Yi Mei Bakery

Instagram Post 10/21/2019

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If other Chinese bakeries offer this item, it has eluded me. Called Ox Tongue Pastry (牛舌饼 – niú shé bing) because of its appearance (and similarly known as Horse Ear Pastry), I stumbled upon these at Yi Mei Bakery, 81-26 Broadway in Elmhurst. Although they can be fried like youtiao, these flaky (probably due to the presence of lard), soft white buns, about 7" x 2½" in size, are baked and surprisingly sweet because of their chewy malt sugar filling.

In all honesty, I cut the pastries as shown simply because a cross section best depicted the generous quantity of filling. But I suspect that those of you who are fascinated by pareidolia may perceive something beyond that. 🙃
 
 

Dek Sen

Instagram Post 10/20/2019

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I’ve written about Dek Sen (literally “child noodles”), before but not about their Zabb (very literally “delicious”) Wings. When you see zabb (you might also see zaab) it’s your clue that you’re dealing with food from the northeast region (Isan, Isarn, et al.) of Thailand. Dusted with a crunchy coating that combines chili and lime, these wings are crisp, spicy, not at all greasy, and they definitely live up to their moniker. Lots more to try from their menu as well.

Dek Sen, a stop along my Ethnic Eats in Elmhurst ethnojunket, is located at 86-08 Whitney Ave, Elmhurst.
 
 

Roasted Masala

When I write about restaurants on Instagram, they’re usually brief takes accompanied by a photo or two. (You can see my feed right here on ethnojunkie.com, updated almost daily, by selecting the “Instagram” category from my home page – no signup required.) But because of Instagram’s character count limitations, it’s often necessary to break up a review into several parts. This one originally appeared as three posts, published on October 15, 16, and 17, 2019.


There are scores of cookie cutter Indian restaurants in Manhattan; clones with pretty much the same mix-n-match menus: a predictable assortment of curries with your choice of protein. So as much as I love Indian dining, I sometimes leave wondering if that’s all there is around these parts. When I crave food from Goa, the Indian state that had been formerly colonized by the Portuguese, I usually head to New Jersey. But that may no longer be necessary.

Roasted Masala Indian Cuisine emerged at 914 Columbus Ave in Manhattan about eight months ago under the purview of Samson Severes, its co-founder and manager. Hailing from Goa, India, Sam’s family owns two restaurants, so his culinary bona fides in this arena are well established. We were treated to a lunchtime feast that day. In no special order, here are a few of the dishes we tried.

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Lamb Cafreal

A unique combination of flavors featuring tender lamb, coriander, mint, tamarind, green chilies and the distinguishing acidic note of this preparation, lime juice. Its roots are in the Portuguese colonies of Africa; cafreal (also made with chicken) made the voyage to Goa via the cuisine of Africans that had been modified by the Portuguese under whom they served.

Goan Fish Curry

Chilean sea bass in this case, served in a tasty but not spicy coconut sauce.

Katori Chaat

A katori is a bowl, in this case an edible one; chaat is an Indian snack and a popular street food boasting myriad variations. This one has been split to reveal chickpeas, crunchy mini croquettes, and lots more goodness plus pomegranate chutney, all topped with yogurt and sev (crispy noodle bits). Don’t try to deconstruct this savory appetizer, just dig in and enjoy!

Lasooni Gobi

This delicious starter from the Vegetarian Appetizers section of the menu is Lasooni Gobi; lasooni refers to garlic and gobi means cauliflower. I’ve seen this Indian-Chinese dish by other names like Gobi Manchurian but it’s the sweet-spicy element that’s so compelling regardless of the designation. Crispy outside, crunchy inside, with a sticky, ketchupy crust, this one is a crowd pleaser.

Chicken Xacuti

“Xacuti” (or a similar spelling) is your cue that it’s a coconut based curry. A classic in Goan cuisine, this version features roasted spices in a masala paste pureed with coconut along with fresh curry leaves. Spice level was noticeable, but not intense. Good eats.

Daal Palak

Yellow lentils and spinach, herby with a gentle touch of spice, from the Vegan section of the menu.

Boti Kebab

Grilled cubes of marinated lamb; green chilies in evidence and tastefully seasoned, but not overwhelmingly spicy.

Chicken Sorpotel

Back to the cuisine of Goa. Often prepared as a Christmas dish, sorpotel boasts a distinctive spice blend that incorporates vinegar, but don’t think “vindaloo” just because vinegar plays a role. Roasted Masala offers vindaloo as well – and that’s a significant factor in my admiration for this restaurant: if you’ve dined at any number of Manhattan’s Indian eateries, you’ll find tasty renditions of your favorites here, but Roasted Masala also provides an opportunity to taste some delicious Goan specialties that may be less familiar to you and that you shouldn’t miss.
 
 

Note: This was a complimentary meal sponsored by the management of Roasted Masala. The opinions expressed in this post are uninfluenced and impartial.
 
 

Lower East Side Pickle Day

Instagram Post 10/13/2019

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Scenes from Manhattan’s Lower East Side Pickle Day (October 6 this year) on Orchard Street. From a distance, it looked like some sort of contest involving an ice sculpture of a high heel shoe, albeit huge. Huge all the same, but luge was the game; the Brine Brothers would send a shot of their drinkable pickle brine from the apex zipping down the slope to be dispatched by an eager enthusiast stationed at the finish line.


From standard regulation garden variety pickles as far as the eye could see…


…to creative novelties like this tres leches cake with pickled pineapple, it’s a unique street festival with a sense of humor and that alone makes it worth the trip to this annual event.
 
 

King Dumplings

Instagram Post 10/12/2019

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Quick post about newish King Dumplings at 74 Hester St in Manhattan’s Chinatown; quick, because all we had time for was a plate of agreeable fried chive & pork dumplings (featuring one attempting an escape) – 4 for $1.50. According to reports, all dumplings are handmade by the chef of Prosperity Dumpling. The menu includes additional items like fried buns, sesame pancake sandwiches, and soups; frozen dumplings in quantities of 50 are available as well.


Innermost recesses – to give you an idea of the thickness of the skin and quantity of the filling.
 
 

Deepavali Festival

Instagram Post 10/7/2019

Part of the mission of the Association of Indians in America is to promote the image of India in the US and this past weekend, their 32nd Deepavali Festival in South Street Seaport achieved that goal with traditional entertainment, crafts and, of course, delicious food.

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There were two items that were particularly tempting and I wasn’t disappointed by either. This is dhokla, the delicious snack that hails from Gujarat, India. Soft, delicately spongy, and impossible to stop eating, it’s made from a fermented batter of rice and chana dal (split chickpeas) the proportions of which vary depending upon the type of dhokla. It’s topped with mustard seeds and green chilies and served here with spicy mango shreds and a yellow curry sauce on the side for dipping. Tiptop.


I confess that kulfi may be my favorite ethnic ice cream – sweet, creamy, intensely flavored, slightly chewy. It starts with milk that’s been cooked down for an eon or two, flavors are added, and it’s poured into molds and frozen directly, not churned. This process contributes to kulfi’s dense texture because no air has been blended in. Shown here is malai (cream) flavor but it’s not merely cream; classic malai kulfi is aromatic with cardamom and nuts, sometimes saffron, sometimes rosewater. This one, purchased from a modest orange truck, was small batch crafted employing a proper kulfi mold and one of the best I’ve ever tasted.
 
 

Himalayan Yak Restaurant

Instagram Post 10/4/2019

Himalayan Yak Restaurant has been a Jackson Heights fixture since 2004. Specializing in Tibetan and Nepali cuisine with a soupçon of Indian and Bhutanese dishes sprinkled in for good measure, they’ve recently added a new “Yak, Yak, and Yak” section to the menu so, having dined there years ago, I had to go yak – er, back. Salubrious health claims notwithstanding, yak tasted a lot like beef to me although I’m planning a return trek soon to sample more of their offerings. There were only three of us on this visit so we constrained ourselves to the new corner of the menu.

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Yak Shapta. A stir-fry of yak meat, with onions and bell peppers in a reasonably spicy chili sauce. Tasty.


Yak Gyuma Chilli. Gyuma is blood sausage, the Tibetan answer to morcilla and so many others, prepared from ground yak meat, chilies, and a starchy filler, served here with onions and bell peppers in a reasonably spicy chili sauce. (Ahem.) Not as much “personality” as some blood sausages, but in this case, that’s a good thing.


Yak Cheese. An Emmentaler doppelganger. Seems like the next word in sequence should be “expialidocious”. Go ahead, try it. I’ll wait. Apologies for the earworm. (Anyway, wasn’t Emmentaler-Doppelganger the third stop on the Orient Express?)


Yak Chilli Momo. Flavorful whole wheat dumplings filled with ground yak, onion, scallion, cilantro, garlic and ginger covered with onions and bell peppers in a reasonably spicy chili sauce. (Um, right.)

Okay, so that’s the third time for the “reasonably spicy chili sauce” descriptor. Were they really all the same? Slightly different but only because they picked up the flavor of whatever they were dressing? Or similar but truly bespoke? The eternal optimist in me wants them to be unique but I’ve been felled by wishful thinking in the past. As I said, I’m going back soon with more jurors (closer to eight or ten) because everything we ate was assuredly delicious. Stay tuned.

Himalayan Yak is located at 72-20 Roosevelt Ave in Yakson Heights, Queens.
 
 

Tarim Uyghur Food

Instagram Post 10/2/2019

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Breaking News! New Vendor Alert: Stall number 5 at the New World Mall Food Court, 136-20 Roosevelt Ave, Flushing is now home to Tarim Uyghur Food. They appeared about 10 days ago filling the void left by Pho Sushi (I suspect it was that, but I never tried it) which in turn occupied the former digs of Erqal and its distinctive Uyghur ice cream among other authentic dishes.

I’ve written extensively about Uyghur cuisine and I’ll do a comparison with my feast at Nurlan Uyghur Restaurant, also in Flushing (soon, I promise!) but for now, here’s a look at two dishes from Tarim.


Lagman (Handmade Noodles), item 2 on the menu, was a stir-fry (see first photo) of freshly sliced lamb (I witnessed him carving the meat from a huge chunk), sweet red bell pepper, spicy long green pepper, celery and onions.

Lagman (cognate to lo mein) presents as a single interminably long hand-pulled noodle…

, …stored in a coil, ready for action. Perfectly textured, dense noodles, the tasty dish had a spicy kick albeit no other side notes.


Diced Fried Noodles, item 8 on the menu. Called Ding-Ding Lagman at Nurlan (ding refers to dicing food into small cubes), the dish is as much about texture as it is about flavor at Tarim. Tiny cubes of lagman were stir-fried with lamb and the same vegetables as above, all cut into matching-sized bits; certainly comfort food (you want to eat it with a big ol’ spoon), but I wish it had a little more oomph in the flavor department.


Some decorative Uyghur bread. I’ll return soon to sample other items on the menu (since I’ve already tried everything at Nurlan! 😉)
 
 

Mekelburg’s

Instagram Post 10/1/2019

I enjoyed a busman’s holiday recently at Mekelburg’s, the eatery/craft beer/specialty food shop at 293 Grand Ave in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill. Two dear friends chose the restaurant and deliberated over the menu selections; my job was to enjoy the delightful company and conversation.

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Sambal Butter Roasted Oysters was probably the best item we tasted and it was seriously delicious. But what’s a holiday without a you-had-to-be-there story? So….

The only hitch was that somewhere along the route from kitchen to table, a considerable quantity of that tasty butter spilled, engulfing the mountain of rock salt upon which the oysters had been perched, effectively camouflaging it. Of course, I had no idea what lay at the bottom of the pool until I tasted an unfortunate mouthful of what I thought was provided as an accompanying condiment. Shoulda known better. And a regrettable waste of delectable sambal butter to boot. Fortunately, there was still plenty remaining on top of the oysters, all covered with sauce.


Wild Dandelion Greens Salad with white anchovies and parmigiana cheese bathed in a lemony dressing.


Ducka Ducka Banh Mi – a successful cross-cultural combo: Peking duck and duck rillettes, carrots and cucumber with sambal hoisin mayo.


Roasted Bone Marrow with rosemary grapefruit marmalade and crispy toasted slices of French baguette.


Salt Baked Potato with smoked black cod, crème fraîche, and caviar.

Sounds like holiday food to me!
 
 

Chinese Mooncakes Demystified

Or, The Equal Opportunity Celebrant – Part 2

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(Posted on September 6, 2019)
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, colors, 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 attractive gift boxes or tins since it’s customary to offer gifts of mooncakes to friends and family (or lovers!) for the holiday. Since my porcine appetite apparently knows no bounds (2019 is the year of the pig – how appropriate 😉), 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 a critical 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.
five-seed-pastepineapple-lychee-pandan
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.
Here are two pandan mooncakes, one with preserved egg yolk and a mini version without, from Fay Da Bakery at 83 Mott Street in Manhattan’s Chinatown.

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 snow skin 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.


It seems that each year brings a fashionable new interpretation, eye-catching and tongue-pleasing, and 2019 is no exception. These sweet multihued gems came from Fay Da Bakery, a chain boasting a baker’s dozen locations (some outside of Chinatown). Our fascination with desserts that gush when pierced is serviced by Lava Mooncakes clad in colorful skins. Purple on the outside, golden within, the durian flavor was perfect; the green matcha member of team proved sweet; yellow custard was eggy – almost duck eggy – and in terms of flavor, a fair hybrid of classic mooncake and this modern rendition; orange was less about lava and more about marmalade, riddled with bits of orange peel – a pleasant surprise.


The Snowskin Mung Bean Mooncakes were also a treat: mango featured a good balance between mung bean and mango; strawberry tasted like strawberry preserves from a jar, not that it was bad, just how it was; purple yam was sweeter than I anticipated and quite flavorsome; durian, like its lava mate, was not overpowering but decidedly durian.

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!

中秋节快乐!

(Note: In 2019, the Mid-Autumn Festival occurs on Friday, September 13.)