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; apparently 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.

 

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!

 
 

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.)
 
 

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
 
 

It’s Poké, Man!

Poké means cut or slice in Hawaiian. In this case, it refers to morsels of raw fish that have been marinated in soy sauce and sesame oil, often accompanied by sweet onions, chopped scallion, seaweed, chili pepper (or a similarly spicy component like sriracha chili sauce), ginger, and occasionally roasted crushed candlenuts or macadamia nuts.

Think of it as sashimi dressed up as a fashion plate or perhaps Hawaii’s answer to ceviche.

Tuna PokeSalmon Poke

In Japanese, donburi (丼), often truncated to simply don, means “bowl” and refers to a bowl of rice served with numerous options of simmered toppings: pokedon is a bowl of poké over rice. Although not impossible to find in our fair city (as a matter of fact, I suspect it’s poised to be the Next Big Thing around these parts), I was surprised to see a grab ‘n’ go rendition at Dainobu, the Japanese deli and grocery chain. Considering the fact that I’ve been spoiled by stores like Mitsuwa in Edgewater, New Jersey and Sunrise Mart on Stuyvesant Street in the East Village, I was happy to discover a dizzying array of all things Japanese including an udon bar in the back. Even better, you’ll find both salmon and tuna pokedon there.

SignageDizzying Array

I gussied mine up with some pickled ginger and furikake (a mixture of seaweed, sesame seeds, dried bonito and the like, available in a panoply of variations). But the squeeze of lemon that was included in the bowl was just what it needed to get its game on.

 
 
Found at Dainobu
498 Sixth Avenue near West 13th Street
New York, NY
(212) 645-0237
 
 

Hidden Pearls at Indo Java

Not far from the intersection of Broadway and Queens Boulevard in Elmhurst, tucked away amid a cache of Southeast Asian restaurants and snackeries, lies this gem of an Indonesian boutique. Unlike some nearby markets which tend to be either Thai-centric or comprehensively Southeast Asian, Indo Java concentrates on the delicacies of Indonesia.

The perimeter of the shop displays a wealth of products: packages of blended spice mix, dozens of snacks including an abundance of emping, cake and dessert mixes, a myriad of bottled sambals and sauces, and a small frozen food case. Attempting to focus on any individual item can be a little daunting at first, particularly because the venue is tiny and it’s easy to gloss over the hundreds of products competing for your attention. It’s worth taking a bit of time to zoom in, however: this Mickey Mouse brand of dried salted watermelon seeds is a good example.
Mickey Mouse Call-outMickey Mouse

But the most compelling feature of the store and one that begs a repeat visit, is the array of tempting prepared food that’s replenished every Saturday after 6pm. An overwhelming variety of Indonesian snacks, main dishes, and sweets grace a table toward the back of the shop. Elvi, the co-owner, will be more than happy to answer your questions and, if you’ve worked up an appetite while shopping and can’t wait to get home with your goodies, can point you in the direction of their sister restaurant, Java Village, nearby at 86-10 Justice Avenue – although my experience was that the store had a much wider variety of offerings than the restaurant.
Huge Array 2Huge Array

 
Here are a few of the items that came home with me after my last visit.

Pepes wrappedPepes Teri
Pepes refers to food, often involving fish, that has been prepared by wrapping it in a banana leaf and then steaming it (although it’s sometimes grilled); this pepes teri (anchovy) is a little sweet, a little spicy and also contains tofu, coconut, chilies, and galangal. Delicious.

Otak 2 bagOtak Otak
Otak otak ikan is sort of a leaf-wrapped fish paste (ikan = fish), but these tasty tidbits don’t really betray much fish flavor – only a slightly sweet, slightly oniony, slightly chewy snack accompanied by peanut sauce and it’s near impossible to consume just one. Incidentally, the repetition of a word as part of a grammatical construct is common in Indonesian and Malay, and in linguistics is referred to as reduplication (a word which itself seems redundant); cumi cumi (squid) and gado gado (a vegetable salad) come to mind. Often, as in this instance, appending a “2” to the word is used as shorthand. Yum2.

Arem in wrapperArem cut
This much larger arem arem was quite tasty as well. Along with coconut milk, the leaf flavors the rice that’s wrapped around bits of tofu and shredded chicken – but beware the hot red chili lurking within!

Bakcang Ayam WrappedBakcang Ayam UnwrappedBakcang Ayam Decimated
Bakcang beras – You’ve probably seen this pyramid of bamboo leaf-wrapped, glutinous rice (beras = rice) in Chinatown where it’s known as zongzi and filled with an assortment of savory tids and bits. In addition to pork, this one contained mushroom and preserved egg yolk. (After steaming it, I decimated the pyramid so you could see its inner workings.) Served with a sambal.

EmpalEmpal Lettuce
Empal – Sweet and spicy shredded beef. Typically the meat is boiled first along with aromatics and spices, then cut into lumps and pummeled just enough to loosen the fibers, then often fried. This version has taken its lumps and been beaten beyond recognition into shreds although there are a couple of chunks in there so you can get the idea. I found it perfect with rice or in a lettuce leaf wrapper with sambal oelek.

Ikan SalmonKerang
Ikan salmon asem manis – sweet tamarind salmon (asam = sour, manis = sweet, asem manis refers to tamarind). These fried bits are off the charts delicious, especially with the nasi kuning (rice with coconut milk and turmeric) that I made as an accompaniment. Yes, it’s oily, but so good.

Kerang – The word can refer to clams, scallops, mussels, or pretty much any bivalve. This dish of green mussels is very spicy and very good, here served with plain white rice.

Udang BaladoAyam Kaki
Udang Balado – Udang means shrimp and balado refers to the method of preparation: a tomato based sauce with lots of chilies and in this case potatoes. This rendition had more shrimp heads than shrimp which provided a tremendous amount of flavor and yes, can be eaten. I’ve also seen this dish prepared with stink bean (aka sataw, petai, peteh, bitter bean, and smelly bean, a vegetable common in Southeast Asia and nowhere near as nasty as it sounds).

Ayam kaki – chicken leg. I didn’t get the ingredients or even much of an explanation, but it tastes like it’s been marinated forever in sweet Indonesian soy sauce with perhaps some garlic and ginger and then probably barbecued. The tofu (tahu bacem or tempeh bacem to the left of the sambal) that came with it was amazing (probably marinated in the same stuff). The sauce only looked like sambal oelek but wasn’t as fiery and had a chickeny component.

Martabak 1Martabak
Time for dessert! Martabak manis: “pandan special mix” was good, but unusual. Murtabak (with a “u”) is a pancake wrapped around a variety of savory fillings usually including meat and egg that’s found in Malaysia and throughout the region. Martabak (with an “a” and found only in Indonesia) can be either the savory snack or a sweet one like this. It’s completely unlike its savory cousin: even the pancake is of a radically different texture – more like a crumpet. This one was flavored with pandan and the layers encased chocolate, peanuts, grated fresh cheese, and sweetened condensed milk. I warmed it up a bit and served it with coconut ice cream, which was the icing on the…well, you know.

 
Indo Java
85-12 Queens Boulevard
Elmhurst, NY
718-779-2241