Boy was it a weekend. C took the day of work on Friday to come up to New Haven especially for it. For what, you ask? Well, there was the 4th Annual YSFP End-of-Classes Jack Hit Pig Roast (fittingly a mouthful) on Friday, the Centennial Pump & Slipper Ball at St. Anthony Hall on Saturday (cf. F. Scott Fitzgerald), and on Sunday we took the train back down to New York to go to wd~50 for research for my final paper. Oh, and it finally decided to become summer, so when we got to Manhattan in our pants and jackets it was so warm we needed to go back and change right away before heading back out into the sunny afternoon. Monday I spent reading Hervé This for my paper, walking around the east village, looking at apartments for the summer, hanging out in the park, a quick happy half-hour at Ost, and cooking with C after work.
But that’s not what this post is about. We’ll get to those adventures later. This story is about an ethnic food adventure.
A couple weeks ago, not even a week after our first field trip, my History of Food and Cuisine class took a full-day excursion to Jackson Heights and Flushing, Queens. The goal was to explore the ethnic cuisines of immigrant populations to New York City, with the hope of arriving at a more nuanced, immediate concept of ‘ethnic’, experience some things we never had, and have some good discussion along the way. Oh, and to eat delicious food.
Our guide was the inimitable Jackie Rohel, a PhD candidate at NYU’s food studies program, and her adviser, Professor Krishnendu Ray, whose book on Bengali immigrant households we had read for class. In it he charts the sociological shifts that radiate out to the population from the kitchen table, the complexities of which eating habits and foodways shift (and which do not) and why. It was an interesting read to say the least.
We started at a Pakistani restaurant in Jackson Heights called Dera. It is the restaurant owned and operated by the Hamid family of the legendary Shaheen Sweets, one of the first Pakistani/Indian sweets companies to ever open in New York City. As soon as we arrived, we were invited to a few tables near the rear of the restaurant, and after a few minutes one of the tables was being filled with trays of steaming, aromatic food by Tariq Hamid, the current owner. There was basmati rice with peas, vegetable curry, chicken curry, chicken shiskabobs, creamy sesame sauce, vegetable samosas, chicken samosas, a big salad of lettuce, purple cabbage, carrots, and radishes, sesame roti, garlic roti, plain roti, and milk tea. And apparently that was all “less food” than the first time they did a similar field trip, according to Jackie.
It was all delicious. The vegetable curry was rich, smooth, and round, with a good level of spice and complex flavour. I loved it with the rice and the sesame sauce (like a spiced tahini emulsion). The veggie samosas were also outta this world (to borrow a 90s phrase inspired by C’s and my Portlandia marathon staggered over the weekend). The crust was puffy and crispy, filled with a soft and chunky blend of potatoes, onions, pepper, caraway, mustard, and other spices. I ate like three. And of course, I loved having a huge plate of raw veggies.
The roti as also so delicious — flaky, charred, and utterly tearable. It was so satisfying. After our meal, Tariq brought us trays of his family’s famous Shaheen sweets. My favourite were the gulab jamun — balls of soft dough soaked in syrup. And these ones were topped with a bit of sweet cream and crushed pistachio (the far ones in the picture).
But the best was yet to come. Tariq insisted that we come back to the kitchen to show us around. We met his cooks and watched as they cooked huge vats of curry with all sorts of ingredients simmering away on an open flame, and flattened balls of dough and placed them inside the round tandoori oven with expert precision. It was our turn, he said, to make roti. We each took turns stretching the dough, fitting it over a round glove-like paddle, and sticking it to the concave wall of the oven while being careful not to burn our arm as it was stuck through the top of the huge clay orb. Most people were pretty successful. Mine, however, succumbed to gravity before it could finish cooking (I blame the excessive length of my arms). The result, though, was not quite as horrendous I expected:
Possibly one of my most successful failures ever. Who wouldn’t want a heart-shaped roti? And I myself am pretty partial to char flavour, so that wasn’t even a problem. Too bad I was too stuffed to even think about eating more bread.
After Dera, we explored Jackson Heights, going to another sweet shop to look for Sweet Pa’an. Pa’an is a post-dinner stimulant that traditionally involving stuffing a betel leaf with slaked lime and areca nut, sometimes even tobacco, and chewing it. The sweet version is more tame, without the narcotics, but that does not mean it is an incredibly stimulating experience. They stuff the betel leaf with the slaked lime paste, along with coconut shavings, candied fennel seeds, and a variable host of other digestives. It was one of the most complex bites I have ever tried.
The betel leaf itself had a remarkable flavour, moving back and forth between sour, bitter, and astringent. The pa’an overall had these flavours, as well as a hovering sweetness from bites of the coconut. The slaked lime enhanced the sourness and stringency of the flavour. But perhaps the most remarkable, bordering on the difficult aspect of this delicacy was the combination of textures. It was the ultimate in chewy and crunchy, between the seeds, coconut, paste, and raw leaf. But if one stuck with it and gave the requisite masticatory attention, it was worth it. The flavours became less disparate, melding into a more complementary whole, while still being bold and herbaceous. One could keep chewing for many minutes, almost like a gum. As is the custom, I spat mine out after about ten minutes, as we were wandering the street. The sidewalks are marked by red stains which comes from the slaked lime paste; a pattern both disgusting and beautiful.
After our adventures in Jackson Heights, we took the 7 all the way to the end of the line in Flushing. As soon as we got off the train, it was like entering another world. It felt like being in Hong Kong — there were so many people, most of them Chinese; so many smells and sights and sounds. We wandered to the Golden Mall we watched cooks make pulled noodles so effortlessly it seemed as if their hands were guiding the rest of their body. It was an aesthetic experience as an observer, only heightened by the claustrophobia, the peppery air, and the inundating atmosphere of foreign sounds. We also got some Peking duck buns; I was so full though, I couldn’t try any. Plus, I wanted to let the aromatic, astringent aftertaste from the pa’an linger in my mouth. My classmate, though, jumped right in.
We were getting pretty tired by this point, after eating a huge, heavy lunch and walking a lot, but we kept up our pace. We explored a Korean grocery store, replete with 30lb bags of dried mushrooms, corn ice cream, and rice soda, and visited Paris Baguette, a Korean French bakery (it made me nostalgic for bakeries in Japan), where they sold familiar specialties like sweet potato cloud cake and thick slices of milk bread.
We had finally reached the end of our energy reserves; luckily, our last stop of the day was right across the street. We stepped into Jade Asian Restaurant and were relieved to sit down at a big table and relax. Though we weren’t exactly hungry, we did our best to try all sorts of Chinese delicacies: a tray of cold meats, including jellyfish and baby octopus; scallops, maitake mushrooms, and lettuce; dried scallops, garlic, and cabbage; lobster with ground beef; sharkfin and braised crab soup; poached and fried Peking chicken; abalone with mushrooms; fried rice with cranberries; noodles with enoki mushrooms; and red bean dessert soup, served with melon and orange. It was a feast and we could barely try a small bit of each dish. It wasn’t my favourite type of cuisine (especially being so meat-heavy) but it was fascinating and I made a point of trying everything. The dinner conversation was also wonderful — we had some great discussions about the mutable nature of immigrant cuisine vis-à-vis an urban audience, and the resultant discussion of authenticity and cultural identity.
All in all, it was an incredibly day packed with experiences of learning, delight, and surprise. I was especially happy though to crawl into bed at the end of it, nursing my gloriously distended belly.