July is National Ice Cream Month! Celebrate Globally!

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

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

Merit Kabab Palace

Instagram Post 4/15/2019

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

Wandering around Jackson Heights yesterday looking for something with which to celebrate Poila Boishakh, Bengali New Year, we stumbled upon these Chicken Lollipops outside the venerable Merit Kabab Palace, 37-67 74th St, Queens. Featuring Indian, Pakistani, Nepalese and Bangladeshi food, Merit is well known to locals and the clued-in for quick and tasty South Asian fare.

Wing drumette meat is scraped along and pushed down the bone (frenched), marinated a bit, coated in a colorful seasoned batter, and deep fried to produce a snack that’s as appealing to the eye as it is the palate. Not a dish particularly associated with the holiday, these were too cute to resist – not to mention the fact that the hungry celebratory crowds got the better of us. Well, there’s always next year.

Shubho Noboborsho! শুভ নববর্ষ
 
 

Holi Mubarak!

Instagram Post 3/21/2019

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

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.

[1] Jalebi are one of the most widely available Indian mithai (sweets); 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.

[2] 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!
 
 

Vatan

When I write about restaurants on Instagram, they’re usually brief takes accompanied by a photo or two. (You can see my feed right here on ethnojunkie.com, updated almost daily, by selecting the “Instagram” category from my home page – no signup required.) But because of Instagram’s character count limitations, it’s often necessary to break up a review into several parts. This one originally appeared as two posts, published on February 27 and 28, 2019.


If for some reason it were necessary for me to go vegetarian, I could handle it thanks to the cuisine of India: so many types of preparations infused with so many herbs and spices in so many combinations create what feels like a boundless array of choices. It’s a cuisine that can be both subtle (the distinction between types of dal for instance) and overwhelmingly intense in the same bite. You can partake of this palate pleasing panoply at Vatan, the exceptional all-you-can-eat vegetarian Indian restaurant at 409 3rd Ave in Manhattan where your helpful, friendly server delivers courses from a set menu; you can request additional portions of any item that you found appealing.

Vatan is as much about the experience as it is about the food – and the food is excellent. Vatan (वतन) is the Hindi word for motherland and the decor, presided over by Ganesha, the elephant-headed god of wisdom, good luck, and the remover of obstacles, is calculated to transport you to a Gujarati thatch-roofed hut where you can relax and enjoy your sumptuous meal.

Here are a few of the extraordinary dishes I’ve tried. (Click any photo to view in glorious high resolution.)

First course: the appetizers – varied and delectable

• Sev Puri – crispy shells filled with potatoes, green gram (mung) beans, yogurt and chutney
• Ragda Patis – potato cutlet in white bean sauce
• Samosa – savory pastries filled with spicy potatoes and onion
• Muthia – steamed flour with spinach
• Chana Masala – garbanzo beans with onions and coriander
• Khaman – puffed cream of wheat flour cakes similar to dhokla
• Mirchi Bhajia – fried hot peppers with garam masala
• Batata Vada – fried potato balls in chickpea flour batter

Annotated

The accompanying chutneys (clockwise from 10:00)

• Carrot Sambharo (mustardy!)
• Fried Garlic
• Mango Chutney
• Tamarind Date Chutney
• Cilantro Chutney

Second course: the entrée thali

• Toor Dal – boiled lentils cooked with Indian spices
• Kheer – rice pudding with dried fruits
• Chole – chickpeas cooked with garam masala, an Indian spice blend
• Ful-Gobi – cauliflower and green peas sautéed in a savory sauce
• Bhaji – sautéed spinach and corn
• Batakanu Sak – potatoes cooked in a mild red gravy
• Papadam – thin lentil wafers
• Puri – puffed whole wheat bread
• Roti – whole wheat flatbread

Annotated

The entrée complements

• Khadi – soup with yogurt and besan (chickpea flour) with aromatic spices
• Khichdi – lentils with rice and assorted vegetables
• Pulao – rice with (undercover) peas

An addition: Rotla, a Gujarati specialty

Flatbread served with classic embellishments of ghee, garlic chutney, and jaggery (palm sugar) and yes, they did work together. Dessert was Indian ice cream, gulab jamun (fried dough in sweet syrup), and masala chai.
 
 
Vatan is located at 409 3rd Ave in Manhattan. I highly recommend it, especially à deux.
 
 

Chat & Juice Express

Instagram Post 2/26/2019

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“Live Pani Puri!” proclaimed the signs along Jersey City’s Newark Avenue. A common Indian street food, pani puri consists of a crispy spherical shell filled with potatoes or chickpeas, doused with chutney (usually tamarind) and chat masala (a spice blend) and sprinkled with sev (crunchy chickpea noodles); its yogurt-laden counterpart is dahi puri. Each purveyor’s recipe is unique, and therein lies the fun of taste-testing a series of them. Pop one into your mouth whole, no biting please. But “live”? Perhaps in a nod to authentic street vendors back home, Jersey City’s method of production is replicated at a station within the confines of a restaurant where your pani puri, sweet or spicy, is produced à la minute.

[1] Around the corner at 2978 JFK Blvd, Narendra Patel and his wife Hetel own Chat & Juice Express, a small shop dedicated to Gujarati street snacks. (BTW, you might see the word spelled chaat elsewhere.) Here’s their version of dahi puri adorned with jewel-like pomegranate seeds.

[2] This is Dabeli, a peanutty Gujarati specialty that features mashed potatoes and Narendra’s own special masala blend. Definitely worth a stop along a pani puri crawl!
 
 

Sitafal Basundi

Instagram Post 2/25/2019

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Exploring ethnic neighborhoods with likeminded foodnerd friends is pretty much my favorite pastime. On a delightful crawl through Jersey City, NJ, we stopped along the way at Rajbhog Sweets, 812 Newark Ave. We were all familiar with their outpost in Jackson Heights, Queens, but this venue appeared to offer a slightly different selection of mithai, chaats, and snacks so I was intrigued.

Peering into one of the freezer cases, I spotted a plastic container unceremoniously hand labeled “Sitafal Basundi” (second photo). Sitafal is the Hindi word for custard apple, a luscious tropical fruit that’s available in season at ethnic markets and sidewalk fruit stands if you know where to go (hint 😉). Basundi is a rich, creamy dessert, particularly popular in western India, that can be served warm or chilled. Made from long cooked cream, whole milk or sweetened condensed milk plus nuts, fruits and spices like cardamom and saffron, one could think of it as kulfi semifreddo. Being a fan of Indian sweets of every fashion, I’m rather partial to it and this version was delicious.

So many more wonderful places along that strip, I need to return soon. Who’s coming with me?
 
 

Chutney’s – Part 4

Instagram Post 1/3/2019

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Feeling the urge to go back to Jersey City for Indian food at Chutney’s, 827 Newark Avenue where everything was wonderful. If you’re a vegetarian (and some of my best friends are 😉) and you like Indian food, you need to go here; no menu scrutiny required – everything is vegetarian and absolutely delicious.

Mount Road Parotta with Salna – listed as a Chef’s Special (and it was special indeed), it’s a multilayered flatbread with a long-cooked tomato curry. I’m told this is a street food in India; if that’s the case, I want to live on that street.

Curd Rice – Curd refers to unsweetened yogurt. So simple: rice that has been steamed beyond the pale with yogurt, mustard seeds and cilantro. Comfort food for sure.

Onion Chili Uthappam – aka uttapham, it only looks like pizza. The batter is similar to that of a dosa, but these are thick as a pancake with (in this case) onion and chili cooked right in the batter.

Punugulu – crispy outside, puffy and pillowy inside, these deep fried treats are made from rice batter and served with chutneys and sambar on the side.
 
 

Eggmania

Instagram Post 12/17/2018

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This is one of those serendipitous experiences where the outcome far outstripped my expectations. EggMania, 14 Liberty Ave in Jersey City, was launched by five friends who were homesick and hungry for the egg dishes of their native India. Its sparse interior and casual fast-food atmosphere belie the unique lusciousness that emerges from the kitchen.

This order of Lachko, described as shredded green bell pepper cooked with cheese and runny eggs, served with a side of white toast (yes, really) and chopped fresh onion, will win no beauty contest, but certainly won a place in my heart for sheer deliciousness. I’ve already marked up the menu with selections I need to try upon my return.
 
 

Chutney’s – Part 3 (Dosa)

Instagram Post 12/13/2018

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More from Chutney’s, an exclusively vegetarian Indian restaurant at 827 Newark Avenue, Jersey City where everything we ordered was tiptop. As one would expect, the menu listed over two dozen types of dosa; here are two.

Dosa almost never quite fits on its serving tray, and indeed, that’s part of its charm. Paper thin and crêpe-like in appearance but generally crisper, dosa is made from a fermented batter of rice and lentil flours, griddled, and typically filled with a dollop of vegetables or cheese, in this case with potato masala, a popular choice.

End on observation seems like something out of NASA’s Image of the Day: here’s looking at aloo, kid.

Plain (i.e., not spiced) Rava Dosa, by way of contrast. Lacy and even more fragile, made with semolina and other flours (and more to my liking), this thin batter is not fermented. Sambar, a spicy thin soup for dipping, on the side.

Chutney’s chutneys, clockwise from left: coconut, tomato, and peanut.

More to come from Chutney’s….
 
 

Adda – The Lunch Menu

When I write about restaurants on Instagram, they’re usually brief takes accompanied by a photo or two. (You can see my feed right here on ethnojunkie.com, updated almost daily, by selecting the “Instagram” category from my home page – no signup required.) But folks sometimes ask for more extensive reviews and photos, so in response, here’s a comprehensive report on one of my favorites.


The Bengali/Hindi word “adda” refers to a place where people hang out and engage in stimulating conversation, often for hours and often over tasty food. It has a special meaning for me since I learned it decades ago from a dear departed Bangladeshi friend who taught me its meaning first hand, so I hoped the restaurant Adda would rekindle the warmth of that experience. From speaking to the restaurateur, I was pleased that we were on the same wavelength. The interior is casual and the food was excellent, the spice levels appropriate for each distinctly seasoned dish.

Here are a few of the extraordinary items I tried. (Click on any image to view it in high resolution.)

Chicken Biryani

I seldom order this: the rice and chicken are often dried out from sitting around too long, a hazard of a popular dish usually cooked in abundance in advance. Not here. It’s prepared as a dum, a technique where dough is sealed around the ingredients that permits them to retain their moisture and steam to delectable perfection. Served with raita on the side, even the dough was delicious. See second photo for the reveal.

Chicken Kati Roll

One of India’s many street food snacks, these paratha wraps were more flavorful and painstakingly seasoned than many I’ve had.

Kale Pakoda

There are folks for whom the mere mention of kale causes their nose to crinkle; I suggest ordering this dish as a remedy to that reaction. Kale Pakoda (you may know it as pakora) is made from kale drenched in a batter of ground chickpeas, deep fried and drenched with chutneys and an impeccable masala spice blend; it’s delicious enough to make the most diehard kalephobe request a second order.

Keema Pao

Keema refers to ground meat, in this case lamb, perfectly sauced and pao to the bready bun served alongside. Scoop up the former with the latter; enjoy; repeat.
 
 
Two more from the lunch menu at Adda that feature their amazing paneer, the fresh cheese commonly found at Indian restaurants everywhere. But what you find everywhere is not what you’ll find at Adda. They make their own paneer, of course, but unlike the squeaky, rubbery stuff you may have experienced elsewhere (no matter how good it tasted), this paneer is the real deal. It’s gentle on the tongue and redolent of the heady aroma of fresh dairy that cuts through the accompanying sauces, and might just turn you into a paneer snob.

Chili Paneer Tikka

Chili Paneer Tikka in a light ginger-garlic sauce that supports but doesn’t overwhelm the delicate flavor of the paneer. Simple and delicious.

Seasonal Saag Paneer

Not the glop you might be accustomed too. You often see what could easily be creamed spinach with a few afterthoughts of paneer tossed in as if to validate the name. Here the paneer and greens are in balance, playing off each other in a perfectly seasoned sauce.

Achari Chicken Tikka

When I see the word achari, I think pickled, which this delicious chicken was definitely not. We confirmed that what they served us matched the name on the menu and later, with a bit of research, I found recipes that could well have described the dish with its spicy tomato onion yogurt sauce. Despite my preconceived notion, this one was super.

Dahi Batata Puri

Pani puri are amazing. A common Indian street food, these snacks consist of a crispy shell filled, in this case, with a tender mixture of potatoes (batata), yogurt (dahi) and chutney, and sprinkled with sev (crunchy chickpea noodles). Pop one into your mouth whole, no biting please.

Masala Fried Chicken

No explanation needed: spicy fried chicken and potato wedges.

Stay tuned for the dinner menu!
 
 
Adda is located at 31-31 Thomson Ave, Long Island City, Queens.