Goodness, Gracious, Great Balls of…Fish?

You’ve undoubtedly seen these if you shop at Asian markets whether Chinese, Japanese, Korean or Southeast Asian because they’re a favorite everywhere in that part of the world. (Scandinavia has its own variant, but we’re not going to venture that far north this time.) There are even fish cake emoji like 🍥 (narutomaki) and 🍢 (oden). In local Asian markets, you’ll find fish balls and fish cakes in the freezer case packaged in bags or plastic wrapped in a small tray, but if you’re lucky they’ll also have bins of loose assorted varieties where you can cherry-pick as many or as few of whichever ones suit your fancy – my style of shopping, of course.

At their most basic, fish balls are made of fish paste: finely ground fish (pulverized and pounded), egg white, starch, plus a little seasoning. You may have also encountered fish paste as Japanese surimi which is used to make imitation shellfish like the crab stick you see in those ubiquitous California rolls. Incidentally, you can often purchase a few types of fish paste by the pound at the larger markets in the fresh fish/meat department. These are generally the stores’ own blends and are worth trying, but they’re easier to work with as filling for a dumpling or stuffing a vegetable, dim sum style, rather than for rolling your own fish balls, so I strongly recommend getting the ready-to-go frozen ones as an entry level fishy requisite.

Anyway, I was shopping at Jmart (136-20 Roosevelt Avenue in the New World Mall in Flushing, Queens) and fortuitously happened upon one such bin – fortuitously because I had just made a savory Chinese duck soup from a pair of carcasses that contributed their meat to a Thai duck salad I crafted and I had been trying to decide whether to put noodles or dumplings in it. This bounty made the choice easy – and now I had the perfect excuse to buy a few of each kind.

It’s difficult to rate them on some sort of 1 to 10 scale because they’re all quite good but the cuttlefish balls and all of the filled varieties were especially tasty; the shrimp ball filled with pork and sea cucumber and the fish ball with pork filling were excellent. By way of identification, from left to right in the photo above:

Row 1: shrimp ball, fish tofu, imitation lobster ball, Chinese brand mini bite sausage

Row 2: beef tendon ball, fish dumpling with lobster flavored filling, fish ball with fish roe filling, cuttlefish ball

Row 3: fish tofu with shrimp filling, fish ball with pork filling, pork and chicken patty ball with pork filling, shrimp ball filled with pork and sea cucumber

Preparing them is a piece of cake (no, not fish cake) because they’re already cooked. The easiest method is to simply drop them into boiling soup/water; they’ll float to the top when they’re good to go. Alternatively, they can be fried and served with just about any Asian dipping sauce; you’ll find them on skewers at some food trucks, and I’ve seen them served with a curry sauce as well. Obviously, they’re incredibly versatile.

The flavor is mildly fish-like (except for the ones made from meat which are mildly beefy or mildly porky) which partly accounts for their affinity for various dipping sauces and also for their adaptability in combining with other ingredients. The texture is tender and frankly springy/bouncy, but in a happy way.

The final photo was taken just before adding more soup since it would have completely covered them up; there are some greens in there for good measure.

So I’m curious: let me know if or how you’ve used these little wonders in the “Leave a Reply” box below! (If you don’t see it, click the reply button next to the title of this post.)

 
 

One Thoke Over the Line


One of my experiments with homemade Lahpet Thoke, Burmese Tea Leaf Salad

Long ago when I lived in the Village, I was introduced to Burmese cuisine at a restaurant on East 7th Street called Village Mingala. I confess to having eaten my way through their entire menu, annotating items I liked best, and bringing friends as often as I could in order to partake of some delicious, and otherwise difficult to find, dishes. Despite my best efforts to singlehandedly keep them in business, they closed many years ago, so taking the road less travelled as is my wont (read: making things difficult for myself), I decided that I’d better learn to cook Burmese food. You can see some of the fare I prepared for a Myanmar-themed birthday party here. Cloning Ohn No Khao Swè – noodles in a curried chicken and coconut milk broth with besan (chickpea flour that figures notably into the cuisine) – was pretty straightforward, but to this day I can’t even come close to their Thousand Layer Pancake. Couldn’t even get to a hundred. In addition to Village Mingala’s imposing assortment of first-rate noodle dishes, the Burmese salads were always a high point of any meal I enjoyed there. One universal favorite on the menu was Tea Leaf Salad.

In Myanmar, tea is not only drunk, but also consumed as food. Lahpet (you’ll also see it as laphat, laphet, lephet, leppet, letpet or let-phet as it’s spelled on Village Mingala’s menu – yes, I kept a copy from 2008) is the Burmese word for pickled or fermented tea leaves. It’s pronounced [ləpʰɛʔ] if you’re keen to flex your International Phonetic Alphabet muscles. Thoke means salad (pronounce the “th” like an aspirated “t”). Stick them together, as in lahpet thoke, and you’ve got yourself one addictive dish. (Also note that some folks claim to get a buzz from the caffeine in the tea leaves; I don’t, but YMMV.)

The quest turned out to be a learning experience that stretched across many years. One thing I learned from some Burmese acquaintances craving the flavor of home is that they simply go to the market and buy it ready-made rather than rolling their own. Typically it’s found in a two-part kit comprising the dressed, ready-to-eat tea leaves along with a bag of what I’ll call “crunchies”; those are the two essential ingredients of lahpet thoke. If you’ve never experienced tea leaf salad, understand that it usually isn’t composed exclusively of tea leaves; rather, they’re combined with some raw veggies and are an accent, albeit a significant one, to the ingredient list.

If you want to buy what I refer to as a kit, there’s a teeny room (barely a store) called Little Myanmar Mini Mart (37-50 74th Street in Jackson Heights, Queens) that sells a number of brands of prepared lahpet thoke. It’s easy to miss because it’s so small: go in through the narrow entrance, ignore the phone store on the right, don’t go down the stairs, save Lhasa Fast Food at the far end for later so you can sample their wonderful momos; just turn left and follow the signs (in Burmese IIRC) for the Mini Mart. Don’t give up. They’re there.

Each time I’ve visited, there’s been something new and different on the shelves, and to my mind that makes up for the modest size of the shop, so repeat visits are in order. Here are two of the kits I tried; they were similar but distinctive, and both were tasty.
 
However, I wanted to try making my own dressing for the tea leaves from scratch (the road less traveled, remember?) and I found undressed leaves both at Little Myanmar and also at Kalustyan’s (123 Lexington Avenue near East 28th in Manhattan).

The leaves in this condition aren’t ready to eat. Absent any dressing, they taste a lot like tea (unlike the prepared leaves in the kits), a little bitter, and appear very different as well. In the third photo, the plain leaves are on the right, the other two are the prepared versions from the kits mentioned above. I didn’t detect any fermented or pickled flavor but that’s where the dressing comes into play. You’ll need to soak them in lukewarm water, squishing them a bit with your hands. Drain and squeeze out the water. Repeat, then add cold water and let them stand overnight; the leaves will open up. Then drain, squeeze thoroughly to remove excess water, discard any stems or tough parts, and chop finely.

There’s no unique recipe for the dressing, but between my Burmese cookbooks and the interwebs, here’s what I came up with for an amount sufficient to dress a medium sized handful of leaves. Combine thoroughly:

3 Tbl very garlicky garlic oil
3 Tbl fresh lime juice
1 Tbl fish sauce
½ tsp salt
½ tsp sugar
a little ngapi (a spicy Burmese shrimp paste), to taste

Marinate the tea leaves in the mixture for at least one day in the refrigerator, two if you want them to get down and get funky. If they didn’t taste fermented before, they will now. After they’ve surrendered to the marinade, drain them well, and if you like, chop them a bit more, even as fine as pesto, but I prefer them with a little more definition.

And then ya got yer crunchies. Again, there’s no set ingredient list, but I played around with a mixture of the following:

Fried garlic and fried onion (you can buy those two in plastic jars in any Asian market)

Fried broad beans and toasted soybeans (again, available in bags at any Asian market) plus peanuts and sesame seeds

Briefly fry the legumes and sesame seeds in a little oil (I used peanut oil), just enough to give them some color, enhance the flavor and add a little extra crunch. Drain on paper towels and cool completely. (The sesame seeds brown fastest so add them a little later and be vigilant.) I added this step because the contents of the bags of crunchies in the kits always seem to be a little oily, in a good way. Test for salt, but it will probably be okay.

Finally, the salad component. I used shredded napa cabbage (savoy works too) and halved grape tomatoes. I also soaked some dried shrimp in hot water for a few minutes and added them to the mix. I’ve seen lahpet thoke made with dried anchovies, but I already had enough crunch and salt and wanted a different texture to complement the funkiness element. (Speaking of funkiness, dried shrimp powder also makes a good addition.) Depending upon your tolerance for heat, you can add some chopped green bird’s-eye chilies.

In Myanmar’s state of Shan where it’s called Niang Ko, tea leaf salad includes cilantro, scallion and shredded fresh ginger and since I like those in this recipe, I incorporated them as well. Further, in Shan they mix everything together for serving, which is what I did rather than keeping the elements discrete; you may serve them separately and combine them at the table if you wish. Garnish with lime wedges.

What’s that you say? You’d rather not go to the fuss and bother of making your own or even buying a ready-made kit? No problem. I suggest you hustle over to the recently opened Burmese restaurant called Together at 2325 65th Street in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. The chef-owner, known as Oscar, hails from Myanmar and makes lahpet thoke (and everything else on the menu – which you should also try) better than I ever will. Oscar, I bow to your talent and expertise. Now it’s our job to help keep you in business!

 
 

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!

 
 

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!

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.

 
 

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

And, of course, the ever popular Manischewitz Sangria!

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

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!