Kutia

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Christmas is right around the corner. Eastern Orthodox Christmas, that is.

I was introduced to kutya (кутя) over 10 years ago in a Russian food market in Brooklyn’s Little Odessa where I now offer food tours; it’s a sweet story and you can read it here.

These days, there are few fully Russian markets to be found in that neighborhood, having been superseded by Ukrainian, Uzbek, Uyghur, generally Eastern European and even Turkish establishments. The aforementioned market is long gone and the availability of grab-and-go kutya has vanished along with it.

Needless to say, a little thing like that doesn’t stop me; now I make my own at home. I researched a bunch of Ukrainian recipes for kutia (the more accepted Ukrainian transliteration) and came up with my own spin on the dish. Best described as a porridge, it’s sweet from honey and raisins, chewy from wheat berries, crunchy from nuts, and distinctive and delectable from the poppy seeds; the wheat berries symbolize immortality and hope, the honey and poppy seeds represent happiness, tranquility, and success. It’s an indispensable dish for the family’s feast on Eastern Orthodox Christmas Eve throughout Russia and Eastern Europe.

In addition to wheat berries, poppy seeds, raisins and honey, my rendition includes toasted almonds (although walnuts are customary) and dried apricots. Kutia can be eaten warm or at room temperature and is now one of my must-haves for the holiday season. All that’s lacking is a proper beautiful Ukrainian serving dish, but this one (Federal green Depression glass) was my grandmother’s and it will do.

And as always, heartfelt prayers for safety and peace go out to my friend Olya in Ukraine, my inspiration for creating this recipe.
 
 

Pelmeni

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According to one source, Pelmeni have been described as “the heart of Russian cuisine”. Unlike Ukrainian varenyky (see my last post), I’ve never found pelmeni (пельмени) that were made with a sweet filling – they’re customarily fashioned from a variety of ground meats and occasionally mushrooms – but like their cousins across Central, Eastern and Southeastern Europe, they’re almost always served with sour cream (сметана).

These came from Tashkent Market on Brighton Beach Avenue in Brooklyn, one of the highlights on my Little Odessa ethnojunket, and were purchased specifically for my recent “Everybody Loves Dumplings” series. I garnished them with fried, thinly sliced onions that had been the topping for some Tashkent salad that I bought during the same visit.

If you know Tashkent Market or if you’ve joined me on one of my food tours to that neighborhood, then you know that perforce I also acquired several additional bags of droolworthy goodies – not with the intention of posting, but because, um……research! Yeah, that’s the ticket!
 
 

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! 🍨
 
 

Orthodox Easter – Pascha and Kulich (2022)

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Most holidays come equipped with delectable, traditional foods and Orthodox Easter is no exception; it occurs on the Sunday following the first full moon that appears on or after the spring equinox – April 24, in 2022. As an Equal Opportunity Celebrant, I make it a practice to sample as many of these treats as possible around such festive occasions, not because of any personal porcine tendencies of course, but in order to altruistically share information with anyone who might be unfamiliar with these delicacies. 😉

According to Wikipedia, the Eastern Orthodox Church, officially the Orthodox Catholic Church, is the second largest Christian church with approximately 220 million baptized members. The majority of Eastern Orthodox Christians live mainly in Southeast and Eastern Europe, Cyprus, Georgia and other communities in the Caucasus region, and in Siberia reaching the Russian Far East.

According to ethnojunkie, each region has its own distinctive, specialty baked goods that are prepared in celebration of the holiday. Many are sweet breads called pascha (or some variant), from Greek/Latin meaning Easter, and ultimately from Aramaic/Hebrew meaning Passover. Let’s check out two of them.


If you go out in search of pascha, you’ll discover vastly divergent varieties depending upon the heritage of the bakery you land on. Polish versions I’ve sampled are puffy, yeasty, a little sweet and are designed to be pulled apart and shared at the table. Some other Eastern European and Russian styles are more like a cheese-filled bread, with veins of sweet, white dairy goodness running throughout. This photo was taken surreptitiously in a Russian market. Shhh!


Shown here is Romanian pască. This particular example comes from Nita’s European Bakery at 4010 Greenpoint Ave, Sunnyside, Queens – look for the awning that reads Cofetaria Nita. It is unique (at least in my experience) and undeniably stellar. This dense delight, about nine inches in diameter, is actually a two-layered affair, with a rich topping/filling that is virtually a raisin-studded, hyper-creamy manifestation of cheesecake that sits atop a sweet cake-like bread; the religious theme is easily recognizable.


Here’s a view that reveals the layers. If you like sweet desserts, you’ll love this.


On a recent peregrination through Brooklyn’s Little Odessa on Brighton Beach Avenue where Russian and Eastern European shops abound, it seemed that every market was selling kulich, a Slavic Orthodox Easter bread. Look closely behind the eggs in the first photo and you’ll see an array of them. (Look even more closely behind the kulichi and the sign for яйца and you’ll see packages of the Italian Christmas treat, panettone. Pretty much every market was offering them as well. In terms of taste, they’re pretty close although panettone is a little richer, however I have yet to determine why both are sold in this neighborhood during Orthodox Easter. But I digress.)

Not as sweet as pascha, the cylindrical kulich is often baked at home in a coffee can to achieve the characteristic shape; this diminutive example stands only about five inches high. The Ukrainian legend reads куліч (cake) пасхальний (paschal) and around the beltline з великоднем (Happy Easter) христос воскрес (Christ is risen).


It’s somewhere along the bread <-> coffeecake continuum, laden with raisins, and always dressed with a snow-white sugar-glazed cap and colorful sprinkles.

And at Orthodox Easter this year especially, our thoughts and hearts are with the heroic, resilient, brave, beautiful people of Ukraine. We are all Ukrainians now.

🇺🇦 Слава Україні! Героям слава! 💙💛
 
 

Little Odessa Ethnojunkets Are Back!

Good news! COVID hospitalizations are waning and seasonal temperatures are waxing and that means it’s time to bring back ethnojunkets!

We’re getting the ball rolling with Exploring Eastern European Food in Little Odessa and I’ll be adding the rest soon.

Ethnojunkets FAQ:

 
Q: What’s an ethnojunket anyway?
A: An ethnojunket is a food-focused walking tour through one of New York City’s many ethnic enclaves; my mission is to introduce you to some delicious, accessible, international treats that you’ve never tasted but soon will never be able to live without.

Q: Which neighborhoods do you cover?
A: My most popular tours are described on the ethnojunkets page but there are always new ones in the works. For the time being, I’m only scheduling Little Odessa.

Q: When is your next ethnojunket to [fill in the blank: Little Odessa, Flushing, Elmhurst, Little Levant, etc.]?
A: Any day you’d like to go! Simply send me a note in the “Leave a Reply” section below or write to me directly at rich[at]ethnojunkie[dot]com and tell me when you’d like to experience a food adventure and which ethnojunket you’re interested in – I’ll bet we can find a mutually convenient day! (Pro Tip: Check the weather in advance for the day you’re interested in to facilitate making your choice; we spend a lot of time outdoors!)

Q: I’ve seen some tours that are scheduled in advance for particular dates. Do you do that?
A: Yes, in a way. When someone books a tour (unless it’s a private tour) it’s always fun to add a few more adventurous eaters to the group – not to mention the fact that we get the opportunity to taste more dishes when we have more people (although I do like to keep the group size small). You can see if there are any openings available in the “Now Boarding” section of the ethnojunkets page. Subscribers always get email notifications about these.

Q: What will we be eating in Little Odessa?
A: Here are just a few of the Eastern European, Central Asian, Russian, and Former Soviet Union delicacies we usually enjoy on our food tour along Brighton Beach Avenue in Brooklyn. (Not that I’m trying to tempt you to sign up! 😉)

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The overarching term is khachapuri, literally “cheese bread”; they’re commonly filled with tangy, salty sulguni cheese and imeruli, a fresh crumbly cheese which when melted together combine to make stretchy, cheesy nirvana. Georgian adjaruli is shaped like a kayak, the center of which is filled with cheese; a raw egg and a chunk of butter are added just as it’s removed from the oven. Stir the mixture: the egg cooks and combines with the butter and melted cheese. Break off pieces of the bread and dip them into the cheese mixture. What’s not to like?


Uzbek manti, Russian pelmeni, and Azerbaijani kutaby in the back. Azerbaijani food is similar to the cuisine of Georgia but they lay claim to certain dishes such as kutaby as their own. A thin, tortilla-like crepe filled with ground lamb and luscious seasonings, folded in half and griddled, it’s an object of universal culinary lust for anyone whose lips have ever caressed it.


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.


Salads: At the top there’s fried lagman, a savory noodle dish (also found in soup) of the Uyghur people, an ethnic group living in East and Central Asia. Moving clockwise there’s khe, raw fish marinated in onion, spicy red pepper and vinegar. Russia and North Korea share an 11 mile border; the Korean culinary character of khe is obvious. Finally, there’s norin (aka naryn). Very fine noodles and a generous measure of cumin accompany thinly sliced beef. So good!


I hope you’ll sign up and join us! The cost is $85 per person (cash only, please) and includes a veritable cornucopia of food so bring your appetite: you won’t leave hungry, and you will leave happy!

For more information and to sign up, send me a note in the “Leave a Reply” section at the bottom of this page or write to me directly at rich[at]ethnojunkie[dot]com and I’ll email you with details.

I’m looking forward to introducing you to one of my favorite neighborhoods!
 
 

Russian Orthodox Christmas

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I was having a conversation with a friend just the other day. “The holidays are over,” she sighed. “No more excuses to procrastinate.”

“Don’t be so sure,” I countered. “Remember, you’re talking to the Equal Opportunity Celebrant.”

“Okay, so what’s up next?” she asked, grateful for the reprieve.

“Russian Orthodox Christmas.”

“Russians celebrate Christmas?”

“Indeed they do, every January 7. And it’s pretty cool, especially the ritual of flinging a spoonful of a very special Christmas treat up to the ceiling to see if it sticks.”

So I pointed her to a story that I had written long ago. Precisely the story I’m pointing you to right now. Read on….
 
 

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! 🍨
 
 

Two More from Tashkent Market

Two more quick bites from Tashkent Market on Brighton Beach Ave, Brooklyn, one of the stops on my Little Odessa ethnojunket, as I continue deliberations regarding its post-pandemic resumption.

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

I’ve written about steamed manti before – the Turkic/Central Asian fist-sized dumplings often filled with juicy, delicately seasoned lamb and onions diced into chunks. These are Uyghur style fried manti, every bit as delicious as their steamed cousins.


And the inner workings, of course.


This one was new to me. The sign read “Men Caprese Salad”, the dish itself was hidden beneath a snowdrift of freshly grated cheese (therefore no visual clues) and nary a staffer could tell me anything about it in any mutually intelligible language.

So of course, I bought some.

On my way out, I glanced at the receipt: “Salad Men Caprice” was the spelling this time – still no help. But from having shoveled into it, I inferred that a connection to Italian caprese salad was specious: no sign of tomatoes or basil although the shredded cheese looked not unlike a firm mozzarella.


When I got it home, this is what I found: chopped hard boiled eggs, cubes of beef (likely boiled), shredded cheese (a semi-firm cow’s milk cheese it seemed), and lots of mayo and salt. So sort of a pumped-up egg salad. Pretty tasty, actually.

Later, I did manage to turn up a single website specializing in German and Russian travel and restaurants that referred to it: “The ‘Men’s Caprice’ salad is an invention of the Soviet era (although the name likely appeared quite recently). The gist of it is to take the most simple and satisfying ingredients and prepare a salad so that a hungry man has a full belly.”

Sounds right to me.

Lots more on my Little Odessa ethnojunket – if and when!
 
 

TBD 2…

Still contemplating the ins and outs and whereabouts of the revivification of ethnojunkets as the pandemic begins its retreat. A couple of posts ago, we examined khe, an appetizing fish delicacy which is customarily on the agenda in our Little Odessa tour.

In this post, we’ll take a look at two of the scores of exquisitely prepared foods available at Tashkent Market on Brighton Beach Ave, one of the stops along the way. Because they offer some incredibly delicious dishes, we always indulge in several on the tour, but I had never sampled these two so I thought I’d share.

The trick to making a successful selection is either to know the language or to go with someone who knows the ropes (🙋‍♂️ shameless plug). Case in point: there’s a long counter displaying an array of prepared fish – fried, baked, sauced, you name it – and all of them look absolutely delicious. But the signage above the trays is often just a transliteration as opposed to a proper translation into English. For example, you’ll see Fried Treska – that’s cod, Fried Korushka is smelt, Sazan is carp – you get the idea.

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

This is Paltus with Sweet Chili Sauce – paltus is halibut – which was perfectly cooked. My only regret was that I should have spooned on more of the tasty sauce that permeated the skin. (Also fun for people who experience pareidolia. You know who you are.)


With the top slid back like a convertible. Sort of.


Salmon Betki – truly luscious. Big chunks of fresh salmon, barely held together by what I’m guessing was the tiniest bit of chopped onion, yellow bell pepper, possibly some carrot, black pepper and egg; I suspect there’s a binding agent like breadcrumbs, but it’s completely unobtrusive.

And remember, if you see something that piques your curiosity and it’s not on our menu du jour, I’m happy to offer some enlightenment; you can always purchase a taste to take home for yourself!

Now, back to ethnojunket contemplation. More to come….
 
 

TBD…

The weather is warming up and COVID-19 is settling down which means it’s time for me to start seriously considering the feasibility of offering my ethnojunkets again. An ethnojunket is a food-focused walking tour through one of New York City’s many ethnic enclaves; my mission is to introduce you to some delicious, accessible, international treats (hence, “ethno-”) that you’ve never tasted but soon will never be able to live without (hence, “-junkie”). You can learn more about my ethnojunkets here.

Rather than trying to make a decision about the future in a vacuum, I decided that actually revisiting some of my old haunts might serve a twofold purpose – to inspire me and also to reveal which businesses have survived the pandemic (so far). Therefore, I’ve been eating my way through various Chinatowns, Little Levant (the Middle Eastern enclave in Bay Ridge), Little Odessa (the Russian/Former Soviet Union strip along Brighton Beach Avenue in Brooklyn), and the Latin American section of Sunset Park in service of that quest. In this and some subsequent posts, I’ll show you what I’ve been tasting in the process.

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

This is khe, one of the treats we always indulge in on the Little Odessa ethnojunket. Not many people realize that Russia and North Korea share an 11 mile border and the Korean culinary character of khe is obvious. Meaty chunks of fish marinated in vinegar, onions and Korean red chili are the main ingredients in this delectable dish (recipes vary); think of it as ceviche meets kimchi. Only better. The reason behind its migration from the Russian/Korean border into Uzbekistan is the stuff of which history is made and you’ll hear the story on this ethnojunket.

The restaurant we always visited to grab an order of khe didn’t make it (although they have another business elsewhere that did survive) but fortunately, I found this tidbit at a different venue along the tour and it’s every bit as delicious as the previous version. It’s a personal favorite and one that always gets a big thumbs up from our group.

Stay tuned. More to come….