Tuesday, August 06, 2013

The Silence of the Clams.

Since arriving in the US I have been on a quest to eat all the things I can never get in East Europe, particularly shellfish. And I have succeeded. Many molluscs have given their lives to satisfy my cravings, many crustaceans have been reduced to their basic amino acids in my digestive system. It's all my karma, I know, and its bad ahimsa for sure, but it tastes good, so what the heck.  A couple of nights ago I we ran down the Jersey Turnpike to the Ironbound neighborhood of Newark, NJ to have dinner at Seabra's Marisqueira, a well known local Portuguese seafood restaurant. I had never been to the predominantly Portuguese and Brazilian Ironbound district before June. I discovered Portuguese food back in 1997 when I did a month long tour in Portugal and decided that the cuisine there was on a par with the best in Northern Italy or Southern France. Seabra's lived up to that reputation.

Octopus salad. 
The octopus salad was an immense portion of sweet tender tentacles, the clams were swimming in garlic and olive oil, and the star of the meal was Fumie's A├žorda de Marisco, a "dry soup" of shrimp, scallops, clams and mussels stewed with cubes of Portuguese bread. The salt cod Bacalhau Gomes de Sa was declared a bit "too fishy" by my sister, but it may have been the best thing on the table: it certainly was after standing up to being microwaved into breakfast submission the next morning. 
Bacalhau, paella, dry seafood soup, shrimp.
Seabra's may have some of the best seafood in the NY area, but it still seems like a neighborhood hangout with people speaking Portuguese crowding the bar area where they wolf down huge plates of giant crabs and buckets of garlicky clams while putting away pitchers of the house mix sangria. This wasn't the sweet lemony sangria you all remember from the 1970s, folks. This was icy, refreshing red wine and a secret mix of fruit juice that went perfectly with the the flavors of fish and garlic.
Seabr'a bar.
How this place stayed off my radar for so long is a total mystery to me. Now, Newark has had an image problem dating back to the Newark riots in 1967, and it still has some of the most desolate ghetto areas in the Northeast US, but the Ironbound district (which is located just next to the spiffed up Newark Penn station) had a laid back feeling, and with all of the Brazillian hamburger joints and outdoor cafes and the various Angolan, Azorean, Iberian and Brazillian accents of Portuguese that dominate the street conversations it definitely is the closest I have seen to a European feel of any city in the US.
Cream custard cups!
After inhaling crustaceans at Seabra's we crossed the street to Rivera's Bakery for coffee and old world cakes, including the creamy egg custard tarts called Pasteis de Nata which are the original version of the Hong Kong style egg custard tarts we get in Chinatown (via Portuguese bakers in nearby Macao.) In Hungary most of our seafood comes from Chinese and Vietnamese markets, especially those in the back of the four Tigers market - which the Budapest eighth district mayor, Mate Kocsis, wants to shut down this year. Personally, I'm hoping the little creep fails at that, but in North Jersey seafood is best found at either Korean or Mexican markets.
Fumie with her dream of a bathtub full of shrimp.
Our local Han Ah Reum Korean supermarket is like a cross between the Monterrey Aquarium and an all-you-can-eat buffet. Lobsters are $5.89 a pound this year, the lowest they have been in memory. Apparently, the local fishermen in Maine have succeeded in enforcing conservation measures - such as marking pregnant female lobsters, and throwing back undersized one - to the point where they may be more lobsters in the gulf of Maine than ever before (over-fishing of cod also factors in, leaving lobsters as the main alpha predator in the ecosystem.)
About to be hypnotized.
This has led to a lobster fishing crisis: with lobster so plentiful, it becomes almost economically unfeasible to sell at luxury prices. We bought a couple and took them home where they were hypnotized by my brother before cooking by stroking their carapace shells with a knife, which puts them into a sleeplike state and prevents the flesh from seizing up and toughening when things start getting stabby for Mr. Lobster. Yes, we stab the lobster in the brain once he has been hypnotized rather than drop him alive in a pot of boiling water: we are not Republicans after all. Then we set the split lobster on the grill and soon, with the aid of some extremely fine virgin olive oil Fumie brought back from Croatian island of Korcula, we are in crustacean nirvana.
Awaiting its final journey.
I have also been gorging on clams this summer: while they are about $5.00 a dozen in most places, the Korean supermarkets dump loads of them for $1.99 a dozen, which I take home and open myself to share with my Dad. Eating live clams on the half shell with my Dad is a ritual that began back when I was about ten and still living in the Bronx. He would drive us out to City Island, a New England fishing village miraculously attached to the city of New York and he would order clams on the half shell next to the ocean. It was kind of our introduction to unkosher food. Unless you choose to eat rabbits alive, nothing beats a clam for unkosherness. It fairly screams "treyf!"
Still alive and able to do mathematics.
Cold, salty, so alive that it quivers when you drizzle lemon juice on it, a fresh clam tastes like a voluntary conversion to Catholicism with every bite. Can I ever be forgiven for my addiction to eating living molluscs on the half shell? Probably not. The slaughter of the shellfish actually began back in Washington DC. While I was taking part in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival I used to slip away to the nearby Maine Street Fish market, located about fifteen minutes from the National Mall on the Potomac River.
I need a pickup truck!
The fish market is america's oldest continuing fish market, and is run off of barges floating in the Potomac, serving a mostly local and decidedly not very up-market crowd with local specialties, especially Chesapeake blue crab. George Washington used to pick up his crabs here on the ride back to his plantation in Monticello. The guys working the barges speak using the broad vowels of the Tidewater dialect of the Chesapeake baymen, an accent that goes back to the English spoken at the time of the Virginia colony in the 17th century.
A whole lotta shell, a tiny bit of meat. meh!
Folks buy bushel baskets of crab and have them steamed to order at the docks and then take them home or consumer them along the seawall of the marina next door, where they can toss the piles of crab shells into the water or to the hovering seagulls awaiting their feast, a decidedly casual affair for dining in downtown Washington DC. When we had a free moment, Fumie and Jake Shulman-Ment and I sneaked off to the market for lunch: fried red snapper, crab cakes and shrimp.
Crab cake and shrimp on the Potomac. 
When the festival was finally over, Fumie and I stayed in DC one more day for the big event of the year: we had to see the panda bears at the National zoo. Yes, panda bears. If you live with a Japanese woman for a decade you will eventually have to pay the price, and that price is calculated in panda bears. Fat, cuddly, cute kawaaaiiiii panda bears.
Low carb diets don't work.
Apparently, pandas spend most of the day stuffing their face with bamboo shoots, and have incredibly complex problems mating and creating more panda bears. This is what I took away from my visit to the national zoo. After all that pandering, we strolled down the street to check out Hot and Juicy Crawfish. Originally opened in Las Vegas by a New Orleans born Vietnamese chef, Hot and juicy offers a Southeast Asian take on the traditional Louisiana crawfish boil, understandable since Vietnamese fishermen have been a controlling presence in the New Orleans fish market since the 1970s.
Terrace full of Asians. Must be good.
Not knowing what to expect, we sat down next to a happily drunk Vietnamese guy who was sitting alone working his way through his fifth pound of seafood in hot sauce of the early evening who kept announcing "I LOVE this place! Seafood is my hobby! More crab!" Not knowing what we were getting into, we ordered a combo of one pound of shrimp, one pound of crawfish, and a pound of anadouille sausage with corn on the cob for $25. You get a choice of sauces and spice levels, and we went with house sauce, which is a basic Cajun crab boil with some Vietnamese flavors (lemon grass?) mixed in for good measure.
Bucket of goodness, spice level five.
The waitress came to the table with two metal buckets: one for the food and one for the shells. New Orleans Abita beer for us, of course. The crawfish, shrimp, and sausage were in a big plastic bag which she plopped into one of the buckets. No utensils. This is gonna be good! Now, Fumie had never eaten crawfish before. Crawfish is one seafood that the Japanese do not like, and most would consider it to be a water cockroach that lives in rice paddies and swamps, as narrated in one of the Gumbopages epic stories about a foodie duel matching Japan against Louisiana over the idea of which is the grossest food: crawfish or sea urchin gonads?
Fumie's first mudbug.
What we got was a huge bucket of food swimming in spicy sauce, and luckily, two plastic bibs to protect our shirts from the slurp-fest about to begin. this was some seriously good eating, and we seriously considered coming back the next day for lunch before returning on the 6PM Bolt bus to New York. Fumie declarfed her love for crawfish ("Like little lobsters! I don't know why we don't eat them in Japan!") Now I know what the tipsy guy at the next table was so happy about. As we were about to leave, he was ordering yet another round of shellfish: a whole lobster in hot sauce, his sixth order for the evening. And another beer. Abita, of course.
He loves this place.