Indian Sweets 101: Meeting Mithai

Or, The Equal Opportunity Celebrant – Part 3

 

A long time ago in a land far, far away, before I had identified my obsession with world food, when I was merely a youthful gourmand content to consume tasty fare but still light years away from my current soaring orbit of ethnojunkie mania, an acquaintance from what I now know as Little India visited me.

She proffered a small white cardboard box.

Opening my souvenir, I was ambushed by a tempting, heady aroma that I’ll never forget – my first contact with mithai, Indian sweets. Peering within, I discerned a dozen or so colorful tidbits – yellow, orange, pink, green, cream, white, brown, some glistening with what appeared to be thin foil made of silver (and which I later learned actually was thin foil made of silver) and all in distinctive shapes from spheres, disks and cylinders to cubes and diamonds and even a pretzel configuration.

Selecting one, I took a bite. “Not bad,” I allowed, as I made my way from the living room into the kitchen to refrigerate the rest.

Curiously, about twenty minutes later, I found myself woolgathering about these new delicacies so I headed back to dispatch the one I had started earlier. “These are actually pretty good,” I thought as I polished off a second and began nibbling at a third. “Better save some for later,” I reasoned as I stowed the box back inside the fridge.

This time, only about ten minutes passed before I returned to my treasure; in retrospect I suppose I had been reflecting all the while about which one I’d sample next. Standing before the fridge, I devoured a fourth. “Pretty good? No, these are amazing!” I realized in the throes of a sugar-induced epiphany. Replacing the box with my right hand and holding a fifth goody with my left, I elbowed the door closed and attempted to leave the kitchen, but before I could escape, I was compelled to make a U-turn as if by some unseen, powerful force. Yanking the refrigerator door open, I grabbed the container and scurried to the living room. Anxiously, I attempted to rationalize my monomaniacal behavior: I hastily began scribbling detailed notes describing the flavors and textures I was experiencing with each sweet mithai – nuts like almonds, cashews, and pistachios, spices like saffron and cardamom, fruits like raisins and coconut, even carrot; some were redolent of rich dairy, some were thick and fudgy, some soft and syrupy sweet, some creamy, some crispy, some crumbly. But to me, every one was a tiny, delicious miracle unlike anything I had tasted before.

And the monkey on my back emphatically concurred.

That was it. I knew I had to get to Little India – and soon! – so that I could score another parcel and share these delights with my friends. Feverishly, I began making plans: it was imperative that I turn everybody I knew on to mithai. (And obviously, while I was at it, I could land more for myself!)

Perhaps it was this very incident that put the junkie in ethnojunkie.

And now, freely admitting that I am powerless over their sway, I must share my experience with you. This is a particularly good time to do it, since Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights, is upon us. From Wikipedia: “One of the most popular festivals of Hinduism, it spiritually signifies the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, knowledge over ignorance, and hope over despair. Its celebration includes millions of lights shining on housetops, outside doors and windows, around temples and other buildings in the communities and countries where it is observed.” In addition to lighting diyas, diminutive and often ornate oil lamps, one of the many rituals is the sharing of mithai, and although I can’t bring each of you to my favorite sweets dealers, I can tell you about some of the diverse types you’re likely to find and what to expect when you taste them.

Varieties of mithai (मिठाई) are regional, from the north, east, south, and west of India, not to mention Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Many are pan-South Asian as well, but in New York, you’re not likely to see any distinctions other than Indian (most of the shops around Lexington Avenue near East 28th Street in Manhattan and those along 74th Street and 37th Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens) plus a smattering of Bangladeshi spots (along 73rd Avenue in Jackson Heights). New Jersey also boasts a number of venues in Newark, Edison, and Paterson. My personal favorite as of this writing (and note that things can change in this regard) is Maharaja Sweets at 73-10 37th Avenue in Jackson Heights.

So in general, what do they taste like? You had to ask. I recall reading a story many years ago about how sweetmakers, obsessively dedicated to their craft, are revered in India and how they guard their secrets more closely than they would the Hope Diamond if given the chance, so for any particular type of mithai, recipes will vary widely from one purveyor to the next. The less involved ones might taste like nut-suffused, aromatic dairy fudge or like cheesecake taken to the next level or perhaps like a syrupy, fragrant cake – all with an overarching Indian luster. But there are so many versions of even these, not to mention the more elaborate multi-ingredient confections, that they defy verbal description. To paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, you’ll know it when you taste it.

If you took note of the ingredients, textures, and shapes enumerated above and if you’re a math jock, you’ll see that the permutations and combinations within even that short list seem endless. What mithai have in common is that they range from very sweet to outrageously sweet and are all the size of a couple of bites. In this post, I’ll introduce you primarily to hand-held treats and reserve other sweets such as frozen desserts (like kulfi, Indian ice cream), puddings (like kheer, firni, mishti doi, and shrikhand), and drinks (like lassi) for another post.

First, a little vocabulary of ingredients that I promise will come in handy and is sure to obviate numerous pairs of parentheses; English spellings will vary slightly:

badam – almond
kaju – cashew
pista – pistachio
malai – cream
kesar – saffron
gajjar – carrot
besan – chickpea flour, also known as gram flour, often roasted

Types of dairy products used in making mithai:

Ghee – clarified butter.
 
Chhena – A fresh (unaged) cheese like paneer (you’ve probably had paneer in Indian restaurants) but softer because some whey remains in the finished product.
 
Khoa, also known as khoya, mawa, and mava. Khoa is amazing: start with a cowful of milk and cook it down until you’re left with a few ounces of milk solids. If you don’t have a cow (and I suggest you don’t), you can buy it prepackaged at Indian markets if you’re considering making your own mithai, which, by the way, is not impossible.


Here are some of the most common types of mithai that you’ll typically encounter, but an exhaustive list would be, well, exhausting. (Click any photo to view in glorious high resolution.)
 

Shown here, kesar badam burfi (these are homemade by the way, so you see it is possible!), peda, and sandesh.

  • Burfi (you also might see it as barfi, burfee, etc.) – condensed milk-based with a fudge-like consistency; usually cut into rectangular blocks. Easy to find in many varieties like badam burfi (usually almond colored), kaju burfi (usually a little darker, caramel colored), pista burfi (usually green), malai (usually white), besan, etc. Most feature cardamom, some highlight saffron. The name comes for the word for snow.
  • Katli – like burfi but thin, flat, and often cut into diamond shapes. A little denser than burfi. Katli means slice.
  • Peda (you also might see it as pera, pedha and penda, the Gujarati spelling) – similar to burfi but enhanced with khoa. Usually found in a disk shape with a pattern imprinted atop.
  • Sandesh – similar to burfi but chhena-based and moist with a more open, tender texture.
  • Kalakand – deliciously cheesy and chhena-based; more dense than sandesh.


Halwa takes many forms depending upon the region of India from which it hails. From left to right:

  • Gajjar (you also might see it as gajar) halwa can be found cut into squares like burfi and also scooped loose from a large container. (Those shown above are also homemade if you’re keeping score.)
  • Karachi halwa are translucent and not unlike a very thick, super chewy gumdrop; they’re made from semolina or cornstarch. Often wrapped in plastic to thwart their stickiness.
  • Habshi halwa (I’ve also seen something that appears to be the same item called dhoda burfi) are dark brown squares made from besan, nuts, nutmeg and mace. It’s a dead ringer for a chocolate brownie but do not confuse it with its doppelganger: Never think “Oh, yum, chocolate brownie!” when you’re about to tuck into one or your brain and tastebuds will get stupifyingly disoriented. It is absolutely delicious and one of my favorites along with burfi and peda.

Other halwas are made from wheat flour or mung bean flour. The flavors and textures really depend on the versions you come across, so I won’t attempt to provide a universal description, but they generally lie somewhere along the cake/fudge/pudding continuum.

Incidentally, many Indian sweetmakers are using chocolate these days with mixed results in my opinion: in most cases, it just doesn’t work (a terroir thing perhaps?) but every once in a while I’ve hit upon an excellent one and I’ve had to revise my thinking for the moment.


Laddoo and kala jamun. The yellow is shahi (royal) laddoo, the orange is kesar laddoo.

  • Laddoo – the word means ball and really only refers to the shape since there are many kinds with many textures and flavors. Flour based and cooked with syrup (some are deep fried as well), a common type is made up of tiny pearl sized balls (boondi) rolled together into a larger sphere. All of them are sugary sweet. These are traditionally offered to the elephant-headed god Ganesha, the remover of obstacles. I have it on good authority that Ganesha loves food!
  •  
    I think of these next three as related:

  • Gulab jamun – medium brown in color and universally found not only in sweet shops but also for dessert in Indian restaurants. Deep fried batter (made with khoa but you might not notice it), sphere shaped, and a little spongy so they soak up the sweet rose water syrup they’re swimming in. (Gulab means rosewater, jamun refers to the java plum, a fruit of similar size to gulab jamun.) Kala jamun are similar to gulab jamun, slightly darker in color and sometimes shaped more like cham cham.
  • Rasgulla – also found for dessert in Indian restaurants. These white, cheesy confections are made from chhena and semolina, cooked and often served in a sugar syrup, first cousin to gulab jamun.
  • Ras malai – spongy and also chhena based, these swim in a creamy sauce; first cousin to rasgulla. Ras means juice.


Besan in its many forms figures into so many mithai that I can’t keep track. On the left, smooth and creamy besan burfi and crispy patisa halwa. The photo on the right is a close-up of the layers of almost crystalline flaky striations that create patisa’s delightful crunch.

  • Patisa halwa – a chickpea based sweet. Sometimes shaped like little haystacks, sometimes in a block, they are crispy and delicious.
  • Mysore pak – made from chickpea flour and ghee, cut into rectangular shapes – if you like chickpeas, you’ll like these. They appear to be spongy, but they’re crumbly and a little crisp.


Dry petha and regular petha, amriti, and pinni.

  • Petha – not to be confused with peda or pera, these are a translucent candy made from winter melon/white pumpkin, tasting like perfumed, juicy, sweet candied fruit. You also might see the dry version that is less syrupy, crisper, crunchier, and more candy-like.
  • Jalebi – chickpea or wheat flour batter, usually orange but occasionally yellow, 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 soaked in syrup so you get the best of both worlds.
  • Amriti (you also might see it as imarti) are similar to jalebi, always orange but shaped like a squiggly flower; thicker than jalebi, less crisp, and less sweet.
  • Pinni (you also might see it as pinny) – made from wheat flour, koya, jaggery (unprocessed brown sugar), dry fruits and nuts. Less sweet than most, and a welcome change of pace in that regard.


Cham cham in their native habitat (alongside other goodies).

  • Cham cham (you also might see it as chum chum or even cham-2) – a little larger than thumb-sized and oblong, often coated in coconut. Typically you’ll see it in white, yellow, and pink although I don’t think the colors are any indication of flavor. Not overwhelmingly dairy, but they are made from milk solids. Although not swimming in syrup (see gulab jamun), these have a slightly spongy texture and hold a little sweet syrup: think juicy but not saturated.

Some mithai like these are scooped out in bulk from bins rather than sold in compact individual pieces; some take the shape of small tidbits.


Mithai from Bangladesh and Pakistan share some similarities with their Indian counterparts but are crafted from a slightly different set of ingredients and, to my taste, are a little less sweet. I recommend becoming familiar with Indian mithai before essaying these. The photo on the left shows a few treats from Premium Sweets, the Bangladeshi restaurant on 73rd Street in Jackson Heights. On the right is a sampling of the panoply of Pakistani confections I discovered on a recent New Jersey expedition to celebrate Pakistani Independence Day (h/t Dave Cook and his illustrious blog, Eating In Translation) that came from Chowpatty on Oak Tree Road in Iselin; most were pretty good but perhaps a little less accessible than their Indian analogues.


On the Pakistani plate:
Row 1
(1) Badam Puri – flour, rice flour, ground almonds, milk, sugar, cardamom; fried in oil, a delicious wafer.
(2) Watermelon/Anarkali – not watermelon flavored that I could discern but similar in appearance; edible silver foil, green on the outside, red on the inside.
(3) Halwasan Pak – cracked wheat, edible gum (looks like little pebbles), ground “porridge”, milk, almonds, cashews, brown sugar, nutmeg, cardamom; very crunchy, almost sandy.

Row 2
(1) Gundar – dry fruit, gum arabic crystals, powdered ginger; strongly flavored, an acquired taste.
(2) Gajar Halwa – see above.
(3) Kaju Mohini – figs and nuts, tastes like it looks.

Row 3
(1) Adadiya Pak – urad dal (lentils), gram flour, nuts, ginger, fenugreek and other spices, roasted in ghee; texture like crunching on sandy pebbles, an acquired taste.
(2) Stuffed Peda – see above.
(3) Gundar Pak – syrupy gundar.

Row 4
(1) Ghari – the white “icing” had very little flavor, almost tasted like wax or oil; green pista inside.
(2) Dryfruit Halwa – made with raisins, truly delicious.
(3) Halwasan – made from cracked or broken wheat and soured milk; chewy, fruity.


And finally, more photos to get you hooked. As you might expect, special mithai are created for Diwali. One that is particularly delicious, unique and one of my all-time favorites is apple mithai (the two peach-colored pieces in the first photo), complete with a clove for a stem; this seasonal sweet tastes a lot like marzipan and has a very limited run through Diwali only and are a specialty of Rajbhog Sweets, 72-27 37th Avenue in Jackson Heights. The rest are always available.


So that’s my addicted-to-mithai story and I’m sticking to it (and possibly to the Karachi halwa as well). I urge you to go out there and track down these confections, especially for the holiday although most are available year-round. If they don’t light your diya, I don’t know what will. And if, after you’ve sampled them, an insatiable craving for mithai sneaks up on you when you least expect it…well, you know how you got hooked!

दिवाली मुबारक
Happy Diwali!


In 2018, Diwali begins on Tuesday, November 6 and continues for five days until Saturday, November 10.

 

How I Got Into Cooking

I’m frequently asked how I got into cooking. Now, I suspect that what follows is something of an apocryphal tale: I certainly can’t vouch for its veracity since it took place, in theory at least, when I was five tender years of age and I have absolutely no recollection of the event. But this, according to the saga circulated by my beleaguered mother, was my initial foray into the culinary arts.

As she would tell the story to her cronies, one wintry Sunday morning – I’m using the word “morning” loosely since I’m told it was 5:00 – I awoke hungry. Realizing that my parents were still very much asleep and recalling their disagreeable response to being roused in the darkness, I decided to address the absence of a ready breakfast by taking measures into my own little hands.

I had watched my mother prepare our morning repast on many occasions. She would fill a large pot with water, pour in some stuff from a red and blue cardboard canister graced with a quaint rendering of an avuncular looking fellow sporting a black hat (the container would later be reincarnated as an annoying percussion instrument), and stir monotonously and apathetically with an oversized wooden spoon. Sure enough, some minutes later, a bowl of steaming, stick-to-your-ribs mush would appear on our war-torn kitchen table.

Seemed simple enough.

I managed to clamber up a chair to fetch the oatmeal and the spoon, but the pot proved too heavy to wrangle. So, demonstrating the improvisational skills that would later prove invaluable to this budding jazz pianist, I made straight for the bathroom. Leaning over the edge of the bathtub, I turned on the water – full blast – and proceeded to dump the entire contents of the box into the roiling cascade. Noisily wielding the spoon, I stirred with such vigor and reckless abandon that it awakened my mother who came charging into the bathroom to see what all the commotion was about.

What happened next? I wish I could tell you. By that juncture in my mother’s narrative, she and her captive audience had usually broken into paroxysms of laughter. (And I suspect the unpleasant denouement would best be left to the imagination anyway.)

But the reason I told you that story was so that I could tell you this one: I am willing to wager almost anything that even then, my foamy concoction would have tasted better than my mother’s most determined attempts at cooking. And that directly addresses the gist of the initial question – why did I get into cooking?

Simply put, childhood trauma. My mother’s cooking could best be described as child abuse. Recognizing her ineptness in the kitchen and having no desire to rectify the situation, she decided that Swanson’s TV Dinners™ and Morton’s Chicken Pot Pies® would serve as our quotidian fare. Oh, and the occasional bowl of canned mixed vegetables. Did you ever hear of Veg-All? I have a hazy (and most likely inaccurate) memory that there was a prototypical version that, for some unknown reason, had little wax paper disks between each of the vegetable types: beige corn, gray string beans, grayer peas…you get the idea. There may have been diced potatoes in there too. Or something that was sort of a lighter shade of gray than the rest. And mushier. After a while they eliminated the paper, probably having discovered that their customers were ingesting it, preferring it to the “vegetables”, I imagine. Or perhaps being unable to distinguish between them.

Any poison she could find at the grocery store was grist for our table. I’ll never forget the fateful day when she returned from the supermarket brandishing a box of Butter Buds, a sort of faded yellow, gritty, granular substance that looked exactly like something from my Gilbert chemistry set. (I had the F model – the one with the Bunsen burner. I learned how to make hydrogen sulfide gas, rotten egg smell that overwhelmingly stunk up the kitchen. It beat the stench of her cooking hands down, though. But I digress.) “We’ll use this instead of real butter,” she clucked, offering neither an explanation nor an apology. That was the day I learned what industrial waste tastes like. It’s a wonder I don’t glow in the dark after consuming all those chemicals.

So there you have it – the when and the why. And QED that in this case, revenge is a dish best served delicious!

 
 

Reverse Engineering Legend of Taste’s Smoked Pork with Garlic Leaf


Legend of Taste, located at 2002 Utopia Parkway in Whitestone, Queens, is fast becoming a legend in its own right. Arguably the most original Szechuan restaurant in New York City, finicky foodies have been flocking here to check out the hype (yes, it’s completely deserved) and enjoy the chef’s skillful spin on Szechuan classics.

As to my modest role in supporting this establishment (whose only drawback is its location: you need to drive there since it’s not near a subway line), I’ve brought several groups of food writers and photographers, restaurant reviewers, chefs, and Szechuan cuisine enthusiasts to sample as much of the “Legend Special” and “Chef’s Special” sections of the menu as we could and still fit through the door on the way out. You can see some of what we’ve sampled here.

It turns out that among the many amazing offerings we tasted (like the unimaginably delicious – may I say transcendent? – Szechuan Style Crispy Eggplant), the relatively simple Smoked Pork with Garlic Leaf never failed to garner tremendous approbation from the throng. As a matter of fact, a few folks asked if I had a recipe so they could try their hand at reproducing it. Although I discovered some similar dishes in my research, I couldn’t track down a proper recipe so I had no choice but to try to create one myself. I was fortunate that on one visit I had been able to carry out a bit for an A/B comparison while I was inventing my own take on it. (Sure, try and convince people that sacrificing a morsel of the dish for me to bring home and deconstruct would ultimately accrue to their benefit.)

What follows is my modest proposal for just such a recipe. (Actually, it’s more of an algorithm than a formal recipe, but you’ll get the idea.) The limited number of ingredients made the task seem less daunting. The real key is finding a version of smoked Chinese bacon that resonates for you. (No, I don’t have a favorite since I always buy a different one: it’s the best way to learn.) Now, I suspect that Legend of Taste smokes their own pork belly so you won’t be able to find a perfect match in Chinatown, but you can approximate it. In the market, you’re likely to find Chinese style bacon available in two forms, either Cryovac packaged or hanging by a string alongside other dried meats like lap cheong (Chinese sausage) and assorted types of poultry (see photos). Either one will work in this dish. The packaged versions differ from each other considerably – some are richer than others, some have added seasonings like cinnamon, soy sauce, wine, and there’s even a Szechuan style spicy má là version; it’s all a matter of taste. Note that these are not refrigerated in the market.

For the greens, head to the produce section. English names for this vegetable vary widely from “garlic leaf” to “green garlic” to “Chinese leeks”; in Szechuan province it’s known as suan miao, 蒜苗. You’re looking for a vegetable that has flat leaves and a purplish tinge to the outermost layer of the bulbs. The photo here (left) shows what you’re after. That shiny silver disk is a quarter placed there for the sake of size comparison; you can see that they’re much longer and thinner than garden variety American leeks. They’re more tender than regular leeks as well so they cook up much faster.

The only other significant ingredient that I could discern is dried salted black bean; you’ll find it packaged in plastic bags near the other dried items like lentils, starches, nuts, dried mushrooms, black and white fungus – things you’d cook with, not snack on.

Preparation: Steam the Chinese bacon over boiling water for 15 minutes; doing so will cook and soften it so that it can be worked with. Slice off a little of the fat and render it for use in the stir frying process later. As soon as it’s cool enough to handle, lay it on its side (or whatever technique works best for you) and carve thin slices (photo on the right). Don’t worry if your slices aren’t as thin and translucent as what you see here; do the best you can and it will be just fine.

The main difference between this and the pork in the dish from Legend of Taste is the sublime smokiness. (As a matter of fact, Legend of Taste’s outstanding Special Smoked Ribs and Tea Smoked Duck are so redolent of smoky goodness that, if you’re lucky and your timing is right, the aroma will seduce you as you enter the establishment.) Since I don’t have a smoker, I tried to come up with a process for enhancing my expeditious ersatz rendition. My first try involved adding a few tablespoons of liquid smoke to the steaming water; that helped a bit, but it needed more encouragement since the smokiness couldn’t really permeate the large hunks of bacon (although it most decidedly permeated my kitchen). A few tests later, I settled on a method of mixing a tiny amount of liquid smoke in a bowl with a little water, sugar, and smoked sea salt and briefly tossing the slices of pork all at once in the mixture, then steaming them again for a few minutes. Perfect? Of course not. And there are those among us who eschew liquid smoke at all costs; I can appreciate that. But if you don’t overdo it, my method will get you close. Incidentally, if you try this technique, I recommend that you not use a variety of Chinese bacon that has additional seasonings added.

As to the garlic leaf, remove the roots and wash it thoroughly. Cut off the bulb and quarter it so it will cook at the same rate as the leaves and stalk. You’ll get the best results working with the sturdier leaves just below the tips down through the stalk just above the bulb. The very ends can be wilted and in any event are too delicate for use in this dish; they get a little stringy and don’t hold up under stir-fry conditions. Save them for soup stock if you like. Or to use as ribbon on tiny Christmas presents. (Just wanted to see if you were paying attention.) Make one slice lengthwise through the stalk, then slice it and the firm leaves into 1½-inch pieces on the diagonal.

Rinse a small amount (perhaps a tablespoon or so) of the black beans and chop them coarsely.

The precise amounts of the components are up to you. Have a look at the photos and balance them as you wish.

Assembly: Heat a wok or a cast iron skillet until it gets impossibly hot. Add a little of the rendered pork fat – you won’t need much. Stir fry the sliced greens until almost tender (it won’t take long), and add the pork strips, black beans, a pinch of white pepper, a pinch of salt (depends upon how salty the bacon is), a pinch of sugar, and a big pinch of MSG. (Yes, really. You wanna make something of it?) Stir fry for a minute or two, just enough to introduce the ingredients to each other and until they develop a happy relationship. Serve with rice.

Remember that this is merely my take (bottom photo) on reverse engineering the dish so wonderfully crafted at Legend of Taste (top photo). If you have a recipe for it that you’d like to share, use the area below to send a comment. I’m eager to hear from you!

PS: I think it came out rather well!

Coming Attractions: Gourmanoff

Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach neighborhood, affectionately known as Little Odessa, is a gastronomic jubilee of Russian, Ukrainian, Georgian, and other Former Soviet Union culinary delights with a touch of Turkish and a wee bit of Uyghur blended in for good measure. (As a matter of fact, if memory serves, there had been a market there years ago that bore the name “Gastronom Jubilee”.)

On a recent food tour along Brighton Beach Avenue, the main drag and principle eatery artery of the community, my band of adventurous epicures was a little surprised when we stopped at the venue depicted here. Cultural arenas don’t usually make it into the itineraries of my ethnojunkets – we’re more about global food than local sightseeing – so why have we stopped at what appeared to be a theater, replete with ticket booth, artificial frondescence, and statuary? Posters and digital videos heralding forthcoming entertainment in diverse variety from movies and stage shows to dance and musical performances and even a “World Famous Comedy Pet Show” confirmed the nature of the site. And indeed, Master Theater, formerly the Millennium, is just upstairs and is home to all of the above. But our spotlight was on Russian food, so it was the orchestra level that would be our focus that day.

Deftly sidestepping the “if music be the food of love” play on words (see what I did there?), I escorted my curious group into the capacious expanse now known as Gourmanoff, a dazzling upscale supermarket brimming with smoked fish and meats, cheeses, organic produce, baked goods, and a myriad of Russian products along with an extensive array of tempting prepared food.

Since everyone seemed so impressed with this theatrical display of culinary opulence, I thought I’d share a bit of the spectacle with you – sort of a Sneak Preview (if I may extend the cinema metaphor) of my Brighton Beach ethnojunkets. Shown here are just a few of the tidbits I picked up from the dumpling-ish section in the prepared food bar. At the top, hailing from Azerbaijan, there’s kutaby, a tortilla-like pancake filled with ground lamb and luscious seasonings, folded in half and griddled, and an object of universal culinary lust for anyone whose lips have ever caressed it. Just below that are Russian pelmeni and Ukrainian vareniki to the left, delicious dumplings that are probably familiar to you. (And if they’re not, you need to sign up for this ethnojunket!) Below those are Uzbek manti, lamb on the left (the best I’ve ever tasted, and that’s saying something since my bathroom scale and I lost track years ago of just how many I’ve consumed) and pumpkin on the right.

And then there’s that rolled up thing just above the pumpkin manti. The sign said Russian sushi, but I wasn’t convinced; needless to say, I had to buy one. Here’s a photo of it unrolled and deconstructed. A blini (Russian crêpe) had been substituted for the nori (seaweed) wrapper that’s common in Japanese maki sushi; it was spread with cream cheese and filled with raw salmon, kani (imitation crabmeat), and cucumber skin. It was cute and a little cheeky, but not the tastiest of their offerings. (But no spoiler alert here because whenever I’ve visited, everything was incredibly fresh. <groan>)

We do hit other markets as well as we eat our way through Brighton Beach Avenue; some are similar to Gourmanoff (though not as ostentatious), but each has its own standouts that we sample along the way: the tongue salad at Brighton Bazaar is fantastic (don’t knock it till you’ve tried it) and their eggplant salads are not to be missed. Georgian breads from Berikoni are mind-blowingly delicious as well.

But this is intended to be a Coming Attraction, just a teaser about what you’ll experience along a Brighton Beach ethnojunket! When will the next one happen? Well, when the temperature in Brooklyn’s Little Odessa is more like Ukraine’s actual Odessa – a tourist destination with a subtropical climate – and less like Siberia! So to extend the movie metaphor one more time, think of this post as a cliffhanger – and my promise that when you join us, you’re guaranteed a happy ending!

 
 

You Say Gnetum, I Say Gnemon – Let’s Call the Whole Thing Oats

Gnetum GnemonMy interminable quest to discover the ultimate ethnic crunchy snack led me to Top Line Supermarket at 81-37 Broadway in Elmhurst, Queens. (Interminable, by the way, because there are so many outrageously good ethnic crunchies out there that there will clearly never be Just One Ultimate, thus making it a delightfully sisyphean task.) Indonesian ingredients are not that easy to come by around these parts, but Top Line arguably offers the best concentration of Indonesian and Malaysian items in NYC. (Got a better one, ethnofoodies? Let me know!)

Quick vocabulary lesson:

  • Gnetum gnemon — a plant (actually a tree) native to southeast Asia, known in Indonesian as melinjo or belinjo, and in English as padi oats or paddy oats. The seeds are ground into flour and used to make:
  • Emping — chips that are very popular in Indonesia (along with many other varieties of crackers generically called krupuk). They are available in a number of varieties including:
  • Manis — sweet; Pedas — spicy; and Madu — honey.

There. Now you can translate the packages as well as I can.

What are they like? Wonderful, obviously, or I wouldn’t be telling you about them. More crunchy than crispy, a little sticky right out of the package. Of the two varieties I found available under the Kukagumi brand, I like the sweet/spicy combo a little better than the honey version, but I do tend to favor spicy in general. The heat level of the pedas was within the bounds of my co-conspirators that day (some of whom draw the line at wasabi peas to give you a comparative frame of reference). Padi oats have a slight bitter, but not at all unpleasant, aftertaste. They’re not really “oatey” in the Cheerios sense since they’re another species, but they’re more like oats than corn or wheat since there’s a satisfying nuttiness to them. The Rotary brand offers larger pieces that are seasoned less heavy-handedly – a little less spicy and a little less sweet than Kukagumi. Perhaps even a little more sophisticated than Kukagumi, it allowed the flavor of the padi oats to come through with more definition. And I recently discovered Zona brand emping pedas camouflaged in loopy, orange and red Western style packaging. Crisper than Kukagumi and Rotary, their sweet spiciness is akin to Shark brand Sriracha (the Thai Sriracha). All three brands are excellent choices.

These are ready-to-eat, but a version that requires deep frying first is also available.

If you don’t feel like venturing into Elmhurst, there’s always Amazon for Spicy Gnetum Gnemon (Emping Manis Pedas) or Honey Gnetum Gnemon (Emping Manis Madu).

Gnetum gnemon — Eat ’em: get ’em!

 

 

Chinese Mooncakes Demystified

Or, The Equal Opportunity Celebrant – Part 2

 

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, 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 eye-catching gift boxes or tins since it’s customary to offer gifts of mooncakes to friends and family (or lovers!) for the holiday. Since I pursue culinary details doggedly (2018 is the year of the same), 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 an important 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. 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.
five-seed-pastepineapple-lychee-pandan

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 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.

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!

 
 

Smart Cookies

If you’ve visited the confectionery aisle at almost any Asian market, you know there’s no shortage of packaged cookies and cookie-like treats to tempt your tastebuds and purge your pocketbook. Japanese renditions of American classics take that to the next level, both in terms of snackability and sticker shock (at least what I can find stateside). A cursory perusal of one such aisle revealed variations on the theme of mini Kit Kats and Oreos (in a bite-sized format unfamiliar to me); I was tickled to find matcha green tea versions of both as well as strawberry Oreo and sweet potato Kit Kat varieties. (This last sported instructions on the back for optional toaster-oven crisping!)

Oreo Matcha BagOreo Strawberry BoxKit Kat Sweet Potato Bag

I was less tickled by the prices, however. Certainly the packaging is attractive – bright colors, shiny gold, embossed even! – but lots and lots of air surrounding teeny tiny morsels of sweet crunchiness. (Reminds me of a quote from Monty Python’s Flying Circus: “There will now be a whopping great intermission, during which small ice creams in very large boxes will be sold.”) This 9½ inch wide bag of mini Kit Kats, for example, offers about a dozen individually wrapped pieces, each weighing in at about 12 grams – less than half an ounce – for $6.99, but I guess I do understand why the pricing is what it is.

Oreo Matcha PieceThree individually wrappedThree unwrapped

In terms of taste, the sweet potato Kit Kat was, for an instant, sort of sweet potato-y, then it turned somewhat artificial and a little metallic. The matcha was more subtle but was also more true to its green tea flavor description. Strawberry Oreo straddled the fence between fruity and artificial.

(I’ve always theorized that if a being from another planet landed on Earth and was tasked with the challenge of reconciling how the taste of artificial cherry, grape, et al. has any resemblance whatsoever to real cherries or grapes, it would shake its heads, concede defeat, and return home with its tails between its legs. Somehow, after years of ingesting these chemical concoctions, we’ve become inured to their ersatz essences and have accepted the use of the word “raspberry”, for instance, to describe both disparate flavors. Such is the wonder of modern food science as it confronts our ability to suspend culinary disbelief. But I digress.)

It turns out that Japan comes by its penchant for wild and crazy cookie flavors honestly. Since 2000, Nestlé has developed some 200–300 (reports vary) extreme Kit Kat flavors: cinnamon, hojicha roasted tea, strawberry cheesecake, brown sugar, pear, crème brulée, apple, apple vinegar, ginger ale, blueberry cheesecake, hazelnut, raspberry, orange, rum raisin, pumpkin pudding, orange pineapple, choco-banana, pancake, black honey, taro, chili pepper, red bean, edamame, sake, wasabi, soy sauce, and dark chocolate (how’d that get in there?) as well as something called “mixed juice” to name a few. (I can’t help but wonder what flavor “Midnight Eagle” might be.)

The story, as I understand it, of Kit Kat’s overwhelming popularity in Japan has to do with its name – it sounds roughly like “kitto katsu” which translates as “you will surely win”. The smart cookies at Nestlé became aware of burgeoning sales every January when the appropriately named sweet was given to students as a good luck gift prior to taking college entrance exams.

Now, sixteen years later, the candy is the number one seller in Japan, even promoted in schmancy department stores and specialty shops. The unusual (by Western standards) varieties pay homage to the unique flavors of Japanese foods; some of them are based on the particular character of a specific region in the country with limited distribution of each signature flavor to its region.

If you’d like to read more about how Kit Kat became a phenomenon in Japan, check out this story in the online version of the British newspaper, The Telegraph. In it, they write about innovations like an extravagant version covered in gold leaf and a Kit Kat croissant available in a coffee shop chain that sells out on a daily basis. (Take that, Dominique Ansel.)

I’m certain that more of these delicious wonders are lurking throughout the New York City area. (Update: I subsequently found bittersweet chocolate, strawberry, and Japanese sake. And more recently, I’ve discovered a designer version, the “Chocolatory Moleson”, the first decorated Kit Kat, which is topped with dried cranberries and almonds – placed there by hand!) Fellow ethnofoodies: let me know what you find and where you found it and I’ll update this post along with a hat tip for your hunting prowess!

 

Specialty Food Association’s Summer 2016 Fancy Food Show

Show FloorTo some, it is America’s largest food and beverage trade show playing host annually to 2,670 US and international exhibitors who this year presented 180,000 specialty foods to over 47,000 industry professional buyers, distributors, brokers, and the media.

To me, it is Xanadu.

And not only because of three days’ worth of opportunities to sample some delicious wares. The Fancy Food Show affords the chance to hob and nob with other professional foodies, see what products and brands are trending and poised to make a breakthrough, and get a sense of what the industry thinks the marketplace is craving. (I lost count of how many products had Krave in the name.)

To clarify, “specialty foods” – as contrasted with staples – encompass cheese (easily the largest category); cured meats; caviar, smoked, and other seafood; baked goods and mixes; candy and chocolates; nuts; condiments including sauces and marinades; oils; snacks; jams and jellies; beverages and more. The show highlights three major areas: a formidable presence of national manufacturers, a panoply of international pavilions proffering provisions from Peru to Pakistan, and a section organized by state populated by artisanal entrepreneurs trying to catch a foothold in the national marketplace. (Incidentally, it would seem that Brooklyn has seceded from New York since they were ensconced in their own area.)

Needless to say, the international food representatives are a major inspiration for my annual hajj to that stately pleasure dome known as the Javits Center (although my unbridled passion for cheese does vie for first place). Case in point, my quest for argan oil. Made from the kernels of the nut encased by the fruit of the argan tree, its flavor is rich and distinctly Moroccan. Want a tip? Use this awesome product in your cooking or even just for dipping bread, perhaps with a sprinkle of dukkah. After chatting up the folks in every booth in the Moroccan subsector, I was able to consummate my crusade upon meeting the delightful and generous folks at TVT Trade Brands, an importer and distributor of spices and more from around the world.

Elegant Cheese 2Elegant Cheese 1Serrano Ham DollBack in the main area, I couldn’t resist snapping a few photos of some over-the-top displays of cheesy elegance along with an example of fun and exciting things you can do with Serrano ham. (Take that, Lady Gaga!)

Pichuberry PackagePichuberriesA booth promoting Pichuberries®, Mojo Tree Farm’s trademarked name for golden berries (aka physalis, husk cherry, cape gooseberry and others – and not to be confused with true gooseberries) provided an example of something relatively new to the marketplace. If you’re near a great farmers’ market, you can find ground cherries in late summer but they’re unlikely to be perfectly ripe (look for orange, not green), and Pichuberries are far more reliable in that regard. The fruits, about the size of a marble, are sweet, tart, and a little earthy – delicious, and a worthy addition to any salad. Mojo Tree Farm provides a number of recipes (like a pico de gallo that looks wonderful) on their website.

Of course, one can easily find the usual suspects like the baked goods wannabes: the brownie that eats like a cookie, the cookie that eats like a brownie, cookies masquerading as muffin tops, donuts masquerading as brownies, and brownie bottoms masquerading as cookies – “the best part of the brownie!” one company boasted.

One artisanal sausage maker bragged about how their product had no casing so there wasn’t that annoying “snap” when you bit into them. Yeesh. Ah well, one man’s meat is another man’s poisson, I guess.

The atmosphere was a little more homespun down in the States level: Virginia peanuts, Vermont maple products, Brooklyn hipster artisanality, you get the idea. Certainly there was a passel of good ol’ boys invitin’ all y’all to come on down and taste what they just whomped up in the basement. Retired gramepaws, bless their hearts, sporting straw farmers’ hats, who instead of traveling opted to sink their entire pension into bottling their secret family BBQ sauce recipe, beckoned to passing attendees as their granddaughters, aspiring Future Spokesmodels of America and dolled up in gingham, offered samples. Gotta love it.

At the end of the day, it’s all about marketing, and that’s the only aspect of the show that saddens me a bit. Not that I have anything against marketing per se. But all of these companies have done tremendous research into what America wants to put in its mouth, and it seems to me that it’s really about what America doesn’t want to put in its mouth. It felt like practically every product crowed about some mix’n’match variation on:

gluten-free, salt-free, sugar-free, dairy-free, trans fat-free, soy-free, egg-free, butter-free, tree-nut free, peanut-free, caffeine-free, no msg, no GMOs, no hormones, no artificial colors or flavors, no preservatives, no additives, no high fructose corn syrup, no cholesterol, high protein, low carb, low fat, low calorie, vegetarian friendly, vegan friendly, paleo friendly, diet friendly, heart friendly, non-irradiated, pastured, macrobiotic, probiotic, antioxidant, raw…handmade, fair trade, A grade, cage-free laid…<catching my breath> and, of course, the ever popular and stupefyingly meaningless All Natural.

We want our handcrafted, small batch comestibles to be organic, sustainable, artisanal, locally-sourced, farmstead, snout-to-tail, farm-to-table, field-to-fork, root-to-stem, and even (in the case of chocolate) bean-to-bar.

Eagerly extending trays of samples, exhibitors intoned, “Gluten-free all-natural!” never making it clear what they were offering let alone whether or not it might taste good. I think I saw biodegradably packaged gluten-free natural spring water. Gluten-free water? But I was pretty tired by then.

Don’t get me wrong; I applaud lifestyle choices and would never mock a creed someone holds dear. But sadly, nowhere did I see labels proclaiming ambrosial, appetizing, delectable, delightful, divine, enticing, exquisite, heavenly, luscious, mouthwatering, rich, savory, scrumptious, tasty, tempting, toothsome, yummy, and certainly never delicious. Why can’t we strike a balance?

And again, to be perfectly clear: the show itself is fantastic – a veritable Disneyworld for enthusiastic food professionals.

I just wish America’s relatively new-found romance with food were less about how it might kill us and more about how it might thrill us.

 
 

Fulton’s Steambuffets: Definitely Not Folly!

Okay, I freely admit it. I like steamtable buffets. The good ones, at least. Not because I harbor any porcine proclivities (shh!), but rather that I’m keen on the idea of tasting one bite of many dishes as opposed to sitting down to a plate of “hunk o’ meat and two veg”. It’s why I love dim sum in Chinatown. So you can imagine my delight when I discovered a row of mostly-Caribbean-but-bordering-on-African-with a-hint-of-Middle-Eastern steamtable joints while strolling along Brooklyn’s Fulton Street.

Here’s what you need to know to join in the fun:

Pricing can be tricky if you’re a newbie. Your container is weighed and priced by the pound. But that’s where things can get confusing. If you take mostly vegetables or less costly items like salad, one price applies; add some heftier proteins and the price per pound for your whole order goes up. And then there are certain “special items” (like baked salmon) that carry an even weightier price tag ($11.95 instead of $6.95 per pound, as a rough example). Grab enough of that one and the cost of what was mostly greens can escalate from lunch to dinner level. So choose judiciously. If you want to taste that $11.95 pasta and fish dish, put as much as you want in a small container and it will be weighed and priced accordingly. And how does that pricing determination happen? The person at the checkout station peers into your container and makes a decision. In my case, it was always more than fair. But forewarned is forearmed and there’s nothing wrong with checking out a couple of containers at different cost levels.

Some of the spots have excellent signage, both in terms of what the dishes are and what you’ll pay per pound for various choices. At the other end of the spectrum, some have no signs at all – neither price nor identification – and generally there isn’t much opportunity to ask questions. But again, I want to emphasize that in my experience, pricing will be fair and for the most part you’ll leave full and happy. In terms of what you’ll be eating – that’s the fun part: try a little bit of lots of things. Chances are you won’t be disappointed and you’ll be better informed on your return visits.

Do Not Break the FishIn many cases, you’ll find whole fish accompanied by a sign warning, “Please Do Not Break the Fish”. A good excuse to go with a friend, I should think. Each of you chooses a number of items, but only one of you lands a fish and then you can share when you get to your table. More fun and perfectly legitimate.

Most of these places are Halal, so if you see something that looks or tastes like pork or ham, it’s probably smoked turkey.

A few venues are worth a mention:

• Soldier Place at 1444 Fulton St. was as far east as I ventured for this run. There was an emphasis on Jamaican food here. Beef dishes were tender if not exciting. Chicken dishes were okay (skip the red sweet & sour variation), and remember that anything purporting to be jerk chicken at any of these restaurants is usually baked chicken with jerk seasoning as opposed to the real (wonderfully smoky) deal. There was serviceable mac ‘n’ cheese along with some Island specialties like bammy (Jamaican cassava flatbread) and dumplings. Standouts included most of the fish offerings like saltfish – and that pasta and fish dish was certainly tasty; tempting Jamaican escovitch fish came out as I was leaving. You may know that “ground provision” or simply “provision” is a West Indian catchall term that includes yams, cassava, taro, breadfruit, plantain and more and you’ll usually find them combined in a single dish. Here, each type of starch swims in its own container making it easy to cherry pick your favorite. Drinks included some delicious Irish moss and ginger beer. There were five tiny tables and a sign that promised ackee and saltfish for breakfast (so I’ll be back); a poster outside trumpeted “Big Buffet”. No lie.

• Smokey Island Grille at 1274 Fulton St. was home to hard core West Indian cuisine. You’ll score curry goat, oxtail, a number of varieties of rice, and reliable mac ‘n’ cheese along with a sizable array of other options; don’t forget the Caribbean desserts at the counter. Avail yourself of the hand sanitizer as you enter the steamtable area. Prices (variable, so pay attention) and choices are clearly labeled.

• Al Masry at 1178 Fulton St. was a blend: some soul food, some Island, and a little Middle Eastern. A good mix, but no labels. Certainly there’s nothing you won’t recognize, but if there are five dishes that are obviously chicken, you won’t be able to tell what they are without a scorecard. That’s true for all of these restaurants. Just another reason to take a tiny portion of each. Plenty of variety and lots of seating.

International Cuisine outside• In my opinion, the best of the lot was International Cuisine at 1174 Fulton St. A wide variety of offerings, some African food including couscous, porridge, and goat along with soul food and West Indian staples like oxtail and dumplings: the “International” moniker is appropriate. Not only does this place not label the food or the prices, but the restaurant itself is hiding in plain sight: no name on the front or even inside, and not even an address except on the building next door!

International Cuisine inside 1International Cuisine inside 2

But the food there was very tasty, the selection left nothing to be desired (see photos above) and there were plenty of tables. If you’re going to venture out along Fulton St., try this place first.

If, like me, you’re into African cooking, there are a number of markets along the way that can supply some basic needs like stockfish, smoked fish, and spices so you can make a day of it if you have the time and the inclination.

And that was only the south side of the street! Another visit beckons and I’ll add to this post as I stumble across more treasures.

 

¡Llame a la Llama!

Bolivian Llama Party display case

“Salteñas!” the jazzy sign exclaimed. “Not an Empanada!!”
“Hey look!” the passerby exclaimed. “Empanadas!!”

Um, not quite. Bolivian Llama Party is all about setting the record straight and the way they’re going about it might just get you hooked. The salteña is Bolivia’s answer to the empanada and to all outward appearances, they do look similar to other Latin American offerings. But take a bite (carefully – you’ll see why in a minute) and you’ll realize that that’s where the similarity ends.

First, the dough is not merely a delivery system for the filling; it’s flavorful in its own right – hand crafted, golden with aji amarillo (yellow hot pepper) and baked to perfection. And then there’s the delicious savory filling (do I hear music?) known as jigote. Juicy like a stew, you’ll find four varieties here: Beni (grass-fed beef), Chimba (free-range chicken), Cliza (mushrooms and quinoa), and Toco (three kinds of pork and extraordinarily scrumptious), all named for locations in Bolivia. Even the dark green hot sauce is outstanding, imbued with quillquiña (Bolivian coriander), but don’t fear the spice level – it’s easily managed and an integral part of the experience.

Biting into one of these treasures can be a bit messy – the word “gush” comes to mind – and there’s even a wry, tongue-in-cheek sign, “How to Eat a Salteña (Without Wearing It)”, outlining three skill levels for pulling off its consumption: Beginner, Enthusiast, and Master. Think of it as empanada meets soup dumpling.

The first Bolivian restaurant in Manhattan, Bolivian Llama Party is owned and operated by three brothers, all natives of Bolivia. Alex Oropeza (aka Llama Whisperer) explained the painstaking care that goes into making these authentic delights: one day to make the dough, another to create the filling, another to assemble them and braid the dough. Crafting that braid perfectly is one of the keys to success, because if one salteña breaks while baking, a pool of filling will escape and ruin the entire batch. Alex told me that the level of expertise required by a salteñero to perform that magic is akin to that of a skilled sushi chef – they both devote years to their training. As a matter of fact, Patrick Oropeza (BLP’s chef and salteñero) has been so swamped in the kitchen that, as of this writing, he hadn’t yet had time to visit the Turnstyle venue that opened at the end of April.

Toco SalteñaTriple Pork Sandwich de CholaBLP Decor

But wait, there’s more! BLP also offers a couple of Sandwiches de Chola, Bolivian street style sandwiches, available in brisket and triple pork (the standout of the two). Eliana (she’s a sweetheart) works the register; when you order, be sure to ask her for extra aioli for the sandwich. During my last visit I found a new addition – BLP’s version of an huminta. Humintas are tamales traditionally wrapped in a corn husk; these snacks are little cornbready treats in the shape of a madeleine, filled with quesillo cheese, kissed with fennel and anise, and served with seasoned butter on the side. Get them while they’re still hot if you can.

I won’t even attempt to describe the hip, colorful, crazy décor, but it pairs perfectly with the food. Check out their website for additional seasonal locations and more information.

Trust me, these guys are beyond awesome. Drop everything and go there. Now.
 
 
Bolivian Llama Party can be found at Turnstyle, the food court in the subway tunnel under Columbus Circle. Use any entrance (A,B,C,D,1 trains) at West 57th/58th Street and 8th Avenue.