A Chanukah Miracle in Brooklyn

The Jewish holiday of Chanukah commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem after its destruction in the second century B.C. The ceremony involved the lighting of a menorah, an oil lamp, but there was only enough oil to last for a single day. By a miracle, the menorah glowed for eight which is why Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, is celebrated for as many days. In Jewish households, a nine branched menorah is used; a single candle is lit on the first night and an additional candle is added each consecutive night, with the ninth position reserved for the shamash, a helper candle used to kindle the others.

Since the Chanukah miracle revolves around oil, tradition involves eating oil-centric fried foods. Sufganiot, jelly doughnuts, are the go-to sweet treat in Israel while Eastern Europe brings latkes to the table, potato pancakes customarily served with sour cream and apple sauce; here, we happily indulge in both.

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My homemade latkes: shredded potatoes, minced onion, beaten eggs, baking powder, S&P, plus a binder like flour or matzo meal, shaped and fried in plenty of peanut oil and/or schmaltz (chicken fat) if you’re the decadent type 🙋‍♂️; they’re plated here with the requisite sour cream alongside chunky apple-strawberry sauce topped with sweet crystallized ginger. (You know me: I hadda be different.)


The recipe calls for salting and draining the potatoes; I simply set up a colander in the sink, squeezing out the liquids from time to time. But this year, I noticed something I had never witnessed before: the intricate patterns made by the drained, wet potato starch were as beautiful and mesmerizing as snowflakes! A present day Chanukah miracle!


The photo enlarged.

Now, look very, very closely and you can see a tiny, perfect Chanukah menorah in the pattern. Go ahead, keep searching. Stay focused. Take your time. Don’t pay any attention to me. I’ll just, um, finish off these latkes while you’re trying to find it….
 
 
!חַג חֲנוּכָּה שַׂמֵחַ
Happy Chanukah!
 
 

Taking Sides at Thanksgiving

My understanding is that families who gather together on Thanksgiving sometimes end up seated around the table arguing, ultimately taking sides.

In my politically sane family, we don’t take sides – we bring sides, to the Thanksgiving table that is, because we do a potluck.

My contributions this year were Scalloped Potatoes with Leeks and Bacon…

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As served.


Fresh out of the oven. Only a pint of heavy cream and a pound and a half of bacon went into this low-cal dish. 😜

…and Savory Corn Pudding.

As served.


Fresh out of the oven. It’s a signature recipe of mine that uses frozen corn – evaluated and actually better than fresh for this – as well as Cope’s dried sweet corn. I marvel at the way the snipped chives always find their way to the top. Did I mention that half a pound of butter and more than a pint of heavy cream were ingredients as well?

Hope your Thanksgiving was a peaceful one too!
 
 

East Harbor Seafood Palace

It’s been a minute. Dim sum from East Harbor Seafood Palace, 714 65th St in Sunset Park, Brooklyn – all equally delicious. Last photo was taken mid-stream, just after as many empty plates had been cleared.

It is said that a picture is worth 1,000 words, so now I don’t have to write (and you don’t have to read) 10,000 words! 😉

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Xin Fa Bakery Dan Tat

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Chinese Egg Custard Tarts (蛋挞, dan tat among other English spellings) are on display in just about every bakery case in NYC Chinatowns and can be spotted riding on dim sum trolleys threading their way through restaurants at lunchtime. They found their way to China and Hong Kong decades ago via English custard tarts and Portuguese pastéis de nata and are available these days in a wide variety of styles: basic (Guangzhou/English-inspired bright yellow surface), brûléed (Macao/Portuguese influence), egg white only, green tea, coconut, even strawberry, almond, papaya…and the list of creative variations goes on. Some time ago, there was a bakery on Mott Street that sold them to the exclusion of any other baked goods and boasted dozens of flavors; alas, they’ve since closed. New Flushing Bakery offers a rotating assortment including Strawberry Milk Custard, Lemon Egg Custard, Mango Egg Custard with tapioca balls, and Purple Potato Custard. Best I can tell, dan tat are a universal favorite.

Recently, my Number One Spy urged me to go to Xin Fa Bakery (aka Lily Bloom) at 5617 8th Ave in Sunset Park to try their signature egg tart. If memory serves, she likened the line that trailed out the door onto the sidewalk to the queue for a cronut at Dominique Ansel Bakery during its heyday, but she’s never wrong so I ventured out to Brooklyn’s Chinatown. (Actually, there are more than one Brooklyn Chinatown, but that’s a story for another day.)


These exceptional pastries are in a league of their own, heavy for their size and completely unlike any I have ever tasted – and judging from the expectant phalanx waiting at the door as well as a legion of stellar online reviews, most folks agree.


Fresh out of the oven and so hot it nearly pizza-burned the roof of my mouth. But it would have been worth every blister: it was fairly bursting with creamy custard, dense, sweet, eggy, and jiggly.


The crust is layered but not crispy; its yielding texture complements the rich custard perfectly.

They offer other baked goods here – the sign for Japanese Castella cake caught my eye – but I was monomaniacal in my mission. No worries – I fully intend to return.

There is a downside though, and it’s not the ultimately manageable line outside. These little gems have ruined me for any other dan tat I might encounter. So if we ever do dim sum together and the dan tat hail from that restaurant’s kitchen, go right ahead and grab them as soon as they hit the table – they’re all yours.
 
 

Mott Street Eatery 98 Food Court – Part One

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I made it to the soft opening of Mott Street Eatery 98 Food Court at 98 Mott Street in Manhattan’s Chinatown on November 11; the Grand Opening was on the 12th. Only two of the twelve stalls were set up, Domo Sushi, which featured nigiri, maki and such along with an omakase option, and 89 Eatery, the sprawling anchor, teeming with hungry patrons when I visited.

Between my spookomaki and the kuromame for the nattophobic posts, I’ve been eating a lot of Japanese food lately, so today’s choice would be Chinese without further deliberation.

I’ll cut to the chase: everything I tasted was truly outstanding – and considering I had just enjoyed great dim sum for lunch in Sunset Park less than a week ago (post coming soon), that’s saying a lot.

They offer 35 kinds of dim sum…

…25 varieties of soups and congee with you tiao (Chinese crullers) and additional meats available to accompany them…

…and 16 items in the BBQ section along with mix ‘n’ match selections.

Where to begin? I chose three of my favorites from among the impressive array of dim sum, all of which were remarkable:


Chaozhou Dumplings (aka fun guo), fresh from the steamer, featuring peanuts and bursting with crunchy vegetables. Top notch.

The inner workings.


XO Sauce Pork Rice Roll. This was made as a special order with a wait of just a few minutes, and it was also excellent. I’ve often seen XO sauce touted on a menu but not readily apparent in the dish; in this case there was no question. And as you can see, plenty of pork.

The inner workings.


Bean Curd Sheet with Pork. Definitely a fan.

The inner workings.

Of course, I’ll come back for the congee and BBQ – and for the eleven other stalls as they get going. This is definitely my idea of fun.

Stay tuned for Part Two – lots more to come!
 
 
And most important, I’ll say it again: Here is another delicious opportunity for all of us to do the right thing – now, more than ever, please SUPPORT CHINATOWN!
 
 

Kuromame Natto

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“Do you eat natto?” asked my friend. She had some extra and generously offered to share with me. I answered in the affirmative and the next time I saw her she handed me a little bag containing black natto from NYrture, a New York based company. (Note: this is not a sponsored post.)

For those of you who are unfamiliar with natto, it’s a traditional Japanese food made from fermented soybeans and eaten for breakfast, a side dish or a snack, often with rice. Aside from its health benefits, its claim to fame (or perhaps infamy) is its potent aroma and flavor along with its notoriously slimy consistency. (Look up “acquired taste” in the encyclopedia and you’ll see a dish of natto.)

From NYrture’s website: “No description of natto would be complete without mentioning its uniquely sticky texture. Neba-neba is a Japanese word to describe the sticky, stringy, wispy film that coats natto beans. In Japan, the more “neba-neba”, the better the natto. In fact, standard practice is to vigorously stir natto before eating to increase neba-neba!”

Indeed. Natto has been known to give okra an inferiority complex.

But the company described this kuromame (black soybean) natto as “gateway natto” and I couldn’t have said it better. For starters, its flavor is significantly milder and slightly beany with, believe it or not, notes of chocolate. And although turbulent natto is soybean’s answer to an Instagram cheese pull, in defiance of “standard practice” I decided to forego whipping it into an unphotogenic web of sticky threads: personally, I don’t find it to be particularly appetizing and if your mission is gateway natto, you want appetizing.


In Japan, it’s served in numerous ways; I decided to go simple and put the artsy effort into the pickled ginger rose.

So I put it to you: Do you eat natto?
 
 

Product Name: Strange-Taste Horsebean

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That’s what it read on the back of the package. Horsebean is simply another name for broad beans or fava beans, in this case dried for nibbling purposes. Now, if you decide to go ahead and do some independent research on the Google, be sure you search for the single word “horsebean”, not the phrase “horse bean” lest you tumble down a rabbit hole that, trust me, you truly do not want to explore. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.


I spotted these in a Chinese market snack aisle, my happy place of late, it would seem. They’re coated with a crunchy shell, at once spicy, salty, and sweet – the triumvirate of addictive noshing. Another caveat: I was surprised to discover a few of these that seemed almost as hard as pebbles, so chomp gingerly.

There was precious little English on the package except for the following on the back:

“Diehua brand strange-taste horsebeans are produced since 1897. The product has a special taste, fragrant and sweet and crisp, numb and sore, salty and fresh, comfortable and tasty and refreshing, it likes mulberry tree’s fruit color and lusterris Moise….”

[Luscious, maybe? They’re certainly not lustrous. Can’t figure out Moise. Starts out okay, kinda falls apart by the end….]

Followed by one final instruction: “Eating Method: eat right after open it.”

Mission accomplished. Yum.

But I need to make it abundantly clear for those of you who don’t know me that I am not mocking the language in the legend. Whoever wrote it has far more English than I will ever have of any Chinese dialect, and as such they also have my respect. I once had a friend who said that if she could be granted any wish, it would be to be able speak every language of the world fluently. I still admire her for that. It’s not about showing off, it’s about openhearted communication. That’s the first step in connecting with anyone.

And when all is said and done, that’s why writers write.
 
 

Yemen Café

Part of what I’m calling the “Golden Oldies” series: photos I had posted on Instagram in bygone days that surely belong here as well, from restaurants that are still doing business, still relevant, and still worth a trip.

I pulled up this post because a friend mentioned that I had often sung the praises of Yemen Café’s remarkable Lamb Haneeth – so while it’s fresh in my mind, here are a few photos from one of my group visits taken back in May, 2017.

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If you bring a large group to Yemen Café, 176 Atlantic Ave, Brooklyn, and everyone wants to order the delectable slow roasted Lamb Haneeth (and really, that’s the point), you can prevail upon them to bring out an enormous platter of lamb and rice as you see here. Note that every cut is different, but all are unbelievably tender and equally delicious. It’s their most popular dish and once you’ve tasted it, you’ll understand why.


With a single order, you won’t get to choose your cut, but it’s guaranteed to be a treat.


The Kibdah appetizer was excellent as well; sautéed lamb liver with onions and tomatoes served with hot clay-oven bread that, alas, didn’t make it into this picture.
 
 
Yemen Café has two locations: 176 Atlantic Ave and 7130 5th Ave, both in Brooklyn.
 
 

Happy Diwali! (2021)

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Dear Friends,

I can no longer keep this to myself. I am an addict, hooked on mithai. What’s that? You don’t know about mithai? Mithai are Indian sweets and since Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights, is upon us, I can think of no better time than now to tell you my tale. So gather round your diyas and check out my post “Indian Sweets 101: Meeting Mithai” right here on ethnojunkie.com!
 
 
दिवाली मुबारक
Happy Diwali!
 
 

Dia de los Muertos

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You’ve heard it before: “Oh, Día de los Muertos is Mexican Halloween, right?”

Wrong. Día de los Muertos is decidedly not Mexican Halloween any more than Chanukah is Jewish Christmas – and if any unenlightened soul tries to tell you that, please disabuse them of that fallacious notion inmediatamente!

The Mexican holiday, Day of the Dead, is celebrated from October 31 through November 2 – and “celebrated” is the proper word: families congregate to memorialize loved ones who have passed away, but it is seen as a time when the departed temporarily revivify and join in the revelry rather than as a sorrowful occasion. Additionally, these days Día de Muertos, as it is also known, serves as a paean to the indigenous people with whom it originated in pre-Hispanic times.

In the year 1 BC (Before Covid), I headed out to Sunset Park, Brooklyn, to get myself into the Día de los Muertos spirit. Sequin-eyed, neon icing-coiffed calaveras (sugar skulls) are relatively easy to find in the neighborhood; this one came from Panadería La Espiga Real, 5717 5th Avenue. Although spirits don’t eat, this one seemed particularly interested in the pan de muerto I picked up at La Flor de Izucar, 4021 5th Avenue.

This bread of the dead is customarily embossed with bone shapes, sometimes crossbones, sometimes in a circle, and other traditional embellishments such as skulls and a single teardrop. It’s a barely sweet, simple bun (like so many Mexican panes dulces), light and airy with a tight crumb, and topped with sesame seeds or sugar (like this one) with hints of cinnamon, anise, and orange flower water.


Above: A view of the inner sanctum.