Friday, October 29, 2010

Brussels: An Unexpected Afternoon in the Land of the Belgamorphs.

We’ve been home in Budapest for two weeks already, and I haven’t posted anything due to work and the general acclimatization of being “home.” Having been on the road almost constantly since May, “home” is a relative construction, which now settles down to a winter here in Hungary. Getting here, however, was not as easy as hopping on a plane Newark, watching a few episodes of the Simpsons, and calling a taxi. We flew with Continental Airlines, whose equal opportunity policies are enthusiastically offered to crackheads, and so we arrived in the morning in Brussels two hours late for our connecting flight.
After an hour of sorting out our tickets (this is where our conviction of a crack problem at Continental stems from – their staff never informed our connecting flight on Malev of our transfer. Thanks to the kind folks at Brussels Air we got on the flight and got home late at night.) But that meant that we had seven hours of hang time, and Brussels is only a twenty minute metro ride from the airport, so it was off to… Chocolate City for the day! No sooner did we enter the metro than the unique Belgian approach to languages was made apparent.
Brussels is an officially French speaking zone, but it is an island surrounded by Flemish speakers. The two language communities have never actually melded into one national entity. While I have been to Belgium many times (on tour with my band) I have never been to Brussels, only to smaller towns and a festival on the French border where the back stage spoke French and the main stages spoke Flemish and never the two did meet. It is like a microcosm of the Balkans, but with strawberry waffles and Zairean immigrants, and not as talented on brass instruments. And chocolate. Lots of chocolate.And short of Continental Air staff and their expertly utilized crack pipes I would never have gotten to see it. Brussels is overwhelmingly cute. It is tourist heaven. It outdoes Paris in terms of mega-touristy cuteness and crowds of EU package tourists mob the downtown. And so we joined them. The first thing you notice is the chocolate shops.
Belgium is one of the few places in Europe where you can find seriously fat people. I mean obese, waddling, get-me-to-the-liposuctors Belgomorphs who could give a Nebraska volunteer fire department a run for their money at a Big and Large Clothing store. They dine on excellent beer, French fried pommes frites slathered in mayonnaise and… chocolate.
It is one of the few places in Europe where I can walk the streets feeling confidently svelte. So, no, I passed on the mayo and frites. In fact, I passed on the mussels in wine and cream… I passed on the steak frites… been there, done that. What I wanted was… Chinese food. I didn’t know this until we suddenly hit Brussel’s Chinatown, which is located just on the outskirts of the Downtown towards the fish market.
On a Saturday afternoon the outdoor fish market area is crowded with people tossing back seafood with a glass of wine or beer. What caught my eye was the Dutch new herring offered on special by one Spanish run tapas fish bar. Hollandse nieuwe herring are fresh herrings that are merely gutted, boned and lightly brined and served as with a side of chopped onions. You eat them fresh as can be, which is why most people outside of the low countries have never tasted them, and won’t.They don’t travel. They are also about the best fish I have ever tasted, and Fumie – who knows her raw fish – promptly ate her way through both our portions and ducked into the fish shop to buy out the remaining stock of new herring for her dinner.Happy, but not stuffed, we continued down the street and checked out the Chinese restaurants. They were all full. Belgians, maybe even more than the French, are fanatic foodies, and dine out more than any other people in the EU. Finally we settled on a Langzhou noodle shop, serving hand rolled artisanal noodles in beef soup.
We weren’t looking forward to our meal on Malev (which in Europe usually means usually a hermetically sealed pseudo-sandwich and a turo rudi chocolate bar) so we had to fill up on Chinese food while we still could. Note to Budapest friends: yes, there is Chinese food in Hungary. But with the exception of Master Wang’s, it just is not that good. Don’t argue with us. We travel the world researching this issue. I once spent ten days in Paris eating only Chinese food, so I should know.
Now that we are back in Budapest, I will try and update more often – I replaced the digital camera I lost in the Great Istanbul Robbery and will probably post a few more entires about our summer travels now that I have access to Fumie’s pictures from Bulgaria and Turkey. And a lot of the research we did on comparative Jewish salted meats... and an amazing seafood place we found in New Jersey. Oh... the tales I could tell!
We arrived in Hungary this year at a surprisingly exciting time. Just as the world turned its attention to the devastating toxic sludge flood in western Hungary, our new Government has been… pushing for new political and economic policies that – I swear – sound like they were inspired by reading bottles of Dr. Bronner’s soap. For years now I’ve been of the opinion that much of post 1989 Hungarian politics has been formulated by people shampooing with Dr. Bronner’s, and now I am convinced. All One! All One! This will get interesting. It will indeed. Stay tuned.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Farewell, Wonderful Chinese Food of New York! Farewell!

It is with a heavy heart that I bid farewell to the Chinese restaurants of New York. In a few hours I willbe soaring in the skies above Newark, NJ on my way back to Budapest, to poppy seed pastries, lard bread with onions, toxic red sludge, and Chinese food that couldn't hold a candle to the stuff we have been cramming down our hungry faces here in New York. The last week here has been crowded with dim sum, fried noodles, wonton soup, and fortune cookies with orange slices.We began just outside of the city, taking my parents to the Silver Pond Seafood Restaurant in Fort Lee, New Jersey, just across the George Washington bridge from Manhatten. Silver Pond fills up early on weekends with Chinese families out for the weekly dim sum feast, and they do an excellent job of it - the clams were perfect, the classic shiu mai light and shrimpy, and they even had fried soft shell crabs.I don't think there is any place in Budapest or any place east of Paris that even comes close to earning the title of dim sum in Europe - you have to have enough of a prosperous local Chinese community to make having a place like this viable. And then you need Jews - preferably of the Ashkenazic variety, about one generation removed from the absolutism of eating strictly kosher food. Once upon a time Jews did not eat Chinese food. That was a long time ago.
In fact, Chinese food more or less supplanted Jewish food in the Ashkenazic diet about fifty years ago - stir fried replacing long boiled, ginger replacing horseradish, wonton edging out kreplakh. There is even a well researched academic paper out that can be downloaded in PDF form entitled Safe Treyf - "New York Jews and Chinese Food: The Social Construction of an Ethnic Pattern" by Gaye Tuchman and Harry G. Levine. Beginning in the 1920s, New York Jews began eating at Chinese restaurants. Previous to that, observant East European Jews did not go out to restaurants because they did not know if the restaurant owners who claimed they kept kosher really kept kosher. But the sons and daughters of those immigrants, the first generation to be born in the United States, were a different story.One hurdle for Jews to get over was that Chinese food was filled with non-kosher ingredients like pork and shellfish. Some just held their nose and ate it, and I think after World War II, maybe in the late 1950s, there evolved this concept of “safe treyf.” Obviously, treyf is forbidden but safe treyf means it’s forbidden but OK. If you can’t see the pork in the wonton soup stock, well, it’s OK. Or if the shrimp in the shrimp chop suey is chopped up into little tiny pieces so that you really can’t recognize what it is, then it’s OK. On our last day in New York, we went out for lunch with two New York Jews who know an awful lot about Chinese food... in fact, they know an awful lot about a lot of aspects of New Yorks many Chinese communities, since Ethel Raim and Pete Rushevsky run the Center For Traditional Music and Dance, a foundation that promotes the music and cultures of New York's many immigrant communities. We met them at the Grand Sichuan Restaurant on Lexington Ave. in Midtown Manhatten where we had gone two nights before to have Sichuan hot pot for dinner. If you haven't tried hot pot, the drill goes like this: they bring out a bowl of boiling soup stock (half mild and half filled with red peppers) and you order items like fish balls, lamb, tofu, and vegetables to toss in the pot and then you fish them out with a sieve they give you and chopsticks and eat them with a variety of sauces. It's great for a party - heck, it is a party - one that leaves you splattered with hot sauce and soup.
All the Japanese papers in town rave about the Grand Sichuan's hot pot and Ma-po tofu, and theis place has been voted best Chinese restaurant in New York on the Serious Eats website as well as by Time Out! New York. So we had to see what the fuss was about. It was worth it. Pete and Ethel gave it the CTMD stamp of approval, a less than rare honor granted to only several dozen Chinese restaurants in the New York area. Incidentally, when they are not organizing cultural events, both Pete and Ethel are astounding musicians in their own right... Ethel Raim was on the of the founders of the womens singing group the Pennywhistlers, who first introduced Balkan and Bulgarian singing to American audiences during the folk boom of the 1960s. She followed that up by popularizing immigrant cultures and Balkan music in particular as a teacher and folklorist. You like Balkan Music? Ethel pioneered teaching this othwerworldly style of music to American ears. It was one of the unsung Crusades of the Great Folk Era of the 80s that we all learned how Bulgarian harmony and rythym worked from Ethel's workshops. Here the Pennywhistlers appear on Pete Seeger's "Rainbow Quest" network folk music television show around 1964 singng the now well known Macedonian folk song "Sto Mi e Milo." Ethel is the singer standing on the far right.Pete Rushevsky also gets around as one of the Klezmer scene's most active players and researchers of the small cimbalom in Klezmer music. He's been in these pages before, but never pass up a chance to spread some of his music around. Here is the lot of us accompanying Pete and Steven Greenman (Di Tsvey) for the midnight dance at the Ashkenaz festival last month in Toronto.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Korean Food in Palisades Park, NJ. I'm a Seoul Man...

With less than a week to go before we return to Hungary, we have to cover a lot of ground finding things that we can't ever eat in Budapest. Although Hungary actually does have Korean food, it doesn't have Palisades Park, New Jersey, a suburb just across the George Washington Bridge that hosts the densest population of Koreans in North America. The northern New Jersey towns of Fort Lee, Cliffside Park, Leonia, and Teaneck all have large populations of Koreans, but Palisades Park wins on the culinary front. Broad Street, the main drag, is a two mile long taste of Seoul, with all manner of Korean BBQ joints next to catering shops, bakeries, noodle shops, and Korean fried chicken places.There is a huge Han Ah Rheum Korean shopping mall nearby. Last year I discovered the amazing Dokdo Seafood restaurant (Raw sea squirts! Raw sliced sea cucumber!) on Broad street, but this year we were headed to our favorite soft tofu soup diner in Fort Lee when I remembered a Tofu restaurant in Palisade Park. We decided to try something new. Officially, this is the Pal Gak Jung Restaurant at 268 Broad Avenue - a place often known simply as the Tofu Restaurant, although the menu is a pretty full of all of my korean cravings, from meat to seafood.
The lunch menus were excellent value, averaging about $10 a lunch, which comes with then obligatory slew of ban chan plates – pickles, small bites, and the ever present kimchee without which it is simply not a Korean meal. I had the soft tofu soup – as good as any I have ever eaten, in which the tofu serves the purpose of noodles, and you can take a spoonful of rice to slurp up the spicy red pepper stock, which in this case contained beef, shrimp, and seafood. Fumie went for the octopus stew on rice lunch plate, which was a huge portion of fresh octopus bathed in a mildly spicy red pepper paste.
This place was so good that a few days later when our friend Bob Godfried suggested we go out for some Korean food, we jumped at the chance to return to the Pal Gak Jung Tofu Restaurant. We weren't disappointed, Bob knows New York's ethnic music and food scenes inside out – anything diluted for tourists or compromised into unspiciness would immediately earn a rain of opprobrium from the astute Godfried. But no... he liked it. More kimchee banchan,,, and then out came a free plate of cold sliced pork with the skin on and two dipping sauces. This is why it is good to go to places like this late – they realize the goodwill value of dumping the day's banquet leftovers on you. We ordered a bit of everything: Korean seafood pancakes came out nice and crispy, stuffed full of crab and shrimp.
The grilled short ribs here were cut in a special style leaving a nice hunk of bone to gnaw on, but these were some of the tenderest kalbi ribs I ever had, and three of us could not quite finish the whole order.
Fumie ordered a red kimchee stew while Bob went for a beef bulgogi stew, both excellent and filling. After our first lunch trip, we went down Broad street to the Parisian Baguette Bakery.This a is a chain that can be found in any Korean shopping mall or town, and it competes on Broad street with the equally good Shilla Bakery and a few other trendy coffee and bubble tea spost for the very active Korean need to eat high quality Euro-Asian pastries and coffee. Fumie went on a buying spree, setting aside boxes that would serve as her breakfast for the coming days.
I have an addiction to Korean food... which shouldn't be pricy. Why pay double to eat in Manhattan when you can eat in style in NJ. Well... for some reason, New Jersey absolutely fails in the American restaurant category. There are some pretty bad places to eat out here, but when it comes to certain ethnic communities – Korean, Dominican, and Lebanese come to mind - you can find some of the best food in the USA just off some highway exit tucked into some nondescript ethnic neighborhood. Just ask Mr. Godfried.He gave the Tofu Restaurant in Palisades Park a great big thumbs up!

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Coney Island and Brighton Beach: Shooting Freaks in Little Odessa

A week ago when my Dad - still feisty at 84 - had to drive down to south Brooklyn to deliver some important papers to somebody in Sheepshead Bay area, and we decided to go along for the ride. My Dad is a long retired New York detective with a lot of time pounding the pavements as a beat cop back in the classic days of New York cop life, during the 1950s, and whenever I get a chance to cruise around with him in the city I get to listen to his nonstop stories from the old police precincts.
Papers delivered, we took a cruise down memory lane to see Coney Island, where my Dad lived for a few months in 1931 and where my Uncle was born. Coney Island is one of those slices of New York life that never really changes - it spruces itself up now and then, but essentially it is a visit back to 1935 every day in this part of town. At least on the boardwalk. The old neighborhood used to be characterized by hundreds of small bungalows and homes that were rented out each summer to New Yorkers looking for a beachside weekend or a summer at the sea.
In the 1950s the area began to run down and New York's "Master Builder" - the never-elected-to-office Robert Moses - decided that the seedy amusements day had gone. The Luna Park and other fairgrounds were closed, and the Aquarium were built in its place. The last big fair, Steeplechase Park, closed in 1964. The cozy bungalows were replaced by ugly apartment projects. Robert Moses remains one of the most hated names in the history of New York - he destroyed nighborhoods, even entire boroughs in order to carry out his megadevelopent plans between the 1940s and the 1960s (ending with the construction of JKF airport and the site of the 1964 World Fair in Flushing.) Still.. a lot of housing went up during his years. Ugly housing, but housing nonetheless. In fact, Klezmer clarinetist Dave Tarras spend his twighlight years living in this building, across the street from the boardwalk, and spent most of his days in a chair by the window watching the endlessly turning Coney Island Ferris wheel. Coney Island went on a decline that lasted until about a decade ago. The new Coney Island owes a lot to the Nathan's hot dog stand and Delicatessen.
Nathan's has long since franchised itself into a thousand suburban malls, but the original still serves fried clams and boiled corn - and Nathan's excellent but ridiculously overpriced NY beef hot dogs. Ya want heritage, ya gotta pay for it. And while Robert Moses was able to pretty much destroy Brooklyn and much of New York with his Stalinoid building projects, some of the old Brooklyn spirit was guaranteed to creep back. They didn't have paint ball back in the day, but if they did you can be sure they would have featured "Shoot the Freak."
Basically, a guy (from Bensonhurst, we met him) gets armored up in hockey gear and hides amid the rubble between two clam and beer bars, and for $5 you can shoot at him with a paintball gun. This, in Brooklyn, constitutes "fun." Who could resist an advertisment offering "Live Human Targets!" It was a bit early for us to start shootoing freaks (they begin at 11 AM) so we cruised down to Brighton Beach, to the nighborhood known as Little Odessa. Starting back in the 1970s, as Russian Jews began emigrating to the USA, this became the single most concentrated Russian nighborhood in the USA. It is a little like being in Chinatown, only with Russians instead of Chinese. And these are happy Russians, at least the ones we met. With markets serving all the flavors of home and produce you would only dream about back in Moscow, this is a bustling, healthy ethnic nighborhood that has some amazing places to discover.
We stopped at a small cafe on Brighton 12th street, ordered a coffee, and by chance lucked into the best cheese pastry any of us had ever had in our lives. We live in east Europe, so we know our cheese pastries, and this place had the most exquisite, mouthwatering, delicately flavored, harmonious cheese pastries ever encountered. I know of what I speak. These were gooooood. I should just drive down to this joint in the morning, buy all their pastries at $1.50, and then sell them on the street in Manhatten for $4 a pop.
My Dad immediately wanted to jump from breakfast to lunch. The counter was filled with good old Russian comfort food: pierogis, pelmeni, roast chicken, kasha, potatoes, latkes, mayonnaise salads, boiled beet borscht... all for $3.99 a pound for the meat dishes and $3.49 for the carbs.
All the foods of my grandmother's depression era kitchen - the amazing things one can do with chicken and spuds. We didn't have enough time to really eat our way through Brighton Beach, but it is worth a return trip, if only for those cheese pastries.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

New York's Chinatowns: Fa-lo-shen and Manhatten

Yes, I have been lazy posting while traveling, something that I have never been guilty of before. Since the Ukrainians left town we have both been taking it relatively easy - we both have writing work to complete while we are here, and the weather is still warm, and since we can sit in my parent's garden watching the squirrels while working, we have been enjoying life in New Jersey. New York is a ten minute, $3 "Spanish bus" ride away, though, and we have to make up for lost time eating Chinese food. For some odd reason, New Jersey doesn't have much in the way of consequential Chinese food. Lots of local Chinese , check... lots of Asian supermarkets... check. But the Chinese food in Jersey... meh. The Korean food here is amazing, and good Japanese is never far away, but for good Chinese you have to hit The City.
We started out by exploring Flushing with my Dad. Flushing, Queens (written as "Fa-lo-shen, Emporess City" in Chinese on the shuttle buses that run to Manhatten's Chinatown) is an half hour on the subway outside of Manhatten in the Borough of Queens, known to most as the home of JFK Airport. It is also the home of New York's largest and most vibrant and diverse Chinese neighborhood. This is where all the different ethnicities end up, including Manchurians and Uighurs, and everybody eventually dines at the Flushing Mall, featuring a food court and a few offball shops. The Food court is the main attraction - noodles, regional foods, almost nothing over $6.00.
But we were here because my Dad once tried out the Dim Sum lunch at Ocean Jewels Dim Sum Restaurant, across the street from the mall. We got there on a Saturday at lunch - a great time to check out full fledged Chinatown dim sum frenzy, a bad time to cruise for parking. But finally we did it. Rice Noodle Rolls with Shrimp.
And amid the shiu mai, the turnip cake, the bacon wrapped shrimp balls, the stewed tripe (two kinds,) the har gow, there were the highlight of dim sum for me, the steamed vongole clams in garlic hoisin sauce. The road to heaven is paved in the crushed shells of Cantonese dim sum clams, believe me. Of course, there is a lot more to find in NYC if you like calssic Cantonese food. Manhatten was next, two days later. We were too lazy to head all the way to the eastern edge of Chinatown by Division St and the Manhatten BVridge, but we hit the nabe near the old remnants of Little Italy and found one of the classic roast duck in the window joints and gave it a shot for lunch.
Two kinds of roast meat (here, roast duck and roast pork) with rice and stir fried cabbage, five dollars. a bowl of Cantonese style nooodle soup and shrimp and pork wontons, $3.75.We have no complaints. None at all.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Manyo in New York

It has been a week since the Técsői Banda played at the Central Park Summerstage for the New York Black Sea Roma Festival. It was the high point in the life of these guys, who today are safely back in their home town of Tjaciv recieving an award from the Mayor of Tjaciv himself for playing at an esteemed international festival.
Not to mention that tsymbaly player Vasil Hudak's daughter is getting married today. Not shabby at all for a traditional Hutsul band from the western Ukraine. The boys were a joy to be with while they were visiting New York, especially when we brought them down to the East Village for their gig at the Ukrainian National Home Restaurant on 2nd Ave.
With some time to spare, they strolled around the village, amazed at the presence of so much Ukrainian culture to be seen - the Ukrainian Museum, Ukraianian churches and schools, the impressive Surma bookstore. Even more impressed was the crowd at the Black Sea Roma festival. Alongside some of my favorite East European and Balkan musicians like Selim Sessler from Turkey, Yuri Yunakov from Bulgaria and now the Bronx, and the Mahalla Rai Banda from Romania - who are old friends who remembered me from our now legendary festival gig in Finland some years ago during which we spent three days trout fishing on a river near our festival.Yes, I taught the Mahalla Rai Banda how to fly fish for trout. Sombody had to. I'm in a bind for time so more posts to follow. The last week has been a non-stop manuscript race against the clock for some contract work I had to finish... but the joys of watching the the Técsői Banda discover New York Pizza - eyes bulging in surprise that pizza was never like this before! Thanks goes out to the Center for Traditional Music and Dance in NY (Ethel Raim, Pete Rushevsky, and Eileen Condon,) and to Isabel Soffer of the World Music Institute, and especially to Shaun Williams for getting the details done that got the band here. You all did a great job.