I was very excited when my pal Eric—who knows pretty much everything a white dude could possibly know about the culinary wonders of Flushing’s Chinatown—sent me a text confirming that he’d be joining me for Taiwanese food. It got better when he promised that a pair of his Taiwanese friends would be coming with us. And I was even more stoked when he texted “Personally, I’m dying to try the sautéed flies’ heads.”
Yup, sautéed flies’ heads. Why not? If the Taiwanese enjoy sautéed flies’ heads, then I’m going to learn to enjoy them, too, dammit.
When I arrived at Main Street Imperial Gourmet, a Taiwanese joint roughly a mile from the heart of downtown Flushing, I immediately scanned the menu for the evening’s featured dish. No flies’ heads on the menu, at least not in English. But there was a dish translated as “putz fish.” And there were plenty of un-translated dishes, both on the menu and on handwritten strips of colored paper taped to the walls of the restaurant. And we all know what un-translated dishes are: stuff that scares white people. Bring it on.
Several of our dishes were thoroughly non-scary, even if you’re a fraidy-cat little white boy from Iowa. We ate a shredded beef dish with lightly sautéed hot peppers—tasty and crunchy and spicy, but not remotely frightening. We also munched our way through a pot of three cup chicken, which sounded exciting when I read about it online (chicken cooked with rice wine, soy sauce, sesame oil, and Thai basil, served in a sizzling metal pot), but it seemed to be lamentably light on the sesame and basil, and tasted like chicken in sugary soy sauce. Reasonably appealing, but nowhere near as titillating as sautéed flies’ heads.
Things got more interesting from there. We shared an oyster pancake, described by one of our Taiwanese companions as “kind of gooey and egg-y, but with oysters”; it tasted far better than it sounded. The Taiwanese meatball, featuring spiced beef and ginger jammed inside a translucent ball of gelatinous rice flour, was arguably the hit of the evening, despite the fact that the term “translucent ball” is rarely a prelude to great food. And then we ate a dish called “clams with loofah,” which seemed a little bit odd to me—if I’m not mistaken, my sister scrubs her ass with a loofah whenever she takes a shower. And it’s the same kind of loofah, actually; white Californians buy the dried variety at Whole Foods, but Taiwanese chefs sauté them and eat them. They taste like an unusually firm squash. Not bad at all.
And we were just getting warmed up. We ordered a whole steamed “putz fish,” which sounds like an absurdist insult that might be hurled in a Jewish deli. Putz refers to the berries on a certain kind of southeast Asian tree, better known as the “fruit of the fragrant manjack tree.” I am not making this up. The little putzes looked like chickpeas, but tasted like mildly sweet olives.
I never thought I’d say this, but the fragrant manjack fruit was pretty tasty. Don’t tell my fiancé that I’m a fan of the fragrant manjack—she might get jealous, and she might start wondering what the hell I do when she’s studying late at night and I say that I’m “going out to eat.”
Speaking of fragrant, our Taiwanese friends decided that we needed some stinky tofu, served with pickled cabbage. They said that the fermented aroma reminded them of home, but the odor just reminded me of sweaty man socks. The tofu didn’t taste bad at all, but it was awfully tough to overcome the stench—it reminded me of an ugly moment in a crowded locker room at the gym last week, when I was wedged between a old guy who was using a hairdryer to warm his wrinkly testicles and a college-aged guy who smelled like he was decomposing. The stinky tofu smelled just like that moment in my life. I ate it anyway.
And the flies’ heads? Tasty, but lamentably insect-free. It turns out that “flies’ heads” is just a colorful description of a plate of stir-fried minced beef and chives, with a sprinkling of dried black beans that look like dead flies.
So there you have it: Taiwanese sautéed flies’ heads aren’t actually made from real flies’ heads, and the fruit of the fragrant manjack tree isn’t actually made from fragrant manjack. But the stinky tofu? Definitely made from remarkably stinky tofu.
Huge thanks to Eric Malson at Mahlzeit for an amazing culinary tour of Flushing. Even huger thanks to Ann and Audrey for their translations and cultural insights. You all rock.
Main Street Imperial Taiwanese Gourmet
59-14 Main Street, Flushing
Subway: Main Street, Flushing (7 train)