The Equal Opportunity Celebrant – Part 4

Daylight Saving Time, my second favorite holiday after Christmas and the undisputed harbinger of Spring as long as you don’t look out your window, has at long last arrived. Two notable celebrations of the season, Easter and Passover, are concomitant this year, so this post is a nod to both. I haven’t forgotten Nowruz, of course, the Iranian (or Persian) New Year that occurs on the vernal equinox, but I feel that it deserves a post of its own accompanied by photos of delicious traditional foods which, with some luck, I’ll be able to provide.

It’s no coincidence that the Italian word for Easter (pasqua) and the Hebrew word for Passover (pesach) are closely related, although culinarily the holidays couldn’t be more disparate. During this time of year, Jewish families are expunging their homes of even the most minuscule crumb of anything leavened, and Italians are baking Easter breads like they’re going out of style.

Italy’s traditional seasonal bread is La Colomba di Pasqua (“The Easter Dove”), and it is essentially Lombardy’s Eastertime answer to Milan’s Christmastime panettone. These deliciously sweet, cakey breads, in some ways Italy’s gift to coffeecake but so much better, are fundamentally the same except for two significant distinctions: the colomba is baked in the shape of the iconic dove that symbolizes both the resurrection and peace, and the recipes diverge with the colomba’s dense topping of almonds and crunchy pearl sugar glaze. Traditionally, a colomba lacks raisins, favoring only candied orange or citron peel, but as with panettone, fanciful flavors (including some with raisins) proliferate. And also as with panettone, charming but somewhat specious tales of its origin abound. (If you haven’t already, please read my passionate paean to panettone for more information and folklore about this extraordinary contribution to the culinary arts.)

(Click any photo to see it in high resolution.)

The first photo shows a colomba in all its avian splendor. Frankly, I think it’s a leap of faith to discern a dove in there, but if you can detect one, you may have just performed your own miracle.

Hard pressed to see the dove? Fret not, for the second photo has the cake turned upside down so the columbine form is somewhat more evident.

The third photo depicts a version that features bits of chocolate and dried peaches within and crunchy crushed amaretto cookies atop.

Just wondering: There’s no debate that American kids bite the ears off their chocolate Easter bunnies first. Do you suppose that Italian children start with the head, tail, or wings of the colomba?

On to Passover. Previously on ethnojunkie.com, I did a springtime post that included a story about someone who dared me to come up with an ethnic fusion Passover menu. I wrote:

“Well, far be it from me to dodge a culinary challenge! So although obviously inauthentic, but certainly fun and yummy, here’s to a Sazón Pesach!

Picante Gefilte Pescado
Masa Ball Posole
Brisket Mole
Poblano Potato Kugel
Maple Chipotle Carrot Tzimmes
Guacamole spiked with Horseradish
Charoset with Pepitas and Tamarindo

And, of course, the ever popular Manischewitz Sangria!”

It was all in good fun, of course, but it got me thinking about actually creating a Jewish-Mexican fusion recipe. It isn’t strictly Kosher for Passover, of course, but I thought the concept was worth a try. So here is my latest crack at cross cultural cooking: Masa Brei!

Now you might know that Matzo Brei (literally “fried matzo”) is a truly tasty dish consisting of matzos broken into pieces that are soaked briefly in warm milk (some folks use water), drained, soaked in beaten eggs until soft, then fried in copious quantities of butter. Typically served with sour cream and applesauce, it’s heimische cooking at its finest, Jewish soul food, and it’s easy to do.

So I thought it might be worth a try to swap out the matzos for tostadas, the milk for horchata, the sour cream for crema, and the applesauce for homemade pineapple-jalapeño salsa. A sprinkle of tajín, a scatter of chopped cilantro – and it actually worked! Here’s the finished product:

And no matter which one you’re celebrating (or perhaps all of them like me) – Happy Holidays!
 
 

Alley 41

People often ask where (and what) I’ve eaten recently, so in response, I’ve been posting photos of some of the tastiest dishes from my favorite restaurants under the category You Asked For It. You can find these and many more on my Instagram feed which you can access right here – no signup required! I update it almost daily, so check in frequently to see what I’m up to. Just click “Instagram” in the menubar at the top of any page.


It is my distinct pleasure to turn you on to Alley 41 in Flushing, one of the new breed of contemporary Sichuan restaurants, and not to be missed. Alley 41 describes itself as “authentic Szechuan cuisine with a touch of creativity”. I describe it as amazing, awesome, and astounding. And that’s just the As. Award-winning Master Chef Jiang has composed a menu of dishes that could make even the most stoic diner gush with delight; everything we ordered had a unique, personal spin and was wonderful. There are only so many synonyms for delicious, and toothsome fell out of favor half a century ago, so I’ll abandon verbal descriptions and let you ogle the photos. With a seemingly infinite menu, this is one restaurant I’ll never tire of.

Here are a few of the extraordinary dishes we tried. (Click any photo to view in glorious high resolution.)


Our first visit to Alley 41 occurred when Chinese Lunar New Year was just around the corner, and I recalled that enjoying long noodles portends a long life. These Sweet and Spicy Noodles are the longest and thickest I’ve ever encountered, so I gather I’m headed for a long (and chubby) lifetime! If memory serves, each was about a yard long (no hyperbole in this hyperbowl) with an awesome chew, napped with a sauce made of sheer happiness. I say that because their name, tiánshui miàn (甜水麵) taken literally character by character, means sweet water noodle, but the first two characters together can mean “happiness” and I’m sticking with that translation. It’s a Sichuan restaurant, but I’m told that these noodles hail from Dongbei.


Three of the appetizer/snack items we tried: Chinese Beef Burritos, Thousand Layer Pancake, and Chinese Leek Turnovers.

Seafood and Pumpkin Congee. Deceptively light, the unique blend of ingredients – savory seafood, crispy youtiao (Chinese cruller) for texture, scallion for a little punch, and that surprising pumpkin jook made for a delightful combination.

Pork Belly in Garlic Sauce was beautifully presented. Rolled up with cucumber, scallion and cold noodles, not to mention the perfect accompanying sauce, they were irresistible.

They may look simple, but the Smoky Wok Tossed Spicy Asian Green Chilies brought a touch of heat and a ton of flavor to what only seemed like a modest dish.

Spare Ribs with Salted Duck Egg. (Along with a few others, this one doesn’t appear on the current menu. If you’ve got some kind of portable internet access device and you’re eager to try these dishes, bring it along and pull up my photos; a picture is worth a thousand words!)

Sautéed Cauliflower with Soy Sauce. With this cauldron of cauliflower, folks at the table who cry “more veggies” were more than satisfied. The structure of Chinese cauliflower is less compact than the dense Northern European version you might be accustomed to and that makes for a more tender texture after cooking and allows it to soak up more sauce.

Lamb with Hot Pepper Sauce. Delicious and delicate, I wouldn’t have minded a little more heat, but I’m not complaining.

Sautéed Diced Chicken with Basil and Yib Veggie Buns (or so the menu read). I believe the name refers to Yibin, the city in Sichuan province. To me, the little buns looked like mini wotou, hollow, conical, steamed cornbread (and yes, you can buy those in food courts in Flushing if you know where to look).

Braised Tender Beef with Veggies. You’ll want some rice with this one to counterbalance the savory sauce. Good eats!

Frog with Dry Pepper. Green pepper, lotus root, leeks, bean curd skin and more combine with bits of frog in this tasty stir fry.

I admit it; I’m a sucker for dishes like this one. Steamed Fatty Meat (pork belly) with Sticky Rice – to me it tastes like the most unimaginably rich comfort food!

Flounder in Garlic Sauce. Crispy and light with just enough spice to complement but not overpower the delicately fried fish.

Stir-Fried Smoky Pork with Green Leek. With the one-two punch of smoky pork belly and zesty leeks, this dish makes its presence felt in no uncertain terms.

Spicy Lamb with Cumin Flavor. Sizzling, spicy, succulent, scrumptious! Seems to be a universal favorite.

Braised Pork with Chinese Chestnuts. Pork belly and chestnuts in a savory sauce turned out to be a wonderful combination.

Sautéed Prawns with Spicy Chili Minced Pork. Delicious head-on (is there any other way?) prawns with bits of pork in a gently spicy sauce with scallions and red pepper. Straightforward and elegant at the same time.

Sizzling Minced Beef with Black Pepper. Got this one because I wanted to see what the geniuses at Alley 41 would do with black pepper – not that I’m tired of red chilies or Sichuan peppercorns or any other form of kicked up goodness, of course – and I wasn’t disappointed. The flavor was surprisingly complex, not at all one-note which can happen with black pepper, the beef perfectly tender, and the onions were just the right accompaniment. The dish came to our table steaming and sizzling with bonito flakes dancing atop as if in celebration of our get-together. Naturally, the platter was extremely hot – not a bull you’d want to grab by the horns!
 

My highest praise for Alley 41, 136-45 41st Ave, Flushing. I guess I’m not going to be satisfied until I’ve tried everything on their 46 page menu. If you haven’t been there yet, I strongly recommend it. And if you have, isn’t it time to go back? 😉

 
 

Belarussian Xata

You’re on the B/Q subway heading towards Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, you detrain at Sheepshead Bay Station, make a right onto Sheepshead Bay Road and enter the establishment at #1655. You likely thought you were in Sheepshead Bay. Given the signposts, a reasonable assumption. But it appears that you have been transported some 4,444 miles to Belarus – and the feast that you’re about to enjoy will only confirm that notion.

Welcome to Belarussian Xata.

Evoking the impression of a Belarusian cottage (хата), the décor is picture-perfect, from the roughhewn tables and rustic fences to the charming artwork, wall hangings and sconces; even the wooden menu covers reflect the theme. And the incredibly attentive and helpful staff, clad in enchanting authentic garb, will guide you through your experience with such appreciation for their homeland and knowledge of its cuisine that you’ll come away feeling that you have been immersed in Belarusian culture, if only for a brief moment in time.

The food shares some features of other Former Soviet Union cuisines: there’s no shortage of potatoes and pork with hearty, creamy sauces; and vegetables, when they make an appearance, have been puckeringly pickled. But make no mistake, it is unique to Belarus and everything I tasted was delectable – each of the four times I visited since their opening last fall!

Here are a few of the superb dishes we tried. (Click any photo to view in glorious high resolution.)


The Appetizer “Village Style” sets out three different kinds of salo (cured fatback, not unlike Italy’s lardo): plain, smoked, and Hungarian style – kissed with paprika – served with chunky fried potatoes and greens. I recommend constructing each forkful with a bite each of salo, potato or bread, one of the greens, and a bit of mustard. Highly enjoyable.

Herring “Village Style” consisted of herring fillets layered over potato, egg, cucumber, and onion, a perfect marriage of flavors and a lovely presentation.

Meat Assortment “Belorusskaya”. Beef tongue, roast pork, chicken roll, and peasant sausage fanned out across a wooden platter, served with horseradish or mustard.

Machanka, a traditional Belarusian specialty featured three kinds of pork – homemade sausage, pork ribs, and roast pork shoulder – in a tempting creamy gravy that reminded me a little of veal blanquette but on steroids. All of the meats were wonderfully flavorful and tender. You have the option of ordering the dish with either blini or potato pancakes but I highly recommend the blini in this case. Absolutely not to be missed.

Potato Pancake “Kupechesky Style” (pronounced koo-PETCH-e-skee) is another must have. Grated potatoes, pork brisket, tomato, mushrooms, cheese, and mayonnaise combine to make another amazing dish.

Potato Babka “Bobruisky Style”, named for the city in Belarus. You may be conditioned into thinking of babka as a form of coffee cake, but the word actually means “grandmother”, and by extension, something your grandmother would bake and serve you with a side of love. If you’ve ever had potato pudding (or kugel), you’ll immediately recognize this grated potato/egg mixture – Eastern European comfort food in a pot.

Potato Kolduni (pronounced kol-doo-NEE) with Mushrooms. Another must order. It’s the grated potato/egg concoction but stuffed with mushrooms, boiled egg, and fried onions in a tasty mushroom sauce. Also available with chicken (second photo) or pork and beef, but my favorite was the mushroom version.

Pork Knuckle “Village Style”, braised for tenderness then baked for Maillard-crisp flavor was falling off the bone.

Sour Cherry Dumplings and Cheese Dumplings – sweet and delicious.

Fried Meat Dumplings “Grodno Style”, also named for a Belarusian city. Fried dumplings filled with chopped beef and pork seasoned with onions and spices provided a solid contrast to the sweeter dumplings. Second photo: Gotta show the cheese pull, right? By the way, that day-glow green drink on the left is tarkhun, tarragon soda; it has that anise/licorice/tarragon flavor profile that some folks love.

Baked Tongue in Dutch Oven. Tender and savory beef tongue with potatoes finished in a Dutch oven with cream sauce and cheese. If you think you don’t like tongue, try this: it might change your mind.

Belarussian Pickled Vegetable Platter. Cabbage sauerkraut, two kinds of pickled cucumbers and two kinds of pickled tomatoes (green and cherry); this dish is a perfect foil for heavier fare.

Carp Baked In Dutch Oven. Carp fillet with onions, carrots, mushrooms, and potatoes in a creamy white sauce.

Potato Pancakes with Cracklings served with sour cream and copious bits of pork.

Chicken Giblets with Buckwheat (Kasha). Chicken hearts and liver in a creamy sauce of onion, carrots, and mushrooms with a side of buckwheat groats. Also available with mashed potatoes, but order the kasha!

We also got the Grilled Branzino with Vegetables, technically not a Belarusian dish, but one of us was craving fish and the grilled vegetables were a welcome addition. The kitchen did a good job here as well.

Napoleon – one of three luscious desserts we tried.

Masculine Ideal. I’m generally not a cake eater, but the abundance of caramel dulce de leche and nuts had me hooked on this distinctive dessert. You’re probably wondering about the name, but it’s traditional.

The most unusual dessert was warm Orshanskie (“сырники оршанские в чугунке”, literally Orsha cheese pancakes in a pot, Orsha being a city in Belarus), mini cheese balls with a few raisins added for good measure bathed in a sweet sour cream and poppy seed sauce. Surprisingly good!

This is Anastasia. Proficient in many languages, she studied linguistics and considered becoming an interpreter before coming to the US. Helpful, attentive, charming, and always anticipating our needs, all of us fell in love with her as she answered our unending questions and pampered us as if we were royalty. She is an angel.

The man who started it all. Marat Novikov, a restaurateur and businessman from Minsk, opened the original Belarussian Xata in Moscow in 2012. A warm and generous man, he operates his Brooklyn branch ably assisted by family members. His genuine hospitality and outstanding cuisine made for an unforgettable dining experience that we are all eager to revisit.

Don’t lose any time in planning your visit to Belarussian Xata, 1655 Sheepshead Bay Road in Brooklyn.

It is an absolute must.
 
 

The Case of the Uncrackable Case

(One of my “Very Short Stories” that never fails to resonate this time of year. If you enjoy reading it, there are more in the column on the right side of my home page.)

Gong Xi Fa Cai! The callithump of Chinese drums and cymbals played havoc with my ears as the pungent miasma of spent fireworks assaulted my nose. “These are my people!” I beamed. An equal opportunity celebrant, I was in my element.

I picked my way through the ankle-deep sea of technicolor metallic streamers and confetti. “Looks like a dragon exploded,” I mused. Shuffling from market to crowded market, each festooned with the accoutrements of the holiday, I searched for authentic goodies with which to welcome Chinese New Year in style.

Definition: Chinese New Year, also known as Spring Festival, is a dazzling two-week long celebration occurring in January or February that is laden with more symbolism than a Jungian interpretation of a Fellini dream sequence inspired by a Carlos Castaneda novel.

The shape of the holiday’s foods suggests their analogue: dumplings are crafted to resemble Chinese gold or silver ingots, long noodles emblematize a long life, melon seeds epitomize fertility. Color plays a significant role as well: mandarin oranges allude to the color of gold. Sweets are often tinted red, the color of good fortune in Chinese culture.

But nothing is more traditional to the Chinese New Year banquet than food-word homophones. As any precocious third grader will tell you, homophones are words that sound alike but have different meanings (for, four, and fore in English, for example). At these festive gatherings, a whole fish will be served, because the word for fish (yu) is a homophone for surpluses. Also gracing the table will be Buddha’s Delight, a complex vegetarian dish that contains an ingredient the name of which sounds like the word for prosperity.

(We don’t have that kind of thing in western culture, but maybe we should. Imagine if you rang in the New Year at an American restaurant by ordering the surf ‘n’ turf, a certain portent that this would be the year that you meat your sole mate.

Just don’t wash it down with wine.)

And no traditional food is more important than the ubiquitous Chinese New Year delicacy, nian gao, a glutinous rice cake sweetened with brown or white sugar and a homophone for “high year” — with the connotation of elevating oneself higher with each new year, perhaps even lifting one’s spirits.

Now, I had seen nian gao dished up and steamed in aluminum pie pans in every market in New York’s five or so Chinatowns. But one particular variation packaged in a six-inch wide container shaped like a Chinese ingot (as many items are this time of year) caught my eye and beckoned to me. As I inspected it more closely, I realized that I could not for the life of me fathom how it open it! This fact alone was sufficient bait; I stood in line with my fellow revelers, paid, and took it home.

With bugged-out eyes and a glower that betrayed both puzzlement and frustration, I turned the semi-translucent vessel over and over again like someone who had reached a cul-de-sac with a recalcitrant Rubik’s Cube. The object was fashioned of two mirror image concave pieces of plastic fused together — plastic somewhat thicker than that of the average shampoo container — too thick to squeeze easily, for sure, and inseparable along the seam. I could make out an air bubble which migrated as I shifted its orientation, so I had a clue as to the texture of its contents — typical semi-firm glutinous rice cake, perhaps with a little syrup around it. Searching for an instruction manual, I found that Google had abandoned me: either no one else on the planet had ever encountered these contrivances or everyone else on the planet buys them every year and I am the only soul who is too inept to persuade them to yield their bounty. There was a tissue paper-thin label stuck to the bottom that showed the “best before” date as May, so even allowing for my customary procrastination, I had some time to solve the mystery. As long as that case remained closed, the case was not closed.

Wait a minute. What if some sort of key was hiding beneath that slip of a label? A slot to pry the two halves apart or a helpful arrow embossed on the obdurate plastic? Slowly, carefully, I began to peel back the label. THHHHPPP! The tiny air bubble instantly expanded to fill half the case as air rushed inside. Could it be that this gossamer leaf was the only protection the rice cake had from the elements, furry predators, and me? Such was the fact.

But then, I was confronted with a further conundrum. Lurking beneath said label was a hole the size of a half dollar. (Remember those?) This carapace was obviously a mold constructed so that its contents would delight the eye when served. But the only way I could see to get to the goods inside was to dig the stuff out with a fork! Not what they intended, I was certain. Somehow, there had to be a way to pry the halves apart without damaging the springy contents.

I hooked my thumbs on either side of the hole and yanked. Gnrrgh! Nothing. I laid it on the kitchen counter and pressed down with as much muscle as I could muster hoping that it would split along some weak, unseen fault line without damaging the contents. Again, it did not succumb to my efforts. I grabbed my nastiest knife and attempted to slice through the case along the seam. Nope, that’s not it either, I thought as I licked my finger where I had cut myself when the blade slipped.

Silently, the ingot mocked me. Was it designed this way on purpose? Some sort of arcane object lesson about anything worth achieving is worth struggling over? Or conversely, was it perhaps trying to tell me that I would never achieve riches, no matter how much I persevered?

Frustrated, I stashed the thing in a corner of my fridge. Days passed. The days melded into weeks. It was time to begin plans for Thanksagaingiving.

Definition: Thanksagaingiving is a joyful, annual family ritual. Not content to celebrate the merely dozens of diverse international and American holidays, each with its own panoply of tempting traditional foods, I created one more.

Over many years, I have developed, tweaked, and perfected an elaborate Thanksgiving menu that I prepare annually, much to the delight of my clan. And over those many years, we would ask ourselves, why don’t we do this more often? Pondering the possibility, we recognized that just about every month has some delectable holiday or seasonal foods associated with it. But there is that frigid, desolate chasm between Chinese New Year and the promise of tender spring vegetables that cries out for a joyous — and delicious — festival to uplift us from our disheartened doldrums.

Enter Thanksagaingiving. When we give thanks. Again. And rerun the whole November spectacle.

Invariably, each day as I loaded the fridge with more ingredients for our feast, it became necessary to move the Chinese ingot around to make space for the latest bounty. Now onto the second shelf, the customary residence for leftovers, now far back into the lower left corner where that jar of homemade boysenberry jam had been languishing for the last three months, now precariously balanced on a tall bottle of pandan syrup lying on its side in the least accessible corner — where the ingot unfailingly teetered, slipped, and fell, locking its neighbors into an exasperating jigsaw of jars and urns that prevented anything from being extricated from the shelf.

I had no choice but to toss it.

Thanksagaingiving came and went. We happily devoured our Roast Turkey with Chestnut Cornbread Stuffing, Dandy Brandied Candied Yams, Maple Sugar Acorn Squash, Corn Pudding, Scalloped Potatoes with Leeks and Bacon, and the subsequent procession of turkey sandwiches, turkey tetrazzini, turkey burritos, and turkey soup.

The fridge was once again barren. Wistfully, I gazed at the empty spaces that my forlorn little nian gao had been sequentially evicted from. Had I forsaken it prematurely? Would one more hour of negotiation have solved the mystery? Nostalgically, I remembered all the time we had spent together getting to know each other.

But then, I realized that all was not lost — come next Chinese New Year, I could purchase another ingot-encased nian gao and try again. I felt my spirits lifting.

And suddenly, I comprehended what had come to pass without my even being aware of it. In the light of that existential moment, the words “come next Chinese New Year, I could purchase another…and try again” echoed in my mind — and the cosmic meaning of this episode, the raison d’être for this tortuous journey became brilliantly clear:

It had been the maiden voyage of a new annual tradition!

 

 

Panettone! Pannetone! Pannettone!

One of these things is not like the others, or so the song goes. In this case, the outlier is the first Panettone, the only orthographically correct version of the subject of this post. To tell the truth, the two imposters share the spotlight only by way of capitulation to less-than-forgiving search engines (and not as a sly reference to the 90s R&B/soul group) because it is my mission to ensure that everyone falls in love with this gift to the culinary arts as deeply, passionately, and yes, obsessively as I have.

You’re all familiar with panettone, right? That Italian (Milanese, specifically) sweet, fruity, fluffy cake that’s usually consumed for the holidays (Christmas, specifically) but can be enjoyed year-round by ardent aficionados (me, specifically).

Fanciful spellings aside, you’ll find panettone in most markets around Christmastime and in Italian specialty shops year round (fortunately for us). A little digging uproots an extended family tree including pandoro, pandolce, panforte, panpepato, and pangiallo. The last four differ radically from the subject of our discourse so for the sake of completeness, let’s dispatch them straightaway:

• Pandolce, “sweet bread”, hails from Genoa, and unlike gossamer panettone is dense and somewhat crumbly like a cookie.
• Panforte, “strong bread”, is neither breadlike nor cakey; it’s more of a dense, chewy fruit paste, spicy and sweet. I sometimes serve it as an accompaniment to a cheese plate.
• Panpepato, “peppered bread”, is a subset of panforte, gingery, nutty, and covered with chocolate.
• Pangiallo, “yellow bread”, is Rome’s challenger. Sometimes saffron infused, often laden with chocolate and always dense with dried fruit, I know this one only by repute.

Now that we’ve dispelled any confusion regarding the distant cugini, we can focus on the object of our affection. Our goal is to determine which style and brand you like the best. We’ll start with style; the two you’re most likely to encounter are panettone, the pride of Milan and pandoro, Verona’s answer to it.

The story of how panettone gets its name is the stuff of which legend is made but I frankly don’t find any of the fables particularly convincing. One tale recounts that in 15th century Milan, a delicious bread was crafted that incorporated yeast, an ingredient so dear in that era that it earned the moniker “pane di tono”, literally “luxury cake” – feasible, except that every Italian dictionary I own or found on the interwebs fails to suggest “luxury” as a definition for tono. But I suppose Italian was different back then.

Another more linguistically stringent contender avers that since pane means bread or cake, adding the diminutive suffix -etto turns it into a small loaf cake and then appending the augmentative suffix -one renders it large, thus describing a “large small loaf cake”. Really? But I suppose whimsy was different back then.

Yet another narrative tells of the Duke of Milan’s cook who having prepared an otherwise sumptuous repast disastrously burned the dessert. Fortunately, the young kitchen apprentice, Toni, proposed that they serve the sweet cake he had made for his own breakfast. Delighted, the Duke requested the name of the delicious cake, the cook replied “il pane di Toni”, and the rest is history. I don’t know about you, but if I had concocted so splendid a treat for my breakfast, none would have been kicking around the kitchen come dinnertime – not to mention the fact that the preparation of panettone is a time consuming, arduous process and not something one hastily throws together for breakfast like a bagel with a schmear. But I suppose panettone was different back then.

Less about folklore and more about traditional religious ritual, the people of Milan save a piece of their Christmas panettone, have it blessed and eat it on February 3, the morning after Candlemas which for them heralds the end of the Christmas season. Known as the Feast of San Biagio, it celebrates the saga of St. Blaise as he saved the life of a boy who was choking on a fish bone by feeding him bread in order to dislodge the bone. Eating panettone for breakfast that day therefore pays homage to the “protector of the throat”, patron saint of throats and noses, and ensures that his followers will be safeguarded against colds and sore throats in the upcoming year. Who needs a flu shot when you have such a delicious excuse to enjoy more panettone?

Enough history; what’s it like? The shape is that of a domed, squat cylinder, about 5–6 inches high, 8–9 inches in diameter, typically baked in a pan lined with a ring of corrugated, often brown, paper. Based on a sweet risen dough, it’s airy, eggy, buttery, moist and so light that it practically floats; it pulls apart almost like cotton candy although you’ll want to slice it with a serrated knife. The classic version is stippled with candied citron and raisins and often sports an almond or hazelnut glaze.

Many other less traditional but still delicious flavors abound including pistachio, sour cherry, mixed berry, pineapple, peach, apricot, pear, bits of chocolate, moscato wine, limoncello, zuppa inglese, tiramisu, crema pasticcera (custard), and combinations thereof including varieties without candied fruit.

I’ve seen numerous recipes with recommendations for what to do with leftover panettone. “Leftover panettone” is an oxymoron and bears no further discussion here. I will admit, albeit grudgingly, that you can freeze it, but only if it’s wrapped extremely well.

Like so many cultural dichotomies such as Coke vs Pepsi, the Beatles vs the Stones, the Addams Family vs the Munsters, and Mary Ann vs Ginger, there are those who champion Verona’s pandoro (“golden bread”) over Milan’s panettone. The texture of pandoro is a little denser than that of panettone but not as dense as pound cake. Also sweet and buttery, touched with vanilla, they are customarily devoid of candied fruit or decadent chocolate and creamy fillings; on occasion, you might detect a delicate whisper of other flavorings like anisette or lemon zest. Picture a two-dimensional eight-pointed star, extruded upwards conically into three dimensions and taller than a panettone; it is often presented with nothing more than a sprinkling of powdered sugar to resemble the snow-covered Alps in winter. If you insist on inventing more complex dishes using “leftover” Italian Christmas breads, the more modest pandoro lends itself better than panettone to the addition of crème fraîche, mascarpone, whipped cream, custard and fresh fruits, or the likes of Nutella (since panettone is, after all, perfection straight out of its wrapper – in my not so humble opinion, of course 😉).

Now on to brand. Like everything in the food world, it should always be about what you like personally and individually, not about what somebody tells you you should like. Each brand has its own flavor and texture, let alone unique varieties. Over the years I’ve eaten my way through mountains (think Alps) of these treats and I’ve found what I consider to be the very best: Albertengo brand Panettone Tradizionale Glassato (traditional glazed) – but they’re almost impossible to find in New York. So I wrote to the nice folks at Albertengo in Italy in buoyant English and foundering Italian and they turned me on to the one place in the city that stocks the stuff: Nicola’s Specialty Foods at 997 First Avenue in Manhattan. The photo at the top of the page shows this morning’s breakfast: Albertengo Tradizionale Glassato – la colazione dei campioni!

I consider myself fortunate to be a regular attendee at the Specialty Food Association’s Fancy Food Show every year here in New York City. Featuring thousands of new products from the US and internationally, they’re considered North America’s hottest place to catch the latest in specialty foods. Needless to report, at the 2017 show, I spent a good deal of discerning time in Italy’s pavilion checking out the panettoni both for flavor and to determine where retail outlets will be. After all, when I find a winner, you need to know how to score some!

 

An Eggnog Excursus

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! That time when folks dust off words like ’tis and ’twas as Bing Crosby croons creaky, arthritic chestnuts with inscrutable lyrics like “Christmas is a-comin’ and the egg is in the nog….”

That one always baffled me. I mean, what else would be in the “nog”?

There is vigorous unresolved debate over the etymology of the word “eggnog” (or phrase “egg nog”, if you prefer), proof that anything so resplendent is worthy of detailed analysis and ultimately obsession. Investigation harkens back to the late 1600s and hypotheses range from the term for a strong ale or possibly the wooden mug it was served in to a scrambled portmanteau of colonial argot, “grog” (rum) and “noggin” (mug). Eggs and dairy never even entered the picture (or perhaps, in this case, the pitcher). A libation did exist, however, called “posset” that was prepared with alcohol, milk, spices, and sometimes eggs, quaffed by the Brits during medieval times, that persisted for centuries. The recipe underwent refinement (as all worthy recipes do) and was surely the forerunner of today’s glorious elixir.

Of course, there are those who refuse to be satisfied until they’ve added a little something extra to the standard issue brew: down south, eggnog is often spiked with bourbon, not to mention Southern Comfort, but sherry, brandy, cognac, whiskey, rum, and grain alcohol, individually or in combination, have all managed to stagger into America’s punch bowl. Of course, this wouldn’t be an ethnojunkie post without at least a nod to international mixology, so from Wikipedia: “Eggnog is called coquito in Puerto Rico, where rum and fresh coconut juice or coconut milk are used in its preparation. Mexican eggnog, also known as rompope, was developed in Santa Clara. It differs from regular eggnog in its use of Mexican cinnamon and rum or grain alcohol. In Peru, eggnog is called biblia con pisco, and it is made with a Peruvian pomace brandy called pisco. German eggnog, called biersuppe, is made with beer and eierpunsch is a German version of eggnog made with white wine, eggs, sugar, cloves, tea, lemon or lime juice and cinnamon.” The list goes on. (Speaking of far away places with strange sounding names for things, I have to admit a certain fondness for the French spin on the word for eggnog, lait de poule – hen’s milk.)

All of which raises the question of whether I favor mixing eggnog with alcohol. I was afraid you’d ask. My personal observation is that it’s a waste of good booze and a waste of good eggnog. Unless of course it’s homemade (the nog, not the hooch) but that’s a nag of a different color. This post is about commercial eggnogs, and we’re only considering dairy based entries at that – not soy, rice, coconut, or almond milk nor lactose-free rivals – simply because there would undoubtedly be winners and losers among those categories which would eventually be pitted against “the real deal” and that would only serve to complicate comparisons.

If you’ve read me, you know that I have a few (ha!) guilty pleasures when it comes to holiday food, and for me, nothing heralds the advent of the season like the first appearance of eggnog on supermarket shelves. And snatching it away precipitately as they do every year when the yule log’s embers have barely begun to evanesce only makes the anticipation and craving for next year’s batch more intense.

But which one(s) to buy? Fret not. I and my OCD are here to offer you the benefits of my research and experimentation regarding this happy holiday quandary.

You probably know that flavor variations among brands of eggnog aren’t like those of milk – milk tastes pretty much like milk regardless of the purveyor (there are nuances but they’re not worth considering in this context). The dissimilarities among brands of eggnog, however, are cosmic by comparison; they may as well be different beverages. And to complicate things, a few brands taste radically different from year to year. (My theory is that there is some sort of practice among smaller dairies where they acquire the flavor base from a third party source and blend it with their own milk, but sometimes, for whatever reason, the base changes – perhaps it’s sourced from an alternate supplier, perhaps it’s a mandated change in recipe – hence the extreme annual variance within a single brand. It’s all about that base.) Note also that some brands are local and unique while others are the regional offspring of a national food company that may provide the same product under varying names (see the Garelick and Tuscan cartons above, both brought to you by Dean Foods).

Having read dozens of reviews, I find it fascinating that there is absolutely no critical agreement as to which commercial eggnog tastes best; one reviewer’s nectar of the gods is another’s paint thinner, so it is evident that eggnog’s charms are very much in the mouth of the beholder. My own memories of the bewitching flavor of the Ethereal Eggnog of My Youth remain vivid to this day and are the genesis of the impassioned quest I am about to share with you. But even if you disagree with my personal preferences, you’ll be able to make use of the template I’ve devised in order to develop the ultimate eggnog of your sugarplum dreams.

The Great Nog-Off Schema

The strategy is to identify significant universal eggnog characteristics and rate how each contender performs in each category. Picture a table, the kind that folks use Excel spreadsheets for even though there are no numbers to crunch but that are ideal for sorting data. Headers across the first row are Brand, Vintage, Body, Creaminess, Artificial/Natural, Flavor Notes, Finish, Special Features, Comments, and Overall Rating. Let’s examine each:

• Brand – seems obvious, but might include subtitles like Hood’s brood of Golden, Caramel, Cinnamon, Sugar Cookie, Pumpkin Pie, and Vanilla flavors; the single column simplifies sorting.

• Vintage – the year you’re evaluating. This is useful for two reasons: Tracking by year can identify certain brands that vary annually. For example, in 2008 (yeah, I’ve been at this for a while), Farmland was rather good but lately it’s been running in the middle of the pack. It’s like waiting for this year’s vintage Beaujolais Nouveau to appear: Le 2017 Farmland Lait de Poule est arrivé! And some unpredictability can be welcome; after all, it wouldn’t be Christmas without some surprises. Farmland actually comes in handy, as you’ll see later.

The second reason is that some brands never change and that’s a good thing because it can make life easier. For example, in 2014, I sampled (and had unsurprisingly forgotten about) International Delight and observed that the flavor notes included butter rum Lifesavers (not in my nog, thank you very much). This year, 2017, I inadvertently bought it again and my butter rum flavor notes were identical to those from three years earlier. Since my comments ran along the lines of “worst ever”, “the word ‘egg’ never even appears on the label nor in the ingredients list so no surprise there”, and so forth, it’s obvious that I’ll never need to carry that brand home again. See? Makes life easier.

• Body – rated on a 1 to 5 scale where 1 is thinnest and 5 is thickest. You might not care for a super thick eggnog (or the yellow mustache that accompanies it), so maybe a 4 in this category beats a 5 for you, but it certainly shouldn’t be a 1, otherwise you’re just drinking eggnog flavored milk and what’s the point of that? But it’s all a matter of taste, as is everything in this post.

• Creaminess – different from body, this is about mouthfeel where 1 may very well be thick but not at all creamy (think Pepto-Bismol) and 5 coats your mouth with dairy cream.

• The Artificial/Natural continuum – where 1 denotes dominant artificial flavoring (usually ester-based) and 5 tastes like someone made it at home using only eggs, dairy products and sugar. Appreciation of this trait is idiosyncratic. Personally, I’m trying to recapture the Magical Eggnog of My Kidhood and that one had just a wee dram of that ester component. To understand them, you first need to know that there are many flavors derived from ester compounds. You’ll find them in artificial flavors of every stripe but probably the most universally recognized example I can describe is that artificial banana-y flavor of Circus Peanuts, those orange, oversized-peanut-shaped, marshmallowy candies that are an affront to the tastebuds of anyone over the age of five. That’s only one kind of ester (isoamyl acetate, C7H14O2, for my fellow science geeks out there) but there’s a common combination that screams “Eggnog!” to anyone whose tongue is half listening. I’m searching for just a soupçon of that in my nog.

• Flavor Notes – for example, descriptors like eggy, nutmeggy, vanilla, cinnamon, clove, carrageenan (a thickener often found in commercial rice puddings and a flavor easy to recognize once you’ve experienced it), cooked, nutty, or sugary sweet.

• Finish – you oenophiles will grok this. A food’s aftertaste is often different from its flavor (think artichokes) and it’s connected to whatever remains on your tongue plus the sense memory that you’re left with after taking a sip. I once had some eggnog that was sort of okay in the mouth but whose aftertaste was downright chalky. I’ve found that a few organic brands have a “grassy” finish.

• Special Features – categories like organic, lite (whatever that means), and if you must, soy/nut/coconut-based, lactose free, etc. This is the column in which I noted that SoCo actually provides instructions on its label, admitting, “Preparation: Mix with Southern Comfort” so perhaps it’s intended to work optimally in that application – as a mixer, not a beverage – since I don’t care for it as a virgin standalone. Again, that’s just me; YMMV.

• Comments – have fun with it. One eggnog I tasted (which will go nameless) inspired me to write, “tastes the way my parents’ plastic slipcovers used to smell when I was a kid.”

• Overall Rating – where 1 is worst and 5 is best; not to be confused with an average of any numerical ratings you may have assigned. Think of it as how many stars out of five you’d give the product.

Now as you buy particular brands of eggnog (I’ve been through dozens of brands and vintages), fill in the cells in the table. I recommend using a blind taste test form listing the aforementioned categories so that you’re not haunted by ghosts from Christmas past in the row above competing for your attention, but you don’t have to. (I did warn you that this was an OCD undertaking, right?)

So you’ve collected a mountain of data but how do you use it? Certainly there is no such thing as the perfect commercial eggnog as the lack of consensus among reviewers would suggest. I find those beverages always lacking in one feature or another and that’s where this chart comes into play. The best way I can demonstrate its application is to show you how I’ve implemented the information to recreate the taste of my Childhood Enchanted Eggnog.

Ronnybrook Farm Dairy’s eggnog is pretty darned delicious straight out of the (deposit) bottle (I gave it a 4.5 overall) and if you want to just buy one brand without all this folderol (or falalalalalderol perhaps) it would top the list, but its carrageenan and guar gum levels make it a little thicker (rated 5 for body) than the Nog of My Dreams. That’s where a solid middle of the road eggnog like this year’s Farmland (3.5 overall) comes into play. Farmland is a journeyman level nog, modest and nicely balanced in terms of flavor, and coming in at 3.5 on the body scale is the perfect addition to mitigate Ronnybrook’s viscosity while not overpowering its essence. But when I cut Ronnybrook with it, an ineffable characteristic was missing. Another sip. Ah, the ester component, of course – which was ultimately provided by Turkey Hill. Turkey Hill scores a 1 on my artificial/natural scale (way too estery for me) but a dollop of it added to the Ronnybrook/Farmland mix was all the recipe needed. Three parts Ronnybrook to one or two parts Farmland plus a good glug of Turkey Hill was the ratio I formulated. (Don’t forget to garnish with a bit of freshly grated nutmeg!)

Another time, when I couldn’t locate Farmland for my attenuation purposes, I was able to procure Cream-O-Land (whose slogan used to be “Made From Real Cows” before some marketing guru thought the wiser of it). This year’s batch was okay but nothing special (rated 3 overall), certainly not horrible, but its 2.5 score for body indicated that it could provide the tempering influence that was called for. Since Cream-O-Land is more artificial tasting than Farmland, bringing Turkey Hill into the lineup was unnecessary.

So there you have it. Yes, I concede that this venture involves imbibing an ocean of eggnog and ignoring a volcano of calories. It’s a tough job, but somebody’s gotta do it.

Needless to say, you shouldn’t feel that you need to slavishly follow my recipe proportions or recommendations. The takeaway here is for you to identify the special characteristics you’re seeking in the eggnog of your fantasies, and piloted by a little R&D as you navigate the nogosphere, come up with your own bespoke, personalized blend.

Incidentally, recounting your saga comes with the delicious bonus of dumbfounding your discriminating foodie friends. And perhaps your therapist. 😉
 
 
Happy Holidays!
 
 

Old Tbilisi Garden

People often ask where (and what) I’ve eaten recently, so in response, I’ve been posting photos of some of the tastiest dishes from my favorite restaurants under the category You Asked For It. You can find these and many more on my Instagram feed which you can access right here – no signup required! I update it almost daily, so check in frequently to see what I’m up to. Just click “Instagram” in the menubar at the top of any page.


As Lead Organizer of The World Food Lover’s Dining Out Group, part of Meetup.com, it’s always my pleasure to bring groups of people to ethnic restaurants that feature cuisines they may never have experienced.

Recently we visited Old Tbilisi Garden, a restaurant that features the cuisine of Georgia. (No, not the US state “Georgia” but rather the Former Soviet Union country “Georgia”.) It seems like there’s a budding proliferation of Georgian restaurants and bakeries around New York City these days, and I, for one, am thrilled about it. Our feast at Old Tbilisi Garden hit the heights but only scratched the surface of this wonderful cuisine.

(Click any photo to view in glorious high resolution.)

Adjaruli

The overarching term is khachapuri, literally “cheese bread,” and there are at least a dozen kinds that I know of. They’re commonly filled with tangy, salty sulguni cheese and imeruli, a fresh crumbly cheese which when melted together combine to make stretchy, cheesy nirvana. Two of my favorites are adjaruli and megruli. Adjaruli is shaped like a kayak, the center of which is filled with cheese; a raw egg and a chunk of butter are added just as it’s removed from the oven. Stir the mixture: the egg cooks and combines with the butter and melted cheese. Break off pieces of the bread and dip them into the cheese mixture. Now picture hot bread with melted buttery cheese that you eat with your hands, fresh out of the oven – what’s not to like?

Megruli

Megruli is a little more self-contained: cheese bread filled with cheese and then topped with more cheese and baked. Did I mention cheese? Think Georgian pizza.

Khinkali

Despite the resemblance, these are definitely NOT soup dumplings. Just grab one by its topknot and bite into its savory lamb filling. They say you’re not supposed to eat that little handle, but I like it, so I guess I’m just going to keep breaking the rules!

Pkhali Trio

These tasty spreads fulfilled the vegetable requirement of our meal: spinach, eggplant, and green bean served with Georgian bread called shoti.

Chicken Bazhe

Bazhe, a Georgian walnut-garlic sauce, was the perfect blanket for the chicken reposing beneath. If you’ve ever tried satsivi, another delicious Georgian dish, then you’re already familiar with the flavor of bazhe – basically satsivi with the addition of pomegranate.

Chakapuli

Chakapuli is lamb stew in a tangy white wine sauce spiked with tarragon, an herb that figures significantly into the cuisine – and even soft drinks like tarkhun!

Lamb Mtsvadi

No Georgian meal would be complete without skewers of savory, tender, marinated lamb with delicious tkemali (sour plum) sauce.
 
 
Old Tbilisi Garden is located at 174 Bleecker Street, Manhattan, in the heart of Greenwich Village.
 
 
Incidentally, if you’d like to be part of the dining out group, you can join Meetup.com (there’s no charge), sign up for The World Food Lover’s Dining Out Group, and then watch your email to see the schedule for our next adventure. Reply to this post and I’ll keep an eye out for you!

My Instagram Feed

For those of you who aren’t on Instagram or Facebook (find me @ethnojunkie if you are), you can see my posts right here on ethnojunkie.com – no signup required! I update my feed almost daily, so check in frequently to see what I’m up to; just click “Instagram” in the menubar at the top of any page.
 
 

Indian Sweets 101: Meeting Mithai

Or, The Equal Opportunity Celebrant – Part 3

 

A long time ago in a land far, far away, before I had identified my obsession with world food, when I was merely a youthful gourmand content to consume tasty fare but still light years away from my current soaring orbit of ethnojunkie mania, an acquaintance from what I now know as Little India visited me.

She proffered a small white cardboard box.

Opening my souvenir, I was ambushed by a tempting, heady aroma that I’ll never forget – my first contact with mithai, Indian sweets. Peering within, I discerned a dozen or so colorful tidbits – yellow, orange, pink, green, cream, white, brown, some glistening with what appeared to be thin foil made of silver (and which I later learned actually was thin foil made of silver) and all in distinctive shapes from spheres, disks and cylinders to cubes and diamonds and even a pretzel configuration.

Selecting one, I took a bite. “Not bad,” I allowed, as I made my way from the living room into the kitchen to refrigerate the rest.

Curiously, about twenty minutes later, I found myself woolgathering about these new delicacies so I headed back to dispatch the one I had started earlier. “These are actually pretty good,” I thought as I polished off a second and began nibbling at a third. “Better save some for later,” I reasoned as I stowed the box back inside the fridge.

This time, only about ten minutes passed before I returned to my treasure; in retrospect I suppose I had been reflecting all the while about which one I’d sample next. Standing before the fridge, I devoured a fourth. “Pretty good? No, these are amazing!” I realized in the throes of a sugar-induced epiphany. Replacing the box with my right hand and holding a fifth goody with my left, I elbowed the door closed and attempted to leave the kitchen, but before I could escape, I was compelled to make a U-turn as if by some unseen, powerful force. Yanking the refrigerator door open, I grabbed the container and scurried to the living room. Anxiously, I attempted to rationalize my monomaniacal behavior: I hastily began scribbling detailed notes describing the flavors and textures I was experiencing with each sweet mithai – nuts like almonds, cashews, and pistachios, spices like saffron and cardamom, fruits like raisins and coconut, even carrot; some were redolent of rich dairy, some were thick and fudgy, some soft and syrupy sweet, some creamy, some crispy, some crumbly. But to me, every one was a tiny, delicious miracle unlike anything I had tasted before.

And the monkey on my back emphatically concurred.

That was it. I knew I had to get to Little India – and soon! – so that I could score another parcel and share these delights with my friends. Feverishly, I began making plans: it was imperative that I turn everybody I knew on to mithai. (And obviously, while I was at it, I could land more for myself!)

Perhaps it was this very incident that put the junkie in ethnojunkie.

And now, freely admitting that I am powerless over their sway, I must share my experience with you. This is a particularly good time to do it, since Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights, is upon us. From Wikipedia: “One of the most popular festivals of Hinduism, it spiritually signifies the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, knowledge over ignorance, and hope over despair. Its celebration includes millions of lights shining on housetops, outside doors and windows, around temples and other buildings in the communities and countries where it is observed.” In addition to lighting diyas, diminutive and often ornate oil lamps, one of the many rituals is the sharing of mithai, and although I can’t bring each of you to my favorite sweets dealers, I can tell you about some of the diverse types you’re likely to find and what to expect when you taste them.

Varieties of mithai (मिठाई) are regional, from the north, east, south, and west of India, not to mention Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Many are pan-South Asian as well, but in New York, you’re not likely to see any distinctions other than Indian (most of the shops around Lexington Avenue near East 28th Street in Manhattan and those along 74th Street and 37th Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens) plus a smattering of Bangladeshi spots (along 73rd Avenue in Jackson Heights). New Jersey also boasts a number of venues in Newark, Edison, and Paterson. My personal favorite as of this writing (and note that things can change in this regard) is Maharaja Sweets at 73-10 37th Avenue in Jackson Heights.

So in general, what do they taste like? You had to ask. I recall reading a story many years ago about how sweetmakers, obsessively dedicated to their craft, are revered in India and how they guard their secrets more closely than they would the Hope Diamond if given the chance, so for any particular type of mithai, recipes will vary widely from one purveyor to the next. The less involved ones might taste like nut-suffused, aromatic dairy fudge or like cheesecake taken to the next level or perhaps like a syrupy, fragrant cake – all with an overarching Indian luster. But there are so many versions of even these, not to mention the more elaborate multi-ingredient confections, that they defy verbal description. To paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, you’ll know it when you taste it.

If you took note of the ingredients, textures, and shapes enumerated above and if you’re a math jock, you’ll see that the permutations and combinations within even that short list seem endless. What mithai have in common is that they range from very sweet to outrageously sweet and are all the size of a couple of bites. In this post, I’ll introduce you primarily to hand-held treats and reserve other sweets such as frozen desserts (like kulfi, Indian ice cream), puddings (like kheer, firni, mishti doi, and shrikhand), and drinks (like lassi) for another post.

First, a little vocabulary of ingredients that I promise will come in handy and is sure to obviate numerous pairs of parentheses; English spellings will vary slightly:

badam – almond
kaju – cashew
pista – pistachio
malai – cream
kesar – saffron
gajjar – carrot
besan – chickpea flour, also known as gram flour, often roasted

Types of dairy products used in making mithai:

Ghee – clarified butter.
 
Chhena – A fresh (unaged) cheese like paneer (you’ve probably had paneer in Indian restaurants) but softer because some whey remains in the finished product.
 
Khoa, also known as khoya, mawa, and mava. Khoa is amazing: start with a cowful of milk and cook it down until you’re left with a few ounces of milk solids. If you don’t have a cow (and I suggest you don’t), you can buy it prepackaged at Indian markets if you’re considering making your own mithai, which, by the way, is not impossible.


Here are some of the most common types of mithai that you’ll typically encounter, but an exhaustive list would be, well, exhausting. (Click any photo to view in glorious high resolution.)
 

Shown here, kesar badam burfi (these are homemade by the way, so you see it is possible!), peda, and sandesh.

  • Burfi (you also might see it as barfi, burfee, etc.) – condensed milk-based with a fudge-like consistency; usually cut into rectangular blocks. Easy to find in many varieties like badam burfi (usually almond colored), kaju burfi (usually a little darker, caramel colored), pista burfi (usually green), malai (usually white), besan, etc. Most feature cardamom, some highlight saffron. The name comes for the word for snow.
  • Katli – like burfi but thin, flat, and often cut into diamond shapes. A little denser than burfi. Katli means slice.
  • Peda (you also might see it as pera, pedha and penda, the Gujarati spelling) – similar to burfi but enhanced with khoa. Usually found in a disk shape with a pattern imprinted atop.
  • Sandesh – similar to burfi but chhena-based and moist with a more open, tender texture.
  • Kalakand – deliciously cheesy and chhena-based; more dense than sandesh.


Halwa takes many forms depending upon the region of India from which it hails. From left to right:

  • Gajjar (you also might see it as gajar) halwa can be found cut into squares like burfi and also scooped loose from a large container. (Those shown above are also homemade if you’re keeping score.)
  • Karachi halwa are translucent and not unlike a very thick, super chewy gumdrop; they’re made from semolina or cornstarch. Often wrapped in plastic to thwart their stickiness.
  • Habshi halwa (I’ve also seen something that appears to be the same item called dhoda burfi) are dark brown squares made from besan, nuts, nutmeg and mace. It’s a dead ringer for a chocolate brownie but do not confuse it with its doppelganger: Never think “Oh, yum, chocolate brownie!” when you’re about to tuck into one or your brain and tastebuds will get stupifyingly disoriented. It is absolutely delicious and one of my favorites along with burfi and peda.

Other halwas are made from wheat flour or mung bean flour. The flavors and textures really depend on the versions you come across, so I won’t attempt to provide a universal description, but they generally lie somewhere along the cake/fudge/pudding continuum.

Incidentally, many Indian sweetmakers are using chocolate these days with mixed results in my opinion: in most cases, it just doesn’t work (a terroir thing perhaps?) but every once in a while I’ve hit upon an excellent one and I’ve had to revise my thinking for the moment.


Laddoo and kala jamun. The yellow is shahi (royal) laddoo, the orange is kesar laddoo.

  • Laddoo – the word means ball and really only refers to the shape since there are many kinds with many textures and flavors. Flour based and cooked with syrup (some are deep fried as well), a common type is made up of tiny pearl sized balls (boondi) rolled together into a larger sphere. All of them are sugary sweet. These are traditionally offered to the elephant-headed god Ganesha, the remover of obstacles. I have it on good authority that Ganesha loves food!
  •  
    I think of these next three as related:

  • Gulab jamun – medium brown in color and universally found not only in sweet shops but also for dessert in Indian restaurants. Deep fried batter (made with khoa but you might not notice it), sphere shaped, and a little spongy so they soak up the sweet rose water syrup they’re swimming in. (Gulab means rosewater, jamun refers to the java plum, a fruit of similar size to gulab jamun.) Kala jamun are similar to gulab jamun, slightly darker in color and sometimes shaped more like cham cham.
  • Rasgulla – also found for dessert in Indian restaurants. These white, cheesy confections are made from chhena and semolina, cooked and often served in a sugar syrup, first cousin to gulab jamun.
  • Ras malai – spongy and also chhena based, these swim in a creamy sauce; first cousin to rasgulla. Ras means juice.


Besan in its many forms figures into so many mithai that I can’t keep track. On the left, smooth and creamy besan burfi and crispy patisa halwa. The photo on the right is a close-up of the layers of almost crystalline flaky striations that create patisa’s delightful crunch.

  • Patisa halwa – a chickpea based sweet. Sometimes shaped like little haystacks, sometimes in a block, they are crispy and delicious.
  • Mysore pak – made from chickpea flour and ghee, cut into rectangular shapes – if you like chickpeas, you’ll like these. They appear to be spongy, but they’re crumbly and a little crisp.


Dry petha and regular petha, amriti, and pinni.

  • Petha – not to be confused with peda or pera, these are a translucent candy made from winter melon/white pumpkin, tasting like perfumed, juicy, sweet candied fruit. You also might see the dry version that is less syrupy, crisper, crunchier, and more candy-like.
  • Jalebi – chickpea or wheat flour batter, usually orange but occasionally yellow, is drizzled into hot oil in coil shapes. The resulting deep fried confections look like pretzels; they’re crispy when they come out of the oil, then soaked in syrup so you get the best of both worlds.
  • Amriti (you also might see it as imarti) are similar to jalebi, always orange but shaped like a squiggly flower; thicker than jalebi, less crisp, and less sweet.
  • Pinni (you also might see it as pinny) – made from wheat flour, koya, jaggery (unprocessed brown sugar), dry fruits and nuts. Less sweet than most, and a welcome change of pace in that regard.


Cham cham in their native habitat (alongside other goodies).

  • Cham cham (you also might see it as chum chum or even cham-2) – a little larger than thumb-sized and oblong, often coated in coconut. Typically you’ll see it in white, yellow, and pink although I don’t think the colors are any indication of flavor. Not overwhelmingly dairy, but they are made from milk solids. Although not swimming in syrup (see gulab jamun), these have a slightly spongy texture and hold a little sweet syrup: think juicy but not saturated.

Some mithai like these are scooped out in bulk from bins rather than sold in compact individual pieces; some take the shape of small tidbits.


Mithai from Bangladesh and Pakistan share some similarities with their Indian counterparts but are crafted from a slightly different set of ingredients and, to my taste, are a little less sweet. I recommend becoming familiar with Indian mithai before essaying these. The photo on the left shows a few treats from Premium Sweets, the Bangladeshi restaurant on 73rd Street in Jackson Heights. On the right is a sampling of the panoply of Pakistani confections I discovered on a recent New Jersey expedition to celebrate Pakistani Independence Day (h/t Dave Cook and his illustrious blog, Eating In Translation) that came from Chowpatty on Oak Tree Road in Iselin; most were pretty good but perhaps a little less accessible than their Indian analogues.


On the Pakistani plate:
Row 1
(1) Badam Puri – flour, rice flour, ground almonds, milk, sugar, cardamom; fried in oil, a delicious wafer.
(2) Watermelon/Anarkali – not watermelon flavored that I could discern but similar in appearance; edible silver foil, green on the outside, red on the inside.
(3) Halwasan Pak – cracked wheat, edible gum (looks like little pebbles), ground “porridge”, milk, almonds, cashews, brown sugar, nutmeg, cardamom; very crunchy, almost sandy.

Row 2
(1) Gundar – dry fruit, gum arabic crystals, powdered ginger; strongly flavored, an acquired taste.
(2) Gajar Halwa – see above.
(3) Kaju Mohini – figs and nuts, tastes like it looks.

Row 3
(1) Adadiya Pak – urad dal (lentils), gram flour, nuts, ginger, fenugreek and other spices, roasted in ghee; texture like crunching on sandy pebbles, an acquired taste.
(2) Stuffed Peda – see above.
(3) Gundar Pak – syrupy gundar.

Row 4
(1) Ghari – the white “icing” had very little flavor, almost tasted like wax or oil; green pista inside.
(2) Dryfruit Halwa – made with raisins, truly delicious.
(3) Halwasan – made from cracked or broken wheat and soured milk; chewy, fruity.


And finally, more photos to get you hooked. As you might expect, special mithai are created for Diwali. One that is particularly delicious, unique and one of my all-time favorites is apple mithai (the two peach-colored pieces in the first photo), complete with a clove for a stem; this seasonal sweet tastes a lot like marzipan and has a very limited run through Diwali only and are a specialty of Rajbhog Sweets, 72-27 37th Avenue in Jackson Heights. The rest are always available.


So that’s my addicted-to-mithai story and I’m sticking to it (and possibly to the Karachi halwa as well). I urge you to go out there and track down these confections, especially for the holiday although most are available year-round. If they don’t light your diya, I don’t know what will. And if, after you’ve sampled them, an insatiable craving for mithai sneaks up on you when you least expect it…well, you know how you got hooked!

दिवाली मुबारक
Happy Diwali!

In 2017, Diwali begins on Wednesday, October 18th and continues until Sunday the 22nd.

 

Guan Fu Sichuan

People often ask where (and what) I’ve eaten recently, so in response, I’ve been posting photos of some of the tastiest dishes from my favorite restaurants under the category You Asked For It. You can find these and more on my Instagram account, @ethnojunkie.


Every once in a while, a new Sichuan restaurant comes along and it’s so good that you feel compelled to shout about it from the rooftops and tell the world. But seldom does a new Sichuan restaurant show up that’s so remarkable, so outstanding, so clearly superior in every way that you fall silent, awestruck, in appreciation of every skillfully prepared bite.

Such was my experience at Guan Fu Sichuan.

Here are a few favorites from my recent visit. (Click any photo to view in glorious high resolution.)

Kung Pao Lobster

Kung Pao Lobster (宫保龙虾). Not what you’d expect when you hear “Kung Pao” anything. Masterfully seasoned (no heavy-handed spice complication) and exquisitely plated, the contrast between the crisp peanuts and the melt-in-your-mouth lobster was perfection.

Sichuan Style Scallop with Minced Garlic

Sichuan Style Scallop with Minced Garlic (蒜蓉蒸扇贝). Each perfectly prepared, alive-moments-ago scallop is balanced atop a nest of noodles bathed in an ambrosial scallop broth – truly a culinary gem. They’re break-your-heart luscious but break-the-bank expensive at $10 apiece. But do take note: I resolutely champion the tenet that ethnic/world food should never be relegated to the “cheap eats” category. The talent and creativity (not to mention the quality ingredients) that go into making this – and every – dish at Guan Fu justify the price as would any equivalent experience at a schmancy French restaurant. In my opinion, Guan Fu rates a firmament of stars for its inventive cuisine and presentation.

Razor Clams with Green Pepper

Our appetizer of sweet, tender razor clams with mildly spicy green pepper (烧椒圣子皇) was delicate yet distinctive. I admit that I’m easy to please when it comes to razor clams but I’ve never had them prepared with such finesse. Again, an expertly crafted dish.

Fried Corn

You’ve heard of Candy Corn, right? Well, as far as I’m concerned, this dish is Corn Candy and it’s amazing. It’s called simply Fried Corn (金沙玉米) – sweet corn prepared with salted duck egg yolk and I could probably eat a whole plate of it myself. Simple, yet elegant, another Guan Fu must-have.

Spicy Oil Wontons

From the Snacks section of the menu, they’re just innocent looking dumplings, right? But again, at Guan Fu, they’re a cut above. Often you hear folks report whether the skins are thick or thin and that’s where the description ends. These Spicy Oil Wontons (红油抄手) (medium thickness and perfect chew) are swaddled in a delicious wrapper (how often do you hear people talk about how good the wrapper tasted?), stuffed to bursting with a savory meaty filling, and swimming in a not-too-spicy sauce.

Boiled Fish with Pickled Cabbage and Chili

Boiled Fish with Pickled Cabbage and Chili (酸菜鱼) is available with different kinds of fish – the least bony is the most costly, and even then you’ll need to be careful.

Mapo Tofu

I don’t like Mapo Tofu (麻婆豆腐) said nobody ever. Once again, Guan Fu’s rendering was exemplary. Fluffy, remarkably soft pillows of tofu in a sauce that was complex and flavorful that went well beyond the ubiquitous nondescript spicy versions.

Guanfu Style Bean Jelly Salad

Guanfu Style Bean Jelly Salad (川北凉粉) was a perfect way to start our meal.

Cucumber with Home Sauce

Cucumber with Home Sauce (沾酱乳瓜), essentially Persian cucumber with hoisin sauce, was the most uncomplicated dish I tried; tastes exactly as it sounds.

 
Guan Fu Sichuan is located in Flushing Square, 39-16 Prince Street G01, in Flushing, Queens.