Thursday, November 17, 2016

Serbia: The Paradise Garden of Protein

Cevapcici... the Glory of Novi Sad

Where have I been for the last month? Where have any of us been, really? Glued to the news, and now that the news has resolved itself, and the US election is over, the Age of Facts and Truth is over and the Troll Brigade has conned the American people into electing an illiterate rapist as President and the alt-right baboons are doing their shitty monkey-assed victory dance for the next two months.... I have been boycotting any and all news sites and watching endless kitten videos on YouTube instead. In cases like this we all need to go on vacation. Fumie and I, although firmly in the Democratic voting bloc, went to Novi Sad, Serbia, a city which had the living shit bombed out of it in 1999 by Nato under the command of Bill Clinton. Oops.... need some kitten videos again...

Anybody out there know who bombed this bridge in Novi Sad?  (Hint: he was married to Hillary!) 
So we went to Serbia. A vacation in Serbia is not something you read about much in Conde Naste Traveler. Following the breakup of Yugoslavia, Serbia earned itself a pretty bad international reputation, sort of as the Toughest Meanest Kid on the Balkan Block. You may also klnow Serbia as the country that produced all the Hollywood action film villains of the late 1990s (Serbian actors made a cottage industry out of pretending to hunt down and torture Bruce Willis. "Would you like to die fast... or slow?....") You may remember a genocidal gasbag named Milosevic, you may remember a war or two in the Balkans, all of which is very worth remembering. But Serbia today has calmed down, considerably. They have gone back to being easy going, approachable, friendly Balkanoid folks - maybe somebody found a couple of free duffel bags of Xanax in Niš or something. If you are in the neighborhood (anywhere east of Vienna and north of Athens, say) Serbia would be well worth a visit, if only for the meat.

Leskovac Pleskavica in Novi Sad. Yes, it is the size of a child's head. The baddest Balkan burger for $4.00. 
Serbs like meat. They like meat a lot. Particularly meat served with as little froofrah as possible: chunks of meat grilled over a fire is the cornerstone of Serb cuisine, and they are masters of it. At some point around 150,000 years ago, early man tamed fire and first grilled a bit of meat over an open flame. That was enough for the Serbs - they never seemed to bother with other techniques for applying heat to protein. There are grills - rostilj - on every street corner, and the savory smell of grilled meat bathes the nation in its hypnotic aroma. There may be a vegan or two in the country, but they seem quiet about it. Serbia is not a vegetarian paradise, although a visit to an open air market there is a trip to organic, non-genetically manipulated salad paradise. But in Serbia, vegetables know their place! Their place is next to meat!

Things that exist only to accompany meat are sold at Belgrade Market
Since the Serbian macroeconomy remains a bit... isolated, undeveloped, sad, pathetic, and perhaps, totally tanked, Serbians tend to shop and eat locally, and even their supermarkets seem to be stocked with local specialities that appear no place else on earth. If you are not earning your living inside of Serbia these products will appear to be surprisingly affordable, almost surrealistically so, inspiring thoughts of extending one's tourist visa for, perhaps, a five to ten year stay. Food and drink are cheap for outsiders: significantly less so if you are local. Serbia is the last bastion of local branding: you won't see the big Global brands and chains here, which is refreshing. And most of the locally produced stuff is surprisingly quite good - at least it is unlike anything you can find outside of Serbia.

It's Eurocrem, silly! Just smear it on everything!
When I am south of Hungary I go for the meat, preferably cevapcici (skinless ground meat wads) or pleskavica - the Balkan equivalent of a hamburger. Unlike a hamburger, pleskavica are made from special secret recipes for the ground meat mix (usually veal, lamb, and pork in various combos) and serious techniques for its preparation, such as freezing it before kneading the meat into a pastelike consistency. Pepper and eggplat ajvar, chopped onions, and a bit of salad are all this needs to complete a full meal. And don't forget to order your meat with a dollop of kajmak, a  sourish clotted cream product that combines the taste of cheese with the rich melting consistency of butter.

"Hamburger" doesn't begin to reflect on the meaty, testosterone inspiring magnificence of a well constructed pleskavica nestled in a soft, spongey balkan pocket bread known as somun. And while I - and quite a lot of Serbs and other Ex-Yugos, will agree that the best cevapi are those of Bosnia, either the small Sarajevo cylinders or the square Banja Luka style, Serbia remains the master of pleskavica. And since you simply can not get a decent hamburger in Europe, we have to accept the fact that pleskavica is not only the next best thing... it may be the best thing.

Pleskavica across the street from me at PolaPola.
I am lucky in Budapest, because just across the street from us on Klauzal ter in the 7th district is the PolaPola, a Serbian grill house that serves, perhaps, the best cevapi and pleskavica in Budapest, and bakes their own fresh and spongey somun bread as well. and they stay open until two AM and they have a huge glass container hanging from the ceiling FULL OF SERBIAN PLUM BRANDY waiting for anyone (such as me, Frank London of the Klezmatics, Mitia Khrantsov of Sankt Petersburg Klezmer band Dobranotch, and dance ethnographer Sue Foy) to signal for a refill of our glasses.

Frank London, Sue Foy, Mitia Kramtsov awaiting their slivovica at PolaPola.

When leaving Novi Sad, which is about a six hour train ride from Budapest, the last thing that you notice at the station are these signs advising against unsafe use of the trains: don't climb on the roofs where the electric wires can kill you, don't jump in front of the trains... do people really need to be told these things? In Serbia... Yes.

Safety comes first! (Novi Sad train station)

Don't try this!

Another fatally bad idea!

Don't say we didn't warn you! 

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Trout Fishing in Serbia: the Gradac

We just finished off our summer with a brilliant fishing trip to the Gradac river in Serbia. I don't get out fishing as much as I used to, but a trip is to a wild, beautiful river like the Gradac in western Serbia, is well worth the wait. The Gradac is a world class trout stream, equal to any in Wyoming or Argentina, and although not as famous as other Balkan trout streams such as the Soča in Slovenia or the Gačka in Croatia, it doesn't get as crowded as they can. We usually fish for trout in Slovakia, so this was a great excuse to visit Serbia. Hungary is not a trout fishing paradise. The main target for fishermen here is carp. I do not do carp. I do not like carp. Carp are the Donald Trump of fishes - fat, rich, arrogant, dumb, piggish - but they do great in the polls among the uneducated. Carp grow huge in Hungary's weedy, shallow lakes and irrigation ditches. "Rough anglers" pay to fly in from the Netherlands, Britain and Italy to haul out a big, fat, Hungarian carp, take a snapshot, and release it to continue its life mucking about inhaling other fish' eggs. Although there actually are trout near Miskolc in the Garadna and Szinva creeks, they are hatchery cloned fish dumped in for the weekend crowds. And there is the Jósva, Hungary's only healthy limestone trout stream, right along the Slovak border - inside a National park basically closed to fishing. About fifteen years ago my buddy Claude and I were on a picnic with friends from the old Sixtus Kapolna Pub, and we sneaked off to fly fish the Jósva, which was off limits to all except dozens of local poachers who sold the trout to local restaurants. Claude - who is a lawyer and thus has no respect for the law - knows that poaching isn't just a way to cook fish, and so we each took our first Eastern European brown trout.

Representing La Belle France, Claude takes a Gradac brown trout.
Since then we have fished all over Slovenia and Slovakia, and since Claude now works in Serbia, he discovered the River Gradac near Valjevo in western Serbia, which is under the guardianship of host and fishing guide Saša "Roka" Bencun, the talented proprietor of Roka Fly. The Gradac is one of the most unspoiled rivers in Europe, protected by a steep, impenetrable limestone canyon. You can't drive a regular car down the canyon to the stream without a parachute.When Saša is not fishing, he works as a ski instructor. Saša drives you down the narrow canyon donkey path in his tiny four-wheel drive Jeep with all the skill of a champion slalom skier. The Jeep ride is an extreme sport experience in itself.

Saša Bencun runs a small fishing lodge near Lelić, which sits on a hillside two minutes walk from three great pools on the Gradac, and he has a lifetime of experience fishing the Gradac. He knows the fish and their habits intimately, and puts that into practice as a fly tier who has won international awards for his skill at tying hyper-realistic mayfly imitations that - he claims - actually catch fish. In reality, these are collector pieces, and most of the time Saša fishes classic flies from his own tying vise for the wild brown trout in the river.

Too pretty to fish, too small for an art gallery. 
In practice, Saša also ties practical flies that match the insects of the river perfectly. Typical of Balkan trout, the wild brown trout (and grayling) in the Gradac grow to huge sizes eating a diet of big food - minnows and leeches - and some of Saša's patterns were more like the flies used on big Western rivers in the USA than the delicate New England stuff I tie. Those big patterns are best when the river is flooded and the pools run fast and deep in the spring. We visited in late August - not the best season - and at that time of year the fish can afford to be picky eaters, and often ignore hatching insects to gorge on ants and grasshoppers and other land insects that accidentally fall into the river.

Balkan tiers love big streamers with heavy cone head weights to sink them into the deeper pools where big trout tend to hog the best feeding lanes. The largest flies I use are about half the size of Saša's Wooly Buggers seen above. I have been tying flies since I was a Boy Scout... and I still do. I tie because it has always been a compulsive hobby for me - I give most of my flies away for free to other fishermen. I probably have the largest secret stash of elk hair in Eastern Europe. I have two tying vises. I remember the puzzled face of my friend Yankl - an  Orthodox Jew - as he handed me a bag of furry tanned rabbit faces I had ordered from the USA for tying hares' ear nymphs. I can appreciate the perfectionism that Saša puts into his flies.

Master fly tier at work.
But my theory is a bit simpler: After tying dozens of different patterns I tend to to fish only a few: wingless Adams, Hare's Ear nymphs, tiny bead head pheasant tail nymphs, dry deer hair caddis, red tags, prince nymphs, ants, and muddlers. As John Gierach wrote  "If the fish looks up its an Adams, if it looks down its a Hare's Ear Nymph." I don't have time to fish a lot of different patterns: I think size and color are more important than exact imitation. Maybe I don't catch that many fish, but fly fishing isn't really about catching fish at all. It is about fishing. It is about being in beautiful, remote natural places while matching wits with an apex predator that has a brain the size of a lentil - and losing.

Fly fishing in paradise.
Just upstream from the cabin was one of the most picture perfect trout pools I have ever seen. All four of us fished it for the entire weekend without any luck. A rainy period had flushed a lot of insects into the river and the trout had been gorging all week. They were in the river but not hungry, and not interested in anything we threw at them. There are a lot of strategies one can use in these cases: dry fly casting, short line "Polish" nymphing, stripping streamers, or my favorite: throwing everything at the trout and waiting to see what sticks.

Frustrated by tiny animals.
It was easy to cast a fly line without getting tangled in the bushes - the grass banks along the Gradac are cut regularly with a weed-whacker - and I rarely had to wade the river more than ankle deep. Because I travel by train I usually don't carry waders when I fish - and I was perfectly comfortable stepping into the Gradac in sneakers and shorts. Fumie has her own unorthodox style of fly fishing. She isn't afraid to get wet, she isn't a great fly caster, she prefers to fish only two patterns of fly chosen for their "cuteness", and she still expects me to tie her leader knots, but she usually out-fishes me three to one. On this trip we each landed and released one fish each. Not exactly monsters by a long shot, but wild trout nonetheless.

Giant trout that attacked my fly with the ferocity of an alkaline AAA battery. 
The Gradac is a strict catch and release fishery - fly fishing only, no barbed hooks, no bait, and patrolled by a Fish Warden regularly who checks for licenses - which Saša provides for guests. Lucky for the fish, Saša's wife does all the cooking at the cabin, and we had great Serbian food: gibanica cheese pie for breakfast, stuffed grape leaves and meat in kajmak sauce for lunch and dinner. If I have been standing in a cold mountain river all day the last thing I want to eat at the end of the day is a fish. I'll blog a bit later about the rest of our trip through Serbia: Serbian food is one of my favorite cuisines.

Serbian lunch: nobody goes away hungry.
After lunch on Sunday Fumie hiked two km downstream with Claude's wife Mina, and their daughters Kali and Hani to visit a local "Skok po Skok Ecofarm" near one of the monasteries that dot the mountains throughout Serbia. This was the last trip of the summer for the amazingly multilingual Kali and Hani, who each already speak English, Romani, Romanian, Russian, Hebrew, Serbian, and French and began attending school in Belgrade right after we returned. The girls are still a bit small for fishing, but I have a feeling that pretty soon Claude will be investing a small fortune in graphite rods and custom waders. And I'll be tying a lot more flies.

Mina, Kali, and Hani: non fishing fun. 
Hopefully we'll be back next spring when conditions are better for feeding trout (Claude caught and released nine trout last June.) We returned to Belgrade, and then went on to Novi Sad - Serbia is one of the most unique travel destinations in Europe, with a character all its own - still local and regional, and not overrun by the big globalized shopping malls and brands that have made so much of Europe one big shopping mall. Serbia was just the trip we needed to end our summer, and we can't wait to return!

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Germany: Turks and Trout

It seems like I have been running around Europe all summer. We spent a couple of weeks in Romania hunting down geriatric fiddlers in July - more on that later - and then after a brief rest it was up to Germany to take part in the Yiddish Summer Wiemar workshops - the Nazaroffs were doing a concert on August 5. I have chronicled my previous trips to the Wiemar workshops on the blog so I won't go on at length here - Alan Bern and his crew always do a fine job. I stayed at a hotel across the street from the park on the Ilm River - a stream which inspired the poet Goethe to write what may have been the only poem about fly fishing that express sentiments that can be aptly described as "sourpuss."

Thoroughly urban rainbow trout in Wiemar, Germany. 
When touring I have been known to carry a small kit including a six piece pack fly rod and negotiate with my local agents for a fishing license when I perform. In this manner I have wet a line and taken trout in France, Finland, Slovenia, and Canada. In Germany, however, it isn't so easy to get a license to fish as a visitor: there are tests in German and registration forms and fees: one guy actually decided to document his journey into the world of  German fishing licenses.... so no, I would not be fishing in Wiemar. Instead we'll go trout fishing next week in Serbia! One advantage to Serbia: no vegans. None at all. Wiemar - many, many vegans. Serbia, here we come!

Goethe did not fish here. 
Instead... after Wiemar I was off to Berlin to witness, firsthand the most devastating examples of gentrification ever seen outside of New York. I have two favorite neighborhoods in Berlin: Prenzlauerberg and Kreuzberg. Those preferences go back to just after the fall of the Berlin wall in the early 1990s, when Prenzlauerberg was still home to thousands of grubby anarchistoid east Berliners and Kreuzberg was the heart of Berlin's Turkish community. Today both are hardcore Yuppie colonies. Kreuzberg is just barely hanging on - the Turkish community has migrated to nearby Neukolln and Wedding, but funky P-berg is but a memory of Ossie nostalgia in a sea of baby carriages and pricey Bio-supermarkets and cafes. And no Turks. For some reason, there is virtually no trave of Turkish culture in Prenzlauerberg - odd for Berlin in general, but especially odd for any neighborhood I would choose to spend time in. It is the only place in Berlin that you can't find a decent pair of circumcision undies there when you need them.

Snip shorts: really, you need to click to enlage this.
One thing about Germany - you don't really go there for the food. therre is German food, and specifically Berlin food: I haven't had the curry wurst at Konnopke's in over a decade, so I stopped underneath the elevated S Bahn tracks at Eberswalder Strasse and decided give it a nostalgic shot.

This is "food" in Berlin.
It was as bad as I remembered it. For some reason, the wurst they use in Berlin is some of the crappiest quality soft skinned meat past available - they are, after all, going to drown it in ketchup and curry powder so why invest a lot in quality. Afterwards I strolled the back areas of Prenzlauerberg and saw what else the Germans were eating. Just about every kind of ethnic food is available in Berlin, but all of it adapts to German tastes and styles: there is a piece of meat, a white starch, a and gravy. In Indian restaurants the gravy is curry colored, in Chinese restaurants the gravy is usually brown, and in "Latin American" the gravy is usually bright orange. Then there is the German idea of "Asian Wok." Germany doesn't have a lot of Chinese restaurants - most of the Asian immigrants are, in fact, either Vietnamese or Thai. Somebody once pointed out that this is probably due to the fact that China is not a destination for German sex tourism. So you have a lot of places offering a mixed cuisine advertised as "Asia Wok" or "Viet Noodles Sushi Thai Asia Wok" as if all these things were just variants of the same cuisine. They advertise vegan cuisine as well. Toss it in a wok with some sprouts and soy sauce and voila! Not for me. Head off to Neukolln for the Turkish Market, held every Tuesday and Friday near the Kottbusser Tor S bahn station.

Ekmek of my dreams!
Due to the recent attempted coup in Turkey it looks like we won't be spending much time there in the near future, so this was to be my substitute for visiting Turkey itself. the market was a lot less impressive than I had heard described: lots of vegetable sellers, sure, but also a lot of German vegan Bio-hippies selling ethno-hippie clothes and reiki spoons and bio-sandals, because, after all, where else would you go to sell such things if not a market specializing in household goods for working class Turks? Zey are so exotische! I had a yearning for some decent Turkish food - the only food there really is to eat in Germany - and we did find some decent kofte, served just as they would in Istanbul.

Izmir Kofte near the Kottbusser Tor.
The place was packed with Turks: unlike doner kebab, which has become the ubiquitous German teenager fast food, kofte has to be made to order. there is no standard form to kofte: instead dozens of regional styles and variations defy categories.. It is slow food, and as such remains the realm of the hungry and homesick Turkish community. As for Berlin: maybe I have been there too much, maybe because I was there on my own schedule instead of cramming in a few hours while on tour, but it did not get me excited. I wandered around avoiding Asia Wok and seeking wifi where there was none to be found - Germans live with some of the most arcane internet rules on the planet. The Chinese and Turkish authorities have nothing on the Germans, so finding free WiFi is like finding a German fishing license - nearly impossible. but I will be back: where else can I find world class Turkish food, tattooed beer drunks, klezmer wonks, vegan bio-fanatics, and a million other unique Berliners all enjoying life as a jelly donut.

Brass sidewalk plaques memorializing Jews killed by Nazi Germany.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Poland: Blood, Herring, and Pierogis.

Stuffed with love and bacon.
Ikh flee... sang Prince Nazaroff. I fly.... And fly I did. I have had a case of jet lag that would floor an elephant. I did a couple of concerts with the Brothers Nazaroff in the States in June, although I spent most of the time enjoying being with my family in Jersey or hunting down the Chinese food that I obsessed about while on a diet here in Budapest. I was pretty good about the diet in the states - basically, if the plate in front of me wasn't some regional Guangdong specialty prepared by a monolingual Grandmother in the back of a tiny doorway lunch place, I didn't eat it. I made a couple of exceptions for Shake Shack, of course, but somehow I managed to not gain weight in the USA, which is more than I can say for most Americans. But then the real test was yet to come. A few days after arriving home in Budapest, I had to go to Krakow for the Jewish Music Festival for several days with the Brothers Nazaroff. Poland: Land of Complex Carbohydrates.

A light lunch: pierogis, stuffed cabbage, kaszanka blood sausage.
Poland is a land of Well Mannered Gentlemen, Elegant Ladies, fine art, tragic history, and potatoes served a hundred different ways. We were in Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter of Krakow for the festival. The festival organizers - Janusz, Kasia, and Robert - are some of the most professional and warm hosts in the European Gigantic Culture Festival Business, and it is probably Europe's most relaxed festival hang between musicians, the hard core Yiddishists, and the visitors who come to hear the concerts and attend workshops. Everybody wanders around the old core of Kazimierz, and you get to knock back a lot of iced coffee with folks who like your music.  Oh, and eat pierogis.

Little edible bags of  prepared food.
There is no doubt that Poland likes its carbohydrates. Not content with potatoes and bread, Poles eat a lot of buckwheat groats - kasha - the bane of my Bronx childhood. We Hungarian Jews weren't big on kasha, but everybody else was. Kasha was like the quinoa of Ashkenazic Europe. Eat it, it will make you strong! Fumie, being Japanese, loves buckwheat, but I have hard time loving grains that remind me of the late stone age. Luckily, the Columbian exchange introduced Poland to the potato. So what does one eat if not eating spuds in Poland? Well, there is pierogi. I love pierogi. I love them stuffed with meat. I love them stuffed with mushrooms and cabbage. I adore them stuffed with fruit, especially the tiny mountain strawberries that were in season while we visited. But lo-carb food they are not. So yes, I ate the pierogis.

Vincent's Pierogi Shop: Choose your poison.
How much damage could I do? after all one thing I discovered about Poland in late June was that the vegetables are some of the best I have ever seen offered in Europe.Yes, Polish tomatoes easily beat what I can buy in Budapest. I was buying bags of them like fruit (diet hint: eat tomatoes instead of chips!) The concert went well, as concerts often do when you are a band consisting of five leaders of different bands - imagine a small boat floating across the ocean crewed by five captains. Fun! the only thing that can top it is to visit a herring bar! Yes! A bar serving nothing but vodka shots and herring! Poland likes its herring - you can get it about a dozen ways but I always prefer simple herrings in oil with sliced onions. This is how you approach vodka at the Maly Sledz in Kazimierz:

Reb Fishl of Kroke.
And then, after midnight, everybody would drift to the market square across the street from the Alchemia Club and chow down on sausages. Our favorite is kaszanka, a blood and liver sausage similar to the Hungarian hurka, It tastes good and it makes whoever you are sitting with squeamish at the same time.

Not Kosher. Not Kosher at all.
One tragedy: my Nikon Coolpix died while I was in Krakow. Its in intensive care now at a small Hungarian repair shop, and I am going to Romania in a few days, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed as to whether the Coolpix does a Lazarus on me or else it is going with a ten year old Canon camera... photo quality may suffer. Most of the photos here were made with the camera on my Nexus tablet. Taking pictures with a tablet looks like the stupidest posture ever developed for any pursuit of Art: Look! I am holding a big square thing up! Thrill to my fuzzy photos! And when photo quality suffers, we all suffer.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

My Life is Valued in Pastrami, Pork Chops and Old Mandolins.

A 1922 Gibson F4
Not the Mandolin under discussion, but very nearly so. 
I am in New York for only a few more days, and it feels like I hardly scratched the surface. The city changes so fast that as soon as I realize that one funky old neighborhood has become yet another Fair Trade Hipstertown, yet another wave of Huddled Masses yearns to breathe free and moves in to replace the Refuse that is no longer so Wretched that they can't buy a nice two family place in Miss Liberty's Promised Land of New Jersey. (Apologies, Emma Lazarus...) Chinatown is always on my walking map - its the last place in Manhattan that I can afford to splurge on lunch. I cook Chinese food at home a lot, but recipes never tell me much about how a dish is supposed to taste. I have read a lot about Taiwanese Fried Pork Chops, but I had never had one, even though the raw ingredients are easy to get in my home base of Budapest. Luckily, on tiny Doyers Street (next to the Nom Wah Dim Sum House, the oldest Chinese restaurant still standing in Chinatown) is the Taiwan Pork Chop House - formerly known as Excellent Pork Chop House.

Order the pork chop on rice. Then consider your options.
You have got to love a restaurant that tells you what to order by putting it right in their name. Pizza Town. Burger King. Taiwan Pork Chop House. In we strolled and that's what I ordered. The menu also offers side dishes such as pork chop, diced pork chop, fried chicken leg, and seaweed, in case you need more pork or species diversity. (In fairness, the menu is classic working class Taipei.) And it was well worth the $5.95 that I invested in - a huge plate of rice topped with chopped Chinese pickled mustard greens, a ground pork and sesame sauce flavored with Five Spice powder, and a huge soy and five-spice marinated pork chop sliced into four piece for easy chopstick manipulation. If you know anybody who "doesn't like" Chinese food, take them here.

Jews, such as myself, may not enjoy this. But I did.
The pork chop was huge, and slightly marinated with five spice and dusted in corn starch giving it a crispy finish and a slight Asian fragrance. the pickled greens and pork sauce were perfect when mixed into a swill that alternated with cave man bites of pig meat on the bone. It was transcendent in a way that only swine flesh can appeal to a one who was once a pork avoiding Semite such as myself. This is how non-kosher meat is supposed to taste, at least if you are not at the A-Wah risking your eternal soul on their clay pot House Special. Did I mention the price? $5.95! As if this was not enough, we began our meal next door, in fact, at the Indonesian and Malaysian Chinese restaurant Sanur.

Like Louis Szekely's (yes, C.K. stands for that most unpronounceable of Hungarian names) pre-diet preparation, this trip was a "bang-bang" ( a lunch consisting of going out for burgers and then going out again for pizza, except in this case it was serial Chinese cheap lunch joints.) Another dish I had read about but never tried was Asam Laksa, a sweet and sour fish and noodle soup that every expat Malaysian Chinese raves about, but I had never actually seen. Every time Bourdain or Andrew Zimmern goes to Penang or Singapore they always start out by swooning over a bowl of Asam Laksa. I wanted in on the action.

Asam Laksa: Soup? Noodles? Fruit salad?
Big thick rice noodles swimming in a sour tamarind fish broth, raw onion, a chunk of boneless fried mackerel in the middle, and oddly enough, chunks of pineapple swimming around in there. Again, cheap and good, but it didn't match the splendor of Fumie's Curry Laksa soup, which had the required chili burn that I need at least once a meal. New York has lots of Chinese communities: Cantonese, Fujianese, Northerns, Szechuanese, but it never got the influx of southeast Asian Chinese from Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia that you find in Canada or Britain. Our loss.

I'll have what she's having...
And then, stuffed to the gills, I went up to the village and did my gig with the Brothers Nazaroff at Joe's Pub. the day before, however, we had to do the ritual trip to Katz's Delicatessen. This blog has chronicled my obsession with Katz's and with pastrami in general over the last decade, ever since man first set cuneiform into the wet clay interface offered by Blogger, freeing us from the HTML of the paleolithic era. Corned beef and pastrami are flavors that one can only find in New York (and Newark and Montreal, and maybe two other places) and it is what I miss most when I am not on that stinky island off the coast of Trumpland.  Katz's had had to raise its prices and pander to the tourist trade in order to survive the astonishing rent costs that have made the once gritty Lower East Side into one of NY's most sought after bits of real estate, but it is still worth a visit. I heard that they had switched meat suppliers, perhaps just a rumor, but my pastrami was a bit saltier than I remember and lacked the funky background smoke that I used to expect from the King of Delis.

The Hot Dog course is served alongside the main pastrami course.
This is where we end up arguing between Katz's Deli and Schwartz's Smoked Meat in Montreal. It is an argument kind of like arguing which religion is the True Religion, but it must be done. As a New Yorker, I am like a lapsed Catholic regarding pastrami. Full of guilt. Hate the sin, love the sinner. I love Katz's, I mourn the loss of the Second Avenue Deli and will not try its new and even pricier uptown reincarnation. I acknowledge Loesser's as the best regular Pastrami sandwich in the city, and I would say Liebman's in the Bronx is the best Jewish Deli for general dining, including pastrami, but it generally comes down to Katz's versus Montreal's Schwartz's. At the moment, I am going to have to award a point in favor of Chez Schwartz, and say Schwartz's is actually better in the hand-sliced spiced salted beef department, even if they are using a different belly cut of beef which is not acceptable as New York orthodox "pastrami."

But there is a new kid on thre block... I got a chance to try the Mile End Deli on Hoyt Street in Brooklyn. This is a new place, relatively speaking, opened by a young Jewish Montreal expat who smoked his own sides of beef in Montreal style, and actually makes the pickles in house and used to import Montreal style bagels daily. It was new enough to send my local Guru for All Things new York, Bob Godfried, into an angry spiral of despair, muttering dark things about "hipster delis" destroying our New York traditions with their upstart Canadian imports.

Of course I had to try it, and since I was on my way to pick up a mandolin at nearby Retrofret/Musurgia music on Butler Street, Mile End was a given. It is a small place, not overly crowded on a weekday for lunch. And the french fries were voted "best in New York" by NY Magazine, and I had not eaten a french fry since last summer so it was going to be a chance to break my french fry fast as well. And it was great. Not overstuffed, and subsequently, not overpriced, the fries were crispy and delicious, and the pickle was the size of a small car. Having watched the decline of delis in the New York area over the last few centuries (I'm talking about you, Tabatchnik's!) I'm overjoyed to see a new deli that manages to be both new and traditional and - hopefully - successful. I would like a Mile End Deli on every street corner, and if I get my way, there will be one, as soon as Bernie Saunders wins the election and monkeys fly out my ass.
What the no-harp zone of Heaven looks like.
Oh, yes, that trip to Retrofret. Retrofret does excellent fine instrument repair, and is twinned with Musurgia, a fine vintage instrument shop that sells quality old guitars, mandolins, banjos, and the occasional theremin and lute. My old friend Steve Urich is one of the founders, and I had not seen him since he visited me in Budapest back in 1990. Another buddy - Claude, King of the Yekkes - had asked me to pick him up a nice old Gibson mandolin while I was in the USA. His modest needs grew in scale until he asked me to arrange the purchase of the mandolin of my dreams - for him, not me, mind you. A 1917  Gibson F4, the top of the line at its time, which sings like and angel and plays like a Stradivarius with double strings. When I started playing mandolin in a bluegrass band in High School, a buddy of mine - Jeff Grisman - got a loan of one of these F4 models from a shop in New York to try out. We played it nonstop for two months before he had to return it because Steven Stills - of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young -bought it for $600. Today it would be worth at least ten time that much. It has haunted my dreams ever since.

The Mandolin that has haunted my dreams... now your baby, Claude! 
Gibson started as a mandolin manufacturing company during the heyday of the instrument in the early 20th century, when mandolin orchestras were all the rage and Gibson's carved top, flat back mandolins replaced the Italian bowl back mandolin as the main form for the instrument in the United States. Subsequently they played a big role in the development of blues and bluegrass in the United States, and remain widespread and popular throughout the US. Gibsons are a bit more rare in Europe, but still widely available in the USA - they still show up in attics and estate sales regularly. They were so well built and age so well that an old Gibson in good condition is a far better investment than most new mandolins, in my deeply prejudiced opinion. At least I know this F4 will be living nearby. Until then, I am happy with my trusty 1934 Gibson A50, although if anybody wants to donate $1500 to me I would jump at the chance to pick up an oval hole 1917 Gibson A1. Or perhaps a 1922 Lloyd Loar Snakehead A4 model? Because money can't buy love. But it can buy mandolins.

A Gibson mandola, the A1 model that I want, and two amazing "snakehead" mandolins that I will never own unless you help by sending me tons of money. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Feed My Soul: New York in Spring

It is the annual pilgrimage to the Big Apple. "New York, just like I pictured it, skyscrapers and everything!" I have been eating a restricted diet in Budapest this year, justifying it by telling myself that if I refuse the bowl of rice or the roll of bread today I can make it up later by eating something fantastic when I am in New York... It has worked so far - I lost quite a bit of  weight - so I am allowing myself a measured bit of leeway while I am in New York. Leeway as in Chinese food, Indian food, and yes, an occasional Shake Shack burger. I have been traipsing about the city for weeks, but the sad story is that the New York I knew growing up is shrinking into oblivion. Manhattan is almost lost amid a flood of new construction and condo-madness. Harlem is no longer a majority Black city - it is yupping out, filling with hipsters and losing the century old sense of soul that is baked into its stoops and sidewalks. Times Square is Disneyland, The East Village junkies and punks have all become acai berry juice moguls, and Yorkville hasn't seen a Hungarian sausage in over a decade.
Dim Sum beneath the Manhattan Bridge on East Broadway
The old ethnic neighborhoods have disappeared as rents rise and families flee to the suburbs. Brooklyn is gentrifying as people who seem cloned from the cast of "Girls" move in establish artisan fair trade coffee shops and yoga centers. But it isn't all lost - there is still the Bronx. The Bronx will never gentrify. Its the place I was born and raised, and it still defies the trend towards hipster homesteading that has raised the rent in traditionally immigrant and black communities. The Bronx, No Thonks! remains the borough's best defense.

Bob Godfried, a born Bronxonian and one of the stalwart holdouts of the old Jewish Bronx, took me up to the Norwood section off of Mosholu Parkway for the Bangladeshi Festival along Bainbridge Avenue. Never have I seen so many Bangladeshis doing what Bangladeshis do best - teem in overpopulated masses. From one end of Bainbridge ave to the other sari clad women sold spicy chickpea concoctions and samosa while others listened to the painfully loud live singers.

Not bad for a neighborhood once known for its Irish bars and the last secular Yiddish school in New York. I've been in New York for several weeks - much of it spent in New Jersey, and several of those weeks were without access to a laptop so I was not updating the blog. Jersey is the Bronx of the future. Since Bob G had taken me to the depths of sub-continental Bronx life, I responded by taking him to the deep South Indian enclave of Newark Avenue in Jersey city.

For about four blocks, Newark Avenue is wall to wall Dosa joints, Indian sweet shops, bakers, and Mandirs - small storefront temples dedicated to Hindu worship, whatever that may be, we non-Hindus will probably never know, but it is comforting to know that if there are Hindu temples around, a good rice pancake is probably not far. Since a lot of the recent immigrants from India are from stricter vegetarian Hindu and Jain communities, you can get excellent veggie food unlike what most of us know from meat heavy North Indian restaurants. Straight to Sapthagiri, the all vegetarian Restaurant I lucked upon last year.

Twelve dollars gets you a huge south Indian thali selection of vegetarian curries, tamarind broths, pickles, chapatis, lentil, and rice. I wrote about Sapthagiri last year, and if you really love Indian food it is worth the trip out of Manhattan on the Path train to Jersey City - it is only about five minutes from the PATH station. But man cannot live on vegetarian offerings along, especially if you like to eat meat as much as I do.

A-Wah's House Special Clay Pot Rice: roast Pork, Chinese bacon, sausage, and minced pork patty.
For that we have Chinese food. Living in Europe - specifically Hungary - I can get a lot of Chinese ingredients at the shops serving the Chinese community and cook myself, and there are always a few decent Chinese restaurants, but I was raised in New York and I am spoiled by the range of small, affordable eating places serving local Chinese cuisines for their own communities.Lacking Chinatowns of our own in Budapest, I have to make up for it with reading food blogs and watching YouTube, which is how I came across this: Chinese American food maven and host of the Double Chen Show Mikey Chen getting characteristically excited about the Clay Pot Rice dishes served at a tiny place in east Chinatown that I have been passing by for years - The A Wah.

I have seen recipes for Clay Pot Rice, I have seen the little clay pots for sale in Chinese shops, and I have lived around Cantonese people for much of my life, but I had never tried the stuff. Boy was I dumb! Its far more than its individual meaty-ricey parts. It was the best Chinese food experience that I have had since discovering the Golden Mall in Flushing a few years ago. The window betrays nothing: ducks hanging, strips of pork dripping, the same as dozens of Chinese BBQ meat joints around lower Manhattan that serve cheap take out lunch to the local Chinese workforce.
The A Wah, one of NYC best restaurants, for clay pot rice dishes, at least.
But in the back there are tables and the tables are filled by that indicator of good Chinese regional food - namely, Chinese people eating. All New York Jews know that Chinese food should only be eaten in a place filled with exclusively Chinese people. (Look, I would love to give you all some valuable financial advice and Jewish trade secrets, but I can't, so you will have to be satisfied if I tell you the secrets of how we know where the best Chinese food is.) Chinese people: why have you been keeping these pork filled clay pots hidden from us New York Jews for years? Did you want to retain one deep, pork filled secret from us after years of Jews slurping your noodles and scarfing up your dim sum and disdaining out-of-towners who don't know the difference between a PJ Changs and Palace 88? Is there something about Tianshen cuisine you don't want us Jews to know? In any case - this stuff was amazing: meat cooked inside a rice filled bowl with crispy burned rice sticking to the bowl which becomes the star of the meal when dizzled with sweet soy sauce. And if pork, pork, pork, and pork cooked inside rice isn't non-Kosher enough for you, there is also roasted eel, which is about the most unkosher thing you can eat that is not a rabbit, a lobster, or the House Special Clay Pot Rice from A-Wah's.

Eel! Eel!

No more eel, but crunchy, crispy burned rice!