Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Unspeakable Karmic Revenge of Shellfish

I'm getting ready to head back to Budapest after two months in New York, and I can't say I'm looking forward to the late winter produce that will usually be available in the local markets. February in Hungary means a diet of potatoes, pork, and cabbage. I am going to miss a lot of things, but probably none more than shellfish. Winter is the best time of year for shellfish, especially if you roam around New York's Chinatown fish markets where the crabs and clams move fast and are fresh and cheap. I'll be making one more gluttonous trip to Chinatown before I leave though... I need more Shangahi soup dumplings. These are steamed dumplings filled with pork or crab in broth... but with the the broth inside the dumpling. You nibble the dumpling skin, slurp up the hot broth trapped inside, and then go to work on the dumpling. I usually order some of these and then move on - I can hit two or three Chinatown eateries in a row on a good day, trying different things out. Wandering around Chinatown on an empty stomache is a poor man's five star vacation trip. I need some more vietnamese pho molecules inside me, and maybe some sticky rice jong packets... Of course, I usually pick something up to take home to cook up... octopus, for example. Stinks like an old shoe when you cook it at home, but for these prices, let it stink! Octopus mean New Year's for me, after last years excessive cephalopod feast on the island of Dvernik in Croatia. Bigger octopus are best grilled.
If you are visiting New York, a bit of advice: New York is located near some of the world's best clam beds. Clams from Long Island, New Jersey, and New England in the winter are possibly the single closest thing to a fresh taste that screams local New York! and isn't shaped like a pizza. Order them in a restaurant and you can get set back a big piece of change. Buy them at a fish market, take them home, and enjoy. While traveling abroad - as in outside of landlocked Hungary - I often find some kind of clamlike shellfish at the local market and take them back to my hotel for a late night feast. The hotel management might not like it, but it's not as bad as trashing your room, and tastes better. All I need to prepare them is a knife and a towel to protect my hand as I hold the clam and ... slice it open. I prefer the larger cherrystone sized clams to the more delicate littleneck clams. I like to see them squiggle a little as I cut the aductor muscles... the fact that the clam is alive is a sure sign of freshness. Americans are generally thought of as squeamish eaters, which hold true until you get to clams. Clams are the only food that Americans eat while it is still alive. You don't get much more unkosher and un-Buddhist than that. Clams on the halfshell, like oysters, have to be alive when eaten. Sure, it sets you back a few karmic reincarnations, but heck... it tastes good. I was introduced to clams by my father when I was about thirteen years old. It was something of a rite of passage for non-religious New York Jews. Eating Italian pork sausages or Chinese food wasn't really considered unkosher enough to shock anyone. Taking your son out for clams on City Island in the Bronx was the best way to insure that nobody in your family was going to return to the hasidism that took so many generations to get out of in the first place. The ability to eat clams on the halfshell were a gift from my Pop to me. And he still gobbles them down, oblivious to the karmic implications...
One final bit of local flavor I will dearly miss: Popeye's Fried Chicken. Popeye's is a commercial fast food fried chicken chain that is - as the say in the deeply racist but happily euphemistic vocabulary of American merchandising - an "Urban Franchise." Meaning it is marketed to Black people in Black neighborhoods. The same goes for Church's Fried Chicken - also good. White folks, supposedly, eat Kentucky Fried Chicken. In America, social segregation applies to fried chicken as well as people. Needless to say, Popeye's is better, cheaper, less greasy, crsipier, and offers sides like jalapeno peppers, Louisiana dirty rice, red beans and rice, and great biscuits. Sometimes, sitting in a cafe in Budapest, I can suddenly smell the aroma of Popeye's drifting out of nowhere. But, heck... I've got gigs in NY next October... I'll be back for seconds!


Ari said...

I so agree with you regarding Popeyes. If I'm going to have fried chicken, it better be good.

On the other hand, fried chicken is a poor substitute for grilled octopus.

Chanterelle said...

So have you ever tried the Clam Pie at Lombardi's? Two great New York City tastes in one!