Now Boarding!

Little Odessa in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach

There’s a new ethnojunket on the horizon! On our next food tour, we’re going to sample the delights of Russian and Former Soviet Union cuisine along Brighton Beach Avenue in Brooklyn’s Little Odessa. We’ll share Georgian cheese bread as well as Turkish and Russian sweets and treats along with amazing dumplings, authentic ethnic dishes, and so much more. Check out “Now Boarding!” on my Ethnojunkets page to learn more and sign up!

 

How I Got Into Cooking

I’m frequently asked how I got into cooking. Now, I suspect that what follows is something of an apocryphal tale: I certainly can’t vouch for its veracity since it took place, in theory at least, when I was five tender years of age and I have absolutely no recollection of the event. But this, according to the saga circulated by my beleaguered mother, was my initial foray into the culinary arts.

As she would tell the story to her cronies, one wintry Sunday morning – I’m using the word “morning” loosely since I’m told it was 5:00 – I awoke hungry. Realizing that my parents were still very much asleep and recalling their disagreeable response to being roused in the darkness, I decided to address the absence of a ready breakfast by taking measures into my own little hands.

I had watched my mother prepare our morning repast on many occasions. She would fill a large pot with water, pour in some stuff from a red and blue cardboard canister graced with a quaint rendering of an avuncular looking fellow sporting a black hat (the container would later be reincarnated as an annoying percussion instrument), and stir monotonously and apathetically with an oversized wooden spoon. Sure enough, some minutes later, a bowl of steaming, stick-to-your-ribs mush would appear on our war-torn kitchen table.

Seemed simple enough.

I managed to clamber up a chair to fetch the oatmeal and the spoon, but the pot proved too heavy to wrangle. So, demonstrating the improvisational skills that would later prove invaluable to this budding jazz pianist, I made straight for the bathroom. Leaning over the edge of the bathtub, I turned on the water – full blast – and proceeded to dump the entire contents of the box into the roiling cascade. Noisily wielding the spoon, I stirred with such vigor and reckless abandon that it awakened my mother who came charging into the bathroom to see what all the commotion was about.

What happened next? I wish I could tell you. By that juncture in my mother’s narrative, she and her captive audience had usually broken into paroxysms of laughter. (And I suspect the unpleasant denouement would best be left to the imagination anyway.)

But the reason I told you that story was so that I could tell you this one: I am willing to wager almost anything that even then, my foamy concoction would have tasted better than my mother’s most determined attempts at cooking. And that directly addresses the gist of the initial question – why did I get into cooking?

Simply put, childhood trauma. My mother’s cooking could best be described as child abuse. Recognizing her ineptness in the kitchen and having no desire to rectify the situation, she decided that Swanson’s TV Dinners™ and Morton’s Chicken Pot Pies® would serve as our quotidian fare. Oh, and the occasional bowl of canned mixed vegetables. Did you ever hear of Veg-All? I have a hazy (and most likely inaccurate) memory that there was a prototypical version that, for some unknown reason, had little wax paper disks between each of the vegetable types: beige corn, gray string beans, grayer peas…you get the idea. There may have been diced potatoes in there too. Or something that was sort of a lighter shade of gray than the rest. And mushier. After a while they eliminated the paper, probably having discovered that their customers were ingesting it, preferring it to the “vegetables”, I imagine. Or perhaps being unable to distinguish between them.

Any poison she could find at the grocery store was grist for our table. I’ll never forget the fateful day when she returned from the supermarket brandishing a box of Butter Buds, a sort of faded yellow, gritty, granular substance that looked exactly like something from my Gilbert chemistry set. (I had the F model – the one with the Bunsen burner. I learned how to make hydrogen sulfide gas, rotten egg smell that overwhelmingly stunk up the kitchen. It beat the stench of her cooking hands down, though. But I digress.) “We’ll use this instead of real butter,” she clucked, offering neither an explanation nor an apology. That was the day I learned what industrial waste tastes like. It’s a wonder I don’t glow in the dark after consuming all those chemicals.

So there you have it – the when and the why. And QED that in this case, revenge is a dish best served delicious!

 
 

Kabayan

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.


Lately, I’ve been craving Filipino food (one of my favorite cuisines) and one restaurant that excels at its execution is Kabayan. Woodside, Queens is home to two Kabayan outposts along with numerous other Filipino eateries; it’s a veritable Little Manila. At these establishments, you’ll typically find a steam table laden with delicious (and often unidentified) offerings; diners queue up alongside and request portions of whatever strikes their fancy. If you know the names of the dishes, you can simply ask for what you want; if you don’t, just point and ask questions. As a matter of fact, there’s even a name for this procedure, turo-turo, which means “point-point” in Tagalog, the national language of the Philippines. Of course, you can always order from the menu as we did on this visit.

Here are a few favorites.

(Click photos to enlarge.)

Kilawin Tanigue

Spanish mackerel ceviche, a perfect way to begin a Filipino feast.

Laing

Laing looks like creamed spinach, but the flavor is completely different: it’s made from taro leaves and coconut milk. Gotta get your greens, right?

Garlic Rice

Binagoongan Rice

Two kinds of rice accompany our repast, Garlic Rice and Binagoongan Rice (made with shrimp paste, mango and scallions). I can’t decide which I like better – that’s why I always get them both!

Ginataang Langka

Ginataang Langka is unripened jackfruit with pork and coconut milk, because even a vegetable side dish needs pork!

Pancit Bam-I

Filipino cuisine has a number of noodle dishes, some with rice noodles, some with egg noodles; this one offers the best of both worlds with the addition of shrimp, chicken, and vegetables.

Palabok

Kabayan offers an assortment of the aforementioned noodle dishes; this one is Palabok, steamed rice noodles lurking under a cover of shrimp sauce, garnished with hard-boiled egg, crumbled crispy pork rinds (of course!) and scallions.

Sizzling Sisig

This sizzling pork dish is made from pig’s ear, jowl, ear, shoulder, and ear (did I mention ear?) and is one of the best renditions I’ve had of this Filipino favorite. Kabayan also does other sizzling sensations such as squid, seafood, pork chop, steak, shrimp, and bangus, milkfish that pops up everywhere in Filipino cuisine.

Inihaw na Pusit

Inihaw means grilled and pusit means squid. This beauty is stuffed with fresh vegetables and served with a vinegar-based dipping sauce.

BBQ Chicken

It may sound prosaic, but Filipino BBQ is famous and justifiably so. Sometimes, you’ll find meats on skewers; here, we enjoyed delectable chunks of dark meat chicken. A popular favorite.

Ginataang Manok

Chicken with ginger in coconut milk.

Adobong Kambing

Stewed goat with chick peas and peppers.

Dinuguan

A rich stew made of pork offal in a luscious gravy. Yes, the gravy contains pork blood, but don’t knock it until you’ve tried it! One of the diners at the table described it as chocolate pork – and everybody loved it. You will, too!

Bicol Express

Another classic Filipino dish. Vegetables simmered in slightly spicy coconut milk.

Lechon Kawali

I saved the best for last: the undisputed king of crispy deep-fried porky goodness, Lechon Kawali, fried pork belly with a vinegar garlic dipping sauce. A must-have.

Kabayan is located at 69-12 Roosevelt Avenue and at 49-12 Queens Boulevard in Woodside, Queens. Both are easily accessible by subway.

 

Main Street Imperial Taiwanese Gourmet

People often ask where (and what) I’ve eaten lately, 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.


One of my favorite ways to dine is with a large group of foodie-type folks. There’s a method to my menu madness, of course: if you gather a crowd of eight or ten around a mountain of ethnic food, everyone gets to taste a bit of everything. (That’s essentially the idea behind my ethnojunkets as well.) And that’s exactly what we did at Main Street Imperial Taiwanese Gourmet.

Here are some photos of the extensive indulgence we enjoyed. (Click to enlarge.)

Braised Ribs

Duck Tongue

The meat is tender and a little fatty and envelops a bone that runs down the middle of the tongue. You’ll encounter these in other Chinese cuisines as well (at Cantonese dim sum parlors, for example). Go ahead. Try some. I promise you won’t leave quacking.

Oyster Pancake

Budzu Steamed Fish

Budzu is often seen as “Putz” on Taiwanese menus and it isn’t what you think it is. Budzu are manjack berries, little olive colored globes with a single seed, and are a standby in Taiwanese cuisine.

Clams with Basil

Basil frequently factors into Taiwanese cuisine as you can see in some of the other photos. It was the perfect fillip for these tender clams.

Crispy Sautéed Chicken

Squid with Ginger and Scallion

Stinky Tofu

An acquired taste? You be the judge!

Intestine with Garlic Chive

You might think you’ve never eaten intestines, but that, after all, is where natural sausage casings come from. The garlic chives and medium spicy sauce are the perfect complements; great with rice.

Sa Cha Beef

 
And yes, everything was absolutely delicious!
 
 
Main Street Imperial Taiwanese Gourmet is located at 59-14A Main Street in Flushing, Queens.
 
 

Reverse Engineering Legend of Taste’s Smoked Pork with Garlic Leaf


Legend of Taste, located at 2002 Utopia Parkway in Whitestone, Queens, is fast becoming a legend in its own right. Arguably the most original Szechuan restaurant in New York City, finicky foodies have been flocking here to check out the hype (yes, it’s completely deserved) and enjoy the chef’s skillful spin on Szechuan classics.

As to my modest role in supporting this establishment (whose only drawback is its location: you need to drive there since it’s not near a subway line), I’ve brought several groups of food writers and photographers, restaurant reviewers, chefs, and Szechuan cuisine enthusiasts to sample as much of the “Legend Special” and “Chef’s Special” sections of the menu as we could and still fit through the door on the way out. You can see some of what we’ve sampled here.

It turns out that among the many amazing offerings we tasted (like the unimaginably delicious – may I say transcendent? – Szechuan Style Crispy Eggplant), the relatively simple Smoked Pork with Garlic Leaf never failed to garner tremendous approbation from the throng. As a matter of fact, a few folks asked if I had a recipe so they could try their hand at reproducing it. Although I discovered some similar dishes in my research, I couldn’t track down a proper recipe so I had no choice but to try to create one myself. I was fortunate that on one visit I had been able to carry out a bit for an A/B comparison while I was inventing my own take on it. (Sure, try and convince people that sacrificing a morsel of the dish for me to bring home and deconstruct would ultimately accrue to their benefit.)

What follows is my modest proposal for just such a recipe. (Actually, it’s more of an algorithm than a formal recipe, but you’ll get the idea.) The limited number of ingredients made the task seem less daunting. The real key is finding a version of smoked Chinese bacon that resonates for you. (No, I don’t have a favorite since I always buy a different one: it’s the best way to learn.) Now, I suspect that Legend of Taste smokes their own pork belly so you won’t be able to find a perfect match in Chinatown, but you can approximate it. In the market, you’re likely to find Chinese style bacon available in two forms, either Cryovac packaged or hanging by a string alongside other dried meats like lap cheong (Chinese sausage) and assorted types of poultry (see photos). Either one will work in this dish. The packaged versions differ from each other considerably – some are richer than others, some have added seasonings like cinnamon, soy sauce, wine, and there’s even a Szechuan style spicy má là version; it’s all a matter of taste. Note that these are not refrigerated in the market.

For the greens, head to the produce section. English names for this vegetable vary widely from “garlic leaf” to “green garlic” to “Chinese leeks”; in Szechuan province it’s known as suan miao, 蒜苗. You’re looking for a vegetable that has flat leaves and a purplish tinge to the outermost layer of the bulbs. The photo here (left) shows what you’re after. That shiny silver disk is a quarter placed there for the sake of size comparison; you can see that they’re much longer and thinner than garden variety American leeks. They’re more tender than regular leeks as well so they cook up much faster.

The only other significant ingredient that I could discern is dried salted black bean; you’ll find it packaged in plastic bags near the other dried items like lentils, starches, nuts, dried mushrooms, black and white fungus – things you’d cook with, not snack on.

Preparation: Steam the Chinese bacon over boiling water for 15 minutes; doing so will cook and soften it so that it can be worked with. Slice off a little of the fat and render it for use in the stir frying process later. As soon as it’s cool enough to handle, lay it on its side (or whatever technique works best for you) and carve thin slices (photo on the right). Don’t worry if your slices aren’t as thin and translucent as what you see here; do the best you can and it will be just fine.

The main difference between this and the pork in the dish from Legend of Taste is the sublime smokiness. (As a matter of fact, Legend of Taste’s outstanding Special Smoked Ribs and Tea Smoked Duck are so redolent of smoky goodness that, if you’re lucky and your timing is right, the aroma will seduce you as you enter the establishment.) Since I don’t have a smoker, I tried to come up with a process for enhancing my expeditious ersatz rendition. My first try involved adding a few tablespoons of liquid smoke to the steaming water; that helped a bit, but it needed more encouragement since the smokiness couldn’t really permeate the large hunks of bacon (although it most decidedly permeated my kitchen). A few tests later, I settled on a method of mixing a tiny amount of liquid smoke in a bowl with a little water, sugar, and smoked sea salt and briefly tossing the slices of pork all at once in the mixture, then steaming them again for a few minutes. Perfect? Of course not. And there are those among us who eschew liquid smoke at all costs; I can appreciate that. But if you don’t overdo it, my method will get you close. Incidentally, if you try this technique, I recommend that you not use a variety of Chinese bacon that has additional seasonings added.

As to the garlic leaf, remove the roots and wash it thoroughly. Cut off the bulb and quarter it so it will cook at the same rate as the leaves and stalk. You’ll get the best results working with the sturdier leaves just below the tips down through the stalk just above the bulb. The very ends can be wilted and in any event are too delicate for use in this dish; they get a little stringy and don’t hold up under stir-fry conditions. Save them for soup stock if you like. Or to use as ribbon on tiny Christmas presents. (Just wanted to see if you were paying attention.) Make one slice lengthwise through the stalk, then slice it and the firm leaves into 1½-inch pieces on the diagonal.

Rinse a small amount (perhaps a tablespoon or so) of the black beans and chop them coarsely.

The precise amounts of the components are up to you. Have a look at the photos and balance them as you wish.

Assembly: Heat a wok or a cast iron skillet until it gets impossibly hot. Add a little of the rendered pork fat – you won’t need much. Stir fry the sliced greens until almost tender (it won’t take long), and add the pork strips, black beans, a pinch of white pepper, a pinch of salt (depends upon how salty the bacon is), a pinch of sugar, and a big pinch of MSG. (Yes, really. You wanna make something of it?) Stir fry for a minute or two, just enough to introduce the ingredients to each other and until they develop a happy relationship. Serve with rice.

Remember that this is merely my take (bottom photo) on reverse engineering the dish so wonderfully crafted at Legend of Taste (top photo). If you have a recipe for it that you’d like to share, use the area below to send a comment. I’m eager to hear from you!

PS: I think it came out rather well!

Coming Attractions: Gourmanoff

Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach neighborhood, affectionately known as Little Odessa, is a gastronomic jubilee of Russian, Ukrainian, Georgian, and other Former Soviet Union culinary delights with a touch of Turkish and a wee bit of Uighur blended in for good measure. (As a matter of fact, if memory serves, there had been a market there years ago that bore the name “Gastronom Jubilee”.)

On a recent food tour along Brighton Beach Avenue, the main drag and principle eatery artery of the community, my band of adventurous epicures was a little surprised when we stopped at the venue depicted here. Cultural arenas don’t usually make it into the itineraries of my ethnojunkets – we’re more about global food than local sightseeing – so why have we stopped at what appeared to be a theater, replete with ticket booth, artificial frondescence, and statuary? Posters and digital videos heralding forthcoming entertainment in diverse variety from movies and stage shows to dance and musical performances and even a “World Famous Comedy Pet Show” confirmed the nature of the site. And indeed, Master Theater, formerly the Millennium, is just upstairs and is home to all of the above. But our spotlight was on Russian food, so it was the orchestra level that would be our focus that day.

Deftly sidestepping the “if music be the food of love” play on words (see what I did there?), I escorted my curious group into the capacious expanse now known as Gourmanoff, a dazzling upscale supermarket brimming with smoked fish and meats, cheeses, organic produce, baked goods, and a myriad of Russian products along with an extensive array of tempting prepared food.

Since everyone seemed so impressed with this theatrical display of culinary opulence, I thought I’d share a bit of the spectacle with you – sort of a Sneak Preview (if I may extend the cinema metaphor) of my Brighton Beach ethnojunkets. Shown here are just a few of the tidbits I picked up from the dumpling-ish section in the prepared food bar. At the top, hailing from Azerbaijan, there’s kutaby, a tortilla-like pancake filled with ground lamb and luscious seasonings, folded in half and griddled, and an object of universal culinary lust for anyone whose lips have ever caressed it. Just below that are Russian pelmeni and Ukrainian vareniki to the left, delicious dumplings that are probably familiar to you. (And if they’re not, you need to sign up for this ethnojunket!) Below those are Uzbek manti, lamb on the left (the best I’ve ever tasted, and that’s saying something since my bathroom scale and I lost track years ago of just how many I’ve consumed) and pumpkin on the right.

And then there’s that rolled up thing just above the pumpkin manti. The sign said Russian sushi, but I wasn’t convinced; needless to say, I had to buy one. Here’s a photo of it unrolled and deconstructed. A blini (Russian crêpe) had been substituted for the nori (seaweed) wrapper that’s common in Japanese maki sushi; it was spread with cream cheese and filled with raw salmon, kani (imitation crabmeat), and cucumber skin. It was cute and a little cheeky, but not the tastiest of their offerings. (But no spoiler alert here because whenever I’ve visited, everything was incredibly fresh. <groan>)

We do hit other markets as well as we eat our way through Brighton Beach Avenue; some are similar to Gourmanoff (though not as ostentatious), but each has its own standouts that we sample along the way: the tongue salad at Brighton Bazaar is fantastic (don’t knock it till you’ve tried it) and their eggplant salads are not to be missed. Georgian breads from Berikoni are mind-blowingly delicious as well.

But this is intended to be a Coming Attraction, just a teaser about what you’ll experience along a Brighton Beach ethnojunket! When will the next one happen? Well, when the temperature in Brooklyn’s Little Odessa is more like Ukraine’s actual Odessa – a tourist destination with a subtropical climate – and less like Siberia! So to extend the movie metaphor one more time, think of this post as a cliffhanger – and my promise that when you join us, you’re guaranteed a happy ending!

 
 

Tim Ho Wan

People often ask where (and what) I’ve eaten lately, 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.

(Click photos to enlarge.)


You’ve heard about it. You want to go there. But you weren’t convinced that hanging around for the better part of an hour to snatch one of their 60 unreservable seats – even during off hours – would be worth your time.

If you’re a hardcore Chinese food devotee, you probably know that Tim Ho Wan is a chain of dim sum parlors that took off in Hong Kong in 2009, rocketed across Asia (catching a Michelin star not long after after its debut), and landed in Manhattan’s East Village in January, 2017.

They boast that freshness is the key factor that distinguishes their fare from the rest of the pack. But although their wares are certainly fresh, I beg to differ with their professed rationale for the acclaim. Surely most of the dim sum around these parts is made the same day with fresh ingredients. Think about it: the turnover at such places is formidable; if you try to go anywhere to yum cha at 2:30 in the afternoon, you’ll see that the pickings are mighty slim. However, I do concur that there is a significant distinction in what they bring to the table, and that’s their spin on the dim sum itself.

It seems that there are two schools of thought about Tim Ho Wan’s food: the first posits that most of the offerings aren’t all that different from those of other dim sum restaurants. My very biased judgment is that those who can’t quite fathom what all the hubbub is about simply haven’t sampled dim sum from a wide enough assortment of restaurants. Here’s why I think that. Take a look at the photos below. Generally, they look like the dim sum you’ll find everywhere. Now, I’m fortunate to live in New York City and have enjoyed dim sum at dozens of restaurants in most of our five or so Chinatowns for decades, and indeed, one venue’s rice roll tastes pretty much like all the others. (There are exceptions, of course.) And Tim Ho Wan’s appear to look like all the rest for the most part. But “look like” is the operative phrase here. I suspect that in the barrage of foodie hype, those previously titillated, primed-for-ecstasy folks were expecting to gaze upon spectacular and unusual looking delicacies they had never encountered before and were, of course, disappointed.

The second school of thought is concerned with flavor and alternative recipes. For example, even though the cheung fan (steamed rice noodle rolls) seem like clones of so many others you’ve happened upon, the filling is special, memorable, and stands head and shoulders above the competition’s. And I suspect that the seasoned taster and enlightened foodie faction recognizes that Tim Ho Wan’s take on these items is undeniably novel and radically different from their doppelgangers – and absolutely delicious as well.

So here are some photos of my recommendations. I haven’t tried everything on the menu, but many of the items are similar, swapping out pork for beef and the like. Believe it or not, my only disappointment was the popular and ubiquitous siu mai (steamed pork dumplings with shrimp) which were good, but nothing out of the ordinary and the reason I didn’t post a photo.


Baked Bun with BBQ Pork

Tim Ho Wan’s claim to fame. In terms of appearance, these do look considerably dissimilar from their counterparts found elsewhere and they’re a hit with everyone regardless of their allegiance to school of thought. The texture of the dough is a little airy like a biscuit, a little crispy and a little crumbly, its flavor sweet, and altogether unlike the smooth, golden brown versions you’ve experienced before. The filling is sweet and savory, just like that of their BBQ Pork cheung fan below. If you get nothing else (and after that long wait, you’d be foolish not to), you’ve got to try these.


Steamed Rice Roll stuffed with BBQ Pork

Cheung fan filled to bursting with their own variant on BBQ pork. So much better than anything similar you’d find elsewhere.


Steamed Dumplings Chiu Chow Style


Steamed Rice with Pork and Dried Squid


Steamed Beef Ball with Bean Curd Skin


Sticky Rice in Lotus Leaf


Pan Fried Turnip Cake


Congee with Pork and Preserved Egg

Congee, also known as jook, is rice gruel; you want this for breakfast on a cold winter’s day in a deep and dark December.


Deep Fried Eggplant filled with Shrimp


Sweet Osmanthus with Goji Berries

Yes, I know, Chinese Jello, but it’s easily the best version of this dish I’ve ever tasted. Subtle and sweet, it makes you very happy.


French Toast filled with Custard

Not Chinese by any stretch but not bad at all. I mean, dim sum is sort of brunch, right?
 
 
Tim Ho Wan is located at 85 Fourth Avenue, New York, NY
 
 

Legend of Taste

People often ask where (and what) I’ve eaten lately, 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.


So much has been written about Legend of Taste that I’m reticent to repeat it here. Suffice it to say that the culinary cognoscenti think it’s the best new Szechuan restaurant in NYC and I concur wholeheartedly. (The proof lies in the statistics, viz: the number of minutes I’m willing to travel by bus after riding the subway to the end of the line in the quest for outrageously great cuisine, times the number of diners I’ve lead there, to the power of the number of dishes we’ve enjoyed.) Yes, it’s a bear to get to by mass transit (the 7 train to Main St. Flushing plus a bus) but it’s unequivocally worth it. If you have access to a car, then it’s relatively easy; if you don’t, by all means convince a friend who does that you both need to go there posthaste! Otherwise, pony up a fare for the MTA; you won’t regret it. The only caveat regards the menu: it’s extensive and much of it exists to provide familiar offerings to the less intrepid. I’ve determined that some of their best dishes can be found in the Chef Special and Legend Special sections of the menu although there are exceptions. But if you stick with my recommendations, I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

And as usual, I strongly suggest that you go with a large group; that way you’ll get to sample more of the amazing dishes I’ve tried! (Click photos to enlarge.)


Szechuan Style Crispy Eggplant

I’ve listed this dish first for a reason: even if you’re only lukewarm on eggplant I suspect you’ll delight in this dish as much as everyone else who’s tasted it. Don’t be afraid of what appear to be hot peppers! They’re quite mild and are an integral part of the experience. Take a bite that has some eggplant, some pepper, and some of the impossibly crunchy peanuts. I can still taste it! (But maybe that’s because I brought an order home with me.)


Smoked Pork with Garlic Leaf

This one is remarkable as well and satisfies those who want “something green”.
UPDATE: Read this post in which I attempt to deconstruct and recreate a quick version of Legend of Taste’s awesome Smoked Pork with Garlic Leaf!


Special Smoked Ribs

So tender! So juicy! So smoky! The stuff that dreams are made of.


Spicy Szechuan Pork Dumpling

Thick, chewy skins if you, like me, appreciate them that way.


Griddled Hot and Spicy Rabbit

There’s a section of the menu headed “Grilled Hot and Spicy Pot”. There you’ll find about nine dishes named “Griddled Hot and Spicy x” where x can be chicken, beef, fish fillet, pork intestines, rabbit, lamb, cauliflower, frog, etc. They’re all pretty much the same format (see photo above) and they’re all good. Just pick your protein and get ready for some serious spice. (And no, I don’t know whether they meant “Griddled” or “Grilled”. Neither really seems appropriate here!)


Chengdu Fish Fillet with Pickled Vegetables

Don’t be misled by the name: this is a soup, and a spicy one at that. But the combination of mild fish, pickled vegetables and spicy broth is unique. It’s served in a large tureen so one order is more than enough for a large group.


Tea Smoked Duck

Another smoky offering. Like the ribs, it’s delicious too, but you should probably choose whether you want the duck or the Special Smoked Ribs (see above) – unless you can’t get enough smoke!


Dry Sautéed Pork Kidney

Very mild as kidneys go. I’d call this gateway offal for timid but curious would-be kidney experimenters. Light and luscious.


Ants Climbing the Tree

No ants were harmed in the making of this dish! I’ve had drier versions, but this soupy one is good as well. The “trees” are cellophane noodles made from mung bean starch and the “ants” are ground pork. I once made this fancifully named dish for someone as part of a mini-banquet and she refused to eat it. I asked if it was because she thought those were real ants in there but she understood that they were merely bits of pork. However, she couldn’t get past the idea that maybe, just maybe, those noodles were made of cellophane. After all, she said, they did come out of a cellophane package!


North Szechuan Bean Jelly

Spicy!


Tears in Eyes

Like North Szechuan Bean Jelly (above) but even spicier! You don’t need to get them both.


And some other dishes we liked:

Shredded Beef with Long Horn Green Pepper


Chicken in Triple Pepper


Chengdu Style Hot and Spicy Prawn


Dan Dan Noodle


Famous Szechuan Pickled Vegetable

A great change of pace.


Hot and Spicy Dry Beef


Beef and Ox Tripe in Chili Sauce

In Chinese, it’s fuqi feipian, literally husband and wife sliced lung, but there’s no lung in it. A Szechuan málà classic.
 

And yes, there were more!

Legend of Taste is located at 2002 Utopia Parkway in Whitestone, Queens.
 

Christmas 2016 Cookie Assortment

Christmas 2016 Cookie Assortment: Linzer Stars, Pecan Whiskey Balls, Marzipan Cookies, Biscotti (three kinds – Amaretto Cherry Almond, Pistachio, Anisette Orange Almond), and Identity Crisis Cookies – so named because I couldn’t decide whether to make chocolate chip walnut or oatmeal raisin or toasted coconut and since I had all of those on hand…well, you get the picture.

 
 

You Say Gnetum, I Say Gnemon – Let’s Call the Whole Thing Oats

Gnetum GnemonMy interminable quest to discover the ultimate ethnic crunchy snack led me to Top Line Supermarket at 81-37 Broadway in Elmhurst, Queens. (Interminable, by the way, because there are so many outrageously good ethnic crunchies out there that there will clearly never be Just One Ultimate, thus making it a delightfully sisyphean task.) Indonesian ingredients are not that easy to come by around these parts, but Top Line arguably offers the best concentration of Indonesian and Malaysian items in NYC. (Got a better one, ethnofoodies? Let me know!)

Quick vocabulary lesson:

  • Gnetum gnemon — a plant (actually a tree) native to southeast Asia, known in Indonesian as melinjo or belinjo, and in English as padi oats or paddy oats. The seeds are ground into flour and used to make:
  • Emping — chips that are very popular in Indonesia (along with many other varieties of crackers generically called krupuk). They are available in a number of varieties including:
  • Manis — sweet; Pedas — spicy; and Madu — honey.

There. Now you can translate the packages as well as I can.

What are they like? Wonderful, obviously, or I wouldn’t be telling you about them. More crunchy than crispy, a little sticky right out of the package. Of the two varieties I found available under the Kukagumi brand, I like the sweet/spicy combo a little better than the honey version, but I do tend to favor spicy in general. The heat level of the pedas was within the bounds of my co-conspirators that day (some of whom draw the line at wasabi peas to give you a comparative frame of reference). Padi oats have a slight bitter, but not at all unpleasant, aftertaste. They’re not really “oatey” in the Cheerios sense since they’re another species, but they’re more like oats than corn or wheat since there’s a satisfying nuttiness to them. The Rotary brand offers larger pieces that are seasoned less heavy-handedly – a little less spicy and a little less sweet than Kukagumi. Perhaps even a little more sophisticated than Kukagumi, it allowed the flavor of the padi oats to come through with more definition. And I recently discovered Zona brand emping pedas camouflaged in loopy, orange and red Western style packaging. Crisper than Kukagumi and Rotary, their sweet spiciness is akin to Shark brand Sriracha (the Thai Sriracha). All three brands are excellent choices.

These are ready-to-eat, but a version that requires deep frying first is also available.

If you don’t feel like venturing into Elmhurst, there’s always Amazon for Spicy Gnetum Gnemon (Emping Manis Pedas) or Honey Gnetum Gnemon (Emping Manis Madu).

Gnetum gnemon — Eat ’em: get ’em!