Monday, December 31, 2007

The Dim Sum of All Things

Happy New Years eve! It's that time of the year when New York goes wild eating out. As previously mentioned, Fumie and I have decided that there are just too many dim sum goodies in New York and we have to ferociously attack and devour these little Chinese-dumpling-enemies before they take over the world. Our latest battleground was the Shanghai Garden (14A Elizabeth Street) said to be one of the more authentic mainland Shanghai style eateries in Chinatown. Arriving in Chinatown around 3:30 pm found almost every Dim Sum parlour closed - even the famed Jing Fong. Apparently they take a short nap between lunch and dinner services. Luckily, the nearby Shanghai Garden - definately a lunch joint and not a banquet hall - was open and serving.)Soup dumplings - xiaolongbao - have been all the rage for a decade, and are almost emblematic of Shanghai cuisine. Jellied cold pork stock is placed inside the dumpling skin and then steamed - so the soup is inside the dumpling. These were darned meaty as well, and the shiu-mai dumplings were also pretty carnivore-friendly, compared to the more seafood-phile Cantonese and Fujien dim sum we have been eating.No meal is complete without eating some invertabrate that would have made you squirm in your younger years. Soft shelled crab, for example. The one above is my first, and damn! What the hell was I thinking during that half century I spent turning up my nose at molting arthropodae. Basically, crabs gross me out, and given the amount of meat to shell/carapace/inedible lungs that you have to work through in order to get anything approaching a mouthfull, I usually passed on crabs. No more. When those babies shed their hard outer shells they are just begging to be battered and fried and delivered fresh and hot into my greedy digestive system. Sorry, crabs. Finishing off in true banquet style, Bob Godfried - accordionist extraordinaire - wrestles with the world's longest cold meat sauce noodle. At center is black bean sauced spare ribs on rice, and up front is sliced chewy rice discs stir-fried with shrimp and meat. These dishes averaged $4 each. (Note to friends in Hungary: Makes you ashamed to live in Europe, eh?The XO Kitchen (148 Hester St) is more of a Hong Kong / Cantonese style alternative youth dim sum restaurant. The young waitstaff all wear black pro keds and if I spoke Chinese I would probably hear them using the Cantonese equivalent of the word "dude..."You have probably seen those packages of wrapped banana leaves for sale in chinese bakeries... well, they are zongzi, steamed filled sticky glutinous rice packed into banana leaves and steamed for a long time. These had pork with chestnut fillings. Steamed chestnut - not at all like the sweet street maroni we eat in Europe at Christmas time. Very filling.Har gow... rememeber that name. Har gow. Har gow. Har gow. Now you have no excuse for not being able to ask for them at any Cantonese dim sum restaurant. Asking for "those little shrimp dumplings" could bring disaster - there are lots of such things on the menu. But har gow, encased in a rice flour wrapping that you can not really make at home, are the dim sum equivalent to heroin. Addictive. Addictive. Addictive.Garlic sauce spare ribs with black beans. Life before black beans was unthinkable, a dark, undefined chaos demanding the Big Bang. Now all is right. We have black beans. The XO Kitchen has a menu that runs about the size of a phone book - hundreds of items written in small print, and unlike other dim sum houses, it doesn't use the cart-delivery service common to the banquet halls.Fumie in awe of the world's biggest shiu-mai dumpling...Yes, I am fully aware of the effect these graphic dumpling images have on our friends in Budapest and in other dim-sum deprived regions of the world. I have been labeled a food pornographer, and yes, I admit there is some truth to that statement. And I understand that this may be considered a subtle form of torture, especially to those of you who come from New York but have had to spend the holiday season refusing yet another serving of carp head soup and beigli... and yet, oddly, I show no hint of empathy with your plight. These dumplings are all mine for another two weeks. We will continue eating them until we are so sick of quality dim sum that we won't be able to stand them anymore, and only then we will return to Hungary. "My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my incredibly huge and juicy shrimp shiu mai dumplings, ye mighty, and despair!"After dinner a walk around the city, which is exploding with after christmas sales. The shops are stuffed with the dross of unwise Xmas marketing strategies - Penguin Poop obviously didn't sell well this season, go figure - and now is the time for wolfing down the Christmas overstock. Like Levi's jeans for $1.99 a pair. This is something you will never see in Europe - sales - and the shops along lower broadway were packed with French and Italian tourists drunk on their over-inflated Euro buying power. If we americans seem like puny ants to their superior purchasing power, that is because our President's economic policies has made us into puny ants. Thanks Georgie! And we look forward to 2008 - the year we will see the back of you once and for all! Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 29, 2007

I Think I'm Eating Japanese. I Think I'm Eating Japanese. I Really Think So.

New Jersey famously suffers from an inferiority complex. Located next to the Most Important City in the World, the garden state is relegated to the role of the cheaper housing and shopping zone for the Big Apple. And Jersey is not known for high quality dining in comparison to NYC. That's OK, though. Jersey has better ethnic food. Or at least, anything you can find in New York, but cheaper, and usually more. Take Japanese food... usually considered a pricey date, right? Not in Jersey. Welcome to the Mitsuwa Market!
One major problem...I don't drive. I used to drive, but gave it up when Fate, my imaginary friend, informed me that if I continued driving cars He was going to take me to live with Him in the Land in the Sky Where Accordions Are Never, Ever Played. The Almighty kept sending potholes and other cars to smash into my old Dodges and Chryslers. He seemed to have something against me, at least while I was driving. It was obvious that He was trying to kill me so I quit driving cars, many years ago. One less environmental nightmare paying profits into the pockets of King Bush and the Saudi Princes, right? Wrong. Getting around without an automobile in New Jersey is nearly impossible. Luckily there is one bus line near my parent's home that takes us straight to ... the suburbs of Tokyo!The Mitsuwa Market in Edgewater New Jersey is just a quick hop from my front door, and since I have to worry about the care and feeding of a Japanese S.O. (Significant Other) it has become our gateway to the Outside World. The day begins with bus to Edgewater... then brunch at Mitsuwa Market, and then we hop on the Japanese shopping shuttle bus that runs between Mitsuwa and the downtown Port Authority Bus terminal at 41st St in Manhatten.The food court at Mitsuwa feature the stars of the Japanese food court franchise world. The top ramen noodle chain, Santoka Ramen, is so popular among Japanese in NY that they take the bus out to Edgewater just to slurp the noodles of home here. There are several outlets, each offering different styles of Japanese lunch standards - one specializes in donburi dishes, like the tempura don pictured below...I have become a fan of the katsu, which offers fried foods in a japanese panko bread crumb batter... these are some seriously cheap meals. I have yet to spend over ten bucks, and the lunch specials start at around $6. I can deal with this.All of the food franchises advertise their menu in traditional Japanese fashion by using picture perfect plastic models of the food... which in many cases are far more appealing than the actual sight of the food itself. There is even a district in Tokyo, Kappabashi, that specializes in plastic food displays. Hey, try making these at home!The Japanese version of hamburgers... hanbāgu (ハンバーグ), here served with a line of filling gyoza dumplings. Fumie always goes directly to the hamburger lines, and then decides on either katsu don or ramen noodles... so we have to go back to Mitsuwa on New Years day for the ritual mochi-pounding sticky rice ceremony and a Japanese burger plate... Thousands of Japanese will crowd the market while a bunch of guys in traditional costume whack away at rice. Who says New Jersey is not fun?Mitsuwa doesn't have a fancy Sushi bar, but all you need to do is go into the sushi section of the supermarket, and then take your lunch out to the tables in the food court, bento-box style. Most sushi selections are under five bucks... After lunch, fumie goes a bit wild in the supermarket, picking up rotten soy bean natto for breakfast and maybe some glow-in-the-dark purple eggplant pickles on the side. If you can get it in Tokyo, you can get it here, including Japanese toothbrushes and Japanese standard stationary. so... all done with Mitsuwa, we can go into the city and head straight for the takoyaki place on 9th avenue behind Astor Place in Greenwich Village. This is a little hole in the wall located on the main drag for hip Japanese twenty-somethings who are in New York for a few months studying English.Fumie got all excited when she saw one of Japan's most famous graphic artists sipping coffee at the Starbucks on the corner here... "And nobody even recognizes him here!" Nope. That's probably why he's here. There are a string of izakaya bars and sushi places in this area, which is right near a couple of art schools, and so you need your fried sweet octopus balls when stumbling home from a night of drinking.Now, I suspect that you have to have grown up in Japan to be a real takoyaki freak. Basically, it's a fried dough ball with a little chewy bit of octopus in the center, covered in a sweet brown sauce and mayonnaise and topped with dried fish shavings. Kind of hot, gloopy, sweet, and then a little knot of cephalopod in the middle. Mmmmm....

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Dim Sum for Christmas: 88 Palace Restaurant, Chinatown.

It is a long standing factor of New York Jewish identity to celebrate Christmas by eating at a Chinese restaurant. For one thing, Chinese restaurants are open, and they offer a refuge from the never ending barrage of Jingle Bells and Santa Claus is Coming to Town that infest the airways of just about every other public space in America. In an effort to improve on the tradition, Fumie and I decided to go one step further - to eat where the Chinese eat on Christmas. Dim sum at the 88 Palace, located on the top floor of the East Broadway Mall - right inside the support structure of the Manhatten Bridge that houses the local Chinese bus station. (88 East Broadway 212-941-8886)There are a lot of Dim Sum places around Chinatown but the most recent immigrant influx - mostly people from Fujian Province, a bit north of the traditionally Cantonese core of Chinatown - have colonised East Broadway and Division Street around the Manhatten Bridge. Fujian food is big on seafood, and we were seated at a huge table alongside two familes who were demolishing platters of black bean sauce clams - which are one of the high ticket items that go for about $4 a plate.If you haven't eaten at a Dim Sum hall, the drill goes like this. You share tables, and women push carts around containing dishes or small bamboo steamers full of things that you would never have eaten when you were a kid. You point at a dish as the cart goes by, the woman stamps your bill, and when you are all done your waiter tallies up the bill. Fumie and I ate until we were stuffed - a huge and perhaps obscene feast even by our insane standards - and our bill came to $33 for two of us. Not bad for what was basically a twelve course meal.At 88 Palace there is also a buffet table line for items like soy sauce chicken feet, stewed garlic and ginger tripe, blood jelly, and clams. Below is the dumpling lady, frying chinese chive dumplings alongside sweet lotus root jelly squares. You can tell that families have been developing little strategies to make sure they get the prime stuff from the buffet tables as soon as they arrive - lookouts, grandsons sent to stake out places in line. Nobody stands between me and my steamed duck feet!These were some of our favorite chinese dumplings, packed with shrimp, pork, and chinese chives, crispy on one side, juicy on the other.The next pass of the steamer carts brought tofu-skin wrapped spring rolls with meat and shrimp, some kind of giant fish ball - gefilte fish chinese style - and garlic pork ribs. Each serving here is $2. The stamps on our meal ticket shocked us into ordering more... more... always more...The classic dim sum dish is siu mai, pork and shrimp dumplings. These were some of the best we ever tried. We will probably spend the winter in Budapest trying to recreate these at home... probably unsucessfully. Some things are simply best eaten when somebody else prepares them for you. Such as dim sum.Another classic dim sum is har gow, shrimp dumplings in translucent rice wrappings. No sharing here - we each grabbed our own private steamer basket.And here is the graceful Princess of Tokyo attacking the remains of a lotus root jelly cake... eyes closed, glasses on the table, determined to clear the plates before the next steam cart rolls by.The Ultimate. Bacon-wrapped shrimp paste. Fried. This Hong Kong specialty goes against every religious and health teaching that has ever been invented to prevent me from biting into something. Deep fried bacon-wrapped shrimp balls are something that both Rabbi Aron Soloveichik and Oprah Winfrey could both agree on - don't eat it! When the Book of Life is opened to the page with my name on it and the Angels see what I was noshing on, I can't really see explaining this one away by ignorance. Bacon. Shrimp. Deep frying. Put it all together and it simply yells treyf! "Well, at least I didn't try the sea squirts!"But damn... it tasted good. Fumie and I have decided we have to continue investigating the Dim Sum parlors of east Broadway until we are so sick of dim sum that we can safely return to Budapest, a town in which the best chinese food are the street stalls in the endangered Four Tigers Market or at the Lang Zhou Chinese resturant on Luther utca. Hungary has no Fujien or Cantonese population to speak of, and therefore, no dim sum. East Broadway hosts several dim sum parlors, including one very nice Restaurant...After a belly stuffung dim sum lunch a walk around should help the digestion... what on Earth does this shop specialize in? Fumie translated the Chinese language sign, and yes, it offers exactly what it says in English... Was there a meeting of the business owners to agree on a name? "What do you want to call the business?" "How about Health Food Store" "No, sounds too boring. Hey, I have an idea!"Almost made me feel the need to shell out for a bottle of this:

Monday, December 24, 2007

פֿרײלעכע ניטל / A Freylakhe Nitl in Teaneck!

It's Dec. 24th, Christmas eve, which Ashkenazic Jews traditionally celebrate as Nitl... which means the day we play cards. Nitl colloquially means poker or pinochle... and besides Easter it was the one day of the year when there was absolutley no reason to open the businesses and so everybody stayed home and played cards. In deeper terms Nitl derives from the latin natal - in reference to Christmas as the birthday of Josh C. (son of Joe and Maryam C. of Teaneck and Nazareth.) Like a lot of Yiddish terms, it comes from Latin via Judeo-Provencal, or Shuadit, the source from which we get terms like bentshen (prayer.. from latin benedictum) and leyen (reading... from leer). Nitl customs included not going to the Talmud Torah to study on the evening of Dec. 24, because of the danger of angry gentiles jumping Jews in the streets (summed up in the folk etymology "nit" which means "not" in Yiddish. There are, however, other interpretations...This year nitl finds us in Teaneck New Jersey, a mere five miles from New York City. Teaneck is one of the most Jew-friendly towns in the USA, with dozens of synagogues and Jewish schools all within a sabbath's stroll of one's home. When I was growing up here there weren't quite as many Orthodox, but today the "downtown" area on Cedar lane is one long string of Kosher eateries, shops, and Judaica stores.Our local shops and supermarkets keep lots of classic Ashkenazic chow on hand...A few months ago our own Yankl Falk, singer and clarinetist in Di Naye Kapelye came through town and eased his glatt kosher bad self into a booth at our local Tex-Mex kosher Barbeque restaurant. You don't get much kosher BBQ out in Oregon, where Yankl hails from, and within seconds the atmosphere was surrounded by a dense haze of suspended BBQ sauce as our kosher frontman attacked his meat with an orthodox frenzy. It was a frightening sight, but in a decidely Jewish way. Frum Yid meets Tex-Mex. Amusement ensues.The ease of living kosher has made Teaneck a magnet for young Ortho families itching to get out of Brooklyn and into the wide open spaces of... New Jersey. It's more family friendly. And not quite as insular as Boro Park or Monsey... for example, Teaneck also boasts a healthy Muslim population complete with Islamic school and mosque, not to mention any number of immigrant families who are always leaving the cramped spaces of New York for the burbs. Below is the classic lineup for lunch, all in a row: Indian grocery, Subway sandwich joint, and Best Glatt Kosher Meat.A community as diverse as this is bound to produce ironic juxtapositions... how about a Shrek menorah for this Chanukah? (For those that don't know, the more deeply one delves into Jewish religious tradition, the less importance one ascribes to Chanukah as a major religious festival. It's one of the few "happy" holidays Jews celebrate - we won that particular war in 165 BC- and it's in December. But it just ain't a Jewish version of Christmas.)Still... you wouldn't want to leave your home without locking your doors... so maybe you need... shabbos locks? These are devices that operate electrical equiptment (which is forbidden on sabbath) by breaking a connection instead of completing a connection. Yeah, you need to be a talmudic scholar to understand the logic behind this, but in Teaneck almost everybody is a talmudic scholar, so...Still... Judeo-Buddhist couples need to find some common ground for a holiday atmosphere, and who could argue with a strikingly beautiful matched pair of penguins! I'm not sure whose mythology fits penguins into this time of year.Most established religions have - surprisingly - left out all mention of penguins and their role in the Big Scheme of Things. No... no penguins in the book of Maccabee. Romans, yes, penguins... not quite. Nope, can't find any reference to Christ tossing miraculous anchovies to the penguins. Penguins changing money on the steps of the Temple?... no, that doesn't check out... Barrabas... no, not a penguin... Can't seem to find any references in the Buddhist traditions to the Ineffable Oneness That Is Called Penguin. And ye shall know them by their stubby flightless wings and waddling gait. And they shall be deemed cute unto thee and cause you to buy big stuffed versions of their likeness.

Friday, December 21, 2007

B&H Photo Video: Yidn mit Pixels!

So you want a camera? You've come to the right place. B&H Photo Video is the largest photo supply shop in New York, if not the world. Located on the corner of Ninth Ave. and 34th St., B&H is the ultimate gadget store in the world for anybody involved in film or digital anything - especially Fumie... who seems to be magnetically drawn there on every trip we make to the city.Fumie likes B&H. Which is relatively easy since they do such a huge volume of business that their prices are easily the lowest on quality cameras and electronic goods. If a web site offers lower prices than B&H (or say, 17th St. Photo, another reliable New York photography supply giant) then it is very likely a scam business operating out of Brooklyn, where internet based photography supply businesses set up slick web sites to lure the unsuspecting and then hit them with various overpriced "supply problems." B&H is the safe alternative - they have an efficient tracking sytem and you can actually trust what they tell you on the phone.The first thing that one notices when entering B&H is that the staff are overwhelmingly Hasidic or Orthodox Jews. Hard core Yidn, speaking yiddish, twirling payess, sneaking out to the back offices to daven a bit during their breaks... Ahhhh... my people! And that is part of the secret of their success. Most of the staff here are Satmar Hasids - Hungarian ultra-orthodox Jews who followed the court of the Satmar rebbes.The business is owned by Herman Schreiber - his wife is named Blimie and together their initials make up B&H's name. Schreiber and many of the store's employees are Satmar Hasidic Jews who close the store on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. Surpassed only by the Diamond District in terms of Orthodox Jewish employment, the company is a vital part of the Hasidic community's life, with hundreds of Orthodox Jews on staff. An Orthodox Jewish bus company provides daily service to and from Kiryas Joel, a Satmar village in Orange County, New York. As I write this, on Friday afternoon on Dec. 21, we are looking at the most hectic weekend of retail shopping in the year. Christmas weekend. But B&H Photo is closed, as it's web site says... even its web site is closed to processing internet sales. B&H really doesn't care if it is losing a few multi-million dollars in sales this weekend. It is Shabbos. Jews do not do business on Shabbos. The Queen is here. That is more important. And that is a lesson that should be noted by anyone who thinks Jews are only about business...The Satmars are known as one of the more insular sects of Hasidism. When not running the world's largest retailer of digital modernism their private customs reflect life in 19th century Jewish Hungary. That world ended with the Holocaust, but the Satmar survivors who followed Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum to Brooklyn have an interesting take on that - there are now far more Satmar Hasidim than there ever were. Satmar has simply out-bred the holocaust. As always... Satmar wins. You simply can not beat the Torah fearing Jews of Satmar. You wouldn't want to even try.Miles and miles of Nikons, Canons, and digital whatever, and over 1500 staff eager to help you personally with your order. If you have to wait, help yourself to some kosher chewy candies, free from bowls located all over the store. Unfortunately, last week there were only "green" flavored ones - something called green apple, but basically, green flavored. Alas. I prefer the purple or pink flavored ones.One of the interesting aspects of B&H is the incredibly efficient in-store delivery system. You tell a staffer what you want, and he hands you a printout reciept. Above your head - and below you, beside you, and invisibly all around you - is a complex system of roller tracks and green baskets ferrying hundreds of orders up from the basement warehouse to the check out counters.As you stroll about making purchases, these are automatically added to your order reciept. Up at the entrance to B&H is a barrage of counters where you make your payment and then proceed to the pick-up counters, where the roller tracks have delivered your order and it is bagged and waiting for you.One of the fun aspects of visiting B&H is ... taking pictures in the store. Orthos don't usually like their picture to be taken. Usually Hasids run and hide from the mere sight of a camera. At B&H, nobody cares - it seems like at any given time, three or four hundred people are pointing some tiny Canon digitals at something and clicking away. Nothing could be more invisible here than somebody... taking pictures! Got a problem... no problem. Make a return? No problem. As long as you don't expect business on Saturday, no problem at all.And in the great Yiddish spirit of Holiday Irony, Merry Christmas to all the readers of Dumneazu!