July is National Ice Cream Month! Celebrate Globally!

The story began here:

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….

There’s lots more to the story, of course. Click here to get the full scoop! 🍨
 
 

Holi Mubarak!

(Originally published on Holi in 2019.)

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. Prowling around the Indian neighborhood in Jackson Heights yesterday in search of traditional Holi treats, I enjoyed watching children choosing packets of powder in every color of the rainbow to sparge at anything in their path, thus producing a glorious festive mess. The holiday recounts the heartwarming legend of Krishna coloring his face for Radha, his love, and heralds the arrival of spring.

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

Jalebi are one of the most widely available Indian mithai (you can read about my addiction to them here); they’re made from chickpea or wheat flour batter, usually orange but occasionally yellow (no difference in flavor, just a color preference) which 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 they’re soaked in super sweet syrup so you get the best of both worlds. For Holi, however, jalebi get the royal treatment; this one is about 7 inches in diameter and generously adorned with edible silver foil, sliced almonds and pistachios. Because this sticky jumbo jalebi (jalumbi? jalembo?) is larger and thicker than the standard issue version, it provides more crunch and holds more syrup in each bite so it’s even more over the top, if such a thing is possible.


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.

Holi Mubarak! Have a blessed Holi!
 
 

Tilapia Masala Curry and Paneer

👨‍🍳 Cooking in the Time of COVID 👨‍🍳

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

Part Three of Tilapia, Three Ways.

As I write this, I’m realizing that this post and the two before it comprise an object lesson in dealing with diminished resources: a scarcity of supermarket selections, a food budget that is less lavish than it once was, and an energy level that seems to have gone missing in the light of living in 1984 in 2022.

So today’s tilapia challenge is a cheat as well.

I concocted a sauce that was akin to an Indian masala curry using canned tomatoes, tomato paste, onions, fresh chilies, garlic, ginger, yogurt, cream, and cilantro. The spices were ground, toasted cumin and coriander seeds, ground tellicherry peppercorns, turmeric, garam masala, cardamom, and mace plus a couple of Indian blends I had on the shelf.

The basmati rice was spiked with chopped onion sautéed in ghee along with a cinnamon stick, a clove, and some cumin seed and mustard seed. Raita and paratha on the side.


Paneer was an unplanned afterthought, but there it was in the cheese section of the supermarket and I’m not one to look a gift course in the mouth.

I pan-seared the fish and the paneer (paneer doesn’t melt) separately to get some serious browning and let them simmer in the sauce respectively.
 
 
So there you have it: three posts involving a three-pillared object lesson – and perhaps three wishes to grapple with it.
 
 
Stay safe, be well, and eat whatever it takes. ❤️
 
 

Pongal

(Click on any image to view it in high resolution.)
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! (2021)

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


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!
 
 

Shrimp Patia – Masala Mama

Part seven in a series of reports.

Some folks look forward to the annual celebration of their birthdays or anniversaries; for me it’s the occasion to cover America’s largest food and beverage trade show right here in New York City, Specialty Food Association’s Summer Fancy Food Show. (Check out full coverage and a description of a past event here.) Aside from the fact that it 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, it gives me the opportunity to turn you on to new products to watch for locally or order online.

The 2020 FFS was, like almost everything else, canceled because of the pandemic, but the organization has announced a 2021 iteration of the event coming soon. At the last show I attended, I was pleased to see the folks from Masala Mama and their Organic Spice Kit for Shrimp Patia, one of those Indian dishes that’s so delicious but so labor intensive.

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

Unlike many of the curries you find on local Indian restaurants’ menus, shrimp patia is a spicy, sweet and sour dish that has roots in ancient Persia. It’s based on tomatoes (whole, paste, or puree) for umami, gets is sour component from tamarind, lemon, or lime, its heat from red chilies, its sweetness from a touch of jaggery (brown sugar), and a variety of herbs and spices which are found in this handy packet.

It’s a sauce that accompanies shellfish, chicken, lamb, or even paneer equally well. And it’s also a pain to prepare. But Masala Mama makes hunting down and measuring out the spice component easy and the dish tasted like it came from a restaurant. (The rice and parathas are my own.)

They’ve also got a line of jarred sauces – even easier! Check out their website, masalamamafoods.com, to shop online and see what they’re up to now.
 
 

July is National Ice Cream Month! Celebrate Globally!

The story began here:

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….

There’s lots more to the story, of course. Click here to get the full scoop! 🍨
 
 

Holi Mubarak!

(Originally published on Holi in 2019.)

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. Prowling around the Indian neighborhood in Jackson Heights yesterday in search of traditional Holi treats, I enjoyed watching children choosing packets of powder in every color of the rainbow to sparge at anything in their path, thus producing a glorious festive mess. The holiday recounts the heartwarming legend of Krishna coloring his face for Radha, his love, and heralds the arrival of spring.

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

Jalebi are one of the most widely available Indian mithai (you can read about my addiction to them here); they’re made from chickpea or wheat flour batter, usually orange but occasionally yellow (no difference in flavor, just a color preference) which 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 they’re soaked in super sweet syrup so you get the best of both worlds. For Holi, however, jalebi get the royal treatment; this one is about 7 inches in diameter and generously adorned with edible silver foil, sliced almonds and pistachios. Because this sticky jumbo jalebi (jalumbi? jalembo?) is larger and thicker than the standard issue version, it provides more crunch and holds more syrup in each bite so it’s even more over the top, if such a thing is possible.


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.

Holi Mubarak! Have a blessed Holi!
 
 

Masoor Malka Dal and Fried Basa

👨‍🍳 Cooking in the Time of COVID 👨‍🍳

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

Another one of those improvised, sort-of-ethnic (in this case Indian), rainy day, I-don’t-feel-like-writing-so-I’ll-spend-the-day-cooking time sinks.

Sometimes folks inquire about what goes into these concoctions; I seldom measure anything except when I’m developing a recipe or baking but I did try to write down all the ingredients this time for anyone who might be curious.

Oversimplified and if memory serves, here’s how the masoor dal (red lentils) started out: I sautéed puréed onion, ginger, green chili and garlic in coconut oil and set that aside.

The next step involved toasting mustard seed, cumin seed, ground cumin, coriander, ground dried chilies, cinnamon, cardamom, garam masala, amchur (ground dried green mango) and turmeric. I tempered them in ghee – that’s a tadka – and when my kitchen smelled like an Indian restaurant, I combined it with the aromatics, cooked it a bit, added the dal, and stirred in chicken broth and tomato paste. They simmered together until the dal was tender; at that point I introduced a little yogurt to the mixture and it was ready.

Or something like that.

The fish component consisted of floured (that had been kicked up with some of those spices) pieces of basa, pan fried, and placed over a bed of the dal. Homemade parathas on the side.


Spotlight on the aforementioned parathas.

Of course, the problem with a day that I spend cooking because I don’t feel like writing is that I ultimately have to write about the day that I spent cooking.

Hoist by my own petard. 😑

 
 
Stay safe, be well, and eat whatever it takes. ❤️
 
 

Wok Wok Southeast Asian Kitchen

Part of what I’m calling the “Golden Oldies” series: photos I had posted on Instagram in bygone days that surely belong here as well, from restaurants that are still doing business, still relevant, and still worth a trip. This one originally appeared as two posts, published on March 28-29, 2018.

Ever been up for Southeast Asian food but couldn’t decide which cuisine would best tickle your tastebuds? Then Wok Wok Southeast Asian Kitchen, 11 Mott Street, Manhattan, has your answer with its dizzying array of Southeast Asian fare. They cover a lot of territory serving up dishes from Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Philippines, India, Singapore, and various regions of China, and perusing their colorful menu is like taking a survey course in popular street food of the region.

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

We started with Original Roti, a dish you may know as roti canai, consisting of Indian style flatbread with a chicken and potato curry sauce for dipping. Properly crispy outside and fluffy within, it was the perfect medium for savoring the luscious sauce.


Roti Murtabak, another crepe, this time folded around a spiced chicken and egg mixture and also accompanied by the potato chicken curry, had a pleasantly spicy little kick to it. A cut above what we’ve had elsewhere.


Our soup course was Hakka Mushroom Pan Mee, a study in contrasts. Springy handmade noodles topped with silvery crispy dried anchovies, earthy mushrooms, chewy bits of minced pork, and tender greens in a clear broth that was richer than I had anticipated.


Spicy Minced Chicken, Shrimp and Sato – ground chicken and chunks of shrimp with sato cooked in a belacan based sauce. Sato, also known as petai and sometimes stink bean, is a little bitter, a little smelly perhaps, but quite enjoyable. Belacan is fermented fish paste; most Southeast Asian cuisines have their own spin on this pungent condiment, and it’s particularly characteristic of Malaysian food. Maybe it’s an acquired taste, but I think it imparts a subtle flavor that renders this dish delicious.


Spicy Sambal Seafood – plump and juicy jumbo shrimp sautéed in spicy Malaysian belacan sambal with onions and peppers was excellent – best enjoyed over rice.


Malaysian Salt & Pepper Pork Chop had a tiny bit of sweet and sour sauce gracing it. We’ve tasted versions of this dish that were crisper and thinner and unadorned by any manner of sauce. Not bad at all, but not what we were expecting from the name.


Four of a Kind Belacan – to me, the only thing these four vegetables have in common is that they’re all green! Beyond that, the flavors, textures, and even the shapes differ radically – and that’s a good thing in my opinion. String beans, eggplant, okra (not at all slimy), and sato are united by the medium spicy belacan sambal; stink bean and belacan play well together and the combination is a singularly Malaysian flavor profile.


Stir Fry Pearl Noodle featured eggs, bell pepper, Spanish onion, scallion, and bean sprouts with pork. This is actually one of my favorite dishes and not all that easy to find. Pearl noodles, sometimes known as silver noodles, silver needles, and other fanciful names, are chewy rice noodles that are thick at one end and then taper to a point at the other (look closely at the little tail at the bottom of the photo and you’ll see why one of those fanciful names is rat tail noodle). They’re generally stir-fried to pick up a little browning and a lot of wok hei (aka wok qi, the breath of the wok) that ineffable taste/aroma that can only be achieved by ferocious cooking over incendiary heat. Not at all spicy, this one is always a favorite.

Due to a communications mix-up, a couple of dishes came out that weren’t what we ordered. Everything we tasted that day was very good, but I want to make sure that you don’t end up with two or three similar dishes – for example, one belacan and/or sato offering is plenty for the table – because I want you to experience a broad range of flavors, and Wok Wok is most assuredly up to the task. Choose a wide variety of disparate dishes, perhaps even from different parts of Southeast Asia, and you’ll go home happy and satisfied!
 
 
And a reminder, once again, to please SUPPORT CHINATOWN!
 
 
Wok Wok Southeast Asian Kitchen is located at 11 Mott Street, Manhattan.