We all know the stereotypes about Chinese takeout: It’s cheap, fast and often full of palate pleasing, blood-pressure accelerating MSG.
But the actual quality of dishes that come from a vast, diverse country that boasts a variety of regional cuisines is a discussion that doesn’t typically happen. For New York City journalist Victoria Bekiempis, that was reason enough to send her on a mission.
“I wanted to cover something that gets ignored,” said the 24-year-old writer. “Chinese takeout is a culinary institution that needs to be discussed – it gets pushed aside because attention is given to ritzier places and food that seems more out of the ordinary.”
To that end, Bekiempis has been eating Chinese takeout one meal a day, every day, since January 1 and chronicling her experience in a Village Voice series titled “Year of the Takeout.” She plans to have hit 365 New York City Chinese eateries by the end of the year.
Almost six weeks into the project, Bekiempis says the experience has been both tedious and inspiring.
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“It’s had its ups and downs, however, there are definitely more ups than down,” she said. “There were a few days when I kept getting exceedingly mediocre plates, and it was difficult to power through that. Sometimes you get particular dish and all you want is cheeseburger. My expectation is that I’m going to get a lot of run-of-the-mill stuff, but it’s the diamonds in the rough make this project worthwhile.”
Bekiempis says that some of the best dishes she’s had have come from the most affordable places, like the Sichuan Pork from Wai Lee on Manhattan's Upper West Side, which she described dreamily as having “strips of meat that were moist, rich flesh, perfectly julienned peppers and a savory sauce that exceeded my expectations and blew me out of the water.”
She’s gotten takeout from both high-end and low-end restaurants, and says that often, the more expensive eats “are not that different from the $4.99 pint that you can get anywhere in the country.” Another such dish that astounded her was a Lobster Chow Fun that cost her $5.95. “It totally threw me for a loop how masterfully it was carried off – and it wasn’t ‘krab with a k’ or some other imitation – it had actual lobster! I’ve had the same dish at more chichi noodle houses, served with a similar approach for far more money,” she explained.
We asked Bekiempis what tips she could share for how to spot a takeout location that would serve up the most delicious fare, and she responded that, well, there’s really no way to know until you try it. “It’s a total toss up!” she said. “It’s not like, oh, if the restaurant is clean it’ll have good food. Some places seemed a little dodgy in terms of cleanliness, but I never got sick from any of them and some of them had really high quality food.”
With another 10 and half months to go, it remains to be seen what jewels of knowledge Bekiempis will unearth. Her ultimate goal is to see New York City through a whole new lens, and share that with her readers.
“It’s just about understanding my culinary surroundings as much as possible,” she said. “As cheesy as it sounds, I sincerely mean it. I’m going to see a side of New York that perhaps I wouldn’t have been able to see had I not engaged in this project.”
And that, she hopes, will serve up some interesting conversation.
“It’s superfluous food knowledge that I can talk about at a cocktail party,” she laughed. “I’m excited to have that random expertise. Where this will take me, I don’t know, but I’m along for the long ride!”
Tell us, in the comments below: if you had to eat one type of takeout every day for a year, what would it be?
Vidya Rao is a TODAY.com food editor who would eat pizza every day for the rest of her life if she had magical pants to accommodate the growing waistline that would result from such an endeavor.