grubby network of streets. And even that took the Bostonians a few years to erect; Jim explains it was a gift from the Taiwanese in the 1970s and stayed in its box until the 1980s lest it strain the diplomatic relations being forged by Nixon and China's rulers.

The third largest Chinatown in the US seems to have been rather neglected by the city fathers. This entertaining tour with its tourist-pulling potential could persuade them to invest a little more in celebrating its existence.

How to get there

BA Holidays (0870 243 3406; ba.com) offers a four-night break at the five-star Fairmont Copley Plaza, Boston, from 524 per person, based on two sharing, including flights and room-only accommodation, during January 2008.

Further information

The Boston Chinatown Market Tour costs $60 with Food Tours of Boston (001 212 209 3370; foodtoursof boston.com). For more about the city, contact the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau (001 617 536 4100; bostonusa.com).

Further reading Find out about the greening of Boston in 'The Big Dig' by Dan McNichol and Andy Ryan (Silver Lining)