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!

 

 

Village Cafe

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 what we did at Village Café (aka Five Star Village Café, and possibly aka Café Village), one of my very favorite places to bring a hungry throng. First, because the food is excellent (follow my recommendations below for the very best), second, because the staff is delightful, and third because I get to have the exquisite pleasure of introducing folks to Azerbaijani cuisine, something that’s unfamiliar to many people. Azerbaijani food is similar to the cuisine of Georgia (FSU Georgia, that is) but they lay claim to certain dishes such as kutaby as their own. You’ll recognize some items like shish kabob, but there are others that will probably be new to you. Trust me! All of them will be delicious!

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


Veal Tongue Salad

Even if you think you might not like tongue, you’ll love this salad: thinly sliced veal tongue, daikon (white radish), fried onions, cucumber, carrots, and mayo. One of my favorites and not to be missed.


Smoked Eel Salad

That’s shredded kani (the type of faux crab meat sticks you’ll find in certain sushi rolls) piled on top of the smoked eel. Curiously Japanese!


Salad Delight

The taste of this one is at odds with what you’d expect from its appearance, and it’s marvelous. It features fried eggplant, nuts, feta cheese, and more in a sweet and sour dressing – it’s all about that dressing! Another must-do.


Journey to Baku

Grilled eggplant and tomatoes, chopped together “in the form of caviar” as the menu states. The Russian word pronounced ikrá (икрa) means caviar and is often applied to vegetables puréed like this; the Japanese word for caviar is ikura (イクラ). Yes, they’re cognates. And yes, the Russians had it first!


Kutaby with Lamb

A thin, griddled crepe filled with seasoned ground lamb and folded in half. That’s sumac sprinkled on the top – no, not the poison kind, of course! It imparts a tart but earthy, citrusy flavor to the dish. Sumac is very common in this cuisine and it’s often used as a garnish. They also make a version with greens instead of lamb, but you should definitely do the lamb.


Julienne

Not julienne like French cut vegetables, but rather a gooey, cheesy, mushroom side dish. This is the definition of the word “rich”.


Shish Kabobs – Lamb, Lamb Ribs, Chicken Lulya

All of these are delectable, especially the fatty lamb ribs. Chicken Lulya is seasoned ground chicken, served here in wraps. I once brought my friend and former New York magazine food critic Gael Greene here. She adored the place. Gael doesn’t particularly care for ground chicken, but I insisted that she try these juicy little wonders; she loved them, pronounced them “luscious”, and might even venture back one day. Mission accomplished!


Djiz-Biz

This is an Azerbaijani miracle of roasted sheep kidneys, heart, testicles, liver, potatoes, and onions. Wait! WAIT!! Don’t stop reading yet! This scrumptious offal is anything but awful. When I’ve ordered it for a group, I sometimes detected a look of trepidation passing across their faces. But believe it or not, I promise you that it never fails to be one of the stars of the show!
A few potatoes were all that remained of the Djiz-Biz. Believe me now?


Guru Hingal

I’ve saved the best for last. This handmade pasta must be ordered in advance and refrigerated overnight so that it can do what dough does. Featuring thick, buttery, luxurious pasta sheets topped with lamb and onions and served with a yogurt sauce, I refer to it as Azerbaijani comfort food. Once you’ve tried it, I guarantee you’ll want more. Get. This. Dish.
 
 
And then some: If you check out the menu, you’ll also see something called “Ravioli”. Presumably, this is the “English” translation of pelmeni, savory dumplings that ravioli can only aspire to. They’re great too, particularly the lamb variety. So many dishes, but these are the highlights; you won’t be sorry with any of these!
 
 
Village Café is located at 1968 Coney Island Avenue, Brooklyn, NY
(Note that the restaurant itself is set back from the street so it can be easy to miss if you’re zooming past!)
 
 

Chinese Mooncakes Demystified

Or, The Equal Opportunity Celebrant – Part 2

 

A visit to any Chinatown bakery this time of year will reveal a befuddling assemblage of mooncakes (yue bing) in a seemingly infinite variety of shapes, sizes, ornamentation, and fillings, all begging to be enjoyed in observance of the Mid-Autumn Festival. Also known as the Autumn Moon Festival, this important holiday occurs on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month (around mid-September or early October on the Gregorian calendar) when the moon looms large and bright – the perfect time to celebrate summer’s bounteous harvest. They’re sold either individually or in eye-catching gift boxes or tins since it’s customary to offer gifts of mooncakes to friends and family (or lovers!) for the holiday. Being a curious monkey (2016 is the year of the same), I felt compelled to purchase an assortment of these delicacies in order to learn about their similarities and differences and to shed some light (moonlight, of course) on their intricacies.

The first point to note is that various regions of China have their own distinct versions of mooncakes. A quick survey of the interwebs revealed styles hailing from Beijing, Suzhou, Guangdong (Canton), Chaoshan, Ningbo, Yunnan, and Hong Kong, not to mention Taiwan and Malaysia. They’re distinguished by the types of dough, appearance, and fillings, some sweet and some more savory. In my experience, Chinese bakeries in Manhattan, Brooklyn (Sunset Park), and Queens (Flushing) favor the Cantonese style, but Fujianese mooncakes are easy to find along stoop line stands outside of markets in neighborhoods where there’s a concentration of folks from Fujian.
jinhua-hammoon-cake-mold
You’ll commonly find mooncakes with doughy crusts (golden brown, soft, somewhere between cakey and piecrusty, often with an egg wash sheen) as well as those with white, paper thin flaky layers that betray lard as an important ingredient; chewy glutinous rice skins (these aren’t baked); and gelatinous casings (jelly, agar, or konjak), the most difficult to find in the city. Golden-baked, elegantly decorated Cantonese versions are round (moon shaped, get it?) or square, are fluted around the perimeter, and have been created using molds made of intricately carved wood to provide the ornate design or an inscription describing what’s inside (see photo).

joyful-lotus-seed-pastejoyful-lotus-seed-paste-inside
Fillings among the Cantonese types are dense and sweet and include lotus seed paste, white lotus seed paste, red bean paste, and mung bean paste, sometimes with one or two salted duck egg yolks (representing the harvest moon) snuggled within. In addition, there are five-nut (or -kernel or -seed) versions, packed with chopped peanuts, walnuts, almonds, pumpkin seeds, and watermelon seeds as well as a variety made with Jinhua ham, dried winter melon, and other fruits buried among the nuts; its flavor was a little herby, not unlike rosemary, but I couldn’t quite identify it. These last two were particularly tasty. All are about 3 inches wide and 1½ inches high and sell for about $4.50–$6; mini-versions are available as well. A visit to Flushing exhibited all of these as well as some outstanding fruity varieties including pineapple, lychee, and pandan; these can be best described as translucent fruit pastes and are perfect for the novitiate – a gateway mooncake if ever there was one.
five-seed-pastepineapple-lychee-pandan

In another market, I found a white, flaky pastry version, Shanghai style, I believe; the filling was like a very dense cake with a modicum of nuts and fruits providing some contrast and crunch – certainly tasty.

durian-with-bean-paste-snowy-moon-cakeicy-moon-cake-boxes
chocolate-icy-moon-cakechocolate-icy-moon-cake-with-cream-cheesechocolate-pearls-in-pandan-flavored-bean-paste
Then there are trendy versions that hail from Hong Kong all of which are equally accessible and delicious. Think mooncake meets mochi: rather than dough-based and baked, the skins are almost like the sweet Japanese glutinous rice cake, but not quite as chewy. These snowy and icy mooncakes must be kept chilled. The snowy flavors are contemporary: strawberry, mango, orange, pineapple, honeydew, peach, peanut, taro, chestnut, green tea and red bean; one version featured durian flavored sweet bean paste with bits of the fruit and enveloped by a skin of sweet, almost almond paste texture and flavor. Icy mooncakes come two to a box (they’re smaller, about 2 inches by ¾ inch) with imaginative flavors like pandan bean paste with chocolate pearls (tiny crispy, candy bits, crunchy like malted milk balls, but probably puffed rice), dark chocolate bean paste (the skin is like mochi with chocolatey paste on the inside and a piece of dark chocolate or a bit of cream cheese nestled within), durian, mango, blueberry, custard, chestnut, black sesame, strawberry, and cherry. Prices range from $6–$9.50 each or for a box.

Even the Häagen-Dazs in Flushing’s New World Mall was touting sets of ice cream mooncakes!

fujianese-moon-cake-3-stampsfujianese-moon-cake-insidePerhaps the most unusual are the mooncakes found in Fujianese neighborhoods, particularly along East Broadway in Manhattan’s Chinatown. These round behemoths (about 8½ inches in diameter and an inch or so thick) are simple in appearance. Wrapped in a single flaky layer covering a more substantial crust (a mixture of rice and wheat flours) with red food coloring stamps on top to delineate varieties, they are an embarrassment of lard and sugar with the addition of chopped peanuts, dried red dates (jujubes), bits of candied winter melon and other nuts and fruits supported by sesame seed encrusted bottoms. I’m wary about cautioning you that these might be an acquired taste as they are certainly unlike anything you might find in Western cuisine and I don’t want to put you off; some friends liked them immediately, others had to think about it. In any event, the flavors will grow on you regardless of your starting point. These hefty disks exemplify the phrase “a little goes a long way” and a cup of tea nearby helps cut the oiliness. Cost is about $10 each.

I have to admit that I hit a wall in my attempt to decipher the inscriptions on the Fujianese mooncakes. Most bore a number of red sunburst shaped identifiers and were stamped, once, twice, three times or four. I was hard pressed to taste the difference between the single and double stamped versions; they were the simplest of the lot – sweet, lardy, and a little fruity perhaps. By the same token, the three-stamp and four-stamp versions were similar to each other and boasted the addition of sweet jujubes and other fruits – more interesting and better in my opinion, certainly sweeter because of the jujubes, but I couldn’t tease out the distinction between the two. Alas, there were other stamps as well – words, I suspect – but the color had run so they were undifferentiable to me. I have friends who can handle Mandarin and Cantonese, but not the Fujianese dialect, and none of the vendors had a word of English, so my questions were fruitless (unlike the 4-stamp mooncake). I’m not going to let this go, though, so keep an eye out for an update to this post.

Update as promised: Never one to be satisfied with “…and the rest” (as the theme from television’s Gilligan’s Island once crooned – but only for the first season), I had no choice but to return to East Broadway in Manhattan’s Chinatown where I had first tapped into the motherlode of Fujianese mooncakes.

On that visit, I had spotted one that displayed somewhat illegible writing rather than a mini-constellation of stamps but I had already purchased a surfeit of mooncakes that day and decided that I didn’t really need to buy one of each. Silly me; I should know better by now. So since that particular mooncake was eating at me (instead of the other way around), I hazarded $12 to try and solve the mystery.

This time the writing on the mystery mooncake was clear, but I’m still unsure about what it said. I see the character for “plus” over the one for “work”; if they were next to each other, it would mean “processing” (in addition to lots of other translations). In any event, it’s by far the best of any of that ilk that I’ve tried because of the ample addition of black sesame seeds and a plentitude of peanuts, so if you encounter it, that’s the one to get.

I’ve cobbled together a mini-glossary to help you decipher a few characters on some of the more popular fillings found in Cantonese mooncakes:

月                 moon
月餅             mooncake
白                 white
蓮蓉             lotus seed paste
紅豆             red bean
旦黃             single yolk
雙黃             double yolk
冰                 ice
冰皮             snowy
伍                 five
仁                 nut, seed, kernel, (benevolence)
金華火腿     Jinhua ham
棗                 jujube (red date)

Armed with these keys, you can combine phrases and discover the secrets hiding within. For example:

雙黃白蓮蓉 = double yolk white lotus seed
冰皮月餅 = snowy mooncake

So head to your nearest Chinese bakery and sample some of these autumn delights! If you can pronounce pinyin, say “zhōngqiū kuàilè” (which sounds like jong chew kwai luh). But in any language, here’s wishing you a Happy Mid-Autumn Festival!

中秋快乐!

 
 

Smart Cookies

If you’ve visited the confectionery aisle at almost any Asian market, you know there’s no shortage of packaged cookies and cookie-like treats to tempt your tastebuds and purge your pocketbook. Japanese renditions of American classics take that to the next level, both in terms of snackability and sticker shock (at least what I can find stateside). A cursory perusal of one such aisle revealed variations on the theme of mini Kit Kats and Oreos (in a bite-sized format unfamiliar to me); I was tickled to find matcha green tea versions of both as well as strawberry Oreo and sweet potato Kit Kat varieties. (This last sported instructions on the back for optional toaster-oven crisping!)

Oreo Matcha BagOreo Strawberry BoxKit Kat Sweet Potato Bag

I was less tickled by the prices, however. Certainly the packaging is attractive – bright colors, shiny gold, embossed even! – but lots and lots of air surrounding teeny tiny morsels of sweet crunchiness. (Reminds me of a quote from Monty Python’s Flying Circus: “There will now be a whopping great intermission, during which small ice creams in very large boxes will be sold.”) This 9½ inch wide bag of mini Kit Kats, for example, offers about a dozen individually wrapped pieces, each weighing in at about 12 grams – less than half an ounce – for $6.99, but I guess I do understand why the pricing is what it is.

Oreo Matcha PieceThree individually wrappedThree unwrapped

In terms of taste, the sweet potato Kit Kat was, for an instant, sort of sweet potato-y, then it turned somewhat artificial and a little metallic. The matcha was more subtle but was also more true to its green tea flavor description. Strawberry Oreo straddled the fence between fruity and artificial.

(I’ve always theorized that if a being from another planet landed on Earth and was tasked with the challenge of reconciling how the taste of artificial cherry, grape, et al. has any resemblance whatsoever to real cherries or grapes, it would shake its heads, concede defeat, and return home with its tails between its legs. Somehow, after years of ingesting these chemical concoctions, we’ve become inured to their ersatz essences and have accepted the use of the word “raspberry”, for instance, to describe both disparate flavors. Such is the wonder of modern food science as it confronts our ability to suspend culinary disbelief. But I digress.)

It turns out that Japan comes by its penchant for wild and crazy cookie flavors honestly. Since 2000, Nestlé has developed some 200–300 (reports vary) extreme Kit Kat flavors: cinnamon, hojicha roasted tea, strawberry cheesecake, brown sugar, pear, crème brulée, apple, apple vinegar, ginger ale, blueberry cheesecake, hazelnut, raspberry, orange, rum raisin, pumpkin pudding, orange pineapple, choco-banana, pancake, black honey, taro, chili pepper, red bean, edamame, sake, wasabi, soy sauce, and dark chocolate (how’d that get in there?) as well as something called “mixed juice” to name a few. (I can’t help but wonder what flavor “Midnight Eagle” might be.)

The story, as I understand it, of Kit Kat’s overwhelming popularity in Japan has to do with its name – it sounds roughly like “kitto katsu” which translates as “you will surely win”. The smart cookies at Nestlé became aware of burgeoning sales every January when the appropriately named sweet was given to students as a good luck gift prior to taking college entrance exams.

Now, sixteen years later, the candy is the number one seller in Japan, even promoted in schmancy department stores and specialty shops. The unusual (by Western standards) varieties pay homage to the unique flavors of Japanese foods; some of them are based on the particular character of a specific region in the country with limited distribution of each signature flavor to its region.

If you’d like to read more about how Kit Kat became a phenomenon in Japan, check out this story in the online version of the British newspaper, The Telegraph. In it, they write about innovations like an extravagant version covered in gold leaf and a Kit Kat croissant available in a coffee shop chain that sells out on a daily basis. (Take that, Dominique Ansel.)

I’m certain that more of these delicious wonders are lurking throughout the New York City area. (Update: I subsequently found bittersweet chocolate, strawberry, and Japanese sake. And more recently, I’ve discovered a designer version, the “Chocolatory Moleson”, the first decorated Kit Kat, which is topped with dried cranberries and almonds – placed there by hand!) Fellow ethnofoodies: let me know what you find and where you found it and I’ll update this post along with a hat tip for your hunting prowess!

 

Specialty Food Association’s Summer 2016 Fancy Food Show

Show FloorTo some, it is America’s largest food and beverage trade show playing host annually to 2,670 US and international exhibitors who this year presented 180,000 specialty foods to over 47,000 industry professional buyers, distributors, brokers, and the media.

To me, it is Xanadu.

And not only because of three days’ worth of opportunities to sample some delicious wares. The Fancy Food Show affords the chance to hob and nob with other professional foodies, see what products and brands are trending and poised to make a breakthrough, and get a sense of what the industry thinks the marketplace is craving. (I lost count of how many products had Krave in the name.)

To clarify, “specialty foods” – as contrasted with staples – encompass cheese (easily the largest category); cured meats; caviar, smoked, and other seafood; baked goods and mixes; candy and chocolates; nuts; condiments including sauces and marinades; oils; snacks; jams and jellies; beverages and more. The show highlights three major areas: a formidable presence of national manufacturers, a panoply of international pavilions proffering provisions from Peru to Pakistan, and a section organized by state populated by artisanal entrepreneurs trying to catch a foothold in the national marketplace. (Incidentally, it would seem that Brooklyn has seceded from New York since they were ensconced in their own area.)

Needless to say, the international food representatives are a major inspiration for my annual hajj to that stately pleasure dome known as the Javits Center (although my unbridled passion for cheese does vie for first place). Case in point, my quest for argan oil. Made from the kernels of the nut encased by the fruit of the argan tree, its flavor is rich and distinctly Moroccan. Want a tip? Use this awesome product in your cooking or even just for dipping bread, perhaps with a sprinkle of dukkah. After chatting up the folks in every booth in the Moroccan subsector, I was able to consummate my crusade upon meeting the delightful and generous folks at TVT Trade Brands, an importer and distributor of spices and more from around the world.

Elegant Cheese 2Elegant Cheese 1Serrano Ham DollBack in the main area, I couldn’t resist snapping a few photos of some over-the-top displays of cheesy elegance along with an example of fun and exciting things you can do with Serrano ham. (Take that, Lady Gaga!)

Pichuberry PackagePichuberriesA booth promoting Pichuberries®, Mojo Tree Farm’s trademarked name for golden berries (aka physalis, husk cherry, cape gooseberry and others – and not to be confused with true gooseberries) provided an example of something relatively new to the marketplace. If you’re near a great farmers’ market, you can find ground cherries in late summer but they’re unlikely to be perfectly ripe (look for orange, not green), and Pichuberries are far more reliable in that regard. The fruits, about the size of a marble, are sweet, tart, and a little earthy – delicious, and a worthy addition to any salad. Mojo Tree Farm provides a number of recipes (like a pico de gallo that looks wonderful) on their website.

Of course, one can easily find the usual suspects like the baked goods wannabes: the brownie that eats like a cookie, the cookie that eats like a brownie, cookies masquerading as muffin tops, donuts masquerading as brownies, and brownie bottoms masquerading as cookies – “the best part of the brownie!” one company boasted.

One artisanal sausage maker bragged about how their product had no casing so there wasn’t that annoying “snap” when you bit into them. Yeesh. Ah well, one man’s meat is another man’s poisson, I guess.

The atmosphere was a little more homespun down in the States level: Virginia peanuts, Vermont maple products, Brooklyn hipster artisanality, you get the idea. Certainly there was a passel of good ol’ boys invitin’ all y’all to come on down and taste what they just whomped up in the basement. Retired gramepaws, bless their hearts, sporting straw farmers’ hats, who instead of traveling opted to sink their entire pension into bottling their secret family BBQ sauce recipe, beckoned to passing attendees as their granddaughters, aspiring Future Spokesmodels of America and dolled up in gingham, offered samples. Gotta love it.

At the end of the day, it’s all about marketing, and that’s the only aspect of the show that saddens me a bit. Not that I have anything against marketing per se. But all of these companies have done tremendous research into what America wants to put in its mouth, and it seems to me that it’s really about what America doesn’t want to put in its mouth. It felt like practically every product crowed about some mix’n’match variation on:

gluten-free, salt-free, sugar-free, dairy-free, trans fat-free, soy-free, egg-free, butter-free, tree-nut free, peanut-free, caffeine-free, no msg, no GMOs, no hormones, no artificial colors or flavors, no preservatives, no additives, no high fructose corn syrup, no cholesterol, high protein, low carb, low fat, low calorie, vegetarian friendly, vegan friendly, paleo friendly, diet friendly, heart friendly, non-irradiated, pastured, macrobiotic, probiotic, antioxidant, raw…handmade, fair trade, A grade, cage-free laid…<catching my breath> and, of course, the ever popular and stupefyingly meaningless All Natural.

We want our handcrafted, small batch comestibles to be organic, sustainable, artisanal, locally-sourced, farmstead, snout-to-tail, farm-to-table, field-to-fork, and even (in the case of chocolate) bean-to-bar.

Eagerly extending trays of samples, exhibitors intoned, “Gluten-free all-natural!” never making it clear what they were offering let alone whether or not it might taste good. I think I saw biodegradably packaged gluten-free natural spring water. Gluten-free water? But I was pretty tired by then.

Don’t get me wrong; I applaud lifestyle choices and would never mock a creed someone holds dear. But sadly, nowhere did I see labels proclaiming ambrosial, appetizing, delectable, delightful, divine, enticing, exquisite, heavenly, luscious, mouthwatering, rich, savory, scrumptious, tasty, tempting, toothsome, yummy, and certainly never delicious. Why can’t we strike a balance?

And again, to be perfectly clear: the show itself is fantastic – a veritable Disneyworld for enthusiastic food professionals.

I just wish America’s relatively new-found romance with food were less about how it might kill us and more about how it might thrill us.

 
 

Fulton’s Steambuffets: Definitely Not Folly!

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few venues are worth a mention:

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

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

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

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

International Cuisine inside 1International Cuisine inside 2

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

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

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