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.

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.

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.
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).

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.
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.

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!


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

Brazilian Day Festival – 2019

Instagram Post 9/22/2019

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Two posts covering the same busy day pigging out in Newark, New Jersey’s Portuguese/Brazilian Ironbound district. Today’s segment consists of scenes (food scenes, of course) from the Brazilian Day Festival that took place on September 7th and 8th near the area around Ferry and Niagara Streets, just a stone’s throw (a football’s kick?) from the flagship location of the legendary Seabra’s market (which deserves a post of its own).

Most of these eight images are easily identifiable but the seventh (above) is worth singling out because of the dulce de leche gracing the tops of a few of the pasteis de nata, Portuguese egg custard tarts that were calling my name. Unfortunately, I was schlepping countless pounds of Portuguese cheeses, linguiça, chouriço, and morcela that I picked up at Seabra’s (see, I told you it merits its own post) so I wasn’t able to go back for them. The very definition of regret.

The subject of the final photo might be unfamiliar to some of you. They’re coxinhas (pronounced ko-SHEEN-ya), deep fried chicken and cream cheese croquettes, a popular street food in Brazil (and happily in Brazilian neighborhoods around these parts), shaped a bit like a chicken drumstick; the literal meaning of coxinha is “little thigh”. If you see these delicious snacks anywhere that offers Brazilian food, get one. (Actually, better get a few.)

Stay tuned for part two!

Queens Night Market 2019 – Czech Style Langosh

Instagram Post 9/20/2019

Just a reminder that the Queens International Night Market is still going strong in its 2019 Fall Season, and tomorrow brings another chance to visit! You’ll savor delicious international food and experience incredible musical performances in an exciting night market atmosphere; admission is free.

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Notes from my last visit: The banner over the vendor’s booth proclaimed “Czech Style Langosh” but if you take one etymological step back, you’ll find langoš, the Czech rendition of the (one more step) Hungarian snack pastry lángos. However you spell it, they’re a soft, puffy, almost doughnutty flatbread, accommodating any number of toppings from savory to sweet, and they’re delicious.

Savory toppings when I visited their booth included classic (garlic sauce & cheese) and bacon (classic plus bacon); sweet versions comprised a sugar & cinnamon base with a number of syrups, as well as the beauty you see here, black currant jam with sour cream.

To see when they’ll (hopefully) be back, check out QNM’s vendors and performers list at www.queensnightmarket.com. Lots more good eats in the meantime, so head out to the Queens Night Market outside the New York Hall of Science in Flushing Meadows Corona Park. You’ll find them every Saturday from 5pm until midnight through October 26.

See you there soon!

National Humanitarian Fundraising for Myanmar Food Fair – 2019

Instagram Post 9/19/2019

If I’m not mistaken, last Sunday’s National Humanitarian Fundraising for Myanmar Food Fair was the second in an annual series; proceeds were earmarked for flood relief and recovery objectives. It’s held in the Parish House of St. James Episcopal Church at 84-07 Broadway in Elmhurst, Queens and, like last year’s event, the food was authentic and delightful. Burmese cuisine is one of my favorites and this always wonderfully overwhelming event featured a multiplicity of dishes, but lacking any English signage, I was left to my own devices, hence:

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Laphet Thoke – pickled tea leaf salad. Laphet (you might see laphat, lahpet, lephet, leppet, letpet, latphat, or others) is the Burmese word for pickled or fermented tea leaves; thoke (you might see thohk) means salad. (Hey, it’s a tricky language to transliterate.) The dish is as much about the crunchy toppings as it is about the laphet along with the customary addition of some raw veggies. Recipes vary wildly and widely.

Shan Htamin Chin (you might see jin or gyin which means fermented or sour; htamin means rice). The Shan people are a Tai ethnic group of Southeast Asia who live primarily in the Shan State of Myanmar. This is their traditional mashed rice, potato and fish cake; just in case it wasn’t garlicky enough, cloves of fresh garlic were provided for nibbling.

Mandalay Mee Shay – Mandalay style rice noodles with pork. Excellent.

Tofu Thoke – Shan tofu has little to do with familiar soybean tofu; it’s made from chickpea flour and is soft and supple in this contrastingly spicy Burmese salad. (Count on Burmese salads to be topped with crunchies!)

SUMAQ Peruvian Food Festival – Part 3

Instagram Post 9/18/2019

Final post about the annual SUMAQ Peruvian Food Festival in Garden City, Long Island – and the event is definitely worth the time to travel there. Staged on the grounds of The Cradle of Aviation Museum (worth a visit), this incredible feast takes place across two days every August, and having now seen it for myself (and eaten my way through it), I can recommend it highly.

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Anticuchos. I’ve sung the praises of these skewers of tender, marinated beef heart on these digital pages before. The name has its roots in Quechua, the indigenous language of the Peruvian Andes: “anti” refers to the Eastern region of the Andes, “kuchu” means cut.

Don’t be faint of heart 🙄 about trying this: it’s just another cut of beef, and a particularly delicious one at that. If you like grilled meat, even if you’re not a fan of organ meats, these will win you over. Peruvian street food at its finest.

Rocoto relleno con pastel de papa from El Pregón. Cheesy stuffed rocoto pepper with a cheesy potato on the side. ¡Delicioso!

Kankachos Tinajani (kankacho means “roasted” in Quechua) featured their special Cordero al Horno, roast lamb seasoned with panca pepper, garlic, cumin, allspice, and dark beer served with potatoes for ballast. I can still taste it – which is why I’ll be back in 2020.

Hope to see you there!

SUMAQ Peruvian Food Festival – Part 2

Instagram Post 9/17/2019

More from this year’s SUMAQ Peruvian Food Festival that took place on the grounds of The Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City, Long Island last month. Sumaq translates as “delicious” in Quechua, the language of the indigenous people of Peru, and I can’t think of a more appropriate adjective for this delightful event.

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Picarones, presented by numerous vendors. Peru’s answer to the doughnut, only better because the dominant ingredients are sweet potato and squash, deep fried and drizzled with chancaca (dark brown sugar or molasses) syrup or honey, and always prodded and retrieved with a long wooden stick.

Among the offerings from La Matarina Restaurante Turístico was fried cuy; their rendition of spicy stewed cuy was also available. Cuy is guinea pig. Yes, guinea pig, and it’s tasty. The flavor depends on which piece you’re eating, just like the flavor of chicken depends upon whether it’s dark meat or white meat or wing meat. And no, cuy does not taste like chicken. (These days, even chicken doesn’t taste like chicken, but that’s another story.)

Fried cuy plated with quinoa risotto. Do try to keep an open mind about cuy; don’t think of it as a pet. If you’re a carnivore, then you accept that some animals are food and some are pets but where that line is drawn can be fungible. Personally, like so many people from Peru, Ecuador, and Columbia, I don’t see cuy as a pet any more than a farmer sees their chickens as pets. On the other hand, Mary had a little lamb.

Ceviche! (To take your mind off the cuy.) From El Gol Marino.

Go with a group – the more people, the more you can try. One more post about the annual SUMAQ Peruvian Food Festival to come….

SUMAQ Peruvian Food Festival – Part 1

Instagram Post 9/15/2019

There’s a lot to report about the magnificent SUMAQ Peruvian Food Festival held annually in Garden City, Long Island. For starters, you’ll be immersed in Peruvian tradition, from song and dance to costumes, crafts, and cooking demos. Even better, it’s held on the grounds of The Cradle of Aviation Museum which, even if you’re not into the history of flight is pretty cool. Devour mass quantities of food, take a breather and check out the museum, and gird your loins for round two.

But my interest was in the cuisine, of course. I know that I’ve professed my passion for Peruvian food on this platform previously, but almost every dish I tasted was a cut above. Regional specialties were showcased and the masterful recipes plus the quality of the ingredients afforded an outstanding experience.

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Case in point, quite literally, is this Caja China (Chinese Box) from La Caja China de Juan Talledo representing Lima, anticipating its payload.

Pork in the roasting box…

…and pork on the plate.

In addition to their Chancho a la Caja China, they offered one other specialty: Chancho al Palo, pork that’s grilled in a contrivance that rotates to keep the pig crispy and moist…

…90° rotation…

…and completing the 180° spin. Sort of like a propeller on an antique airplane. Or not.

This was my maiden voyage to SUMAQ and I can recommend it highly; mark your calendars now for next year’s event and I will too. More posts to come….

(The 2019 SUMAQ Peruvian Food Festival was held on August 24th and 25th.)

Queens Night Market 2019 Fall Season

Instagram Post 9/12/2019

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They’re ba-a-a-ack!
🎆 💥 🎆 💥 🎆
The Queens International Night Market kicks off its 2019 Fall Season on Saturday, September 14, and you don’t want to miss it! You’ll savor delicious international food and experience incredible musical performances in an exciting night market atmosphere; admission is free.

One of my favorite tastes from this past season was Fish Amok, a classic dish from Cambodia; it’s a custardy mousse of tilapia in coconut milk seasoned with galangal, herbs and spices, steamed in banana leaves and served with rice on this side. You’ll find it at the Cambodian Cuisine booth and it’s an absolute winner. (Not to mention the fact that Cambodian food needs to be better represented in NYC!)

So head out to the Queens Night Market outside the New York Hall of Science in Flushing Meadows Corona Park. You’ll find them every Saturday from 5pm until midnight through October 26. Stay current and check out their vendors and performers list at www.queensnightmarket.com.

See you there soon!