Pongal

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Pongal, the holiday, is a four day long harvest festival occurring around mid-January (on the 14th this year) that is observed primarily in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu but like most spiritual anniversaries can’t really be confined to a specific geographical area, diasporas being what they are. One of the most important holidays celebrated by the Tamil community, it is characterized by social gatherings, time-honored rituals, prayers for health, happiness, and prosperity, and, of course, traditional foods. Bidding farewell to the winter solstice and marking the beginning of the sun god’s annual ascent in the zodiac, each day of the holiday features its own set of conventions. It is the second and principal day on which pongal, the dish, is prepared.

The word pongal means to boil or spill over and the seasonal milk plus newly harvested rice preparation does indeed overflow as it cooks, symbolizing the abundant harvest for which participants exuberantly give thanks. The dish manifests in two varieties: sweet (chakkara or sakkarai pongal) which calls for jaggery (unrefined cane sugar) along with raisins, cashews, and spices like cardamom, and savory (ven or khara pongal) which emphasizes an array of more potent spices and herbs.

A multitude of recipes is extant, of course, some saturated with copious ghee (usually the savory variants), some shot through with coconut (usually the sweet), but most of the recipes I’ve found call for the addition of moong dal (mung bean or green gram) to keep company with the rice, similar to North Indian dal khichdi. For today’s culinary adventure, I decided to prepare the savory version.

After toasting the dal, I cooked it together with rice in equal parts (again, recipes vary, often with more rice than dal) using more water than customary to achieve the proper cohesive consistency; they’re prepared sans seasoning – all of the distinctive ingredients are folded in afterwards.

One of the essentials of many world cuisines involves dry toasting spices to bring out their essence. In addition to employing that technique, Indian cuisine takes it one step further by making a tadka, tempering whole herbs and spices in oil to bloom their flavors beyond dry roasting and to flavor the oil as well; it’s the foundation of many Indian dishes and one I frequently use. In this case, ghee provided the lipid component (make sure it’s high quality and fresh) and my “distinctive ingredients” were cashew nuts, cumin seeds, cracked Tellicherry peppercorns for their citrusy notes, curry leaves, grated fresh ginger, green chilies, a pinch of hing (aka asafoetida) and turmeric.

Simply fold the tadka into the prepared rice and dal mixture, cook for another minute or two, et voilà. The texture of the dish should be a little like risotto, think porridge rather than discrete grains like biryani – after all, it’s comfort food; some recipes even call for mashing the rice a bit. It’s often served with coconut chutney (see photo) and sambar.

I confess to consuming it with greedy gusto since this particular combination of cashews, herbs and spices really resonates for me; of course, now I’m craving the sweet version too. Next time!
 
 
Happy Pongal!
 
 

Happy Diwali (2020)

(Originally posted in October, 2019. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, some businesses may be closed – temporarily, we hope – and prices may vary.)

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The 2019 Collection

Dear Friends,

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

July is National Ice Cream Month! Celebrate Globally!

(Note 1: I update this post annually because you can never have enough ethnic ice cream. Or at least I can’t! 😉)

(Note 2: Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, some businesses may be closed – temporarily, we hope. Please check before venturing out.)

Every August, as a routinely flushed, overheated child, I would join in chorus with my perspiring cohorts, boisterously importuning, “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream!” Little did I realize that rather than conjuring dessert, I was conjugating it and probably laying the groundwork for a lifetime of fascination with foreign languages and world food.

We lived in close proximity to one of the best dairies in town; it was known for its wide assortment of locally produced natural flavors, certainly sufficient in number and variety to satisfy any palate. Perhaps my obsession with offbeat ice cream flavors is rooted in my frustration with my father’s return home from work, invariably bearing the same kind of ice cream as the last time, Neapolitan. Neapolitan, again. My pleas to try a different flavor – just once? please? – consistently fell on deaf ears. “Neapolitan is chocolate, strawberry and vanilla. That’s three flavors right there. If you don’t want it, don’t eat it.” Some kids’ idea of rebellion involved smoking behind the garage; mine was to tuck into a bowl of Rum Raisin.

Since the dog days of summer are upon us, that’s as good an excuse as any to consume mass quantities of ice cream. So that it doesn’t turn into a book, I’m going to circumscribe this post with the following definition of ice cream: if it doesn’t contain dairy (with one exception), it’s a different story – and one that I’ll tell eventually, so stay tuned for more about sorbets, Italian ices, granitas, paletas, piraguas, raspados, bingsu, kakigori, halo-halo, ais kacang, baobing, and myriad other contributions to the shave ice contingent.

And lest you think I’ve forgotten about all the hundreds of incredible flavors of ice cream and frozen yogurt that have gained popularity recently and that are liberally sprinkled all over New York City like so many jimmies on a sundae, I’ve drawn the line on the side of “international” as a descriptor within this piece – not that I have anything against fantastical frozen flights of fancy, just that I need to stop somewhere.

So with those two constraints in mind and with spoon in hand, let’s embark on a world tour of summertime scoops. We’ll consider two categories, common ice cream manifested in international flavors and indigenous ethnic ice cream styles.
 
 
Italy: One step removed from America’s favorite warm weather treat is gelato, Italy’s answer to ice cream. Using good old, down home American ice cream as our starting point for comparison, let’s examine the differences. American ice cream has more fat (more cream than milk plus the presence of egg yolks – with even higher quantities of egg yolks in French style ice cream) than gelato. It also has more air (“overrun”) than gelato which is why gelato seems denser. In addition, gelato is usually kept at a slightly higher temperature, another factor that contributes to its alluring consistency and concentrated flavor.

Gelato is available in many of the exciting and unexpected flavor bombs of the prevailing ice cream barrage, but because of its texture, it’s also uniquely suited to certain European flavors. Here are two of the scores of fine gelaterias that can be found around the city.

Il Laboratorio del Gelato, 188 Ludlow Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side has over 200 flavors of gelato, many of which are true-fruit and fabulous, but I’m singling them out here because of a few that, in my opinion, work better as gelato than ice cream such as crème fraiche, olive oil, fior di latte, ricotta, and mascarpone.

By the same token, L’Albero dei Gelati, 341 5th Avenue, Park Slope, Brooklyn often has remarkable offerings like extra virgin olive oil, hibiscus, saffron, gianduja, torrone, ricotta, and burro e sale (butter and salt), another example of a flavor profile that works as gelato (yes, really), but I can’t imagine as American ice cream.
 
 
Thailand: Continuing in Park Slope, Sky Ice, 63 5th Avenue, boasts a Thai/Vietnamese roster that often includes Thai tea, roasted Thai coconut, durian, white miso almond, black sesame seaweed, and mangosteen, along with their savory non-dessert items (yet another story).

Thai Rolled Ice Cream, also referred to as “stir-fried ice cream”, has become a trendy craze of late. Found at venues like Minus10 Ice Cream and I-CE-NY and throughout Chinatown, the Village, and pretty much anywhere kids congregate, it’s made from an ice cream base that’s poured onto a metal sheet chilled to a temperature well below the freezing point. The mixture is manipulated on the sheet (mix-ins added optionally), smoothed into a thin layer where it flash freezes, and ultimately scraped up into a roll with a spatula that looks like a putty knife. It did get its start in Thailand, so I suppose it’s ethnic. It’s certainly cute.
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China: One of the sweeter perks of living in New York City is that instead of a passport, you only need a Metrocard to sample many of those aforementioned hundreds of incredible flavors and global varieties.

For over 30 years, The Chinatown Ice Cream Factory, 65 Bayard Street in Manhattan’s Chinatown, 115 Delancey Street in Essex Market on the Lower East Side, and 135-15 40th Road in Flushing, has reigned supreme as the king of homemade ice cream in delicious Asian inspired flavors. (Incidentally, they have well over a dozen non-Asian varieties, both innovative and familiar, all of which are excellent and listed on their menu – with a wink – as “exotics”.) Notable “regular” entries include…

• Dan Tat – You know the diminutive sweet egg custard tarts that you see all over Chinatown in dim sum parlors and bakeries? (You don’t? Then you need to join me on one of my Chinatown ethnojunkets!) Those are dan tat (sometimes, don tot) and originally of Portuguese provenance; here is a look at these goodies. This ice cream flavor owes its lusciousness to those pastries.
• Durian – A yellow fruit whose reputation is that it smells like hell but tastes like heaven. It might be an acquired taste but it’s well worth acquiring. (Read my post, Durian’s Best Kept Secret, for more information.)
• Pandan – The leaf of a tropical plant commonly used in Southeast Asian cooking, screwpine in English, green in color. It’s absolutely delicious, and in my opinion has the same kind of magical affinity for coconut that chocolate has for nuts or bacon for, well, anything.)
• Taro/Ube (Yes, they’re different, but we’ll get to the root of that in another post.) – I’m happy to report that these purplish starches are making serious inroads into becoming mainstream around these parts, and deservedly so.

…plus excellent versions of almond cookie, black sesame, lychee, and Thai tea. You’ve no doubt seen packaged pints of red bean, green tea, and ginger ice cream in your local market; Chinatown Ice Cream Factory’s versions are richer tasting if only because they’re freshly made, but beyond that, they’re a superior product.

Of course, there are additional ice cream parlors of Chinese character to be found in our city. Brooklyn is home to Sweet Dynasty Ice Cream, 5918 5th Avenue in Sunset Park, a tiny shop featuring handmade ice cream; their milk tea flavor is unique.
 
 
The Tropics: Since you’re already in Sunset Park, you really should check out Luvums Helado de Coco at 4716 7th Avenue. This is the “one exception” I declared earlier. Their coconut milk based helados are so rich and creamy, you might not even realize they’re non-dairy but with such delicious tropical flavors as soursop, guanabana, guineo, bizcocho, morir soñando, tamarindo, maíz, and lots more, I couldn’t bring myself to leave them out. They’ve opened a new location at 1124 Surf Avenue, also in Brooklyn.

Speaking of tropical flavors and Brooklyn, Taste the Tropics brand ice cream has a brick and mortar venue at 1839 Nostrand Avenue where you’ll find flavors true to their Caribbean roots like soursop, rum raisin, rummy nut, smooth and creamy stout, and great nut. Yes, stout and rum do figure significantly into Jamaican ice cream flavors; grown-ups can scream for ice cream too! By the way, great nut, as you might have surmised, is made with Grape-Nuts, the breakfast cereal.

And while you’re basking in Brooklyn’s trip to the tropics, pay a visit to the folks at Island Pops, 680 Nostrand Avenue, where flavors like soursop, sorrel, caramel orange bitters, and Guinness (of course) can be found. Look for them at pop-ups around the city as well.
 
 
Latin America: Needless to say, just about every Latin American country has its own spin on ice cream.

Manhattan has its share of purveyors of frosty goodness from sultry climes. One such is La Newyorkina at 240 Sullivan Street in the West Village representing Mexico with varieties like arroz con leche, canela cajeta, horchata, and chocolate chili. It’s made the old fashioned way, in a metal cylinder surrounded by ice and salt inside a wooden bucket. I had the opportunity to taste it at the World’s Fare in April; so nice, I went back twice.

Paleteria Los Michoacanos at 101-06 43rd Ave in Corona, Queens specializes in the most amazing, intensely flavorful paletas (Mexican ice pops on a stick) that I have ever encountered. Ever. They made the cut in this dairy-only post because of their outstanding milk-based flavors such as coco, galletas con crema, arroz, fresa de leche, pine nut, chocolate, queso con zarzamora (cheese and blackberry, first photo below), and chongos zamoranos (a Mexican dessert made from curdled milk and rennet).

Of course, I could do an entire story on international desserts in Queens alone where 138 different languages are spoken by people from over 150 countries. One of the joys of wandering through any ethnic neighborhood is stumbling upon delights like this Ecuadorian frozen confection sold under the name “Los Helados de Salcedo”. Read my post for more detail.

And that’s actually the best way to ferret out unusual taste treats. While wandering through a Peruvian enclave in Paterson, NJ, it was easy to find cherimoya, cupuaçu, and the extremely popular lúcuma (first photo below) as well as other flavors based on fruits cultivated in South America. I’ve never found fresh lúcuma in NYC but once, on an ethnojunket in Manhattan’s Chinatown, I came across the closely related eggfruit; their flavor has been compared to butterscotch or a mix of maple and sweet potato. I’ve also seen lúcuma ice cream at Creme & Sugar, 58-42A Catalpa Avenue in Ridgewood, proof that New York has pretty much everything if you know where to look.

Paterson is also home to a thriving Middle Eastern community where we found this marvelous sunshine yellow homemade Persian Akbar Mashti Bastani (saffron rosewater ice cream) with pistachios. More about the Middle East in a moment.
 
 
The Philippines: Not to be outdone by any of these, emblematic Filipino flavors like ube (purple yam), macapuno (a gelatinous coconut variant), avocado, corn, jackfruit, halo-halo (mixed fruits and then some), quezo (yes, cheese) and combinations thereof are generally available at Filipino markets like Phil-Am Food Mart, 40-03 70th Street, Woodside, Queens and are not to be missed.

On the local front, Angela’s Ice Cream at 151 Allen Street in Manhattan has brought freshly made, small batch, Filipino ice cream flavors to New York City and each one is delicious. The story behind the story is that Angela had been making these at home for her husband who has a passion for the stuff – so much so that they decided she should share her talents with the rest of us, hence, her first business venture which opened on June 15, 2019. Dense and creamy, hand crafted with no artificial flavors (in others words, jackfruit is jackfruit, not a concentrate), it’s the first Filipino ice cream actually produced here in NYC. It’s currently available in mango, langka (jackfruit), ube, choc-nut, vanilla, avocado (and yes, it’s the real deal), pandan, and buko-macapuno.
 
 
Sweden: And speaking of local, only about a block from Angela’s you’ll find Bon Bon at 130 Allen Street. In addition to providing an overwhelming assortment of candy including Swedish salty licorice as well as the sweetish kind, they’ve recently added Swedish soft-serve ice cream, mjukglass. Its recipe is richer than conventional soft serve because of a greater measure of cream, but it’s the unique selection of sprinkles and syrups that provide the vital distinction. Shown here is vanilla (they have chocolate too) with licorice syrup and two kinds of toppings, salty licorice and salty licorice flakes. Amid seven syrups and eleven kinds of sprinkles, this is the combo that I enthusiastically recommend. They tell me that that this treatment is exactly what you’d find all over Sweden, right down to the brand of syrup and the unusual dispenser with its inverted bottles. (See second photo.) If you think you don’t like licorice, let alone salty licorice, this may well be your gateway drug.

 
 
Every summer brings the Fancy Food Show, North America’s largest specialty food and beverage convention, to New York City’s Javits Center; with over 200,000 products on display from 55 countries and regions, I’m in my element. The event offers thousands of exhibitors the opportunity to introduce their wares to consumerland. A few participants from recent years’ spectacles:
 

Brazil: Among many products, the Brazilian pavilion highlighted Cremosinn, absolutely delicious frozen yogurt in an assortment of flavors including acai (of course), passion fruit, soursop, coconut, condensed milk, and azul. (Azul means blue, one of the favored “flavors” of the popsicles of my youth. How blue became a flavor has always eluded me; perhaps there were too many fruits like cherry, raspberry, and strawberry to be represented by a single immediately identifiable color so the food industry decided that a diacritical hue was called for, hence, blue. I still don’t know which fruit it corresponded to though. But I digress.) It comes in a cellophane packet that encloses a plastic pouch filled with the frozen yogurt; snip off a corner and suck out the sweet, creamy goodness.

 
Japan: Mochi is a traditional Japanese food originally made from short grain glutinous rice that’s pounded and molded, often into chewy flattened orbs. Frequently a confectionary, its sphere of influence has extended far beyond the perimeter of its source. A new version was created about 35 years ago that wraps mochi dough around ice cream. This contemporary edition, technically called mochi ice cream, has become so popular that it’s often simply referred to as mochi.

Several companies displayed their renditions at the convention including Mr. Mochi, Sweety Ice Cream, My/Mo, and Bubbies, a Hawaiian contender. Flavors ranged from red bean, green tea, black sesame, and lychee to Kona coffee, chocolate peanut butter, and mango along with the more routine vanilla and strawberry among others. Note that in some cases, the ice cream core carries the flavor unassisted by the somewhat neutral mochi coating, but sometimes the doughy wrapper is infused as well and further enhances the experience. Look for these and other brands in Asian markets, particularly those that highlight Japanese goods. And while you’re there, take note of the seemingly infinite array of Japanese and Korean pops, bars, and ice cream novelties as well (melon is a popular flavor).

Even Chinese Mooncakes, not usually an ice cream commodity, are getting into the act with similar extravagances like Chocolate Icy Moon Cake. More about those in my Chinese Mooncakes Demystified post.
 
 
Korea: Back to world flavors of American style ice cream, Scoop by Spot was exhibiting at the Fancy Food Show with flavors like Misugaru, based on a Korean beverage; it’s available at Spot Dessert Bars in New York City. Noona’s (noona means “big sister” in Korean) showed off heritage flavors like toasted rice, golden sesame, black sesame, turmeric honeycomb and green tea.

 
 
Latvia was at the Fancy Food Show as well making a push to pop into the American marketplace with at least four brands of Latvian ice cream available in tubs, cones, pops, and bars with intriguing varieties like orange & macarons, raspberry-pomegranate, and black balsam & blackcurrant (first photo below). In addition to ice cream, the Latvian company Speka offered several varieties of curd snacks. Curd snacks are not unlike a cross between an Eskimo pie and chocolate covered cheesecake; individually wrapped, they come in an assortment of flavors from chocolate and vanilla to the more esoteric blueberry, blackberry, and raisin. They’re currently available as Russian/FSU products in markets throughout the city, with a high concentration in Brooklyn, of course. Always a high point on my ethnojunkets along Brighton Beach Avenue, I’ll do a feature about those soon.

 
 
And speaking of Russia, ask anyone who lived there during the Soviet era about plombir and listen as they wax rhapsodic with nostalgia for this storied delicacy. Back then, the adage was that travelers came to Russia for only three reasons: to see the ballet, to visit the circus, and to eat ice cream. Plombir, named for Plombières-les-Bains in France, home to elaborate frozen confections, was manufactured to the strictest Soviet standards with a high butterfat content, no additives, and a creamy consistency.

I suspect that the plombir I find along Brighton Beach Avenue may be a frosty shadow of its former self, but since it’s too late to journey to the Soviet Union I can’t speak from personal experience. I can tell you that what’s here is good: every food store in the neighborhood carries a multitude of Russian brands, CCCP (Союз Советских Социалистических Республик), the Russian abbreviation for USSR, and Dadu are popular. Although distinctive, many of the Russian contenders are similar to American ice cream; most have more overrun and creaminess varies, some take the form of fancy ice cream cakes, but the flavors often run to the more prosaic chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla.

Unlike most American styles where cream leads the list of ingredients, Bandi plombir hands the top spot to milk; you’d anticipate a flavor profile that’s less rich, but the second ingredient is butter, so judge it on its own merits. In addition, individual hand-held treats like eskimo with its chocolate shell, tubular lakomka, and waffle cups of ice cream with a swirl of jam or sherbet in tempting flavors like black currant, caramel, and sweetened condensed milk are widespread as well.
 
 
India: Malai Ice Cream always makes an appearance at the trade shows. Malai means “cream” and also refers to a particular flavor of kulfi, the Indian ice cream (more about that in a moment), but in this case it’s the name of Pooja Bavishi’s company which launched in 2015. Shot through with Indian spices and churned out in artisanal, small batches in Brooklyn, the quality is readily apparent. Their gelato-like product comes in flavors like masala chai, rose with cinnamon roasted almonds, Turkish coffee, orange fennel, golden turmeric, star anise, lemon cardamom, sweet corn saffron, toasted nutmeg, baklava, carrot halwa, and more – basically, something for everyone. Visit their new (2019) shop at 268 Smith Street in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, but if you can’t make it, look for their product line in Whole Foods among many other markets.

Newcomer Kaurina’s was exhibiting their product at the show as well; they emphasize their use of all natural ingredients with an eye towards capturing the health conscious market. Even their chocolate, a flavor kulfi makers often don’t quite have a handle on, was great.

Leaving the trade shows behind and returning to the real world, Kwality Ice Cream, 1734 Oak Tree Road in Edison, New Jersey and 258-030 Hillside Ave, Floral Park, is part of a chain of ice cream shops that feature dedicated Indian flavors including sitafal (custard apple), chickoo (sapodilla), jamun/jambul (black plum), kesar (saffron), pista (pistachio), and dozens more, all of which are authentic and delicious. You’ll find similar shops in similar Indian neighborhoods in New Jersey like Iselin and Jersey City.

Back on the streets of New York City’s Little Indias (Lexington Avenue around East 28th Street in Manhattan and 73rd-74th Streets just off Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens), you’ll find the aforementioned kulfi, available often (and best) as pops but also in tubs in Indian markets.

I must confess that kulfi may be my favorite ethnic ice cream; sweet, creamy, intensely flavored, slightly chewy – so good it’ll make your brains fall out (as Soupy Sales used to say). 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.

One of the classic flavors is malai, but it’s not merely cream; malai kulfi is aromatic with cardamom and nuts, sometimes saffron, sometimes rosewater. But malai is only the starting point along the road of ubiquitous kulfi flavors like pista (pistachio), mango, and almond with other more exotic examples to be found as well.

Slow to melt because of the lack of air, plastic encased kulfi pops are sometimes rolled vigorously between warm hands to get the process started. Favorite brands include Rajbhog and Shahi Kulfi for its unique almond variety. The kulfi that’s found in prepackaged pint and quart containers is available in a wider array of flavors, but in my opinion isn’t nearly as good as the pops.

Look to Patel Brothers on 37-27 74th Street in Jackson Heights, Queens, for both styles, as well as in refrigerator cases inside and outside mithai shops like Maharaja Sweets at 73-10 37th Avenue and Rajbhog Sweets at 72-27 37th Avenue.
 
 
The Middle East: While I’m sure there are some who might not immediately discern the difference between standard issue American ice cream and gelato (and diverse recipes make it more problematic), there’s no misidentifying the unique personality of Middle Eastern ice cream. It’s characterized by a pleasant sticky chewiness and make no mistake, mastic’s magic is the key.

A few summers ago, I stumbled on Holon, an Israeli/Middle Eastern market in Midwood, Brooklyn where I found Amazing Arabic Ice Cream, an absolutely delicious, hand-crafted, orange blossom mastika, “a Syrian delicacy that takes you back in time”.

Saffron & Rose from Los Angeles packages their Persian Golo Bol Bol for sale nationally at Middle Eastern markets; the saffron version is pretty good. They also make an icy version of falooda – you’ll recognize it by its congealed vermicelli and pinkish hue – but it’s not dairy-based so we’ll eschew it here.

You might run across Lezzetli ice cream in your travels; their most authentic flavor is mastiha (so many spellings!) which is resiny, woodsy and probably not for everybody. Aside from that flavor, the product seems to be sort of a cross between American and Mediterranean styles, but I’d suggest you go for the real deal: booza and dondurma.

Booza, an ice cream that hails from the Levant and Egypt, is known for two qualities, its stretchy consistency and its ability to resist melting. The elasticity comes from mastic, the resin that makes Turkish Delight delightfully chewy, and its prowess in fending off the consequences of Middle Eastern heat stems from sahlab (aka salep), a thickener made from ground orchid tubers that’s also used in beverages and puddings.

Turkish dondurma and Greece’s kaimaki are similar to booza, but in my experience, locally at least, booza boasts more bounce. At the Fancy Food Show, Pasha Delights touted their dondurma which they subtitle “Turkish Style Gelato”. Note too that YMMV (Your Mastic May Vary): recipes differ from one purveyor/manufacturer to the next, so expect varying degrees of mastickiness.

A stroll along 5th Avenue in Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge (which probably should have earned the moniker Little Levant, but didn’t) turns up a handful of opulent sweet shops, some of which feature mastic ice cream. (Did you know that Beirut and Bay Ridge are cognates? Just kidding.)

Cedars Pastry at 7204 5th Avenue usually carries the basic ashta (you might see it as kashta or qashta) mastic flavor, and always has the pistachio version; you can buy it there by the cup. Hookanuts, a few storefronts away at 7214, has pistachio, almond, and other favors as well, available in their freezer case. Antepli at 7216 is Turkish based and sells dondurma scooped fresh from tubs and packaged in cups and squeeze-up pouches.

If you’re a hard core booza booster, you should definitely make the trip to Republic of Booza at 76 North 4th Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. They up the ante on mastic/sahlab ice cream with the densest, stickiest booza I’ve found (see photos below). Read my post about Republic of Booza here.

 
 
Honorable Mention: A unique ice cream parlor if ever there was one is over-the-top Max and Mina’s Ice Cream at 71-26 Main Street in Flushing, Queens. Not listed above since they aren’t really about international ice cream, they have created scores of unusual flavors over the years including nova lox, herring, horseradish, and cholent among others which could certainly be considered ethnic. Note that each time I’ve ventured in, their flavor list was different, presumably to accommodate the latest experiments. Their babka ice cream really takes the cake!

For the sake of completeness and with the highest of hopes for its return if only for its novelty value, I’ll mention Uyghur Ice Cream from Xinjiang province in China. For one brief, shining moment, the sweet, milky, brown sugar flavor ice cream could be found at Erqal in the New World Mall Food Court in Flushing but the churn broke and Erqal is no longer in business.
Ever sanguine, we continue to entertain hope for its revival. Moral: Don’t cry over spilt milk, I guess. [Update: See comment below from Food and Footprints regarding a sighting at Kebab Empire’s Manhattan location!]
 
 
Disclaimer: I’m thrilled that New York City is a mecca for bespoke ice cream parlors, each with its own marketing perspective and formidable fungible flavor list. I’ve mentioned a number of them in this piece but obviously I’ve only targeted shops that have a focus on ethnic flavors or styles. So here’s to you too, Sundaes and Cones, OddFellows, Morgenstern’s, Ice & Vice, and so many more who craft wonderfully delicious ice cream and who occasionally dip a finger into some international flavors.

And beyond that, even within my own self-imposed exclusively-ethnic-and-dairy constraints, this post is not intended to be exhaustive in terms of either ice cream varieties or venues. If I’ve left out any of your favorites, please comment below and I promise to do an update. And if by some chance, I haven’t yet tried one of your recommendations, I’ll move it to the top of my to-eat list!
 
 

Real Usha Sweets & Snacks Cafe 2

Instagram Post 4/26/2020

(Click on any image to view it in high resolution.)

Mithai are Indian sweets; this little one (and the broken heart some time ago for those of you who wrote requesting just the facts, ma’am) comes from Real Usha Sweets and Snacks Café, 259-15 Hillside Ave, Floral Park.

It has the form, but not the flavor, of watermelon.

Because outward appearances often belie what’s going on inside.
 
 
#mithais #tellastory.
 
 

Cooking in the Time of COVID – Chana Masala

Instagram Post 4/17/2020

 
👨‍🍳 Cooking in the Time of COVID 👨‍🍳

(Click on any image to view it in high resolution.)

Rifling through the pantry to avoid going out shopping, I unearthed a long forgotten bag of dried chickpeas. I decided to use some of them to make Indian Chana Masala because it’s really easy to prepare, I had most of the spices and aromatics on hand, and I needed a break from spending so much time on the elaborate culinary experiments I’d been attempting while sheltering in place. A proper sidekick would be basmati rice, a neighbor to the chickpeas on the shelf (and ultimately on this plate) – also really easy to prepare.


But then I hit upon the misguided idea that parathas would be a perfect accompaniment and “really easy to prepare” went right out the window. Kneading and resting and rolling and ghee-ing and coiling and resting and rolling some more…and a day and a skillet later it was ready for its closeup.


Actually, they turned out pretty well – check out this somewhat bungled attempt to demonstrate pulled-apart steaming-hot flaky layers. (Licking ghee-covered fingers helped.)

Well, at least that jar of tamarind-date chutney that’s been hiding in the back of the fridge since forever won’t suck up any more of my time.

Assuming I can get the lid off…. 😬
 
 

Bombay Kitchen

Instagram Post 3/28-30/2020

I did a few posts recently about Mumbai street food in Floral Park Queens; the examples I tasted were okay but they didn’t blow me away. So I was more than curious about Bombay Kitchen, an extension of Rajbhog Sweets at 72-27 37th Ave in Jackson Heights, and I have to say I was pleasantly surprised.

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I like chaats in general – actually I like anything with a lot of stuff going on: probably increases the odds of finding at least one delicious mouthful. This is their Dahi Bhalla Chat, a linguistic and geographic variant on dahi vada, a sweet and spicy Indian snack with multiple variations but usually anchored with fried crispy bits, potatoes, chickpeas, onions, and cilantro and kept afloat with yogurt (dahi) and chutneys; a masala spice blend ties it all together. Sweet and savory, crunchy and yielding, creamy and tangy, it’s a delectable study in contrasts.


This instance was one of the best I’ve ever enjoyed because this bready, cakey, doughnutty, sweet, almost floral vada elevated it beyond its rivals. Excellent.


The inner workings.
 
 

I guess it all depends on how you define pizza. Dough with stuff on top of it baked in a hot oven? I’d eat that. Everybody’d eat that. But I’d be hard pressed to call it pizza. Heck, I’m hard pressed to call Chicago deep-dish pizza pizza. (Don’t hate me, okay? I went to school in New Haven back in the day when men were men and pizza was ah-beets. But I digress.) This is my second foray into “Indian pizza”. This one from Bombay Kitchen was definitely tasty and better than my first experience in Floral Park.


Cheese two ways: this is Paneer Tikka Naan Pizza which makes it non-pizza but I like it for what it is. (This is also a non-cheese pull because it’s horizontal rather than vertical; turn your screen sideways if that makes you happier.)
 
 

This is a kathi roll, Egg and Lamb Boti to be specific. The marinated, well-seasoned lamb (boti kebab) was a surprisingly good companion to the fried egg, the roti was supple and flavorful and it had a proper chew. Definitely good eats.


Deconstructed (or at least unfurled).


A grilled Bombay Sandwich (yes, that’s a thing), apparently always triple decker, features melted cheese, green pepper and red onion, coriander chutney, and in this case, slabs of chicken tikka. Much moister, and consequently better, than one I had elsewhere.


Deconstructed (or at least toppled).
 
 
Bombay Kitchen is located at 72-27 37th Ave in Jackson Heights, Queens. Best I could tell, it’s an extension of Rajbhog Sweets, so enjoy some kulfi or mithai for dessert while you’re there. Restored my faith in Indian street food!
 
 

Mumbai Xpress

Instagram Post 3/24-26/2020

We journeyed to the far east – the far east of Queens, that is, a stone’s throw from Nassau County – to explore a South Asian neighborhood familiar to my dining pals but relatively new to me (my way of saying I’ll be back soon). One destination was Mumbai Xpress, a vegetarian restaurant at 256-05 Hillside Avenue in Floral Park with over 100 snackish items on the menu, so this post just scratches the surface.

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My favorite of the day was this Tokri Chaat (aka katori chaat). Glossary: chaat is an Indian snack featuring crispy fried dough, potatoes, onions and other veggies, yogurt, chutneys, herbs and spices but the number of variations is legion; tokri means basket, katori means bowl. In this case, the basket is made from fried shredded potatoes…

…laden with cubed boiled potatoes, mung beans, tomato, chickpeas, sev (crunchy chickpea flour noodles) all swimming in the aforementioned savory nectar of deliciousness.

Our destination in part involved sampling some of the many sandwiches on offer. There are countless delicious breads indigenous to India, but these two carbobombs borrow heavily from their American counterparts.

The first comes from the Breach Candy Special Sandwiches section of the menu – Breach Candy is a posh neighborhood in South Mumbai. To my eyes, the triple decker Mumbai Grilled Sandwich would appear to be India’s answer to the Dagwood Sandwich, at least in terms of architecture. Standard issue potato chips.

The top layer consisted of green pepper and red onion; the bottom, sliced boiled potato; melted Amul cheese, a pasteurized processed cheddar product, and coriander chutney all around. I opined that the bread-to-filling ratio seemed out of proportion, but my expert guide and sandwich stacker who has first-hand experience with the real deal assured me that on the streets of Mumbai, sauces are applied more liberally so we took matters into our own hands. Don’t know if Dagwood had such problems.


This Mumbai Vada Pav (pronounced pow) from the Mumbai Xpress Specials section of the menu is a fried potato patty with a bit of red onion for kick, covered with tamarind and coriander chutneys and sprinkled with spiced garlic masala served on a burger bun. Total starcho if you’re into that sort of thing.


This is muthiya (rhymes with shukriya, a Hindi word for thank you – sorry, I couldn’t resist). A Gujarati treat, these pillowy little dumplings are made from grated bottle gourd and onion mixed with seasoned flour, steamed and then sautéed with mustard seeds and sesame seeds. Topped with chutneys, they weren’t bad.

As I said, I’ll do a return visit to this neighborhood. And I don’t even need a passport!
 
 
 
(*All right, all right! It’s moo-TEE-ah.)
 
 

Gujiya

Instagram Post 3/9/2020

The Equal Opportunity Celebrant strikes again, eating my way through Holi today, the Hindu festival of spring and colors celebrated predominantly in India and Nepal. The holiday recounts the heartwarming legend of Krishna coloring his face for Radha, his love, and heralds the arrival of spring.

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This is gujiya (you might see gujia), a classic Holi sweet, half-moon shaped and similar to a deep-fried samosa. Crunchy outside and soft within, it’s filled with sweetened khoa (milk solids), ground nuts, grated coconut, whole fruits and nuts (raisins and cashews in this one), cumin seeds, and a bit of suji (semolina) for texture. These Holi day treats came from Maharaja Sweets, 73-10 37th Ave, Jackson Heights, Queens.


The inner workings.

Oversized jalebi are popular for Holi as well, and just like on Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights, all kinds of mithai (Indian sweets) are the order of the day. Read about them and check out the photos here.
 
 

Chicago’s Pizza With-A-Twist

Instagram Post 2/28/2020

If pizza is a romance between Italian and American cuisines, then I guess that would make Indian Pizza a ménage a trois. And, yes, it’s a thing in India too. (Indian pizza, that is.) Chicago’s Pizza With-A-Twist is a franchise with at least 45 locations in the US, one of which is 259-07 Hillside Ave in Floral Park, the focus of this post.

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You’re looking at a half Butter Chicken, half Tandoori Paneer model; other toppings include Paneer Tikka Masala, Curry Paneer, Aloo Chaat, and Palak Paneer (with pesto sauce, of course) among many more.


Isolating a slice of each (chicken left, paneer right) reveals a disappointing similarity that I had tried to avoid though considerable deliberation when we were ordering; I don’t know if alternative choices would have mattered. The dominance of red onion, garlic, ginger, cilantro, and tomato overwhelmed any subtleties that the two mild sauces and toppings might have brought to these slices. Don’t get me wrong; it wasn’t bad at all, I was just after a little more variety at the time.

(I do know about Korean pizza and other international suitors, but that’s a story for another day. 😉)