Ed Koch, The Mayor Who Loved Chinese Food

Former New York City mayor Ed Koch, who passed away this morning at the age of 88, is rightfully being remembered as a forceful, sometimes flawed, politician with an even more dynamic personality. They guy told it like it was. He made enemies. He helped us get through hard times. He was the Jew from the Bronx, presumably closeted, who reigned over the broken but beautiful New York City of the 1970s and 1980s. But what's being ignored, at the moment, is the one thing I have appreciated most about Koch: He adored Chinese food.

What, big deal? The Jewish people have appreciated lo mein for centuries? Perhaps, but, still, back in the '70s, Chinese food was not as mainstream as it is today. There was (a much smaller) Chinatown, of course, and there were some restaurants above Canal St., but Shun Lee was as good as it got. Nothing like the bounty we live with today.

"I think Chinese is the greatest cuisine in the world," Koch told food critic Gael Greene while eating a meal of pork loin, fish and fermented bean curd at Joy Garden in Chinatown, back in 1979. "It has such depth and complexity, such great contrasts."

Ah, get it? His food was like his politics, his life, his city.

I once spoke to Koch about Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center. We also spoke of fine dining at The Four Seasons, which he could appreciate, but his true love was Peking Duck and fried fish. His favorite Chinese restaurants included Sun Lok Kee (now closed) and Peking Duck House.

It may be apocryphal, but the story goes that he almost died choking on watercress in a Chinese restaurant in 1981. He was saved by the Heimlich maneuver, but rumors dogged him that he had actually choked on a spare rib but that was covered up for fear of alienating the Jewish vote. How can you not love a story like that?

In his later years, my wife would see Koch eating at Menchanko-tei, a Japanese noodle spot in Midtown. He sat, alone, at the bar, just another working stiff slurping down hot ramen while staring into his bowl.

That's how I'll remember him.

More Chinese Food on Food Republic: