Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Origins of the Hamburger: The First 20 Years (Part 1)

The beloved Hamburger, truly an American creation although its ancestry reaches back at least to the ancient Romans. Its ancestry also includes steak tartare, and although some claim the Mongols might have originated that dish, that claim doesn't appear to actually be true. At some point, a minced meat dish was made in Germany, and the city of Hamburg might have provided its name to this dish.

My intent in this article is show some of the origins of Hamburger in the U.S., and in doing so, I push back the dates of the first known documented references to this dish. For now, this article will primarily deal with documented references during the 1870s and 1880s, the first two decades of mentions of Hamburg steak and Hamburgers. Please note that this article is a work in progress, as I continue my research into this topic, and extend the time period covered by this article. 

I've seen claims that the first printed menu to list a hamburger was from Delmonico's, in New York City, in 1834. However, that claim was soundly destroyed in an article in Gastronomica (Spring 2008), by Ellen Steinberg and Jack Prost. Most of the other burger histories state that the term "Hamburg steak" didn't appear in print until the 1880s. However, multiple appearances of this term actually occurred at least a decade earlier, during the 1870s. In addition, the first use of the term "Hamburger" has been alleged to have occurred in the later 1880s, but it too actually occurred in the 1870s.


The first documented reference I found of "Hamburg Steak" was the Evening Star (D.C.), July 22, 1872, which discussed Thorpe’s, a "quiet hostelrie."  The article stated, “The specialties of Thorpe’s are flowers and Hamburg steak.” Its preparation was a bit of a mystery to the author of the article, who also thoroughly enjoyed the dish. “As for the Hamburg steak, that is a long way beyond my powers of description. But its tempting incense still gratifies the sense of smell, and the memories of its juicy tenderness and delicious flavor will long live to tickle the palate and awaken pleasant associations. How it is prepared I know not, nor whether the secret of its compounding is to die with its present possessor."

The Chicago Tribune (IL), July 6, 1873, had an advertisement for Anderson’s European Hotel, and its menu included Hamburg Steak.

More details were provided in the Brooklyn Sunday Sun (NY), December 28, 1873, which discussed some of the diners, described as the "aristocracy," and their sumptuous meals at Dieter’s Restaurant, which compared well to the famous Delmonico's. One diner enjoyed "Hamburg beef steak” while another had "Hamburger beef steak" (though there was probably no difference between the two dishes).  This is also the first documented reference to "Hamburger," much earlier than most other sources have claimed. This article also indicates that "Hamburg steak" was served to wealthy diners, and that it wasn't just a dish for the common people.

Hamburg fo breakfast! The Eureka Daily Sentinel (NV), February 25, 1874, had an ad for the San Francisco Restaurant, located in Eureka, and on their breakfast menu there was a listing for “Hamburger Beefsteak” for 25 cents.  This is another very early mention of "hamburger" and also indicated the dish could be enjoyed for breakfast. This would be a common theme for the next twenty years, that Hamburg Steak was a popular breakfast item.

The San Jose Daily Herald (CA), May 7, 1874, published an ad for the Central Market, noting, “If you want a good Hamburg Steak, go to Zimmer’s Stall.”  There was then an ad in the Salt Lake Tribune (UT), September 18, 1874, for the Restaurant Francaise, which had Hamburg Beef Steak for 25 cents. The Quad-City Times (Iowa), October 13, 1874, mentioned that Melchert’s in Davenport, a "celebrated hostlery" served “Hamburg steaks.”

It was rare to find an anti-Hamburg steak article in the newspapers during this time. However, the San Francisco Chronicle (CA), July 18, 1875, was one of those exceptions. In a lengthy article on New York restaurants, there was a section on German restaurants, which stated, “But I don’t think Americans take to them readily, and I am sure their inevitable boiled beef and that most spurious of counterfeits, the Hamburg steak, will never be naturalized in this country.” Obviously this writer was quite wrong, as Hamburgers became hugely popular, and German restaurants have been embraced as well.

The first actual description of a "Hamburger steak" was provided in the Eaton Democrat (OH), December 23, 1875.  The article mentioned, “...sometimes we have what the Germans call a Hamburger steak, that is, the meat, chopped fine like sausage, flavored delicately with onions, and broiled rapidly;” It was a simple dish, and that basic description wouldn't be much different throughout the rest of the 1870s and 1880s. The main differences would be the mention of the use of salt and pepper, and sometimes garlic or an egg.

There were more brief mentions in other newspapers. The Daily Morning Argus (CA), September 26, 1876, had an ad for American Hotel and Restaurant, with Hamburg Steak for 25 cents. The Sun (NY), September 28, 1879, noted that a person had “tackled a Hamburger steak for the first time in six days.” The Bismarck Tribune (ND), November 28, 1879, mentioned that the Thanksgiving menu for the Merchants Hotel had Hamburg steak. Have you ever had a hamburger for Thanksgiving dinner?

Another description of Hamburg steak was offered by the Nebraska State Journal (NE), January 14, 1880.  It stated, “Hamburg steak” is a new dish prepared only by the Rialto, for a few special German friends. It consists of chopped steak seasoned with pepper, salt, and onions, and served without being even warmed.” It seems to indicate this is a dish originally from Germany, and it's interesting the reference to the exclusivity of it being served at the Rialto. It wasn't yet so common a dish that it could be found at just any restaurant. 

The Detroit Free Press (MI), February 13, 1880, noted that at a Detroit cooking school lesson included how to prepare “Hamburger steak.” So, by this point, people at home had some interest in making Hamburger steak for themselves. Briefly, the Oregonian (OR), August 10, 1881, had an ad for the St. Charles Restaurant, selling their Hamburg steak for 10 cents. 

An amusing anecdote appeared in the National Republican (D.C.), February 24, 1882. “They say that Mr. Tilden is in feeble health, but a man who can eat three-quarters of a pound of Hamburger steak every morning for breakfast and wash it down with a bottle os Bass can hardly be said to be in feeble health.” Maybe the first documented pairing of hamburger and beer? 

The Daily Deadwood Pioneer-Times (SD), July 28, 1882, briefly mentioned that, “Hamburg steak a specialty at the Garfield chop.” It is clear that Hamburg steaks were available all across the country, even though they might only be found in limited restaurants in each region. 

It was claimed that Henry Watterson, a famous journalist, introduced the Hamburg steak to Louisville, Kentucky. The Quad-City Times (Iowa), August 9, 1882, reported that “The Hamburg steak, introduced by him into Louisville, a dish made by grinding beef with a strong mixture of salt, pepper and onions, is his favorite article of diet.

The Boston Daily Advertiser, February 9, 1883, reported on a demonstration lecture at the Boston Cooking-school on “Bread and Breakfast Cakes.” The demo included items including milk bread, yeast, raised waffles, squash waffles, griddle cakes, hominy cakes, broiled meat cakes as well as Hamburg steak. As I mentioned before, Hamburg steak was often seen as a breakfast dish, and at this time period, recipes usually referred to the form of the Hamburg as a "cake" rather than a "patty." Referring to it as a patty wouldn't come until later in time. 

The article provided the recipe too, “Hamburg Steak—Cut or pound round steak to make it tender, spread it with fried onions, fold, pound again and beat; this is, for those who like onions, a delicious breakfast dish, and is easily prepared. In greasing the gridiron for broiling rub with a bit of leaf fat; this is always well to do, it does not mar the flavor, and it does not waste as butter does.”  This article, or sometimes just the Hamburg Steak section, was reprinted in numerous newspapers across the country during this time. 

Another intriguing article was in The Sun (NY), April 27, 1883, which was titled and subtitled “Not Eaten On the Premises; Hamburg Steaks and Pork Chops which Cost but Little and are in Great Demand.” The article discussed a store that sold cooked provisions and began with one person's order, “Give me six Hamburgers, four chops, half a pound of sliced ham, and five cents’ worth of pickles,’ said a bareheaded girl, as she entered a small store that stands near a towering cigar factory on Second Avenue.” It continued, “Those flat, brown meat cakes on that dish there are Hamburg steaks; the people call them ‘Hamburgers.’ They are made from raw meat chopped up with onions and spices, and then fried. They also cost 5 cents, and are very good.

More of a connection to Germany. The Chicago Tribune (IL), July 28, 1883, in an article on German Cooking, noted that “A dish of great popularity is what is called ‘Hamburg-steak’ It is made of chopped beef, and is, under circumstance, far preferable to the ordinary sole-leather steak served in boarding houses.

The health benefits of Hamburg steak? During this period, the term dyspeptics was used to refer to people who had indigestion. The Hope Pioneer (ND), October 26, 1883, first mentioned the health benefits for dyspeptics of drinking hot water. In addition, “the new food for dyspeptics" was said to be “the minced steaks and cutlets of Hamburg and Vienna.” This would be another common theme for Hamburg steaks during this time period, and how they were beneficial to dyspeptics and others. 

The article then went into more detail on Hamburg steaks, "This is composed of beef cut from the best part of the round, chopped by machinery in such a way as to separate the nutritious parts from the tough or fibrous structure which contains them. The result is a fine pulp, which is formed into little cakes and lightly broiled. Such a meal as this is said to give the most incorrigible dyspeptic new views of life. Perhaps it may, and it is also possible that patients who have adopted this treatment may prefer the simple nourishment of chopped steaks and hot water to the luxuries proffered at the hotels.” 

Another recipe appeared in The Morning Journal-Courier (CT), November 17, 1883, in an article on a cooking class, which also noted: “A simple meat dish known as Hamburg steak was highly relished.” The recipe was: “Hamburg Steak. One pound of round steak chopped fine, one-fourth teaspoonful pepper, one tablespoonful onion juice. Mix ingredients together and form in little cakes one-half inch thick. Put one tablespoonful drippings in frying-pan. When hot put in the cakes and fry five or six minutes, or until a rich brown.” Again, we note that the recipe talks about forming the meat into "cakes" and not "patties." 

Another simple recipe was provided in the Chicago Tribune (IL), April 27, 1884, which took it from a Boston Herald article that was reprinted in numerous papers. The article was complaining that the waste of food was due in large part to a lack of knowledge by cooks. It also stated, “Did you ever eat Hamburg steak? No? Well, you take a piece of good lean beef, grind it up fine, put in salt, pepper, and onions chopped fine; then break in eggs sufficient and mix the whole up together. Flatten into a cakelike mass and fry it until done in sweet butter.”

Succinctly, the Indianapolis News (IN), May 12, 1884, put it, “Hamburg steak is simply minced beef.”

A lengthier article was in the Evening Star (D.C.), January 3, 1885, which was reprinted from the Philadelphia Ledger. The article was about home advice, and part of the article stated: “Hamburg steaks are the nearest thing to raw beef to be cooked at all, and yet they are very good. For all persons recommended to relieve lung troubles, etc. by the hot water and beef diet, the Hamburg steal comes most acceptable. Even tough beef is good cooked in this style. Take a piece of good beef-of course the better the beer, the better your Hamburg will be—and chop it up very fine, first taking out whatever there may be of skin, fat or sinews. Season the meat with salt and cayenne to taste, and then mince very finely a small onion together with a little garlic. Mix these well through and then form it into meat cakes about an inch in thickness. You can broil them on a wire toaster or on an ordinary gridiron if you are careful. Or course the larger masses you take for the sausage cake or steak the more rare it will be within. Cook quickly over a bright fire, and turn them so as to brown on both sides, immediately, so you have all the juices kept within. Serve with or without plain butter sauce, as it happens to agree with your diet rules.”

Again, we see Hamburg steak being recommended for medicinal reasons, although this time for lung issues and not indigestion. And again, the recipe is very simple, adding only salt, pepper and onion to the hamburg meat. 

Hamburg steak as a luxury? The Atchison Daily Patriot (KS), June 16, 1885, mentioned that “among the luxuries served up by Robert Wetzel is genuine Hamburg steak. This is a most delicious dish, and it is seldom one can get the genuine article in a city like Atchison.” It seems that Hamburg steak was still considered a more high-end dish, not available everywhere, but treasured when it could be found. 

Another lengthy article was in the Lancaster New Era (PA), September 5, 1885, which wrote: “A Hamburger Steak, from the Caterer. In the first place the steak must be good. Any economy practiced in this respect toward the Hamburger will be just as fatal to its excellence as to that of any other mode of cooking a steak. A good sirloin, or a good rump, entirely free from any stringiness, should be used, and the proportion of fat to lean, to please most tastes, would probably be one fourth, or perhaps a little less, of the former and three-fourths of the latter. The meat should be minced very finely and seasoned thus: For each half pound of the meat add two teaspoonfuls of finely-minced onion, a half of a clove of garlic, also chopped very fine, and pepper and salt, a half a teaspoonful of each of the two latter would probably suit most palates. After the seasoning is thoroughly mixed through it, the meat is to be formed into rather thin cakes and fried on both sides in butter, the pan of course being thoroughly heated before the meat is put in; when done, dish up and serve with the gravy poured over it, garnishing with Lyonnaise potatoes. Many person may object to the addition of garlic and onion, and the steak can, of course, be prepared without them; yet in that cause it is hardly entitled to the name of Hamburger.” 

We see the recommendation that good beef should be used for Hamburg steak, but we also see the addition of garlic, which we haven't seen before. Plus, we see the addition of gravy as well. The Hamburg steak is seeing a bit more variation at this point, although it is still essentially the same dish.

How do you chop or mince the meat for Hamburg steak? A new kitchen tool started coming on the market, making it easier for home cooks. The Pacific Bee (CA), December 4, 1885, published an advertisement for a Meat Chopper, which stated: “Mince and sausage meat, Hamburg steak, hash, etc. chopped at the rate of one pound per minute.” Meat choppers would be mentioned many times in the newspaper of this period, and eventually started discussing the health benefits of Hamburg Steak. 

Another recipe but with a variation. The Abbeville Press & Banner (SC), December 30, 1885, provided several recipes, including one for Hamburg Steak. It stated: "Take one pound of very finely chopped or scraped round or rump steak. If you do not care to scrape it free from sinews ask the butcher to do it for you. Put in a frying pan an ounce of butter; add a teaspoonful of minced onion, and fry it a delicate brown. Now shape the steak in a round form, about an inch and a half thick, and fry it in the same pan with the onion; when done add a pinch of cayenne. Meat prepared in this form is always more digestible than solid steaks, and the ways of serving it are quite numerous. Some like it raw, highly seasoned with finely-chopped raw onion and parsley, cayenne, salt and the yolk of a raw egg. Others eat it very rare and some insist on cooking it almost as dry as chips. In our opinion it is best cooked about ‘medium,’ and a poached egg placed on top of it is quite acceptable.” 

The article notes how Hamburg steak is better for your digestion than regular steaks, and that it can be served in a variety of ways, from similar to a steak tartare to very well done. In its raw form, it might be topped by a raw egg yolk, while if it is cooked, a poached egg might be placed atop it. Today, plenty of restaurants offer a fried egg atop their burgers, and I'm a big fan of adding an egg to a burger.

More Hamburg steaks for breakfast! The Fort Worth Daily Gazette (TX), May 2, 1886, printed, “Hamburg steaks prepared in this way are relished by many for breakfast. Scrape the lean meat from the sinews of rump steak; season it with salt and pepper and form it into flat, round cakes. Mince an onion and fry it brown in butter; then fry in this the steaks a delicate brown. They may be rare or well done, according to taste. Gravy or sauce piquante is served with them.

Return of the meat-chopper. The Kansas Farmer (KS), October 27, 1886, had an ad for a meat chopper, noting it was, “For chopping Sausage meat, mince meat, hamburg steak for dyspeptics, beef tea for invalids, &c.” The medicinal aspects were emphasized once again. 

The Abbeville Press & Banner (SC), November 17, 1886, briefly mentioned that the Jim Fisk restaurant, sold a Hamburger steak for 8 cents. 

And the meat-chopper and health concerns returned. The Times (PA), November 20, 1886, printed an ad (pictured above) for a meat chopper with stated, “Eminent physicians advise dyspeptics to drink hot water before eating. Also to eat Hamburg Steaks cut by the Enterprise Meat-Chopper.

Origins of the Hamburg steak were presented. The San Francisco Chronicle (CA), February 6, 1887, noted, “The minced steak with onions and poached egg, is English, but we received it in later years as a Hamburg steak from the Germans. The Romans however pounded their meat almost to a mince.”

An intriguing New York City restaurant. The News-Herald (Ohio), April 21, 1887, discussed Beefsteak John, an eating house in the Bowery of New York City. The Swiss owner started by devoting the restaurant to broiling beefsteaks at low prices, and eventually expanded the restaurant's size and menu. The restaurant was then able to seat about 200 people, and it fed about 1800 people each day. Steak and onions remained the primary entree, and you couldn't opt out of the onions. It was interesting to note that the restaurant didn't even provide napkins to its customers. 

As his steaks were cheap, they also tended to be tough, so some of his older customers had to stop eating there as their teeth were not up to the job, To cater to these individuals, the restaurant introduced a “Hamburger steak,” which was “...a formation of chopped beef, pressed into the shape of a solid steak, and fried brown.” It became so popular that the restaurant sold about 300 pounds of Hamburg steak each day. The size of each Hamburg steak wasn't mentioned but if they were one-third of a pound each, then about half of the customers each day would have ordered one.  

The Indianapolis News (IN), May 7, 1887, printed an article on various meat preparations and recipes, including Hamburg steak. The article stated,  “Take juicy, thick, round steak, free it from skin and gristle, lay it on a board, chop it as dine as possible all over with a sharp heavy knife; turn the meat and do the same; it should not be almost like sausage meat; wherever the knife comes in contact with skin or gristle cut it out; pepper and salt all over one side, then double the meat and cut into cakes; they should be an inch and a half thick; if the double steak makes it thicker beat it thinner with a broad knife. Broil these cakes or fry them in German fashion in a very hot pan with a little butter; when done lay a poached egg on each cake and server very hot.” 

Once again, we see the addition of poached eggs to the Hamburg. The article continued, “The poached eggs are part of the dish called Hamburg steak, but of course the cakes are excellent without then. If they are omitted put a small piece of batter on each with pepper and salt.” 

Household hints were provided in an article in the Indiana State Sentinel (IN), January 4, 1888. It stated, “A Hamburg cook gives a good way for using a kind of steak, the round, which usually is well flavored, but is too tough to broil in the ordinary way. To prepare it remove the skin, fat and sinews from two pounds of the lower part of the round. Chop the meat very fine, add to it a clove of minced garlic and one small red onion chopped fine, half a teaspoonful of pepper and a teaspoonful of salt. Shape the mass into little steaks an inch in thickness by wetting your hands so the meat will not cling to them. Fry the steaks in hot butter and serve them with or without tomato sauce. Hamburg steaks may also be broiled in a double broiler which has been well buttered.” 

Garlic is seen again as an ingredient, but something new is the addition of tomato sauce. Is that a precursor to ketchup?

If you are preparing for a marathon, eat Hamburg! The Courier-Journal (KY), July 1, 1888, had a lengthy article on various ways to train for road races. One piece of advice was, “Eat good nourishing food. A Hamburg steak is one of the best things for breakfast, with toast and coffee.” Again, Hamburg steak for breakfast, although there wasn't the mention of an egg. 

Another brief recipe was provided in the Argus & Patriot (VT), April 24, 1889. The recipe stated, “Hamburg Steak—Two parts lean and one part fat tender beef or use proportions to suit yourself. Chop fine, season with salt, pepper and onion, if you like, then add grated bread crumbs, mix well, add a little beaten egg, roll into balls, flour, and fry a crisp brown.”

Hamburg steak in Hawaii! The Honolulu Advertiser (HI), July 22, 1889, printed an ad for Harrys Lunch Rooms, with Hamburg Steak for 25 cents, which also included a drink of tea, coffee or chocolate. 

So, the first documented mentions of Hamburg Steaks and Hamburgers occurred at least in the early 1870s, and the item remained relatively similar during the 1870s and 1880s. However, during these two decades, there weren't any references to a hamburger sandwich. That would come during the 1890s, which I'll write about in the near future. 

To Be Continued....

Monday, February 22, 2021

New Sampan Article: Sam Wah Kee: Chinatown’s Wealthy Merchant Turned Fugitive

"The most interesting feature of Chinese life to me was that on board their boats, or sampans, as they are called....Upon these boats live whole families of three and even four generations."
--The Fall River Daily Herald, November 20, 1888

As I've mentioned previously, I've a new writing gig, contributing to Sampan, the only bilingual Chinese-English newspaper in New England. I've previously written sixteen articles for Sampan, including:

The 150th Anniversary of Chinese New Year in Massachusetts

My newest article, Sam Wah Kee: Chinatown's Wealthy Merchant Turned Fugitive, is now available in the new issue of Sampan. During the late 1880s and 1890s, Sam Wah Kee was the most wealthy Chinese merchant in all of New England, a leader of the Chinese Free Masons, and the uncrowned king of Chinatown. His ultimate fate is unknown, as he fled from federal authorities and apparently was never apprehended. It’s a fascinating tale of the rise and fall of an influential Chinese merchant in Boston’s Chinatown.

I'm currently working on a new article for the Sampan. 

What is a "sampan?" The newspaper's site states, "A sampan is a popular river boat in traditional China. This small but useful vessel, by transporting cargo from large boats to the village ports, creates a channel of communication among villages." And like that type of boat, Sampan delivers news and information all across New England, and "acts a bridge between Asian American community organizations and individuals in the Greater Boston area."

Sampan, which was founded in 1972, is published by the nonprofit Asian American Civic Association, "The newspaper covers topics that are usually overlooked by the mainstream press, such as key immigration legislation, civil rights, housing, education, day-care services and union activities. These issues are crucial to the well-being of Asian immigrants, refugees, low-income families as well as individuals who are not proficient in the English language."

There is plenty of interest in Sampan which will appeal to all types of readers, from restaurant reviews to historical articles, from vital news stories to travel items. In these current days when racism and prejudice against Asians and their restaurants is high, it's more important than ever that accurate information about the Asian community is disseminated and promoted. We need to combat the irrational prejudices that some possess, and support our Asian communities just as we would support any other element of our overall community. We are all important aspects of a whole, and we need to stand together.

Support Sampan!

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Oka Brand Japanese Bermutto: The First Japanese "Vermouth"

We all know how Japanese whiskey, in less than 100 years, has taken the world by storm, producing some of the world's best expressions, garnering high prices. Japanese gin has also become very popular recently, especially those using indigenous Japanese ingredients. Will Vermouth be the next big thing to come out of Japan?

Vermouth is a fortified and aromatized wine, that has been flavored with a blend of botanicals. In 1786, Antonio Benedetto Carpano, of Turin, Italy, coined the term "vermouth" for a wine flavored with wormwood. However the history of wine with added botanicals has a much lengthier history, extending back thousands of years to the Chinese.

However, Vermouth rarely receives the respect it deserves. As I've said before, "It's a wine with a fascinating history that extends back thousands of years...It can be delicious and complex, intriguing and diverse, and offers a template upon which a producer can put their individual stamp."  Unfortunately, many people don't even realize that it's a wine, thinking it's only a minor ingredient for cocktails. Sure, vermouth works great in cocktails, but it can also be enjoyed on its own, or as the starring ingredient in a cocktail. There are numerous producers taking Vermouth seriously, creating some unique and fascinating Vermouths, from a wide range of base wines and botanicals.

Japan has a lengthy history, going back at least as far back as the 9th century, of adding herbs, spices and other ingredients to Sake. For example, O-toso was a Sake that originally was mixed with eight herbs, including cinnamon bark, rhubarb, sansho, okera, kikyou and others. The word toso literally means “to kill an evil” and was made as a medicine, to promote digestion, lower fevers, suppress coughs and more. It became a New Year tradition, which some Japanese still follow.

According to The Standards of Identity of the Alcohol & Tobacco Trade Tax Bureau (TTB), Vermouth is defined as “a type of aperitif wine compounded from grape wine, having the taste, aroma, and characteristics generally attributed to vermouth, and shall be so designated.” Although these same regulations define Sake as a “wine,” it is not compounded from grape wine, so Sake cannot legally form the basis for Vermouth in the U.S.

The Tsutsumi Distillery, which apparently has created the first modern Sake “Vermouth” in Japan, has found a way to sell it in the U.S. Rather than refer to it as Vermouth, they called it Bermutto, a loanword. Though it's not a traditional Vermouth, it derives from a lengthy history in Japan, and certainly is a fascinating creation which closely resembles a dry, French vermouth.  

The Tsutsumi distillery, located in the Kumamoto prefecture, was established over 140 years ago and its primary business has been the production of Shochu. The World Trade Organization declared that Kuma Shochu (shochu made from just rice) is protected as a geographical indication, and Tsutsumi is one of only 28 distilleries certified to produce Kuma Shochu.

Kumamoto, also known as Hi no Kuni, "the land of fire,” has over 1000 natural springs, and each spring has different water types, from soft to hard, so the local breweries and distilleries get a more unique terroir from their water sources. After World War II, this region was also known for the development of Kumamoto Kobo, a yeast, which eventually became known as the famed Number Nine yeast, said to produce Sake that is “lively and fruity in aromas, and smooth in taste.” This yeast also helped promote Ginjo Sake.

The Oka Brand Japanese Bermutto ($28) is made from a base of Junmai Sake, which is fortified with Kuma Shochu, a 100% rice Shochu, and has an 18% ABV. Four botanicals are added to it, including Yuzu, Kabosu, Sansho & YomogiYuzu is an aromatic citrus, which adds some acidity as well to the blend. Kabosu is also a type of citrus, with lots of acidity, and has a juicy, sharp taste. Sanshō is a type of Japanese peppercorn while Yomogi is known as mugwort, or Japanese wormwood, adding that typical Vermouth taste. 

The bottle has an interesting label, with a winged cherub, sitting atop a frog, carrying the Japanese flag. The label also lists all four of the botanicals within the Bermutto.  

Tasting it on its own, the Bermutto has a prominent yuzu/citrus aroma, with a subtle herbal accent, and on the palate, it is dry and the yuzu/citrus remains the main flavor, with hints of herbal notes and a mildly bitter finish from the Yomogi. That bitterness is much more restrained than the wormwood taste found in many other vermouths. I also feel that the Bermutto lacks some of the depth of complexity possessed by some other artisan Vermouths. 

I chose to mix it with some club soda, which I've done before with other vermouths, making it the star of the drink. It worked very well, making a refreshing and tasty drink, bright with citrus, and it would probably work well with white liquors like vodka and gin. If you want a dry martini, the Bermutto would be a fine substitute for your usual vermouth. 

I hope that Japan continues to produce their own variations of "vermouth," using their indigenous botanicals to create unique and compelling drinks. The Oka Bermutto is a good start but there is a vast potential which Japan can tap. 

Monday, February 15, 2021

Rant: The Death of Buffets?

When the pandemic struck, restaurants were forced to close for a time, and even though they have largely been permitted to reopen, they still must operate under a number of restrictions. All-You-Can-Eat Buffets are one item that hasn't returned, because of obvious health and safety issue, and they might never come back. Can they be saved, or would it be better if they never returned?

Not everyone enjoys a buffet. Sometimes the food isn't as warm or fresh as it should be. Some think a buffet has much too much food, catering mainly to gluttons. And even before the pandemic, some people worried about the health and safety of buffets. Others love buffets, the opportunity to try a wide assortment of dishes, to enjoy lots of food for a relatively inexpensive price. 

Not all buffets are the same. Some put out smaller trays of food, so it doesn't sit there too long as it might in a larger tray, thus staying fresher. Some provide more quality foods than others, giving a better value. Some allow you to try new dishes that you might not normally select off a menu. 

The usual buffet though will probably never return. One sneeze could potentially contaminate a buffet. Even with sneeze guards and such, there's plenty of open space where diseases could spread. Even when the pandemic ends, when most people are vaccinated, public fears may prevent the usual buffets from reopening. 

There is some hope though, albeit a variation on the usual buffet. 

An alternative to the traditional buffet exists, an All-You-Can-Eat option which can be found at least a few restaurants, like Maki Maki in Woburn. Although Maki Maki has chosen not to reopen yet for indoor dining yet, before the pandemic they offered a more unique All-You-Can-Eat option. You ordered off a menu, selecting some items to eat, and they were brought to your table, fresh and hot (if they were supposed to be hot). You could keep ordering off that menu for as long as you wanted, just like you were dining at a buffet. 

This type of system prevents the health and safety concerns of the usual buffet. You don't have to worry about other customers possibly infecting the food. This option also avoids some of the other issues with a normal buffet, such as the freshness of the dishes. You get your dishes straight from the kitchen, fresh and hot. This type of system could be instituted by other restaurants which once offered a usual buffet. Changes within the kitchen would need to be done, but if the restaurant still wanted to offer an All-You-Can-Eat option, it would be doable. 

What are your thoughts on buffets and their future?

Monday, February 8, 2021

Rant: Potato Chips Need More Variety

The next time you visit a grocery store, take a look at all the potato chips offered for sale. You'll find different styles, from ruffled chips to kettle chips, and different flavors, from sour cream & onion to stranger versions, like cappuccino. However, nearly all of the chips you see are from the same potato type, and thus, no matter their other differences, they are all similar in that respect. 

I want that to change!

Did you know that there are said to be at least 4,000 different varieties of potato in Peru? They come in various sizes and shapes, as well as different colors, including white, yellow, blue, red, pink and purple. With all that diversity available, why aren't companies using those Peruvian potatoes to make more unique potato chips? 

I have seen a couple of companies which have done this, including the Trader Joe's Peruvian Potato Chips (pictured above). They remain rare though and we need more companies to produce these type of chips. I've enjoyed the potato chips I've tasted from Peruvian potatoes, both from an aesthetic aspect as well as their flavor. And these Peruvian chips have a different taste, which comes from the potatoes and not some artificial flavors. 

Local Peruvian restaurants, like Tambo 22, have introduced some of the unique varieties of Peruvian potatoes to the Boston area. So, the Boston area should be open to the idea of Peruvian potato chips as well. A bowl of multi-colored Peruvian potato chips certainly looks more appealing than a bowl of ordinary, monochromatic chips. And Peruvian chips can add new flavors.

Even sweet potato chips, which can be quite tasty, are relatively uncommon. Why are we so stuck on the ordinary potato chip? Why can't we embrace the possibilities of thousands of different potatoes? Toss off the boring and be more chip adventurous!  

Friday, February 5, 2021

New Sampan Article: The 150th Anniversary of Chinese New Year in Massachusetts

"The most interesting feature of Chinese life to me was that on board their boats, or sampans, as they are called....Upon these boats live whole families of three and even four generations."
--The Fall River Daily Herald, November 20, 1888

As I've mentioned previously, I've a new writing gig, contributing to Sampan, the only bilingual Chinese-English newspaper in New England. I've previously written fifteen articles for Sampan, including:

My newest article, The 150th Anniversary of Chinese New Year in Massachusetts, is now available in the new issue of Sampan. This year, Chinese New Year starts on Friday, February 12, beginning the Year of the Ox. It’s also the 150th Anniversary of the first public celebration of Chinese New Year in Massachusetts. Although you might suspect that the celebration occurred in Chinatown, it actually began in North Adams, a city in the far northwestern region of the state. Read more about the first Chinese New Year celebrations in Massachusetts, from 1870-1889. 

I'm currently working on a new article for the Sampan. 

What is a "sampan?" The newspaper's site states, "A sampan is a popular river boat in traditional China. This small but useful vessel, by transporting cargo from large boats to the village ports, creates a channel of communication among villages." And like that type of boat, Sampan delivers news and information all across New England, and "acts a bridge between Asian American community organizations and individuals in the Greater Boston area."

Sampan, which was founded in 1972, is published by the nonprofit Asian American Civic Association, "The newspaper covers topics that are usually overlooked by the mainstream press, such as key immigration legislation, civil rights, housing, education, day-care services and union activities. These issues are crucial to the well-being of Asian immigrants, refugees, low-income families as well as individuals who are not proficient in the English language."

There is plenty of interest in Sampan which will appeal to all types of readers, from restaurant reviews to historical articles, from vital news stories to travel items. In these current days when racism and prejudice against Asians and their restaurants is high, it's more important than ever that accurate information about the Asian community is disseminated and promoted. We need to combat the irrational prejudices that some possess, and support our Asian communities just as we would support any other element of our overall community. We are all important aspects of a whole, and we need to stand together.

Support Sampan!

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Thursday Sips & Nibbles

I'm back again with a new edition of Sips & Nibbles, my regular column where I highlight some interesting, upcoming food & drink events. For now, some of these events will simply be the opening of certain restaurants, generally ones dear to my heart for a variety of reasons. And I hope everyone dines out safely, and tips well.&

1) Tambo 22, the excellent Peruvian restaurant in Chelsea, is reopening for Valentine's Day weekend, from Friday, February 12-Sunday, February 14, from 4:30pm - 9:30pm. It is a ticketed event, a 3 course fixed menu, and special cocktails will be available for an extra charge

Valentine's Day Menu
1st Course
Choice of:
- Anticucho de Carne en la Flecha de Cupido GF Grilled Beef Skewers, Panca Pepper & Cumin Marinade, Sauteed Potato and Choclo, Spicy Uchucuta Sauce
- Causa de Langosta GF Beet and Yellow Potato Causa, Maine Lobster, Aji Amarillo Aioli, Caviaroli
- Ceviche de Tarwi GF/V Andean Lupini Beans, Ceviche Style, Vegetarian Leche de Tigre
2nd Course Choice of:
- Ají de Gallina Slow Cooked Pulled Chicken, Creamy Peruvian Pepper Sauce, Yellow Peruvian Potato, Q’s Botija Olive Roasted Pecans, Choclo White Rice, Perfect Egg
- Salmón con Chancaca y Rocoto Skin on Salmon Filet, Raw Sugar Cane Rocoto Glaze, Yuca Frita, Pickled Cabbage
- Quinoa con Champiñones GF/V Organic Quinoa, Shitake, Oyster, Portobello, & Winter Black Truffle
- Tu Eres Mi Costilla Panca Braised Short Rib with Yellow Peruvian Potato purée 
 Dolci Choice of:
- Torta de Chocolate Fondante Chocolate Soufflé Cake with Warm Manjar Blanco and Strawberries
- Suspiro Limeño GF Silky Custard with Port Meringue

The cost is $70 per person and you can buy tickets here. Beverages, tax and gratuity are not included in ticket price. A 24 hour cancellation notice is also required. The menu is also available for take-out and must be pre-ordered through their website as well.

2) In celebration of Valentine’s Day, Lola 42, a bistro and sushi bar located in the Seaport District, is serving four very indulgent specials starting with an East Coast Oyster appetizer ($28) with uni, pickled daikon and micro greens finished with a Yuzu Mignonette; and a small plate of King Crab ($32) with passion fruit buerre monte’ and Truffle Caviar finished with lime zest and a hearts on fire micros.

Couples may also choose an entrée for two ($250) - a 30oz. Wagyu Tomahawk Ribeye with two 8oz. Maine Lobster Tails topped with a jumbo lump crab béarnaise served with a Twice Baked Black Truffle Sweet Potato. Finally for dessert, a Chocolate Ricotta Cheese Cake ($15) will be served with Bourbon-soaked black cherries topped with a whipped chocolate ganache.

Specials will be available Wednesday, 2/10 - Sunday, 2/14. For reservations, please call 617-951-4002.

3) A Tavola, in Winchester, is offering a special Picnic Basket for Valentine's Day. For $200, you will receive a Three-Course Dinner for Two, a bottle of Wine or Champagne, a Rose for your Valentine, and a Picnic Basket.

The 3-Course Menu includes: (all items are also available a la carte)
First Course: Choice of
--True love is never “foie-gotten” (Foie Gras Torchon puff pastry / blood orange sciroppo / cocoa)
--Bittersweet Love (Chicory and Roasted Pear Salad--endive / frisee / pears / pomegranate)
Second Course: Choice of
--Wrapped up in a Warm Embrace (Prosciutto wrapped cod--citrus olive relish / Calabrian chili / fennel)
--Try a little Tenderness (Barolo Braised Short-Rib--duchess potato / pistachio gremolata)
Third Course:
--I “Lava you” (u-bake Chocolate Lava Cake--with instructions provided) strawberry coulis / "thin mint" crumble 

To purchase this Picnic Basket, please call A Tavola at 781-729-1040

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Sam Wah Kee: From Chinatown's Most Wealthy Merchant To Wanted Fugitive

During the late 1880s and 1890s, Sam Wah Kee was maybe the most wealthy Chinese merchant in all of New England, a leader of the Chinese Free Masons, and sometimes said to be the uncrowned king of Chinatown. His ultimate fate is unknown, as he fled from federal authorities and apparently was never apprehended. It’s a fascinating tale of the rise and fall of an influential Chinese merchant in Boston’s Chinatown.

Sam Wah Kee was first mentioned in the local newspapers in 1883, as he was part of a historic event. The Morning Journal-Courier (CT), November 19, 1883, printed that on November 16, “The first child born to Chinese parents in Boston, a girl, came into the world here at No.33 Causeway street. The happy parents are Mr. and Mrs. Sam Wah Kee. Mrs. Sam, who is only sixteen years old, is the only pure blooded Chinese woman in the city.

We can see that Sam Wah Kee, who was 27 years old at this time, lived at 33 Causeway Street, which was not within Chinatown, although Chinatown as a named neighborhood didn’t exist until about 1884. We can also see that his wife was the only Chinese woman in Boston at that time, making her quite unique. Though it wasn't mentioned at this time, this was actually Sam's second wife, his first living in China. 

There was some follow-up in the Boston Globe, May 12, 1884, which noted that Sam Wah Kee’s daughter was named Toy Goa. The article also mentioned that other Chinese children had born in the U.S., and that they weren’t a rarity in California. For a local example, Ar Foon, a fruit merchant in Chelsea, had a family of two or three. It was also noted that Sam’s cousin in Chicago had two small daughters. In Boston itself though, Sam's daughter was the first Chinese child born in the city. 

A little bit more about Sam was mentioned in the Daily Chronicle (TN), June 5, 1884. Sam was a laundryman, and his wife, who spoke a little English, had joined Sam in the observance of Christian worship. It was also said that his wife had “...elaborate wardrobe of Chinese silks, heavy with embroidery and fastened with ornamental clasps of native gold, while the wardrobe for the baby comes from a prominent Chinese house in San Francisco.” 

It appears that Sam must have been making very good money if he could afford such clothes for his wife and daughter. It seems likely that he was more than just a laundryman, or maybe owned multiple laundries. He might also have started working as an importer by this time although the newspaper didn't mention it at this time. 

Later newspaper articles would provide earlier biographical information about Sam. He was born on October 1, 1856, in Canton, China, and came to the U.S., to San Francisco, in 1868, when he was 12 years old. It's unknown who he might have traveled with to the U.S., though it seems likely that he came with family, as his family was prominent in the U.S. Upon his arrival in this country, Sam then spent five years in Salem, Oregon and a year in Chicago before he moved to Boston, around 1875.

Part of the nature of Sam’s influence came to the forefront in 1885. The Daily News (PA), March 17, 1885, reported that 22 Chinese had been arrested in Boston, charged with gambling on Sunday. Their defense counsel had claimed that they had just been attending a class intended to teach newly arrived Chinese how to count our money. Sam Wah Kee was called as a witness to provide an explanation of this matter, and the matter was postponed for consideration. 

During the next fifteen years, Sam Wah Kee often appeared to help bail out and assist Chinese who had been arrested. He used his wealth to pay bails and fines, to help the people of his community. This certainly endeared him to the people of Chinatown, which may be one of the reasons he became known as the uncrowned king of Chinatown. 

Though initially said to be a simply a laundryman, Sam Wah Kee eventually expanded his business as the Boston Globe, May 18, 1885, noted that Sam was involved in the trade of tea, soap and other articles. It was now that he was becoming known as a local importer and merchant.

There was a brief mention in the Boston Globe, November 20, 1885, that there had been a robbery at Sam’s store, located at 189 West Fourth Street. Three men had entered the store, assaulted the proprietor, and stole $4. The police later arrested three men who were thought to have been involved.

Another store? The Boston Globe, April 14, 1887, reported that yesterday, the Chinese Free Masons had held a large holiday celebration. The center of the celebration was Sam Wah Kee’s grocery store, located at 36 Harrison Avenue. This address appears to have been Sam’s primary grocery store, and the article also showed he had a connection to the Chinese Free Masons, though many of the Chinese in Boston also belonged to this organization. Later, we would learn that he was more than just an ordinary member, and was actually the leader of Chinese Free Masons. 

How much was Sam worth? The Boston Globe, March 26, 1888, provided an estimated answer, about $18,000-$20,0000 (roughly $500,000 in today's dollars). The article also mentioned that 39 Chinese had been arrested for gambling at his place at 36 Harrison Avenue. Sam responded, in a letter to the editor, to the accusations of gambling in the Boston Globe, March 31, 1888. Sam stated he was “an importer of Chinese goods” which he sold wholesale to the local Chinese. He continued that he didn’t occupy the downstairs at 36 Harrison, and was unaware of any gambling that took place there, although it was possible that some people might have been playing Chinese games.

Another historic birth! The Boston Globe, December 3, 1888, reported that yesterday, Sam’s wife gave birth to the first Chinese baby boy born in Boston. This was far more important than the previous two births of his daughters (aged 5 and 2 1/2 years) as the birth of a boy in Chinese culture was a momentous occasion. It was also noted that Sam married his wife about 10 years ago in Canton, China, and that they had been in Boston for about 8 or 9 years. They hadn’t named their son yet and according to Chinese custom, they had 30 days to name their child.

There appears to be a discrepancy in this article compared to the original article mentioning the birth of Sam’s first daughter. In November 1883, it was stated that Sam’s wife was 16 years old, but this 1888 article claims they were married ten years before, which would mean 1878, when his wife would have been about 11 years old and Sam was 22 years old. The 1888 Glob article likely got the time frames wrong. 

At this same time, the Hartford Courant, (CT), December 3, 1888, briefly mentioned that Sam’s wife was one of only two native Chinese wives in Boston. So, in the past five years, only one more Chinese wife had appeared in Boston. 

A grand feast for a new son! The Fall River Daily Evening News, January 7, 1889, and Boston Herald, January 7, 1889, both described this major event. It was reported that Sam Wah Kee, one of the most influential Chinese in Boston, owned a grocery business at 36 Harrison Avenue and also supposedly had mortgages on half the Chinese laundries in the city. So, he used his wealth to invest in his community, allowing the Chinese to start laundry businesses. It's possible that he might have invested in other businesses too in Chinatown, such as restaurants and grocery stores. 

The article also stated that Sam's wife was one of only two Chinese women in Boston, and on December 1, 1888, she gave birth to a son. To name his son, Sam sought advice from Major Jones, “...without whose advice none of the natives of the Flowery Kingdom in Boston would think of doing anything of importance,…” The Major recommended the name Ames Hart Kee, in honor of the Governor and Mayor-elect.

As the birth of a boy is a cause for great rejoicing, Sam arranged for two feasts, inviting about 700 Chinese to join in the festivities, and non-Chinese were not invited. One of the feasts was held at 36 Harrison Avenue, in a room above Sam's store, and 40 tables were set up, each which held ten people. Another six tables were set up at 39 Howard Street. A Chinese caterer had been hired, and many delicacies were served, each plate costing $3a. There was an initial seating at 6pm, and then another at 10pm. It's very interesting that this was a catered affair and wasn't held in any restaurant.

The feasting continued. The Boston Globe, January 9, 1889, reported that Sam was going to host a dinner, a christening feast, that night at the Parker House. Sam had invited about 50 of his friends outside of Chinatown, and a few Chinese, and had booked the Crystal Bouquet room, the largest in the hotel. A Chinese band, of eight pieces, would play at the dinner. The article also claimed, “It will be the dinner of dinners in Boston this winter.”

The Boston Globe, January 10, 1889, mentioned that Sam’s son actually had two names, his Chinese name being Moy Poy Hem and his American name being Ames Hart Moy. Sam’s family name was Moy. The article also stated that Sam had arrived in U.S. almost 20 years ago but had also been back to China several times since then. About 6 years ago, he brought back a wife (actually his second wife), and his daughters are named Toy Song (also called Hattie) and Toy Goa (also called Lillie).

Sam’s wealth was also noted. “He has made money rapidly, and is now the possessor of a fortune which is a monument to his industry and business sagacity. He is said to have an interest in nearly every Chinese laundry in the city,...” It appears Sam might have been an investor in a number of Chinese businesses, possibly helping them gain the necessary capital to start a laundry or other business.

About six months later, Sam was showcased in a lengthy article in the Boston Globe, June 30, 1889. The article stated, “The wealthiest Chinaman in Boston and probably in all New England is Sam Wah Kee, who is at the head of the Wah Kee Company in this city, and one of the acknowledged leaders of the New England branch of Chinese Free Masonry.” It was claimed that no one truly knew his worth but it was estimated to be at least $100,000 (about $2.8 million in today's dollars). He was probably one of the wealthiest men in all of New England, and not just the wealthiest Chinese. 

Sam was also described as, “He is a jolly, good-looking Celestial, of middle age, with a keen, sharp eye and an elastic step.” It was also noted that very few white men had ever seen his wife as it's a Chinese custom to keep their wives indoors as much as possible. In addition, it was mentioned that a rival to Sam’s grocery store was the Sam Sing Company.

In the basement of Sam’s store was a “dirty, dismal cellar where dampness may be felt and grime scraped from the walls,” and it “is one of the typical Chinese opium joints,..”. This joint was kept by Joe Yet, a fat, oily-looking Chinese, who some years ago ran a joint in New York until their laws against opium were more strongly enforced. White people were originally able to smoke opium in this basement, but after a series of hassles with the police, Joe decided to limit it only to Chinese. He still sold opium to white people, but they couldn’t smoke it on the premises. About half of his opium sales were to whites.

A couple months later, the Boston Globe, August 4, 1889, provided more details about Sam and his family. Sam was preparing to take his family for a visit to China and he needed to ensure that he would be able to legally return to the U.S. afterwards. That required plenty of paperwork, and the accumulation of evidence to show that Sam was a Merchant, and able, by law, to journey to China and return back into the U.S.

It was stated that Sam was 5 foot, 6 inches tall and weighed 130 pounds. He was worth at least $100,000 and owned stores in Boston, Philadelphia and San Francisco. This is the first indication we have that Sam's holdings extended outside of Massachusetts. His mercantile empire had tendrils both to the West Coast and further down the East Coast. The article also mentioned that his wife was May Wah Kee, who was born in 1867. While Sam was in China, his brother would manage his businesses in the U.S. 

More information about the Chinese Free Masons. The Boston Globe, November 10, 1889, reported that, “In Boston the Highbinders are very strong, for fully 1000 Celestials must surely belong to the lodge in this city.” It continued, “As a rule they call themselves “China Free Masons” and in many respects the order does resemble that of Free Masonry, although there is no connection between them whatever.” In addition, “One of the Chinese names for this society is the San-ho-Hoey or Triad Society, and the different lodges throughout the United States are known by distinctive names or titles. The name of the order means the “Society of the Three United,” that is, of heaven, earth and man, which, according to the imperfect ideas of Chinese philosophy, imply the three departments of nature.”

Locally, “The hall of the Boston lodge of these Highbinders is located at 36 Harrison avenue, in the building occupied by Sam Wah Kee, the rich Chinese merchant. It occupies all of the second floor being just over the restaurant of Moy Auk, the Chinese Delmonico, who, by the way, is quite a prominent man in this society.” How involved was Sam with the Chinese Free Masons?

The Boston Globe, February 8, 1890, answered that question. Sam Wah Kee was the president of the Wy Gee Tong or Chinese society of Masons. A successor was being appointed only because Sam would be away for a year, visiting China with his family. The connections of the Chinese Free Masons to the Triads and Tongs is a complex and intriguing matter, which I will detail in a future article. 

It was also fascinating that the Whiting Weekly News (KS), March 1, 1890, reported that Sam was the head of the powerful Moy family, and that his family name was Ah Moy, with Sam Wah Kee being only his business name, though used far more frequently. In Boston’s Chinatown, there were more members of the Moy family than any other Chinese family. The Moy family might have given Sam his financial start when he came to Boston, and his business acumen seems to have propelled him to great wealth. 

The Boston Daily Globe, August 18, 1890, briefly noted that Sam Wah Kee was the “uncrowned king of Harrison av.” In addition, it was reported Sam had left Hong Kong on July 16, headed back to Boston and he eventually arrived in Boston around August 22.
More gambling problems. The Boston Globe, January 10, 1893, reported that Sam Wah Kee had been arrested for the charge of keeping and maintaining a common gaming house at 36 Harrison Avenue. The house had been raided, leading to the arrest of 13 Chinese and the seizure of a large quantity of gaming implements. The resolution of this criminal matter wasn’t mentioned in any subsequent newspaper and likely ended with a few fines.

Sam Wah Kee was highlighted once again in an extensive article in the Boston Globe, May 7, 1893. The article began by noting, "There are 1600 unregistered Chinamen in the State of Massachusetts,.." and currently, there were "...over 1000 Chinamen have their homes and places of business in the neighborhood, and under the governorship of Sam Wah Kee they live the lives of just, orderly, law-abiding citizens." It was also mentioned that Sam’s wealth was estimated at about $75,000 and that he was a member of Moy & Co., which was one of the large Six Companies in San Francisco. There were 38 members in Sam’s firm, all belonging to Moy & Co. h

The Boston Globe, May 9, 1894, reported that Moy Toung You, Sam’s brother, had died in Canton, though he had also spent many years in business in Boston. Sam was “called the king of Chinatown; a great merchant and said to be the richest Chinese in New England;..” Moy Toung You was his elder brother, and was partnered with Sam, with You managing the business in China. In Boston, Sam owned several large stores in Boston, and the usual number of laundry enterprises.

Sam had been en route to China to see his brother, but You died before Sam ever reached him. At this same time, it was mentioned that Sam’s store on Harrison Avenue had been “chopped” in two by the widening of the street.

In addition, Yee Toi, said to be “a bad man” and an enemy of Sam, started to spread untrue rumors about Sam. There was bad blood between the Yee and Moy families, and Yee Toi belonged to the Sam Sing Company, owned a laundry, and was said to be a blackmailer. Yee Toi alleged that Sam’s wealth was dwindling away, that he couldn’t pay his bills, and had fled to avoid his creditors.

The beginning of the end for Sam Wah Kee. The Boston Globe, July 10, 1894, published a disturbing article about the illegal immigration of Chinese at the port of Burlington, Vermont. It was alleged that Sam Wah Kee was involved in this illegal immigration although Boston officials didn’t believe that allegations. There was some evidence that the New York firm at the center of the controversy were friends with Sam, and they also had some financial connections. Plus, their families were intermarried. That alone though wasn’t sufficient evidence of Sam’s involvement in illegal activity. However, this would have been a very lucrative activity for Sam.

Sam returned to Bostonfrom China  around March 1895, but he had left his wife and children behind in China. The Boston Herald, April 21, 1895, stated that Sam was now married to a third woman, who had traveled back with him to the U.S. His first two wives remained in China to care for their children, and they agreed to allow Sam to marry a third woman, who would take care of him back in Boston. Although Sam had become a Christian, and his Sunday school teachers told him that he had too many wives, Sam chose to continue to follow this Chinese custom.

It was also said that Sam had loaned out about $18,000 to a number of people in Massachusetts and other states, and was back to collect on those debts. For the next nearly six years, Sam continued his life in Chinatown, running his mercantile empire and helping his community. 

However, over six years after the first allegations against Sam Wah Kee for possible involvement in illegal immigration, the Boston Globe, January 14, 1901, reported that Sam had been arrested in Dennysville, Maine on January 12 by U.S. authorities. It was now alleged that a significant amount of Sam'sh wealth had come from smuggling Chinese into the U.S.

As a follow-up, the Hollis Times (NH), February 15, 1901, noted that after his arrest, Sam was brought to Portland, Maine, and remanded in jail for several days as he was unable to initially secure bail. The incident that led to his arrest involved 6 Chinese who had been smuggled over the Canadian border, and who had subsequently been deported. Sam finally made bail but then failed to show up on February 12 for his next court appearance, forfeiting his bail, and his defense counsel claimed that Sam had left for China the week before.

Evidence against Sam mounted. The Boston Globe, February 14, 1901, reported that U.S authorities were acquiring a mass of evidence against Sam Wah Kee, including letters from Sam to his friends indicating he had assisted over 1000 Chinese illegally enter the country. It was still thought that Sam was only the way back to China, although that belief didn’t last long. The Bangor Daily News, February 20, 1901, claimed that Sam was not in China but was hiding in the U.S., maybe even close to Boston. 

The Chinese Exclusion Act prevented many Chinese from coming to the U.S. so it's understandable that some Chinese tried to illegally cross the border into the country. One illegal path into the U.S. was across the Canadian border, north of New England. Sam may have assisted 1000 Chines e enter the country, but what is more important is how much he financially benefited from such activities. Did Sam take advantage of these poor Chinese who sought entry into the U.S.? 

Almost a year later, Sam had still not been apprehended. The Boston Globe, January 19, 1902, then reported that Sam’s wife, who had been living at 8 Oxford Place, had vanished. Her apartments were on the top floor of a 4-story brick house, and now the home was quiet. It was mentioned again that this was Sam’s third wife, “a young daughter of a very old family, and one of the nobility.”

Sam’s ultimate fate is not known, though he apparently eluded U.S. authorities, and he might have traveled back to China with his third wife. From the king of Chinatown to a wanted fugitive, Sam amassed much wealth in the U.S. and it doesn’t appear that U.S. authorities ever tried to seize any of that wealth, beyond the $1000 bail Sam paid after he was arrested. With his great wealth, Sam could have lived like a king in China, and probably also used some of that wealth to support his family, the Moys, in the U.S.

Monday, February 1, 2021

A List Of Local Vietnamese Restaurants: Happy Vietnamese New Year

Vietnamese New Year
, known as Tết Nguyên Đán (which means Feast of the First Morning of the First Day), and is commonly abbreviated as Tết, will begin this year on February 12. Like Chinese New Year, it is the most important holiday for the Vietnamese, filled with numerous traditions, customs and rituals. So, now is the time to learn more about Tết, to open our hearts and minds to Vietnamese culture and cuisine. 

To assist you, I've compiled a partial list of local Vietnamese Restaurants (and I will add to the list over time). Dine at these places and explore Vietnamese cuisine, beyond the familiar Bahn Mi and Pho. If you have any favorite Vietnamese restaurants that aren't on this list, please let me know and I'll add them to this list. 
Bahn Mi Huong Que

Ganh Pho

Pho 1

Pho Ever Chicken
Viet Citron

Bon Me
Le’s Restaurant

Pho Da Lat





Pho So 1

West Roxbury
Bahn Mi Oi

Saigon Restaurant

(Updated as of 2/17/2021)

Celebrating Tết Nguyên Đán: Vietnamese New Year

Many people know about the upcoming Chinese New Year, which begins on February 12, starting the Year of the Ox. It's the most important holiday to the Chinese, and the first public celebration in Massachusetts was 150 years ago, in 1871. However, Vietnamese New Year, which also follows a lunar calendar, will celebrate their New Year on February 12 too. 

The holiday is known as Tết Nguyên Đán, which means 'Feast of the First Morning of the First Day.' and is commonly abbreviated as Tết. Like the Chinese, the Vietnamese have many customs and rituals around their celebration of this holiday, from special foods to family reunions. So, now is the time to learn more about Tết, to open our hearts and minds to Vietnamese culture and cuisine. 

I've spoken to a couple Vietnamese women, who own restaurants, to provide some information about Tết and what it means to them. Tran Ngoc Lee, of Viet Citron in Burlington, and Sa Nguyen, of Soall Viet Kitchen in Beverly, were gracious enough to answer my questions. I've positively reviewed both of their restaurants during the past year with Viet Citron being one of my Favorite Restaurants of 2020, and Soall Viet Kitchen being my first restaurant review of 2021. Both earned my hearty recommendation. 

Tran Ngoc Lee, of Viet Citron in Burlington

1. What is the meaning or significance of Tết to you? 
Tết is a great time for multi-generations to connect through traditions. We gather to listen to family stories, making pickles, bánh tét / bánh chưng (steamed sticky rice cakes) all night. It’s a celebrations of spring time and renewal energy to bring good health and fortune to everyone. 

2. Will your restaurant celebrate Tết in any way? Any special events? Special menu items? 
We have the Tet’s special of Thit Kho Dua Gia (Braised pork & eggs w/ pickles). It’s one of the traditions that’s always on the Tet’s table. Kids get red envelopes w/ money when saying well wishes to adults, and adults would bring gifts like tea, cakes, or decorated fresh fruits when visiting other household during Tet / Lunar New Year 

3. How will you personally celebrate Tết? 
Tet in the US is quiet. We pray to the ancestors on the first day, have a family lunch, get red envelopes then go home. During pre-Covid, we had church celebrations with cultural shows and every family bring a dish and the whole church or temple would dine together. This year we just stay home. 

4. What special foods will you eat on Tết?
Braised Pork, sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves, different homemade pickles, cut watermelons, and candied fruits served w/ tea were very common. 

5. What should non-Vietnamese should know or understand about Tết? 
Tet / Lunar New Year is like a long Thanksgiving for Vietnamese and Chinese....only say nice things to them on the first day....If you don’t get along w/ someone, don’t show up at their door first day of new’s bad luck. Tet is a 10 days celebrations. We used to gamble, eat, drinks, days and nights for the first 3 days...doesn’t matter w/ age 

Sa Nguyen, of Soall Viet Kitchen in Beverly

1. What is the meaning or significance of Tết to you? 
     It has always been reiterated to me that Tết is a celebration of new beginnings. I remember weeks beforehand, my mom would start preparing by cleaning out the house and getting rid of old and unwanted things. She would order new clothes to be sewn for us so that we would have them to wear for Tet. 
     One of the things that always struck me as the most meaningful is that Tet is a time for forgiveness and reconciliation. It was a time for bygones be bygones and start anew. 
     I came to the states when I was 9 and although my Mother tried her best to keep up with the traditions by making the usual Tet treats and tradition of paying homage to our ancestors, the celebrations at home were not as vibrant and as elaborate. The respect for the holiday and what it is about carries through year after year

2. Will your restaurant celebrate Tết in any way? Any special events? Special menu items? 
In the past, we have given out red envelopes with lucky money to young children. I would imagine that we would do the same this year. 

3. How will you personally celebrate Tết? 
     Back in Vietnam, I remember celebrating Tet with my family extensive. The first day of Tet is reserved for immediate family members and this tradition was taken very seriously. We would wake up and be dressed in our best. First, we would a family prayer to our ancestors and pay homage. Next, my siblings and I would gather in front of my parents and each of us would take turns and wish them good health and prosperity for the year ahead. And we would work on making sure that our individual wish was the best. It would turn into a friendly competition as one would try to out do one another for the best wish given. In return, our parents would hand each of us a red envelope with lucky money. We celebrated the first day of Tet within our immediate family. Mom would make the most elaborate meal and food would be eaten throughout the day. 
     The 2nd day of tet was celebrated with near by relatives and friends. We would visit each household and one by one would repeat the wish of good health and prosperity and receive our red envelopes with good luck money. Once the formal visitations were done and our dutiful biddings, we would return home and be released into the street markets to play games, buy things and gamble away our good luck money. 
      It was always on the third day of Tet when we would travel to Saigon, where the most elaborate celebration of Tet is held. The streets were filled with the most vibrant colors with lanterns, fireworks, flowers, etc. The lion dances were always so enthralling to watch. 

4. What special foods will you eat on Tết?
I remember eating so many different things.. but mostly, banh tet (which is made with sticky rice, pork and mung beans), xoi (sticky rice), mut (dried fruits like cocunut, sugar-coated ginger slices) pickled veggies, and some form of elaborate meal that Mom would make. 

5. What should non-Vietnamese should know or understand about Tết? 
It is the most important and celebrated holiday. Everyone celebrates Tet and everyone turns a year older as individual birthdays were not celebrated.

Will you be celebrating Tết in any manner? Now is a good time to dine at local Vietnamese restaurants, especially any place new to you. Look beyond Bahn Mi and Pho and sample some of the other wonderful dishes of Vietnamese cuisine. Open your heart and minds and learn more about to Vietnamese culture.