Thursday, February 12, 2009

Moldova: The Hidden Gardens of Knish

I had been meaning to post about Moldavian chow for months since our Novemeber trip to Chişinău/Kishinev and Edinets, but suddenly a flood of Moldavo-mania has me going back to fill the gaps. This morning my good buddy Claude C. called to ask my opinion on a job offer he has with an international agency in Chişinău. Since most of the news that comes out of the Republic of Moldova is usually bad news (breakaway ethnic republics, pushy Putin threats, kidneys for sale, to name a few) I was happy to inform Claude that the worst seems to be over and things are looking up for Moldova. It would probably be a delightful place to take a job, not the least for the quality of chow. For one thing, the ubiquitous knish (as seen above) can be found for sale in just about every bar and bakery in town, usually going under the name placinta or pateu. A simple filling wrapped in strudel sheets, nothing beats a fresh hot potato or cabbage knish.I have a long history with knishes, going back to my childhood in the Bronx where knishes were available at nearly every corner deli, of which there used to be a lot more back in the 20th century than there are now. I think knishes were the first food I actually bought for myself. And a knish was a flat pocket of oily dough filled with potato, usually stacked warm by the deli grill, as these, below, from Katz's Deli in NYC.It didn't have broccoli, spinach, or cheese involved in it. It wasn't round and bulbous, as the Israeli influenced knishoid objects that I see around New York today often are. Knishes want to kill you. They may take 70 or 80 years to do you in, but Knishes want you dead. Healthy knish? To paraphrase Lisa Simpson, I know what those two words mean but I do not understand them when you put them together in a sentence. I started noticing these newfangled knishes about ten years ago on a trip back the US - all the neo-ortho delis in Teaneck New Jersey had them (Teaneck, N.J. is to kosher food what Hong Kong is to Chinese food.) I was told they were an attempt at making a "healthy knish" that would appeal to a wider audience. Who needs a healthy knish? What was worse: these were from Yonah's Shimmel's Knishery on Houston Street, one of the oldest Romanian Jewish bakeries in New York City (and you can still get a decent, old style knish there.) But wait... the march of progress can not leave even the humble knish alone for long... how about a McPlăcintă from McDonald's in Chişinău?Knish, in some for or another, were everywhere, the snack food of mass convenience. If the Ukraine has some version of potato latkes congealing in grease on almost every snack counter, Moldova goes for the knish, always served warm, on the street, in the market, or in bars and cafes.Where there is knish, there will be chicken soup, and there is. The Republic of Moldova is a country based on chicken soup, swimming in chicken noodles, broth, and boiled breast meat called zama. Much as I love chicken soup, there was also a lot of borscht (Chişinău is about half Romanian speaking and half Russian and Ukrainian, after all) in both red and clear versions, but oddly enough, none of the tripe soup ciorba de burta that Romanians across the border eat so much of. I asked Semyon, our driver, where I could get a plate of nice sour, spicy tripe soup... and he answered "We don't eat that stuff here. Don't like it. Only in Romania, across the river." In the meantime, you could open up a bottle of home made wine with every meal, usually served in recycled mineral water bottles, such as this one, which is a brand called "Mouth of the Dog."The sarmale we had in Edinets were unique - stuffed sour cabbage leaves filled with rice and great hunks of smoked pork hock, on the bone. Never had a stuffed cabbage with bones before, and recipes from Romania usually use only a small amount of smoked meat as a flavoring. In the countryside, most sarmale in Romania are nearly vegetarian concoctions of rice, barley, or cornmeal flavored with a small amount of meat. And no paprika. The Hungarian versions are never served without paprika, but I love the sour dill and thyme flavor of the Romanian versions as well. While staying in Chişinău we discovered the joys of take out food from the main downtown supermarket, especially little sarmale wrapped in grape leaves stuffed whether with rice and barley, or chunky bits of meat. Restaurants in Chişinău have been getting more and more expensive over the years, and so we kept to our budget by shopping at the markets and eating in and we were glad to do it. Of course, there are times when you have to go for the mici... which in Moldova were huge and much more refined than the rustic meat tubes we usually get at bars and snack stands in Romania.
Oh... the desserts... I am not a dessert eater, although Fumie definately is. However, I rediscovered blintzes on this trip. Last year in the Ukraine I actually managed to maintain an ongoing course of the Atkins diet in that Kindom of Blintzes that is Kiev. I would not let that deter me now.And the master of dessert eaters is world reknowned cimbalom master Kalman Balogh. Kalman never misses a dessert, regarding it as the highlight of any meal, and this is a guy who is a connosieur of real Hungarian Musician Gypsy style cooking - which means Hungarian food even fattier and spicier than Magyars normally serve it. And no, he doesn't show it... at all... (Behind him is Alan Bern, director of the Other Euopeans Project and musical director of Brave Old World and... a vegan! No problem, that leaves more chow for us!)
What a lot of people don't know is that Kalman has been playing Klezmer music for over fifteen years, with groups such as Joel Rubin Jewish Music Ensemble as well as his own Gypsy Cimbalom Band. Small wonder... Kalman has Jewish ancestry as well in his family.
Watching Kalman jam along with Marin Bunea and Adam Stinga was one of the highlights of the countless jam sessions we had in the wedding hall of the Edinets hotel.

Monday, February 09, 2009

The Holy Pickles of Chisinau

Back in November, when Fumie and were in the Republic of Moldova, we were surprised at how good the food was - not something you would expect from a country that is widely known as one of the poorest in Europe. But we really enjoyed the offerings, especially the pickles. Susan and Diana Ghergus took us to the central market in Chisinau/Kishinev on one of our free days in Moldova's capitol.One of the clues that you are in the former Soviet Union is the little lacey aprons that the women wear in the meat and dairy markets. It looks like they were designed by Disney for some movie about french maids... and also the fact that nobody objects to having their photo taken. You can't just walk around a Hungarian or Austrian market snapping pix without fielding a bit of verbal abuse. In Moldova, no problem with photos at all.Fish was everywhere - interesting given that Moldova is landlocked, but Odessa is only an hour away and as former CCCP appetites know, if you want to drink you need some zakuska to eat with your vodka, and that means some smoked fish. In many ways, if you are used to New York jewish foods, you won't be dissappointed in fressing in Moldova. Jewish culinary traditions have been deeply absorbed into Moldovan cuisine - supermarkets are packed at the arrival of hot, fresh baked challah on friday afternoons.Turning a row we came on the pickle sellers, always happy to let you taste a bit because they know a sucker when they see one and I am a deep sucker for pickles. These were... and I don't like to use superlatives - the best pickles in the world.Pickles stuffed with pickles, eggplants pickled whole, tomatos, cabbage, peppers, if it grows it gets pickled. The cucumber pickles... oh my fracking Gods... Moldovans are proud of their wine and cognac, but they should be exporting the pickles. They should open pickle bars in all of Europe's cities and watch the money flow in. These weren't just good - they were A-Number One Hebrew Semitically Approved Sour Bombs.Whole pickled wathermelons. I mean, what if you and some friends are watching the TV one night and you need something to go with your beer? Why not a whole pickled watermelon. It tastes like... pickles.The wild mushroom pickles are everywhere in Moldova. While we stayed in Chisinau we rented an apartment and after a busy day were too tired to bother going out to a restaurant - and in Chisinau restaurants are not cheap. So we would pick up a little bit of food at the local supermarket take out stand, and we may have eaten far better than any restaurant could have served us. I mean, how many soviet style chicken soups do I need? Not so many. Instead we would have mushroom pickles, grape leaves stuffed with rice, bits of smoked fish, and more pickles.There was an entire section of the market dedicated to prunes in every form: dried prunes, smoked prunes, pitted or unpitted, I had never guessed that there were so many different kinds of prunes. And yes, they were good. Having eaten too many pickles by this point, I had no need of the medicinal properties for which prunes are famous, so I passed on buying a kilo of prunes, making this woman very sad.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

George Bush on Broadway... Perhaps

Yankl Falk just sent me this... worth your attention. It's hard so soon after an episode of national trauma, I know... but... music cures everything... we all need a sense of humor sometimes.