MaLa Project – Part 1

Instagram Post 3/25/2019

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I may be late to the game in terms of writing about MáLà Project, 122 First Ave in Manhattan, but that doesn’t stop me from working my way through their menu now. Their famous Dry Pot notwithstanding, four of us set out to explore other menu items, so we started with ten (count ’em ten!) dishes from the Appetizers, Snacks, Vegetables and Rice sections of the menu; I’m posting a barrage detailing the whole lot.

[1] I’ve been nibbling my way around roast poultry necks since I was a kid. At Thanksgiving, some families argue over politics; we argued over who’s going to get the turkey neck. So I was happy that there were enough MáLà Duck Neck joints for the four of us. I don’t recall these being particularly spicy though, neither má nor là. Good anyway.

[2] Husband and Wife Lung Slices. Fuqi Feipian 夫妻肺片 is a Sichuan málà classic. Choice of specific ingredients varies among chefs (not to worry, it never includes actual slices of lung) but tripe and tendon are traditional and ox tongue and beef shin can appear as alternate paramours – always two items though and always delightfully spicy.
 
 

Kung Fu Xiao Long Bao

Instagram Post 3/24/2019

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Soup dumplings, Xiao Long Bao, XLB, 小笼包, call them what you will, are universally prized regardless of the appellation. Literally “little basket bun” because they’re steamed and served in a little basket often made of bamboo, the wrapper encloses a tasty meatball (usually pork), sometimes with the addition of crabmeat and/or crab roe, swimming in a rich broth (usually pork).

Fans champion just the right skins (a little elasticity, not too thick but not so thin that it breaks upon dislodgment from the steamer), just the right filling (flavorful, proper consistency, and moist unto itself), just the right soup (savory and porky, not playing second fiddle to the meat), and just the right ratio of soup to filling. In short, sort of like Goldilocks’ appraisal of Baby Bear’s personal effects: “juuuuuust right”.

[1] An oft-cited favorite purveyor is Kung Fu Xiao Long Bao, 59-16 Main Street, Flushing. On this visit, we ordered the Crab Meat XLB, pork with minced crab meat and roe.

[2] The salmon colored bit of crab roe peeking out of the topknot is the telltale clue as to what awaits within.

[3] Further evidence of crabiliciousness!
 
 

Leek & Celery Salad – Polish Ethnojunket

Instagram Post 3/23/2019

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I’m still contemplating whether I should add a new neighborhood ethnic food tour to my roster of ethnojunkets, this time through Greenpoint, Brooklyn with a focus on Polish cuisine.

I suspect some folks think that Polish food is rather one note – although a good note to be sure – opining that kielbasa and pierogies can only take you so far. But there’s more to the cuisine than you might realize. Take this bracing Salatka z Porem i Celerem (Leek & Celery Salad). You don’t usually think of leeks in the starring role of a cold salad and their snappy presence here easily serves to awaken a jaded palate. Adds a further touch of excitement to that Kielbasa Wiejska with a dollop of zingy horseradish cream we’ll be sampling along the way.

Curious to learn more about this hearty cuisine? Any Polish food fans out there? Weigh in please! (Poor choice of words, perhaps. 😉)
 
 

Ittadi Garden and Grill

Instagram Post 3/22/2019

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Since I was in Jackson Heights the other day and since I love Bangladeshi food, both for the spice level and the mustard oil, a visit to Ittadi Garden and Grill was in order. It’s a steam table affair facilitated that day by an accommodating waitress who was kind enough to identify anything unlabeled.

[1] There was a wide variety of fish as is to be expected in a Bangladeshi restaurant, but only one was anonymous, a whole fish about six inches long. I was told it was Baila, aka Bele, and that it was less bony than Hilsa (which can be a challenge in that regard if you’re particularly hungry); I later learned that it’s a species of the freshwater goby. The sauce was savory, spicy, and splendid slathered over the rice.

[2] Another essential in Bangladeshi cuisine is vorta (you may see bharta, bhurtha, or the like), a vegetable or fish that has been boiled then mashed and seasoned with chilies, mustard oil, and spices, existing somewhere along the condiment/side dish continuum. I requested a mix and received (left to right) fish, potato, broccoli (top), eggplant, and onions & chili, each wonderfully spicy but with its own character.

[3] I asked about the golden shreds punctuated by slivers of green chilies in the vegetable section and learned it was papaya, but unlike any papaya I had experienced, ripe or unripe, for this was soft as a boiled vegetable and retained only a tiny trace of its papayaness; I enjoyed the preparation. Dal and a small salad came with the meal.

Ittadi Garden and Grill is located at 73-07 37th Rd, Queens. Always worth a stopover.
 
 

Holi Mubarak!

Instagram Post 3/21/2019

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The Equal Opportunity Celebrant strikes again, eating my way through Holi today, the Hindu festival of spring and colors celebrated predominantly in India and Nepal. Prowling around the Indian neighborhood in Jackson Heights yesterday in search of traditional Holi treats, I enjoyed watching children choosing packets of powder in every color of the rainbow to sparge at anything in their path, thus producing a glorious festive mess. The holiday recounts the heartwarming legend of Krishna coloring his face for Radha, his love, and heralds the arrival of spring.

[1] Jalebi are one of the most widely available Indian mithai (sweets); they’re made from chickpea or wheat flour batter, usually orange but occasionally yellow (no difference in flavor, just a color preference) which 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 they’re soaked in super sweet syrup so you get the best of both worlds. For Holi, however, jalebi get the royal treatment; this one is about 7 inches in diameter and generously adorned with edible silver foil, sliced almonds and pistachios. Because this sticky jumbo jalebi (jalumbi? jalembo?) is larger and thicker than the standard issue version, it provides more crunch and holds more syrup in each bite so it’s even more over the top, if such a thing is possible.

[2] This is gujiya (you might see gujia), a classic Holi sweet, half-moon shaped and similar to a deep-fried samosa. Crunchy outside and soft within, it’s filled with sweetened khoa (milk solids), ground nuts, grated coconut, whole fruits and nuts (raisins and cashews in this one), cumin seeds, and a bit of suji (semolina) for texture.

These Holi day treats came from Maharaja Sweets, 73-10 37th Ave, Jackson Heights, Queens.

Holi Mubarak! Have a blessed Holi!
 
 

Hamantaschen

Instagram Post 3/20/2019

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The story of Purim memorializes the time in ancient Jewish history when Haman, royal vizier to King Ahasuerus of Persia, had been plotting to exterminate all the Jews in the empire. His plan was thwarted by Mordecai and Queen Esther, his adopted daughter, and the deliverance is one of joyful celebration, steeped in traditional ceremonies and festivities. Purim begins tonight at sundown and concludes tomorrow evening, and among the many icons of the holiday, one of the most renowned is the hamantasch, literally “Haman’s pocket”.

Hamantaschen are delicious triangular baked pastries conventionally filled with thick prune jam (lekvar) or sweet ground poppy seeds (muhn) but these days creative cooking prevails and fillings of apricot, fig, chocolate, halvah, raspberry and more are not uncommon and take their place beside their predecessors. These fine examples came from Queens Kosher Pita & Bakery, 6838 Main St in Flushing.

Happy Purim!

!חג פורים שמח

Chag Purim Sameach!
 
 

Ugly Baby – Part 3

Instagram Post 3/19/2019

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Two more from one of my favorite Thai restaurants, Ugly Baby at 407 Smith Street in Carroll Gardens. Both of these seafood dishes were absolutely delicious.

[1] Khoong Muk Kai Kem featuring shrimp (khoong), squid (muk), and salted egg yolk (kai kem) – assuming I’ve decoded the Thai correctly. I admit to being an avid fan of salted egg yolk in all its forms; here it serves to thicken the sauce and add texture as well as flavor to the seafood. An excellent dish.

[2] Kang Hoy Bai Cha Plu. Mussels, betel leaves, and cha-om in “ugly red curry”. Cha-om are the gossamer leaves of the Acacia pennata tree which can be consumed either raw or cooked; the betel leaves are the larger pieces you see in the photo. This dish is a good example of why I like Ugly Baby so much; another winner.

 
 

Ugly Baby – Part 2

Instagram Post 3/18/2019

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If I recall correctly, it’s a cross-cultural superstition and particularly so in Thailand: if you’ve just given birth to a beautiful baby, you proclaim it ugly lest an evil spirit punish your hubris and abduct your newborn. Such is the story behind the name of this outstanding restaurant, Ugly Baby, at 407 Smith Street in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. Having opened about a year and a half ago, it’s still one of my favorite Thai places but I’ve been remiss about posting photos. Fixing that now.

[1] Sting Ray Curry, Kang Ped. Topped with betel leaves, this spicy treatment of sting ray was top notch. That cluster of little beads on the right is a stem of green peppercorns; if you’re into cooking, you can find them in Thai markets brined in jars. Highly recommended.

[2] Khao Soi Nuer, northern egg noodle curry soup with beef shank. A popular street food in Northern Thailand, it’s a complex dish of contrasting textures and complementary flavors authentically executed here.

More to come from Ugly Baby.
 
 

F.O.B.

Instagram Post 3/17/2019

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F.O.B. abbreviates Fresh Off the Boat, the Filipino restaurant at 271 Smith Street in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, where the only boats that might sail nearby would be on the Gowanus Canal. You won’t find hard-core Filipino cuisine here, but what they do offer is tasty and competently executed. Here’s what came from the galley a few nights ago.

[1] Bola Bola. If you like big, overstuffed, beefy dumplings, these are for you. Seared on the bottom, steamed on top, sort of a potsticker on steroids.

[2] Grilled Tupa, the hit of our dinner. Sliced lamb marinated in coconut milk seasoned with shrimp paste, a triumph of the Maillard reaction. Spicy sauce on the side.

[3] Seafood Malabon, a stir-fried rice noodle dish (aka pancit). The menu states “in a sauce of minced shellfish & smoked fish, topped with shrimp, chicharron, and egg.” All of those were present but the shrimp were small, the smoked mussels were few and far between, and the chicharron should have been crisper. Fine, but easily overshadowed by the lamb.

[4] Tomato and Salted Duck Egg from the Sides section of the menu: fresh tomato, red onion, bits of salted duck egg (the star), and tamarind dressing – good but didn’t quite coalesce.

[5] Laing. I’m familiar with laing as taro leaves drenched in a creamy coconut milk/shrimp paste sauce, hopefully with a chili kick. This version consisted of chopped kale topped with a coconut milk sauce; it was fine but different from the norm. Additional sides were Garlic Rice and Kamote, mashed sweet potato with coconut milk, sweet and delicious.

I’m told the halo-halo is worth a try.
 
 

Cka Ka Qellu – Part 2

Instagram Post 3/15/2019

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More deliciousness from our visit to Çka Ka Qëllu, 2321 Hughes Ave, Bronx, a couple of weeks ago.

[1] I expected the Mantia në tavë (literally, mantia in a tava, a clay casserole) to be similar to their thin-skinned dumpling cousins called manti from neighboring countries, but was surprised by a drier, sturdier, baked pastry dough encasing the filling; they seemed more like goshtgizhda, the Central Asian meat pies I wrote about a few days ago. These crisp bottomed bites were rescued by a much welcomed creamy sauce. Filled with ground veal (of course) and drenched with yogurt (of course), they were delightful.

[2] The Mantia served in their tava of creamy lava.

[3] Not to neglect our appetizers, each different in nature and temperature (from top moving clockwise): Tarator, a cold yogurt dip with minced garlic and cucumber; delicious warm Sausage Dip made from Albanian veal sausage; Ajavar (you may have seen ajvar), room temp, a savory roasted red pepper spread.

[4] And marvelous pillowy bread called Samun (sounds a little like salmon), so fresh and hot out of the oven that we literally couldn’t tear it barehanded. I’m usually unimpressed by bread but this was amazing; it was perfect with the dips.

And in case you’re wondering, yes, I’m going back to Çka Ka Qëllu, 2321 Hughes Ave, Bronx. Gotta finish off the rest of the menu!