A Walking Tour of San Francisco: Chinatown Groceries

Last Friday I went into San Francisco to meet a friend I hadn’t seen in over 15 years.  I did a lot of walking, as I always do.  If you want to see more of my walk in San Francisco you can read A Walking Tour of Down Town San Francisco: Angelina Style over at Better Than Bullets.  This post is all pictures of groceries in Chinatown.

Starting with those chicken feet.  A big bin of chicken feet.  As a vegetarian who prefers that animals not be killed for eating I am happy when people use as much of an animal as they can.  But I have to say – the sight of those toenails is about as unappetizing as food gets.  I’d rather eat fried brains than suck on a chicken toe for juices or eat soup that was stewed with chicken toenails.  If I was going to eat a human being – I would definitely not eat their fingers or toes.

What I love best about Chinese markets is how unpretentious they are – there is such a melee of STUFF.  Such a jumble of dried goods and grains and nuts and packages of mysterious ingredients (only mysterious to me, not to the regular shoppers of the markets) and the bins and boxes used to hold all these interesting edibles are always bedraggled and funky.  It may sound like an insult but it really isn’t.  I think this is how people have been shopping for a thousand years before there were fancy big-ass grocery stores with shiny shelves and precious rustic (new) bins for vegetables*.

Like so many shops in Chinatown – the windows of this one don’t look like they’ve had a good scrub-down in ages.  I don’t really know what that stuff is in the window.  Maybe pastries of some sort?  Except that I think they were selling live seafood too.

This fried skin interests me because it still has the ink markings on it.  Waste nothing!  I couldn’t figure out what it originally was.  I thought maybe fish except that I don’t think fish scales would puff up like that with frying.  I have no idea.

This shop has all kinds of packaged up fish.  Are they cured fish?  The fish in the bags in the front here aren’t vacuum sealed and they aren’t dried.  Are they pickled in some way?  Being in a bag on a warm day in San Francisco with no refrigeration makes me think these fish are preserved in some way.  I’ll tell you what – this market was the stinkiest one I passed.  What’s in those jars up high?  Next time I want to explore more closely.

All of these pictures were taken on Stockton Street except for the chicken feet.  Grant Street is pretty much all shops exploding with tourist crap and jewelry stores.  Stockton Street is where most of the real markets are for kitchen supplies, food, and useful groceries.  I think this is sugar cane.

When shopping in Asian grocery stores or Chinese shops like this one the thing that impresses me most is how much dried and pickled food there is.  I think this is because the Chinese have had an established culture for so much longer than most others and traditions run deep – think about all those hundreds of years when there was no canning or refrigeration to keep foods good.  People of all cultures relied on dried, fermented, salted, and smoked foods for getting through lean seasons until the last 150 years when people figured out how to can foods in sealed jars.  While all cultures have a food history rich in dried foods – I think Chinese people still rely a great deal on dried and fermented foods out of tradition rather than necessity.  Who’s going to fare the best in an apocalyptic situation?  I’m betting on the Chinese people both in China and in the United States.  People who know how to make meals from a handful of dried mushrooms and fish and fermented soybeans have a leg up on those who rarely use dried goods or keep much in their pantry.  By the way – if you want to read more about the history of food preserving you should read the book “Pickled, Potted, and Canned” by Sue Shephard.**  I don’t rely on dried goods much in my own cooking but I plan to play with my dehydrator more and explore the potential there.

That concludes my food tour of Chinatown.  I hope you enjoyed it!

*Full disclosure: I love all grocery stores and food markets.  I love those fancy ones too – I just don’t feel the same sense of curiosity when in them and sometimes it annoys me when stores get a little too precious over a carrot or charge $5.99 p/lb for tomatoes during the height of tomato season.  But seriously – put me in a grocery store, open food market, or farmer’s market and I’m going to be in my happy place.

**No one I mention that book to ever wants to read it but it’s a truly interesting read – very entertaining and informative.  It’s not some boring book about making jam.  It’s a book that talks about how the cod industry grew a nation and how salt pork made exploring by ship possible and how dried goods made fighting wars on other people’s turf possible.  Please ask for a copy for Christmas if you like food at all.  I get nothing for recommending it to you.  No affiliate links here and no sponsorship.  In fact, the copy of this book I read was checked out from the library.  (See if yours has a copy)  and as I’m talking about it I realized that I want a copy of this for myself – so I think I’ll ask for it for Christmas.

3 thoughts on “A Walking Tour of San Francisco: Chinatown Groceries

  1. Chelsea

    Chicken feet make great stock. The fried skin is pork skin, the ink is vegetable dye, I think, so it’s edible. And as my mom always said growing up, “you can eat everything but the squeal”. But rather than sounding humorous she just sounded ghoulish, I think, in part, because her father was a butcher, and with 14 mouths to feed, they did eat it all, literally.

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