Fulton’s Steambuffets: Definitely Not Folly!

Okay, I freely admit it. I like steamtable buffets. The good ones, at least. Not because I harbor any porcine proclivities (shh!), but rather that I’m keen on the idea of tasting one bite of many dishes as opposed to sitting down to a plate of “hunk o’ meat and two veg”. It’s why I love dim sum in Chinatown. So you can imagine my delight when I discovered a row of mostly-Caribbean-but-bordering-on-African-with a-hint-of-Middle-Eastern steamtable joints while strolling along Brooklyn’s Fulton Street.

Here’s what you need to know to join in the fun:

Pricing can be tricky if you’re a newbie. Your container is weighed and priced by the pound. But that’s where things can get confusing. If you take mostly vegetables or less costly items like salad, one price applies; add some heftier proteins and the price per pound for your whole order goes up. And then there are certain “special items” (like baked salmon) that carry an even weightier price tag ($11.95 instead of $6.95 per pound, as a rough example). Grab enough of that one and the cost of what was mostly greens can escalate from lunch to dinner level. So choose judiciously. If you want to taste that $11.95 pasta and fish dish, put as much as you want in a small container and it will be weighed and priced accordingly. And how does that pricing determination happen? The person at the checkout station peers into your container and makes a decision. In my case, it was always more than fair. But forewarned is forearmed and there’s nothing wrong with checking out a couple of containers at different cost levels.

Some of the spots have excellent signage, both in terms of what the dishes are and what you’ll pay per pound for various choices. At the other end of the spectrum, some have no signs at all – neither price nor identification – and generally there isn’t much opportunity to ask questions. But again, I want to emphasize that in my experience, pricing will be fair and for the most part you’ll leave full and happy. In terms of what you’ll be eating – that’s the fun part: try a little bit of lots of things. Chances are you won’t be disappointed and you’ll be better informed on your return visits.

Do Not Break the FishIn many cases, you’ll find whole fish accompanied by a sign warning, “Please Do Not Break the Fish”. A good excuse to go with a friend, I should think. Each of you chooses a number of items, but only one of you lands a fish and then you can share when you get to your table. More fun and perfectly legitimate.

Most of these places are Halal, so if you see something that looks or tastes like pork or ham, it’s probably smoked turkey.

A few venues are worth a mention:

• Soldier Place at 1444 Fulton St. was as far east as I ventured for this run. There was an emphasis on Jamaican food here. Beef dishes were tender if not exciting. Chicken dishes were okay (skip the red sweet & sour variation), and remember that anything purporting to be jerk chicken at any of these restaurants is usually baked chicken with jerk seasoning as opposed to the real (wonderfully smoky) deal. There was serviceable mac ‘n’ cheese along with some Island specialties like bammy (Jamaican cassava flatbread) and dumplings. Standouts included most of the fish offerings like saltfish – and that pasta and fish dish was certainly tasty; tempting Jamaican escovitch fish came out as I was leaving. You may know that “ground provision” or simply “provision” is a West Indian catchall term that includes yams, cassava, taro, breadfruit, plantain and more and you’ll usually find them combined in a single dish. Here, each type of starch swims in its own container making it easy to cherry pick your favorite. Drinks included some delicious Irish moss and ginger beer. There were five tiny tables and a sign that promised ackee and saltfish for breakfast (so I’ll be back); a poster outside trumpeted “Big Buffet”. No lie.

• Smokey Island Grille at 1274 Fulton St. was home to hard core West Indian cuisine. You’ll score curry goat, oxtail, a number of varieties of rice, and reliable mac ‘n’ cheese along with a sizable array of other options; don’t forget the Caribbean desserts at the counter. Avail yourself of the hand sanitizer as you enter the steamtable area. Prices (variable, so pay attention) and choices are clearly labeled.

• Al Masry at 1178 Fulton St. was a blend: some soul food, some Island, and a little Middle Eastern. A good mix, but no labels. Certainly there’s nothing you won’t recognize, but if there are five dishes that are obviously chicken, you won’t be able to tell what they are without a scorecard. That’s true for all of these restaurants. Just another reason to take a tiny portion of each. Plenty of variety and lots of seating.

International Cuisine outside• In my opinion, the best of the lot was International Cuisine at 1174 Fulton St. A wide variety of offerings, some African food including couscous, porridge, and goat along with soul food and West Indian staples like oxtail and dumplings: the “International” moniker is appropriate. Not only does this place not label the food or the prices, but the restaurant itself is hiding in plain sight: no name on the front or even inside, and not even an address except on the building next door!

International Cuisine inside 1International Cuisine inside 2

But the food there was very tasty, the selection left nothing to be desired (see photos above) and there were plenty of tables. If you’re going to venture out along Fulton St., try this place first.

If, like me, you’re into African cooking, there are a number of markets along the way that can supply some basic needs like stockfish, smoked fish, and spices so you can make a day of it if you have the time and the inclination.

And that was only the south side of the street! Another visit beckons and I’ll add to this post as I stumble across more treasures.

 

¡Llame a la Llama!

Bolivian Llama Party display case

“Salteñas!” the jazzy sign exclaimed. “Not an Empanada!!”
“Hey look!” the passerby exclaimed. “Empanadas!!”

Um, not quite. Bolivian Llama Party is all about setting the record straight and the way they’re going about it might just get you hooked. The salteña is Bolivia’s answer to the empanada and to all outward appearances, they do look similar to other Latin American offerings. But take a bite (carefully – you’ll see why in a minute) and you’ll realize that that’s where the similarity ends.

First, the dough is not merely a delivery system for the filling; it’s flavorful in its own right – hand crafted, golden with aji amarillo (yellow hot pepper) and baked to perfection. And then there’s the delicious savory filling (do I hear music?) known as jigote. Juicy like a stew, you’ll find four varieties here: Beni (grass-fed beef), Chimba (free-range chicken), Cliza (mushrooms and quinoa), and Toco (three kinds of pork and extraordinarily scrumptious), all named for locations in Bolivia. Even the dark green hot sauce is outstanding, imbued with quillquiña (Bolivian coriander), but don’t fear the spice level – it’s easily managed and an integral part of the experience.

Biting into one of these treasures can be a bit messy – the word “gush” comes to mind – and there’s even a wry, tongue-in-cheek sign, “How to Eat a Salteña (Without Wearing It)”, outlining three skill levels for pulling off its consumption: Beginner, Enthusiast, and Master. Think of it as empanada meets soup dumpling.

The first Bolivian restaurant in Manhattan, Bolivian Llama Party is owned and operated by three brothers, all natives of Bolivia. Alex Oropeza (aka Llama Whisperer) explained the painstaking care that goes into making these authentic delights: one day to make the dough, another to create the filling, another to assemble them and braid the dough. Crafting that braid perfectly is one of the keys to success, because if one salteña breaks while baking, a pool of filling will escape and ruin the entire batch. Alex told me that the level of expertise required by a salteñero to perform that magic is akin to that of a skilled sushi chef – they both devote years to their training. As a matter of fact, Patrick Oropeza (BLP’s chef and salteñero) has been so swamped in the kitchen that, as of this writing, he hadn’t yet had time to visit the Turnstyle venue that opened at the end of April.

Toco SalteñaTriple Pork Sandwich de CholaBLP Decor

But wait, there’s more! BLP also offers a couple of Sandwiches de Chola, Bolivian street style sandwiches, available in brisket and triple pork (the standout of the two). Eliana (she’s a sweetheart) works the register; when you order, be sure to ask her for extra aioli for the sandwich. During my last visit I found a new addition – BLP’s version of an huminta. Humintas are tamales traditionally wrapped in a corn husk; these snacks are little cornbready treats in the shape of a madeleine, filled with quesillo cheese, kissed with fennel and anise, and served with seasoned butter on the side. Get them while they’re still hot if you can.

I won’t even attempt to describe the hip, colorful, crazy décor, but it pairs perfectly with the food. Check out their website for additional seasonal locations and more information.

Trust me, these guys are beyond awesome. Drop everything and go there. Now.
 
 
Bolivian Llama Party can be found at Turnstyle, the food court in the subway tunnel under Columbus Circle. Use any entrance (A,B,C,D,1 trains) at West 57th/58th Street and 8th Avenue.
 
 

The Equal Opportunity Celebrant – Part 1

Spring is upon us! You can tell because a few days ago the high was in the 40s and then the day after, it was in the 70s, and the next day we were back to the 40s and…well, you get the idea. I’ve come to accept this convulsive oscillation of the daily temperature as typical of New York City’s signature overture to both Spring and Fall. As a matter of fact, I suspect that if you didn’t actually know the month, you’d be hard pressed to guess which one it was. Over the years, I’ve noticed that we generally unflappable New Yorkers are at sixes and sevens when it comes to determining how to dress on any given day during this period. Recently, while waiting for a particularly recalcitrant traffic light to change, I observed that the individual on my right was decked out in jeans and a fur-collared, heavy leather jacket garnished with a scarf, cap, and gloves while the person on my left was wearing shorts and a tee-shirt. (Both had the foresight to don sunglasses.) Even the flora in tree pits seem confused.

No matter. As the first season of the year, it heralds a procession of traditional holiday treats that is only enhanced by embracing ethnic foodways from around the world. You may have read some of my stories (check out “The Case of the Uncrackable Case”
and “From Russia with Plov”) and know that I’m a self-described equal opportunity celebrant who lives in hungry anticipation from one delectable holiday to the next.

You may also know that I’m a cookin’ fool and love to put my own spin on holiday dishes. Here, for example, is how I do deviled eggs for Easter.

Deviled Easter Eggs
 
Anyway, a while back, somebody dared me to come up with an ethnic fusion Passover menu. 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
Matzo 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!

 
Hmmm. Wonder if I can make tortillas out of matzo meal? 😉
 
 

Sponge Information

Kam HingI read the sign with no small measure of suspicion: BEST SPONGE CAKE IN TOWN, it shouted in all caps. Writing up this one will be a piece of cake, I thought, ignoring my own pun. Two words should do it: “Oh, really?” I mean, ya tried one sponge cake, ya tried ’em all, right? Eggy, airy, moist, a little sweet, and that about sums it up.

Seventy-five cents and one bite later, I began to wonder if I had let my prejudice get the better of me. Shouldn’t I at least compare this one with another if only to prove to myself that all sponge cakes are created equal? So I randomly entered another Chinese bakery (no shortage of those in Manhattan’s Chinatown) and emerged with a contender. The difference was subtle, but there was indeed a difference – enough to compel me to purchase a third rival. Again, the basic premise echoed the first two, but with a distinct personality of its own. With a sigh of resignation, it became evident that my story would exceed two words and I headed home to do some preliminary investigation.

The first order of business was to see what other NYC food writers had to say about the subject because attempting to taste every sponge cake at every bakery in Chinatown would be a herculean task. A few minutes of poking around on the web revealed that there are definitely a few favorites (four or so were always mentioned) among the experts. I made note of them and returned the next day armed with a list and the decision to hit up a few additional bakeries selected arbitrarily along the way just to be fair. I gathered nine examples (that’s all that would fit in my tote) and headed home to set up an Excel spreadsheet. (Those of you who know me are aware that I can get a little OCD sometimes, particularly when it comes to taste testing.)

I decided to rate them based on my initial definition of sponge cake characteristics: egginess, airiness (a continuum of spongy to cakey), moistness, and sweetness; crust and special features would factor in as well. My personal opinion of these qualities is that ideally they should be pretty middle of the road: eggy but not overly so, sweet but not too sweet – you get the idea – but above all, the cake should taste great.

I did a blind taste test and was amazed to discover that for the most part my independent research bore out the conventional wisdom. So I’m pleased to report that I stand corrected, disabused of any notion that sponge cake is sponge cake.
Sponge Cakes
If you’re an information sponge too, here are the details – my ranking in order of overall deliciousness (you won’t be disappointed in any of the top five):

Kam Hing Coffee Shop, 119 Baxter St.
75¢ (2 oz)
Yes, believe it or not, the one that claimed to be the best! Perfect balance.

Tai Pan Bakery, 194 Canal St.
$1.10 (2.5 oz)
Lemony! Almonds on top provided a little crunch and a lot of flavor.

Ka Wah Bakery, 9 Eldridge St.
$1.00 (3.25 oz)
Excellent as well; crust a little eggier than others.

M&W Bakery, 25 East Broadway
$1.20 (2.5 oz)
Very good; tight crumb but still moist.

Fay Da Bakery, 83 Mott St.
$1.20 (3 oz)
Pleasant “baked” flavor to crust; almonds on top.

New Golden Fung Wong, 41 Mott St.
$1.00 (3 oz)
A little more cakey; a little drier.

Simply Bakery, 70 Bayard St.
$1.10 (4.25 oz)
Sweet but average.

QQ Bakery, 50 East Broadway
$1.25 (3.75 oz)
Moist but average.

Good Century Café, 243 Grand St.
$1.00 (4.5 oz)
Biggest cake, smallest flavor.
 
 
Of course, now I need to investigate sponge cakes in Queens and Brooklyn Chinatown bakeries too. (Told you I was OCD.)
 
 

Faking Peking Duck

Duck Market

Before we expose this canard canard (got that one out of the way early!), let’s be clear that there is a significant difference between a proper rendering of Genuine Peking Duck and The Dish We’re About to Make.

Genuine Peking Duck is eminently shareable, incredibly impressive, and absolutely delicious.

Step One: The Chinese tai see foo (master chef) starts with a breed of duck (Pekin) that is specially raised for this dish. After plucking, eviscerating, and general cleaning, the duck is scalded in boiling water, dried, and air is pumped under the skin. Traditionally, the chef blows into a small hole that has been punched in the skin at the base of the neck, thus separating the skin from the meat (yes, essentially it’s a duck balloon) and then it’s tied off. This procedure ensures that the skin will be crispy because that’s what this dish is all about. The duck is then refrigerated for 24 hours. From there, it’s coated with a sugar-based glaze – maltose, honey, there is some latitude here – that coaxes the skin to brown during cooking and hung in front of a fan for as much as another 24 hours. Finally the duck is roasted. (And that’s the short version that omits detail, although in no version do we omit the tail.) – End of Step One.

The Dish We’re About to Make is eminently shareable, incredibly impressive, and absolutely delicious.

Step One: Go to your local Chinatown and purchase one of the Cantonese roast ducks you see hanging in the window. – End of Step One.

So you see why we’re Faking Peking Duck, right?

Note: as soon as you ask for a roast duck, the fellow behind the counter will take one down and brandish his cleaver in order to chop it up (for that is what one does with Cantonese style roast duck). STOP HIM! Perhaps he speaks English, or if not you can resort to sign language, or if you’re brave you can say “Mm sai jahm!” (Cantonese for “Don’t need to chop!”) – but you want it whole.

By the way, you might also see flattened ducks that look a little like Georgian Chicken Tabaka or like Daffy the time he didn’t get out of the way of the steamroller Bugs was driving. Delicious as those BBQ ducks are, you don’t want one for this recipe. It also bears mention that the roast ducks have been more fully seasoned from within (think five spice, soy sauce, etc.) than true Peking Duck, so the flavor of the meat will be a little different.

At this point, the recipes converge and we can delve into presentation and construction.

In addition to the duck, you’ll need:
Moo Shu ShellsBaoHoisin
• Chinese pancakes (bing) for steaming. Moo shu wrappers are perfect; most likely they’re available at a store near where you buy the duck. White Chinese buns (bao) are great too.

• Hoisin sauce: I generally mix the hoisin with a little honey to tame its intensity and add a little sweetness. Same store.

• Scallions: slice into long julienne strips (about 4 inches).

• Cucumber: remove the seeds (even from a seedless) and slice as you did the scallions.

Preparation:
Whole Duck 3Duck Skin
Remove the skin from the duck. (I generally make one long slice down the middle, breast side up, and slip the skin off by sliding a finger between the meat and the skin, working my way around the duck. It’s surprisingly easy, but don’t worry if it doesn’t come off in one piece; you’re going to cut it up anyway.) Scrape away most of the fat adhering to the skin; it’s fine to leave a little.

Next, remove the meat from the carcass. You can either julienne it like the scallions and cucumbers (prettier) or just slice pieces against the grain (better from a culinary standpoint because the meat will be even more tender).

Now as I said at the outset, this is a trick, albeit a delicious one. Remember that genuine Peking Duck is all about the crispy skin and what you’ve got here is a succulent but flaccid roast duck. So here’s my secret: put the skin, fatty side down, in a pan and heat in a 275° oven for about 10 minutes. Remove from the oven; the skin will be only a little crisper than when it started out, but stay with me. Place the warm skin between layers of paper towels and set a plate on top to keep it flat. When the skin is cool, use kitchen shears to cut into small pieces (about 3″ x 1″). As the pieces air dry, they’ll get even crisper.

Steam the pancakes (or buns) according to package instructions. If you don’t have a steamer you can improvise one by setting a covered colander over a pot of boiling water. Incidentally, although the duck meat is usually served at room temperature, I like to warm it up in the steamer at the same time the pancakes are steaming.

Assembly:
Duck PresentationDuck AssemblyDuck Assembled
Now you’re ready to commence Faking Peking Duck. Apply a little of the hoisin/honey mixture to a steamed pancake. Add some meat, scallion, cucumber, and crispy skin. Roll up the pancake burrito style (fold up a flap from the bottom, then roll horizontally) and enjoy.

Of course, if this were the real deal, the duck would be used for two additional courses, one where the meat is part of a stir fry, minced or perhaps in a noodle dish (it might not even make an appearance in the pancake), and one where the carcass has been used to make soup. You can do all that if you want to, but we’re keeping this simple, right?

And I recommend that you do keep it on a small scale; you may find that it’s a perfect dish for two – eminently shareable, incredibly impressive, and absolutely delicious (see above). It doesn’t even have to be Valentine’s Day: if the setting is enchanting, and if you’re dining with the right Very Special Person, this could be the beginning of a most romantic evening. Share it – along with a bottle of red – with someone you love.

Trust me, this dish is decidedly seducktive.

 

Ratcheting Up Sriracha

It is written in some ancient tome, or so my rather hazy understanding would have it, that during times of inclement weather the more sagacious among us hunker down in our kitchens and prepare mass quantities of pain perdu. Otherwise why would so many well-meaning mediarologists exhort us to make a beeline for our local supermarket in a frenzied quest for whatever remains on the shelves of bread, eggs, and milk?

So following the spirit of the law, although not the letter, I made the obligatory pre-disaster pilgrimage to stock up on essentials. I returned home and gingerly set my lumpily filled bags down outside my door. I was fumbling with the keys to my apartment when my neighbor, affectionately known to the denizens of my building as Windy, emerged.

Windy had a wiry frame and wore owlish Harold Lloyd glasses. His shaggy gray hair was usually half hidden beneath a weathered Australian cork hat. Somehow the corks were always in motion, even when Windy stood still, bobbing about as if propelled by some unseen force.

“Hey, Ethnojunkie! Got plenty of bread, eggs, and milk in there, right?”

“Um, yeah. I mean, no, not really. I’m not planning on making French toast.” The contents of my limp plastic bags were redistributing now, making themselves more comfortable on the dingy tile floor as I continued to grapple with the lock.

“All ready for the mother of all storms?”

“I thought that was Sandy.”

“Yep,” he continued, ignoring me. “The Blizzard of ’16. Snowmageddon. Snowzilla, they’re callin’ it. The blizzard to end all blizzards. Snowpocalypse….”

“Been watching a lot of TV, Windy?”

“…Gonna be a real snownami. A snowlapalooza.”

Windy himself could generate a gale greater than even the most virulent hurricane might ever aspire to. Having pretty much exhausted his supply of snowstorm metaphors, he went on to do what he did second best: pry.

“Got yer emergency preparedness kit ready?” He craned his neck and peered into my bags to inspect their contents. I slid them out of his line of sight with my foot.

“Sure thing,” I lied. “I’ve got wind-up batteries, sustainable “last-forever” wick-free candles, and solar powered #2 pencils, sharpened, of course.” At that moment, one of the bags shifted and my bottle of Sriracha tumbled out.

A bewildered look passed across his face as he squinted at the bottle with a gimlet gaze. “What kind of emergency were you expecting?” he sniffed. He was right. My idea of an emergency preparedness pack was somewhat skewed. “What’s in that bottle anyway?”

“It’s Sriracha. Like a kind of hot sauce,” I replied, stuffing it back into the bag and finally pushing my door open.

“That’s not Sriracha! Sriracha has a rooster on it! This one’s got a shark!”

“Right. Well, it’s a different brand. Sometimes I like it better than Huy Fong, the one with the rooster.”

“What’s the difference?”

Seizing the opportunity to go on about ethnic food, I began, “Well, they’re all chili, garlic, and vinegar, plus sugar and salt, but that’s where the similarities end. This one is a little sweeter….”

He interrupted, “No, no, I mean what’s the difference which one you get? Sriracha is Sriracha. Okay, I gotta go back inside and watch the storm.” He pivoted on one Birkenstock and marched back into his apartment, corks bobbling wildly, never allowing me to inquire as to whether he thought mayo is mayo or cola is cola.

I scooped up my bags and lugged them into my apartment, bemused by the interchange. But my reflection on our conversation wasn’t because of Windy’s dismissal of my brand preference. If Windy knows about Sriracha, everybody knows about Sriracha. Years ago the darling of a few culinary cognoscenti, the stuff is now ubiquitous.

Huy Fong brand (with the rooster imprint) was developed in 1980 in California by a Vietnamese-American; by 2010 Bon Appétit magazine had crowned it “Ingredient of the Year”. I’ve spotted it gracing the tables of diners and restaurants having no pretense of being Asian. It’s in every supermarket – they even sell it at Bed, Bath & Beyond. And now it’s available in individual packets like ketchup or mustard.

Shark brand, the favorite of Andy Ricker of Pok Pok fame, is a product of Thailand and is markedly distinct from Huy Fong.

So pitting the rooster against the shark, let’s examine the differences (with apologies to Windy).

Huy Fong is tangier and sharper (think horseradish kind of sharp) with a coarser texture and tiny bits of chili within. Shark is thinner, sweeter, more garlicy, more vinegary, a little herbal and significantly brighter.

Incidentally, Huy Fong also makes a chili garlic sauce, available in 8 ounce jars, that’s thicker than their Sriracha (you would spoon it out rather than squirt it); it’s earthier, more garlicy, less sweet and less vinegary. Just for kicks, I tried mixing the two Huy Fong products together and I thought the combination was great – not to mention that if you try this at home, seasoned Sriracha aficionados will ask you which brand you’re using. Simply smile coyly and say it’s your custom house blend; it’ll be our little secret.
Rooster vs SharkShark CloseupChili Garlic Sauce

Which do I like better? It depends on what I’m doing with them, but I lean more towards Shark for straight-out-of-the-bottle applications. And yes, there are plenty of other brands as well. Perhaps I’ll write about those when my emergency preparedness pack needs replenishing during the next Blizzard to End All Blizzards.

 

 

Got Milk? (Milk chocolate, that is.) Czech!

Some years ago I wandered into Slovak-Czech Varieties expecting only that I’d find a broad enough spectrum of Eastern European treats to pique my ethnojunkie palate. I bought a bit of this and that and, innocently enough, a bar of Studentská Pečet milk chocolate with nuts and sour cherries. Little did I realize at the time that I had just purchased what was to become a persistent craving and the stuff of which daydreams are made.

Any attempt to describe that flavor combination would pale into insignificance next to the reality of this delicious sweet; suffice it to say that my chocolatey dream fostered a number of subsequent visits. Unfortunately, my timing was terrible, and each time I returned, they were sold out. So recently, determined to consummate a rendezvous with my fantasy once again, I called the establishment repeatedly until I was certain that it was back in stock. Needless to say, I made a beeline to the shop to pick some up. (They also feature chocolates filled with rum, dark chocolate with raisins and nuts, and unusual little tubes of sweetened condensed milk as well as innumerable other sweets.)

chocolateChocolate 2

Settling back down to earth, my frenzied jones now satisfied, I realized that there was much more to Slovak-Czech Varieties than their formidable selection of candies. Their stock hails from the Czech Republic, the Slovak Republic, Hungary, Germany, Croatia and Poland. As a matter of fact, you could put together a pretty tasty meal just from their assortment of artisanal sausages (such as a delicious Hungarian dried sausage called csabai, available in sweet or spicy variations), smoked cheese, mustards and the like. You’ll also find unusual sodas in flavors like pampeliška (dandelion), gaštan (chestnut), and mateřídouška (thyme). A wide assortment of packaged mixes, both savory and sweet, rounds out the selection of merchandise. And they’ve just recently set out a selection of Christmas specialties including chocolate Christmas tree ornaments and seasonal cookies and treats.

storefridge

Co-owners Milan and Jarka are more than helpful, answering questions, offering recipes, and translating the cryptic labeling. But beyond their eagerness to please lies another interesting story. As you enter the store, you’ll see a set of shelves crowded with adorable hand-crafted wooden figurines, from endearing animals to charming little pull-toys. Milan told me that making these toys is his hobby and he’s been doing it for about 40 years, having started in his homeland in his late teens. “It’s what we did to pass the time on winter nights; we didn’t have television or computers.” He fashions the toys from wood that boxes of wine were delivered in, laminating layers and honoring the “imperfections” (like knots or the grain) “just like Tiffany did with his glass,” he explained.

toys
 
Seems to me that one of those toys plus some Christmas goodies sure would make a kid happy this time of year. Not to mention a bar of Studentská Pečet milk chocolate with nuts and sour cherries for the shopper!
 
 
Slovak-Czech Varieties
10-59 Jackson Ave., Long Island City, NY
718-752-2093
 
 

Now Boarding! (November 21, 2015)

Bay Ridge, Brooklyn
 
I’m going to try to squeeze in one more neighborhood food tour before Thanksgiving – if there’s enough interest! Join me on my Bay Ridge ethnojunket on Saturday, November 21 at 1:00pm as we hit the culinary high notes of Fifth Avenue. It’ll be an entertaining, educational, and delicious two hours during which we’ll sample Middle Eastern, Greek, Turkish, Scandinavian, and even Jewish fare. The tour comprises five acts and each act has three scenes – a savory, a sweet, and a surprise.

The cost is $60 per person and includes a veritable cornucopia of food (but not beverages) so bring your appetite! You won’t leave hungry, and you will leave happy!

For more information and to sign up, send me a note below.

West African Home Cookin’

I’ve been getting into cooking West African cuisine lately. Here’s my rendition of Palmnut Cream Stew with chicken, smoked dried fish, squash, plantain, tomato and kale. That’s fufu (pounded yam) on the side. Turnip Greens with Peanut (not shown) rounded out the meal.
Palmnut Cream Stew
There are many variations on the theme of fufu; plantain, cassava, and cocoyam are relatively easy to find. If you’re shopping in a West African market, you’ll find fufu flour packaged in a box: just add a little water and a lot of elbow grease and your considerable efforts will be rewarded.
3 fufusGa KenkeyFanti Kenkey
I also experimented with fufu-like kenkey and banku, both made from corn. They differ significantly from fufu in that they’re fermented and almost a little too sour if you’re tasting them straight, but they harmonize perfectly with the smoked dried fish flavor of many of the regional dishes. You’ll see them in Ghanaian markets wrapped in plastic and ready to steam. I’ve spotted two varieties of kenkey, Ga and Fanti; the words describe two neighboring ethnic groups and the difference between the kenkeys was subtle: Ga came wrapped in a white corn husk and had a grainier texture than Fanti which was shrouded in a green corn husk and was stickier than Ga. Banku (no husk, just plastic) was a little less fermented and tasted somewhat smoky.

Thiakry
In keeping with the West African theme, dessert was thiakry, a sweet dish made from millet and yogurt or buttermilk or the like (I use both). My spin on it contains swirls of baobab fruit with peanut crème (which itself is the basis for another sweet dish called ngalakh). Thiakry is often served for breakfast or a snack, and “dessert”, as such, isn’t a feature of most African cuisines – it’s similar to China in that regard – but sweets do indeed make an appearance, just not necessarily at the end of a meal. As a matter of fact, an internet search turns up a number of recipes for thiakry (aka déguê) in which it’s described as a Senegalese dessert. In this case, I wanted to make something that would provide a sweet finish to a savory meal and whose flavor profile would be in complete contrast to the main dish.

Hungry for more? Check out the Home Cookin’ section of the site!
 
 

Luky Duck

Thai desserts (khanom thai) are sweet but not overly so, light, and delicious. Generally, they draw from a limited repertoire of ingredients but those are mixed and matched and combined and presented in a wide array of variations. Sticky rice, jackfruit, mango and other tropical fruits, pumpkin custards, pandan, sweet egg yolk threads boiled in syrup, and black beans and mung beans and corn (oh, my!) make their way into puddings, jellies, soupy concoctions, tiny cakes, candies, and a host of other delights.

One popular dessert is look choop (you may run across it as luk chup or any number of other transliterations) which look similar to shiny marzipan but taste nothing like it. The process is painstaking: soak and boil mung beans, sweeten with coconut milk and sugar, cook it down, mold or shape into miniature vegetable or fruit shapes, paint with food coloring, then glaze with agar-agar (like gelatin, but stiffer), and the result is something perfectly precious that looks too good to eat. (Little wonder that these were formerly served exclusively to royalty.)

Elmhurst’s sweetly named Sugar Club is my hands-down favorite market for khanom thai (as well as for outstanding prepared foods as good as you’ll find in any Thai restaurant). Recently, I was perusing their dessert case and, desperately struggling to restrain myself from buying one of each, decided that I’d better choose just one – but which? Out of the corner of my eye, I spied what at first I thought might be a children’s toy: a little yellow duck. What’s that doing in the dessert case? But a closer inspection disabused me of that notion – it was look choop molded in the shape of a classic rubber ducky floating atop a sea of green gelatin!

Look ChoopDucky 1Ducky 2
So deciding which dessert to choose was easy: look choop ducky, you’re the one!

 
Sugar Club
8118 Broadway
Elmhurst, NY
718-565-9018