And in This Corner – Samarkand Bazaar!

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I’ve been offering ethnojunkets in Brooklyn’s Little Odessa for over 10 years and I’ve witnessed some stellar Eastern European and Russian food markets fail, only to be replaced by even brighter stars. The prepared food buffet is the feature attraction at these locations.

They come and they go. Some are eclipsed by the competition, some just self-combust for no apparent reason, some are even decimated by natural disasters. (Anyone else remember the beloved M&I International Foods that succumbed to Hurricane Sandy back in 2012? We can be BFFs.) Exquisite Foodland caught COVID and closed for a couple of years, but it has reemerged seemingly unscathed. Gourmanoff regrouped into yet another NetCost Market, its parent company.

And not long ago, in the shadow of the spectacular Tashkent Market opening across the street from it, Brighton Bazaar gamely attempted to hang on but was ultimately extinguished by its rival. When their gates came down for the last time, I wondered what business(es) would occupy those digs.

Enter Samarkand Bazaar. It positioned itself head to head against its neighbor, Tashkent Market. The battle will be noteworthy in that they are cut from the same piece of cloth, at least superficially. They both stock comparable regional baked goods, produce, refrigerated and frozen food, cakes and desserts, smoked fish, and boxed, jarred, and canned food. Not to mention the fact that they are less than 300 feet from each other.

But, of course, the real reason to visit either one is the overwhelming selection of prepared food. They present many of the same dishes; Samarkand has a few I haven’t seen in Tashkent, although Tashkent has many not to be found in Samarkand. I’ve tasted well over a dozen of Samarkand’s offerings; Tashkent has a slight edge IMHO but I’m willing to wait until Samarkand gets it sea legs.

Slides of just a few of their goodies:

Want to know what these yummy dishes are? Want to try ’em? You know what to do. Join me on my “Exploring Eastern European Food in Little Odessa” ethnojunket! Check it out here!

Dragon Boat Festival – Zongzi Day

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Dragon Boat Festival, the time-honored Chinese holiday that occurs on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese calendar, commemorates the death of the beloved poet and scholar Qu Yuan in 278 BCE. The holiday interconnects the poignant tale of his demise, dragon boats, and zongzi, the traditional sticky rice dumplings associated with the event; in 2023, the date corresponds to June 22.

Zongzi (aka joong in Cantonese) are fashioned from sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves and shaped into triangular semi-pyramids tied with twine. At your local dim sum parlor, you might see sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaves but those are Lo Mai Gai, usually rectangular or pillow shaped and featuring chicken – different but also delicious.

They’re made with an array of fillings, some sweet, some savory, and the particular flavor distinctions vary throughout regions of China and elsewhere in Asia. Here in New York City, it’s easy to find savory versions packed with peanuts, pork belly, lap cheong (Chinese sausage), ham, salted duck egg, dried shrimp, mushrooms and more in various permutations and combinations; they’re available year round in any of our nine Chinatowns. (Yes, nine. We are blessed.) Sweet types include red dates and sweet bean paste.

For best results, steam them first, then snip off the twine, unfold the leaves, and dig in.

This one has all of the savory ingredients I mentioned (you can play Where’s Waldo with it if you like); it came from M&W Bakery, 85A Bayard St in Manhattan’s Chinatown, where they offer at least five varieties.

And yes, of course that’s one of the stops on my Manhattan Chinatown ethnojunket.

Ba Xuyen

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It seems that Bánh Mì, the deservedly vaunted Vietnamese sandwich, is ubiquitous these days. In the past I loved them, but lately it feels like the thrill is gone. Have I gone off my feed on these beauties? I vividly remember the bánh mì I once craved. What happened?

So I decided to return to a place that I used to visit frequently about 20 years ago, before bánh mì eateries were as common as taco joints: Bà Xuyên at 4222 8th Ave in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park. For old times’ sake, I got a Bánh Mì Thịt Nguội, the Combination #1, in an attempt to try to figure out why my tastes had changed so radically.

Turns out my tastes have not changed. Not in the least. The #1 was still number one. But the pervasive copycats have been ruining it for everyone. And we’ve become inured to their (IMHO lackluster) product. I’ve even heard a few foodies applaud the bánh mì from some of those wannabes.

For starters, using the right bread is crucial. A Vietnamese baguette is paramount, as opposed to a hero roll you could pick up in the bakery department of your local supermart. They’re made with a combination of wheat flour and rice flour – for that initial crunch and subsequent crackle. It should be toasted, slightly sweet, sturdy enough to stand up to its fillings but still airy, fluffy and a little chewy, with a crust that’s crisp but not so inflexible as to declare war on the roof of your mouth.

Now for the fillings. Pay attention, impostors: it’s more than just a few slices of Vietnamese cold cuts and some shredded veggies. For the classic, Bà Xuyên’s sine qua non condiment is a blend of Vietnamese pâté and melted butter (and probably some Maggi seasoning) slathered on the bread before loading it with ham, head cheese, pork roll, pork teriyaki and BBQ pork, and finally topping it with sliced cucumber, perfectly pickled carrots and daikon radish plus cilantro and spicy green pepper.

My two cents. Sorry, not sorry.

Marvin and Tammi said it best: Ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby!


There are few things about which I am a purist. (One is not ending a sentence with a preposition. See first sentence.)

Another is the pronunciation of the versatile and much beloved fresh pasta filata cheese, mozzarella.

Now, I’m not advocating that we all embrace the charming Sicilian-American argot, “mootzadell” like the neighborhood paisans I remember affectionately from my yout – er, youth.

That’s a long ō in there. Mozzarella rhymes with “Totes umbrella”.

“Matzarella” just cheeses me off. To my ears that sounds like a diminutive female Jewish cracker.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get down to the real subject of this post.

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MozzLab at 502 Henry St, Brooklyn, is a contemporary cheese shop specializing in hand stretched mozzarella made fresh daily (along with its cousins, buffalo burrata, treccia and stracciatella) plus a few other cheeses as well as an array of Italian sandwiches incorporating them, a tempting selection of antipasti, and a mini Italian market.

I had heard about their “Mozzarella Bagels”, a sandwich that includes prosciutto, speck (a type of cured, smoky ham), and mortadella in which bagel-shaped mozz stands in for the bread. I planned to get just the dairy part as a surprise for a vegetarian friend who loves mozzarella but the hitch was that they don’t sell the cheesy toroid by itself. I’m unsure why fulfilling the request was so daunting; I tried explaining what I wanted in English, then to the staff in my defective Spanish (hablaban español pero no inglés) and finally in fractured Italian to the owner (the Big Cheese?) who was adroitly stretching fresh mozz with great panache before my eyes. But when I referred to him as “Il Maestro”, he smiled and made a couple for me as a special order while I watched.

The first photo shows what I did to mine when I got it home (those sandwiches looked too good); the second shows the plain unadorned version I gave to my friend.

Everything I tasted from MozzLab was top quality and the atmosphere projected the warmth and camaraderie you’d hope for from a local business and its regulars. Kind of reminded me of the handful of Italian specialty shops from my neighborhood as a kid.

Balady Market

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One of the stops on my Flavors of Little Levant and Little Yemen ethnojunket is Balady Foods, the recently expanded Middle Eastern market at 7128 5th Ave in Brooklyn.

The array of treats pictured here includes soft, salty, squeaky Nabulsi cheese that hails from Palestine, electric magenta pickled turnips, foul mudammas (bean dip), Lebanese makdous (oil-cured eggplant stuffed with walnuts and red pepper), sucuk (the generic word for sausage found all across the Middle East) and several types of black olives all resting on a piece of msemen, flatbread from the Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia).

Many of these goodies came from Balady but other establishments are represented as well. And there’s so much more to taste on this food tour! Get the details on my Ethnojunkets page and sign up to join in the fun!

Royal Queen Dim Sum on Main Street

As I was hungrily exiting Jmart in Flushing’s New World Mall via the down escalator to the Main Street side, I spotted an array of dim sum on my right and a selection of Chinese roast meats near the window that overlooks the sidewalk. (My version of serendipity.)

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Peering a bit further in, I noticed a steam table array (the typical 4 dishes + soup + rice) and a small sign that read “Royal Queen”. Now, Royal Queen restaurant on the third floor of the complex has been around for a while, but this crowded niche was new to me. I pointed to a trio of crispy fried shrimp dumplings and brought my booty downstairs to the food court.

Each dumpling contained at least one whole shrimp and then some; no ground paste to be found – just deliciousness beyond my expectations.

Here’s how the window looked from the sidewalk on Main Street; it’s directly across from Mickey D’s as you can probably tell. 😉

Battle of the Cheezy Noodz

I’ve said it before: any region whose cuisine includes both dough and cheese has a signature dish that layers them in a delectable baked creation. Sometimes that dough is leavened and baked into bread, sometimes it’s dried and boiled into noodles – an oversimplification, I know, but you get the idea.

At its most fundamental, Noodles and Cheese, unadorned with sauce, meat, or veggies, is at once down-to-earth gratification and elegant-in-its-simplicity indulgence. (Ashkenazi Jews will immediately home in on Lokshen mit Kaese.)

On a recent “Exploring Eastern European Food in Little Odessa” food tour, I decided to do a comparison of two examples, achma from Georgia and su böreği from Turkey. Interestingly, but unsurprisingly when you think about it, achma is considered a member of the khachapuri family (Georgian breads) and su böreği belongs to the borek clan (stuffed filo pastry).

Most recipes for these call for a combination of two compatible cheeses: a salty, crumbly type like feta plus a soft, springy variety like mozzarella. You’ll see imeruli and sulguni in Georgia and beyaz peynir or künefe peyniri in Turkey, for example. Essential features for any of these treats are a crispy crust enclosing soft noodles and melty, slightly salty cheese. I purchased a slice of each from two different markets and brought them over to the boardwalk for an A/B comparison.

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Here’s the Georgian Achma…

…and here’s the Turkish Su Böreği.

Want to know more about them? Which one prevailed? I’ll tell all when you join me on my Exploring Eastern European Food in Little Odessa ethnojunket. There are still some openings on my April 25 tour; sign up to join in the fun!

St. Patrick’s Day 2023

I checked into Wikipedia before I started writing this to see what gaps in my knowledge of Irish cuisine might exist: the extensive article boasted almost 9,000 words and explored the cuisine beginning with its roots in the prehistoric Mesolithic Period (8000–4000 BC)! So for the sake of our mutual sanity, we’re going to stick with Irish food that I actually know and love.

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Some dishes are quintessentially Irish like colcannon (potatoes and cabbage), bacon and cabbage (which begat corned beef and cabbage), Irish stew (traditionally mutton and potatoes), boxty (a potato pancake), coddle (sausage, bacon, and potatoes), black pudding and white pudding (sausages), shepherd’s pie, and more.

But in honor of St. Patrick’s Day on March 17, here is a favorite that does not include meat, potatoes or cabbage: Irish soda bread. Baking soda activated by buttermilk takes the place of yeast as a leavening agent in this delicacy; that accounts for its delicate, crumbly texture and puts it somewhere along the bread <-> cake continuum.

I purchased this sweet raisin-studded beauty from Court Pastry Shop, 298 Court St in Brooklyn and it was truly outstanding. It’s served here with Irish cheddar cheese, radicchio marmalade (a change up from the traditional coarse cut orange) and whipped butter.

Excellent, as always.

And speaking of quintessentially Irish dishes, here’s one I put together for St. Patrick’s Day 2023. Colcannon, from the Gaelic “cál ceannann” meaning white-headed cabbage, is in my opinion Ireland’s contender for the ultimate comfort food. It consists of whipped mashed potatoes and cabbage with a hape o’ butter (Irish butter, to be sure) and cream. Some recipes call for the addition of kale or scallions for a darker green component (I used scallions here) and it’s often topped with crisp bits of Irish bacon.


Pi Day 2023

Pi Day is upon us! The official day that celebrates the astonishing discovery in 1988 that the first three digits of the mathematical constant pi (π≅3.14) correspond to the calendar date using the month/day format (3/14).

Provided, that is, that you don’t use the MM-DD format with its leading zeros. Or that you’re literally anywhere in the world outside of the United States where, intuitively, DD-MM-YYYY puts the numbers in order of significance. Or that you’re not enamored of the eminently more logical and sortable YYYYMMDD format.

But I digress.

Here are three of my favorite pies in honor of the day:

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IMHO 🥧 > 🍰 and Petee’s Pie Company at 61 Delancey St in Manhattan and 505 Myrtle Ave in Brooklyn dishes up some of the best I’ve ever tasted, but making the decision about which of the delightful daily selections to choose is neither as easy as pie nor is it a piece of cake. Of course they have wonderful fruit pies, nut pies, and custard pies, but their chess pies are always first to grab my attention.

Chess pie occupies (ahem) the middle ground between cheesecake and custard pie. Devoid of cheese and generally with a little more body than custard pie (often due to the addition of cornmeal) they are incredibly rich and, unsurprisingly, hail from America’s South.

Folktales about the genesis of its name are plentiful. One has it that chess pie is so sweet, it needs no refrigeration and could therefore be kept in the kitchen pie chest → pie ches’ → chess pie. Another speculation involves a tangled explanation involving English curd pies (think lemon curd as opposed to cheese curd and therefore sans cheese) and an American corruption of the British pronunciation of “cheese pie” – a long way around if you ask me. I favor the simpler, homespun tale that goes, “That pie smells incredible! What kind is it?” to which the modest Southern baker’s humble response was, “It’s jes’ pie.”

This incredible black bottom Almond Chess Pie infused with amaretto, topped with toasted almonds, resting on a layer of chocolate ganache and served with housemade vanilla ice cream was the capper on a day so packed with pigging out that we wondered if we would have room, but it was so delicious that it wasn’t a stretch. (Not so my belly, however.)

I always look forward to Easter for traditional Neapolitan Grain Pie. The aforementioned grains are wheat berries, and their presence is no more unusual than grains of rice in rice pudding. They’re embedded in a sweet ricotta/custard cream infused with orange blossom water and augmented by bits of candied orange peel and citron along with a touch of cinnamon; the heady aroma of orange and lemon is key to its success. The rich filling is swaddled in a delicate, crumbly shortcrust shell.

This example came from Court Pastry Shop, 298 Court St in Brooklyn. More about this treat around Eastertime.

And then there’s my own homemade pumpkin pie, a fixture at our Thanksgiving table. Believe it or not, it took years to get this recipe right – years, because I only make it biannually so the upgrade opportunities are few and far between. First trick is to use only fresh pumpkin, and small sugar pumpkins at that – none of that canned stuff. (Yes, I’ve read the propaganda from some who claim that it’s all the same – IMO they know not whereof they speak.) My recipe includes three milks (inspired by tres leches cake): sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, and heavy cream along with brown sugar, eggs, spices, and such. Here, it’s topped with homemade Pecan Brittle and whipped cream.

Shrimp and Salmon Kurze

I meant to include these photos of shrimp and salmon kurze in my recent post about some new goodies I found at Tashkent Market, but I was late dropping off the film at the drug store so the prints weren’t ready.

Just kidding.

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These dumplings hail from Dagestan, located at the southernmost tip of Russia. The distinctive fluted shape and the long ridge running from one end to the other define the kurze style.

Kurze fillings vary widely as dumpling fillings are wont to do. I’ve seen recipes for beef, lamb, cheese, potatoes and others, usually fortified with chopped tomato and onions and often described as “juicy”. Although I wouldn’t choose that descriptor for this pair, I can vouch for the fact that they were moist and delicious.

Want to try ’em? Join me on an “Exploring Eastern European Food in Little Odessa” ethnojunket! Check it out here!