The new year marks the 150th anniversary of Nebraska’s statehood. The January/February issue of Omaha Magazine touches on that milestone. But we don’t stop there. We take you even deeper into prehistoric times…15,000 years ago, back when mammoths roamed what would eventually become our great state…and 15 million years ago, around the time ancient elephants were en route to North America.
Growing up in Nebraska, I always marveled at the fossils of mammoths found in museums across the state. Ever since childhood, I have been intrigued by the ancient giants—remains of Ice Age creatures that have been unearthed from all but three of Nebraska’s counties.
When I was living and working as a journalist in Hong Kong, I was surprised to discover shops selling traditional Chinese ivory carvings made from mammoth tusks. The prehistoric ivory allows Chinese craftsmen to carve exquisite works of art. Unfortunately, traditional Chinese ivory carving has decades of association with the tragic killing of African elephant populations.
A global ban on elephant ivory has been in place since 1989, but the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora does not regulate extinct animals or fossils.
The strange dynamics involving my state’s official fossil seized my interest. Mammoth ivory is legal, and prehistoric tusks are offering an alternative to living elephants’ ivory.
I began research and writing about China’s mammoth ivory trade for a story published in China Daily’s HK Edition, where I was a staff feature writer. After two years of working at the newspaper, I received sad news. My father was diagnosed with colon cancer. I was heading home.
But before leaving Asia, I took a month-long reporting trip across mainland China to explore the mammoth ivory supply chain for my former employer’s magazine, China Daily Asia Weekly. The reporting trip took me to Beijing, Fujian, Inner Mongolia, Heilongjiang, and Guangdong before I returned to Omaha.
My travels preceded the first mammoth ivory bans in the U.S. Since then, four states have outlawed the sale and purchase of mammoth ivory. More recently, China (the world’s largest market for black market ivory) has partnered with the U.S. (the world’s second largest market for black market ivory) to tighten restrictions on the ivory trade. China’s increasing regulatory pressure would likely result in growing demand for the mammoth tusks locked in Arctic permafrost.
Before I joined Omaha Magazine, a follow-up mammoth ivory research trip was in order. I returned to Asia with my favorite translator—i.e., my wife (who has written an introduction to Omaha’s most authentic Chinese cuisine in this issue)—and refreshed my research with ivory traders in Hong Kong and Beijing.
Funding for the reporting trip came from The Andy Award, an international reporting grant from the University of Nebraska at Omaha (named after Harold W. Anderson, former publisher of the Omaha World-Herald).
This issue’s cover story is a byproduct of that Andy Award. The trip also provided the basis for a paper that I presented at a panel during the American Anthropological Association’s annual conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in November.
I hope you enjoy the story and this issue of Omaha Magazine. Happy New Year!
Doug Meigs is the executive editor of Omaha Publications.
Chinese Lunar New Year falls on January 28 this year. The holiday is like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s all rolled into a week of celebrations. This year will be my third Lunar New Year in Omaha. Since relocating to the Midwest, I have developed a small go-to list for dishes that taste like home (or at least satiate my appetite until my next return visit to Hong Kong).
When coworkers ask me to recommend “real” Chinese food, I often probe how adventurous they are with eating. Authentic Chinese cuisines do not usually come with a thick brown or red sauce. Sometimes, signature dishes also feature uncommon ingredients. Although I never fancied chicken feet, I know several European Americans who will gobble down the dish (which translates to “phoenix talons” in my native Cantonese language) at any opportunity.
Chinese cuisines vary depending on region. Sichuanese (from western China) is known for its “mala” numbing spice. Cantonese (from Hong Kong and Guangdong) is famous for fresh seafood and dim sum. Dumplings, maybe even more than rice, are beloved in northern Chinese cuisines. You might even say Americanized Chinese food is authentic in its own way, with its distinct flavors and history woven into the story of Chinese migration.
1. Fresh housemade dim sum
I was excited to see barbecue pork and duck hanging on display upon entering Canton House Restaurant during my first visit; the Cantonese diner reminds me of the typical Hong Kong-style café (also known as a “cha chaan teng”). The chef started his career in Hong Kong decades ago and has brought a long list of authentic Hong Kong dishes to his restaurant in northwestern Omaha. Dim sum—bite-size breakfast hors d’oeuvres—are freshly made to order; I highly recommend ordering a variety and enjoying them with a group of friends. Stuffed eggplant, fish slices in congee (rice porridge), and sliced beef with pan-fried rice noodles are among my top three choices.
Tucked in the corner of a strip mall on 72nd Street, Blue and Fly Asian Kitchen is a homey eatery that is crowded with Chinese students every night. The traditional Chinese menu features a range of quick-fried and fish dishes that are iconic of Shandong cuisine. A bilingual handwritten menu beside the kitchen offers a further selection of seasonal delicacies. The owners are generous in sharing their cultural heritage with patrons; for example, in the last Mid-Autumn Festival, they gave out handmade “mooncakes” to diners to share celebration of the Chinese holiday. I have yet to order anything I do not enjoy at Blue and Fly (and I am definitely a frequent patron). My personal favorites include spicy shredded potato (a cold appetizer), spicy pig intestine (an entrée), and a specialty dessert—caramelized sweet potato.
3. Cantonese-style barbecue duck and barbecue pork buns
Order a Cantonese-style duck (half) to go with a bowl of rice, and you will get an authentic Hong Kong lunch experience. Grand Fortune Chinese Restaurant also has an extensive dim sum menu—the baked barbecue pork pastry and baked barbecue pork bun are must-tries as you may only find the steamed version in other dim sum shops in town. Steamed barbecue pork buns are known as “cha siu bao” in Cantonese. Cha siu bao, pork and shrimp dumplings (“siu mai”), and shrimp dumplings (“har gow”) are regular fixtures of dim sum brunch anywhere in the world.
New Gold Mountain is crowded with families after church on Sundays. The restaurant has an intimate atmosphere. Its fried items—such as salt and pepper shrimp, deep-fried minced pork shrimp dumplings, and crispy fried tofu are all finger-licking good. Meat lovers can try barbecue pork with five spiced beef. The meat platter is a common dinner staple in Hong Kong, and is best enjoyed with a bowl of rice and some stir-fried vegetables.
People may not associate Three Happiness Express with authentic Chinese food. But its kung pao tofu is a good representation of Chinese cooking. The tofu is perfectly fried to form a crispy crust; the dish is not drowned, rather it is drizzled with a light brown sauce. The restaurant’s steamed dumplings are also authentic, as long as you skip the sweet and spicy sauce and dip it in soy sauce. Friends from the neighborhood have professed a deep love for the crab rangoons, Princess Chicken, and Loc’s Chicken Wings (and these dishes are definitely American Chinese inventions).
Golden Palace has an old-school menu and an Oriental interior design that suggest the restaurant has been passed down through generations. The restaurant serves polished classic American Chinese food. The barbecue back ribs are the absolute bomb.
The “secret menu” of Jade Palace offers authentic Chinese cuisines. Even if you don’t read Chinese, pick a protein and ask the server what he/she recommends. The owner suggested we try “water boiled fish”—beware though, the Sichuanese dish is cooked with a lot of red hot chili peppers. The heat index of the fish is a challenge (southerners, like me, are not known for eating spicy). Be sure to discuss the level of spiciness before ordering.
China Garden Restaurant has a winter hot pot special. The communal dish is popular in colder months. Select meats and vegetables from a list, and the server will bring a pot of broth and a portable stove for you to cook the food in. The restaurant offers most of the favorites of Sichuanese cuisine. To drink, ask the server if sweet-sour plum juice is available. Other thirst-quenching options include Tsingtao beer and canned Chinese herbal tea, “Wong Lo Kat.”
The interior design of King Fong Cafe resembles that of Chinese courtyard houses. The wood carvings and chandeliers (imported from Canton, the old name of Guangzhou) are well-preserved—the visual enjoyment is a feast in itself. The restaurant is not only the oldest Chinese restaurant in town, it is the longest-running restaurant in the city.
* Note: King Fong Cafe announced its temporary closure in 2016 and had not announced a reopening date at the time of Omaha Magazine‘s publication deadline.
Another great way to discover new dishes is to ask the server what Chinese customers have ordered. If something looks delicious at another table, ask your server what it is. For anyone looking to celebrate the Lunar New Year with a Chinese feast, please note that restaurants may close during the festival, so check ahead to confirm if they are open.
Authenticity aside, I absolutely love when fortune cookies arrive with the bill. The American Chinese invention (or American Japanese, depending on the origin story) coincides with Chinese affinity for auspicious signs. Happy Lunar New Year! May your fortune cookie bring good luck!
How do you say “Happy New Year” in Chinese?
“Gong hei fat choi!” That’s Cantonese (the language of Hong Kong and Guangdong).
“Xin nian kuai le!” That’s Mandarin (the official language of mainland China and Taiwan)
…and for a preview of the 2017 Nebraska Chinese Association Lunar New Year Celebration: