Outside of the classroom, the college lifestyle has been a learning experience for me, and this year has been no exception. As a junior living off campus in Collegetown, I decided that instead of continuing to have a meal plan with Cornell Dining, I would try my hand at cooking for myself, especially because that’s what I’ll have to do upon graduation. While I am proud of my so-called kitchen masterpieces, I have to admit that a majority of what I make for myself is constrained by time and resources; I usually make salads, sandwiches and pasta dishes because they require no more than fifteen minutes each.
However, as a native San Franciscan and Asian American, I find myself craving Asian food! While I do watch quite a few cooking shows that feature Asian cuisine, it can be hard to find the exact ingredients and supplies you need. For this reason, I usually eat out when it comes to Asian food and have become familiar with the Asian cuisine in Ithaca. This past weekend, I took the bus downtown to the food court in Center Ithaca and tried their latest addition — Tian Jin Foods.
As you may have surmised, Tian Jin Foods serves Chinese cuisine, and its name seems to originate from Tianjin, a coastal city in Mainland China. Posted underneath the restaurant signpost but above the counter is the new establishment’s simple but tempting menu. About ten items comprise Tian Jin’s offerings, each with its own number, price and colorful close-ups of the food in case you’re not as familiar with Chinese cuisine.
From buns to noodle soup, there are a variety of dishes to be had, but I chose to order the soup dumplings and a Chinese egg pancake. Known as xiao long bao in Mandarin, soup dumplings are small steamed buns that can contain any type of filling that will determine the flavor of the broth within. Because I chose to eat at the food court instead of getting take-out, my soup dumplings were actually served on a bamboo steamer basket, which is how a lot of dim sum is served. Right off the bat, I gave Tian Jin points for authenticity and became increasingly confident that the Chinese owners knew what they were doing!
Although I took a cautious bite into the first of eight dumplings, the broth still got on my chin, but all I could focus on was the comforting combination of chewy skin, the pork within and the rich, body-warming soup that tied it all together. This past Sunday was a particularly rough day for me, but eating those dumplings made me feel like I was back home and hanging out with family. As a result, I felt so much better — and fuller. This was due in part to the skin and portion of the xiao long bao. Most of the soup dumplings I’ve had come with a thinner skin than the ones at Tian Jin Foods did, not that I’m complaining. Sometimes I dread eating soup dumplings in front of my relatives because either in the process of separating it from another dumpling or through picking up the dumpling itself with chopsticks, I’ll break the thin skin, upon which that precious soup will leak onto the basket and my siblings will laugh at my shame. With the thicker skins (think potstickers) at Tian Jin Foods, I didn’t run into that problem at all, so I got to drink most of the delicious pork-flavored broth. Furthermore, the size of each dumpling itself is larger than what I’m used to, so $8 for eight pieces is a cheap price.
I ate the Chinese egg pancake after the dumplings, just because you want to enjoy them while they’re still warm because they do contain soup. The egg pancake actually wasn’t my first choice, but they ran out of the beef Chinese sandwich (and its pork variant) that I originally wanted, which may be a testament to the establishment’s popularity. In fact, after I paid and as I waited for my food, a woman who said she lived in the building began to speak to another customer. She mentioned that whenever she passed by the food court, the Tian Jin Foods stand always had people standing around it, “so it must be ‘hoppin.’”
I’m not sure what the Chinese egg pancake at Tian Jin would be called in Mandarin, but it’s like a paper-thin, egg-based calzone with minced pork, leeks and chives inside. The pancake itself is folded in half, giving it a semicircular shape. Like the soup dumplings, this was a little messy to eat because the exterior was greasy, but the minced pork had this strangely sweet flavor profile, with the occasional tinge of alcohol that must have come from the leeks. By itself, this wasn’t as filling as the order of soup dumplings, but the pancake-sandwich cost $4, which is still reasonable.
Before I even left the food court, I knew I’d return to Tian Jin Foods eventually, so I returned to the counter to check the hours and take a business card, but there was no information to be found about when it’d be open. I will mention, however, that Tian Jin Foods was the only open vendor in the food court this past Sunday. They also have a phone number listed on their business card, so calling before — rather, if — you head down there is a good idea.
Serves: cheap Chinese comestibles
Vibe: homey hole-in-the-wall