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.

1 comment:

depgrl said...

Hi Bob, it's Tara from the Klezmer Cruise. I saw Kalman Balogh in Montreal last year.