Durian’s Best Kept Secret

Back in the seventies (ahem), Saturday Night Live did a sketch about Scotch Boutique, a store that sold nothing but Scotch Tape. They carried a variety of widths and lengths to be sure, but that was it. Just Scotch Tape.

MK Durian Group at 5806 6th Ave in Sunset Park, Brooklyn sells nothing but durian. They carry a variety of cultivars and variations to be sure, but that’s it. Just durian.

And the durian they carry is wonderful.

You’ve probably heard the oft-quoted aphorism about it, “Tastes like heaven, smells like hell” (some would have the order of the phrases swapped but you get the idea), so much so that the fruit is banned from hotels, airlines and mass transit in some parts of the world. (And yes, I’ve been known to smuggle some well-wrapped samples home on the subway.) If you’ve never tasted durian, you might discover that you actually like it; a number of folks I’ve introduced it to on ethnojunkets have experienced that epiphany. There are gateway durian goodies too, like sweet durian pizza (yes, really), durian ice cream, candies, and freeze dried snacks and they’re all acceptable entry points as far as I’m concerned.

It’s difficult to pinpoint what durian smells like. The scent appears to defy description; I’ve encountered dozens of conflicting sardonic similes, but suffice it to say that most people find it downright unpleasant. Although I have a pretty keen sniffer, somehow its powerful essence doesn’t offend me although I am acutely aware of it – just lucky I guess, or perhaps I’m inured to it – because this greatly maligned, sweet, tropical, custardy fruit is truly delicious. So I was thrilled to learn about MK Durian Group (aka MK International Group) from Dave Cook (Eating In Translation) whom I accompanied on a visit there.

Often called the King of Fruits (perhaps because you’d want to think twice about staging an uprising against its thorny mass and pungent aroma), it comes by its reputation honestly but with a footnote. The divine-to-demonic ratio varies depending upon the cultivar and, if I understand correctly, a window of opportunity when certain cultivars are sweet and nearly odorless simultaneously. This, I believe, is durian’s best kept secret. But more about that in a moment. (Click on any photo to view it in high resolution.)

MK Durian Group works directly with plantations in Malaysia and is a wholesaler and distributor to restaurants and retailers in addition to catering to walk-in customers. We entered the commodious space with its many tables, all unoccupied at the time. Chinese-captioned signs showing photos of fifteen cultivars and another seven in English decked the walls along with a menu that, in addition to a price list for the fruit itself, included durian pancakes, mochi, and a variety of cakes, buns, and biscuits, a concession to the timid, perhaps. Durian cultivars are typically known by a common name and a code number starting with the letter “D”, so you might see Sultan (D24) or Musang King (D197), but sometimes you’ll find just the code numbers or sometimes just names like XO or Kim Hong. Scientists continue to work on hybrids to maximize flavor and minimize unpleasant smell.
Fion, without whom I would have been at a complete loss, urged us to get the Musang King, often regarded as the king of the King of Fruits. She selected one from the freezer case and microwaved it for a few minutes to thaw it but not warm it up. Our four pounder, stripped of seeds and rind, ultimately produced about one pound of (expensive but) delicious fruit.Using an apparatus that looked a little like some sort of medieval torture device to crack the husk, she then adeptly removed the yellow pods; each pod contains a single seed that can be used in cooking like those of jackfruit. We took our treasure to one of the tables where boxes of plastic poly gloves were as ubiquitous as bottles of ketchup would be on tables at a diner.

That Musang King was perhaps the best durian I had ever tasted, so much so that my new personal aphorism is “Durian: The fruit that makes its own custard.”

You may have seen durian in Chinatown in yellow plastic mesh bags where the fruit is often sold by the container and you don’t have to buy a whole one; you might conceivably experiment with whatever is available. But these were a cut above. As we left, I realized that something about the experience had been unusual: I asked Dave if he had noticed any of the customary malodourous bouquet. He replied no, but he thought perhaps he was a little congested that morning. I knew I wasn’t congested that morning. There had been no unpleasant smell to contend with. Had we stumbled upon that elusive golden window of odorless but sweet opportunity? Was that particular Musang King odor free? Or perhaps all of them in that lot? Did it have something to do with the fact that it had been frozen and thawed? We were beyond the point of going back and asking Fion, but I think it’s worth a return visit to get some answers!
 
 

Wok Wok – Part 2

Instagram Post 3/29/2018

Part Two of my review of Wok Wok Southeast Asian Kitchen, 11 Mott Street, Manhattan with its dizzying array of Southeast Asian fare. Check out yesterday’s post below to see four more photos of their great cuisine.
(Click on any image to view it in high resolution.)

Spicy Sambal Seafood – plump and juicy jumbo shrimp sautéed in spicy Malaysian belacan sambal with onions and peppers was delicious – 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; the combo of stink bean and belacan work well together and are 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). These are generally stir-fried to pick up a little browning and a lot of “wok hay”, 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 – one belacan and/or sato offering is plenty for the table, you see – 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!
 
 

Wok Wok – Part 1

Instagram Post 3/28/2018

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. 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.

Part One…. (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 folded around a spiced chicken and egg mixture 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 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 delicious. 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 this dish is delicious.

Stay tuned. More to come tomorrow….
 
 

Indonesian Tempe Day

Instagram Post 12/17/2017

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


I recently attended Indonesian Tempe Day sponsored by the Consulate General of Indonesia at New York. 🇮🇩 The founder of the Indonesian Tempe Movement, Amadeus Driando Ahnan, created and presented an impressive slide show and video session highlighting the nutritional and worldwide economic advantages of this remarkable superfood. Made from fermented soybeans, the versatile Indonesian staple was featured in about a dozen dishes for us to sample, each one different from the next, and all delicious.

Shown here are a few of my favorites including a Tempe Salad, Sambal Goreng Tempe Cabe Hijau, Taoge Goreng Bogor, served over beansprouts and noodles, and Oseng-oseng Tauco Tempe.
 
 

Judging an Indonesian Cooking Competition

Instagram Post 12/11/2017

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



I just had the privilege of being one of the judges for the New York Indonesian Food Bazaar’s vendor competition sponsored by the Consulate General of Indonesia at New York. 🇮🇩 We sampled six bowls of Aneka Bakso (soup with Indonesian meat paste balls) – Warung Solo led the pack, photo 3 – and three plates of Gudeg Komplit (a delicious stew featuring unripe jackfruit made with palm sugar and coconut milk accompanied by chicken, eggs, tofu/tempeh, beef skin, and rice, of course) – Pecel Ndeso emerged victorious in this competition, photo 7. Judging was based on flavor, creativity, and presentation. Props to all the contestants!
 
 

Moon Man

Instagram Post 10/26/2017

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

Check out who’s landed at the Queens International Night Market! It’s Moon Man, and they’re absolutely one of the best vendors there. They do amazing sweet Indonesian street snacks in three varieties that can be crowned with over seven different toppings including coconut, chocolate, sesame, peanut, and Java palm sugar. If you’re a mathlete, you can calculate the permutations and combinations on those numbers. If not, then do what I did: get their tasting menu and you can try all three delicious cakes – a combo of Indonesian kue pancong (coconut pancake) with Java palm sugar, kue putu (pandan steamed cake) with black sesame, and steamed cassava cake with sweet coconut paste.

They pop up here and there but this Saturday, October 28, you’ll find them at QINM for this season’s closing night. They’re hoping to situate themselves in a more permanent space, so keep an eye out for them because QINM is only one small step for Moon Man…I’m looking forward to a giant leap into a new uncharted space!

Follow them at hellomoonman.com | facebook.com/HelloMoonMan | instagram.com/HelloMoonMan
 
 

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

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

Quick vocabulary lesson:

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

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

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

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

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

Gnetum gnemon — Eat ’em: get ’em!

 

 

Hidden Pearls at Indo Java

Not far from the intersection of Broadway and Queens Boulevard in Elmhurst, tucked away amid a cache of Southeast Asian restaurants and snackeries, lies this gem of an Indonesian boutique. Unlike some nearby markets which tend to be either Thai-centric or comprehensively Southeast Asian, Indo Java concentrates on the delicacies of Indonesia.

The perimeter of the shop displays a wealth of products: packages of blended spice mix, dozens of snacks including an abundance of emping, cake and dessert mixes, a myriad of bottled sambals and sauces, and a small frozen food case. Attempting to focus on any individual item can be a little daunting at first, particularly because the venue is tiny and it’s easy to gloss over the hundreds of products competing for your attention. It’s worth taking a bit of time to zoom in, however: this Mickey Mouse brand of dried salted watermelon seeds is a good example.
Mickey Mouse Call-outMickey Mouse

But the most compelling feature of the store and one that begs a repeat visit, is the array of tempting prepared food that’s replenished every Saturday after 6pm. An overwhelming variety of Indonesian snacks, main dishes, and sweets grace a table toward the back of the shop. Elvi, the co-owner, will be more than happy to answer your questions and, if you’ve worked up an appetite while shopping and can’t wait to get home with your goodies, can point you in the direction of their sister restaurant, Java Village, nearby at 86-10 Justice Avenue – although my experience was that the store had a much wider variety of offerings than the restaurant.
Huge Array 2Huge Array

 
Here are a few of the items that came home with me after my last visit.

Pepes wrappedPepes Teri
Pepes refers to food, often involving fish, that has been prepared by wrapping it in a banana leaf and then steaming it (although it’s sometimes grilled); this pepes teri (anchovy) is a little sweet, a little spicy and also contains tofu, coconut, chilies, and galangal. Delicious.

Otak 2 bagOtak Otak
Otak otak ikan is sort of a leaf-wrapped fish paste (ikan = fish), but these tasty tidbits don’t really betray much fish flavor – only a slightly sweet, slightly oniony, slightly chewy snack accompanied by peanut sauce and it’s near impossible to consume just one. Incidentally, the repetition of a word as part of a grammatical construct is common in Indonesian and Malay, and in linguistics is referred to as reduplication (a word which itself seems redundant); cumi cumi (squid) and gado gado (a vegetable salad) come to mind. Often, as in this instance, appending a “2” to the word is used as shorthand. Yum2.

Arem in wrapperArem cut
This much larger arem arem was quite tasty as well. Along with coconut milk, the leaf flavors the rice that’s wrapped around bits of tofu and shredded chicken – but beware the hot red chili lurking within!

Bakcang Ayam WrappedBakcang Ayam UnwrappedBakcang Ayam Decimated
Bakcang beras – You’ve probably seen this pyramid of bamboo leaf-wrapped, glutinous rice (beras = rice) in Chinatown where it’s known as zongzi and filled with an assortment of savory tids and bits. In addition to pork, this one contained mushroom and preserved egg yolk. (After steaming it, I decimated the pyramid so you could see its inner workings.) Served with a sambal.

EmpalEmpal Lettuce
Empal – Sweet and spicy shredded beef. Typically the meat is boiled first along with aromatics and spices, then cut into lumps and pummeled just enough to loosen the fibers, then often fried. This version has taken its lumps and been beaten beyond recognition into shreds although there are a couple of chunks in there so you can get the idea. I found it perfect with rice or in a lettuce leaf wrapper with sambal oelek.

Ikan SalmonKerang
Ikan salmon asem manis – sweet tamarind salmon (asam = sour, manis = sweet, asem manis refers to tamarind). These fried bits are off the charts delicious, especially with the nasi kuning (rice with coconut milk and turmeric) that I made as an accompaniment. Yes, it’s oily, but so good.

Kerang – The word can refer to clams, scallops, mussels, or pretty much any bivalve. This dish of green mussels is very spicy and very good, here served with plain white rice.

Udang BaladoAyam Kaki
Udang Balado – Udang means shrimp and balado refers to the method of preparation: a tomato based sauce with lots of chilies and in this case potatoes. This rendition had more shrimp heads than shrimp which provided a tremendous amount of flavor and yes, can be eaten. I’ve also seen this dish prepared with stink bean (aka sataw, petai, peteh, bitter bean, and smelly bean, a vegetable common in Southeast Asia and nowhere near as nasty as it sounds).

Ayam kaki – chicken leg. I didn’t get the ingredients or even much of an explanation, but it tastes like it’s been marinated forever in sweet Indonesian soy sauce with perhaps some garlic and ginger and then probably barbecued. The tofu (tahu bacem or tempeh bacem to the left of the sambal) that came with it was amazing (probably marinated in the same stuff). The sauce only looked like sambal oelek but wasn’t as fiery and had a chickeny component.

Martabak 1Martabak
Time for dessert! Martabak manis: “pandan special mix” was good, but unusual. Murtabak (with a “u”) is a pancake wrapped around a variety of savory fillings usually including meat and egg that’s found in Malaysia and throughout the region. Martabak (with an “a” and found only in Indonesia) can be either the savory snack or a sweet one like this. It’s completely unlike its savory cousin: even the pancake is of a radically different texture – more like a crumpet. This one was flavored with pandan and the layers encased chocolate, peanuts, grated fresh cheese, and sweetened condensed milk. I warmed it up a bit and served it with coconut ice cream, which was the icing on the…well, you know.

 
Indo Java
85-12 Queens Boulevard
Elmhurst, NY
718-779-2241