Special Report: Live from Oz

September 20, 2008

So you decided we are a bunch of slackers because we haven’t written in a while?  Well, fear not fellow travelers, for we have not abandoned our mission (we’ve even done part one of Andorra, to be posted soon), but have merely been taking a break while I am in Australia.  I have been here now for a week, and have a week more to go.  The trip is work related (conference), but I’m finding time to get in some great sightseeing, and eat lots of different and yummy things.  I figured since Australia is an “A” country (on our list), and we’ll have to be eating some of their cuisine in New York in a few weeks, it would be worth a preview since I have a first hand look right now.

I should clarify that I am in Sydney, and have not been outside the city as of yet.  But there are plenty of culinary adventures to be found here.  What is Australian food like, you ask?  Well, there is a lot of this:

But there are also loads of other things.

Particularly notable is the delicious Asian food.  It’s also convenient that my hotel is a couple blocks from Chinatown, so I’ve been sampling some of the excellent Chinese, Thai, and Vietnamese around.  Chinatown here is different from the Chinatowns of New York.  It is much less residential, and much more touristic than the Chinatowns of our fair city.  There are a lot of young Asians running around in packs, and fewer hunched over old ladies.  There are restaurants a plenty, but few vegetable shops (and no vege stands.  In fact, I have not seen any street food in Sydney at all, which is a little disappointing).  That said, I think the food might surpass that found in NYC.  The Thai food is far more dynamic, with more flavor and dimension that what one finds in a typical Thai joint in the Big Apple.  And the Chinese is also outstanding.  The other day, whilist walking home from a long day at the conference, the wind suddenly carried a distinctive smell my way.  It was familiar, but from a long time ago.  It took me a minute to place it, then it hit me: China.  It smelled like China.  Not in a stinky fish head way like you get in Manhattan C-town, but in a delicious, street food in Xi’an kind of way.  I haven’t smelled that since I was in China in late 2003.  So immediately I wandered into the first Sichuan restuarant that i found, and enjoyed the heck out of a scallion pancake and some Kung Pao chicken.

Cafe life in Bronte Beach

I’ve also had some cheap and excellent sushi (surprisingly cheap, considering food is generally rather expenive here), Italian and Spanish, as well as grilled fish, octopus, prawns, and scallops (more local fare).  They certainly do seafood right.  Sydney has a fantastic cafe culture; sandwich shops and pubs typically have tables spilling good vibes and eats onto the street.  And they have killer coffee.  Now, I am not a coffee drinker at home (maybe one cup every two years), but immediately upon arrival here (at 7:30am after a 23 hour journey) I grabbed a cup, and I’ve been hooked ever since.  The name of my new found love is the “flat white.”  This is a shot of espresso with milk.  I also add a little sugar.  And being the talented baristas they are, the Aussies make it look beautiful too.  You can also get a flat black, a long black, and the familiar latte.  Yum.

So we’ll soon be eating Australian in New York, and will have good basis for comparison.  I’m assuming it will be lots of grilled and fried seafood, to ensure the experience is typically Aussie.  I hope its as good as the food here.

Ramadan, Algeria Style

September 6, 2008

Mediterranean Coffee Shop & Grill

25-75 Steinway St., Astoria, Queens, NY

It turns out New York is short on Algerians, which on consideration makes perfect sense.  Algerians are far more likely to immigrate to Paris or Marseille, where there are already large, deeply rooted North African communities.  Still, after some digging on a few online community boards, we discovered that the small Algerian community that does exist here has found a home among the hookah bars and North African groceries of Steinway St. in Astoria, Queens.

The neighborhood is primarily Egyptian, but we found a nice and well patronized Algerian spot there.  The dining room had a buoyant, communal feel with large long tables, and it was packed when we arrived (though it had completely cleared out by the time we left at around 9:30).  We were led through the restaurant and outdoors to a concrete slab graced with a few tables and folding chairs. If you were so inclined, it wouldn’t be too hard to imagine yourself in a small courtyard somewhere in the casbah of Algiers.

It hadn’t crossed our minds that Ramadan had started.  Everyone had come in after sunset to break his or her fast for the day.  Apparently, the restaurant discards its usual menu during the holy month, so everyone who comes in after sundown gets the same traditional post-fast feast, which suited us perfectly and added to the perceived authenticity of the experience.  Our waitress (who also turned out to be the chef) was warm and worked hard to make us feel welcome. Although she seemed to have an excellent command of English, her food vocabulary was strangely limited.  So our efforts to find out exactly what we were eating came to very little.  I’ll do my best do describe anyway.

We were started out with some orange juice obviously meant to get our glucose levels back up after a day without food.  This was quickly followed by a tomato-based soup  packed with vegetables, chickpeas, rice, and chunks of meat that we had a hard time identifying (after further research it turned out to be lamb, and the soup is called harira).  The soup was accompanied by a plate piled with a ratatouille-like dish mostly comprised of tomato and green peppers, two burek, which are crisp, almost egg-roll-style pastries filled with seasoned beef, and an Algerian version of the Indian confection, jalebi.  By the way, for those of you who have been paying attention, we also encountered burek in the last entry.  Algerian burek is much different from Albanian burek, however.  It’s more of a roll than a pie. Next came chopped liver in a punchy tomato-based sauce that I associate with a lot of North African food I’ve had, along with plates of prunes and raisins cooked in a sweet and tart syrup. The bread that accompanied everything was similar to Turkish bread and was perfect for soaking up the soup and liver sauce. Finally, for dessert, we got some healthy-sized chunks of fresh watermelon. We topped everything off with some incredibly strong coffee with milk and tea steeped with fresh mint leaves and lemon.  Our waitress then brought us some more jalebi and some delicious sticky sesame biscuits.

The entire meal seemed designed to provide as many essential nutrients as possible for a fasting body.  Even Noquar, who had been struggling mightily for most of the day after his exploits the previous evening, seemed to brighten as we worked our way through all the food.  From the vegetables in the soup, to the iron and protein in the liver, to the fiber and natural sugars in the dried fruits, we went home feeling very well nourished… perhaps even too well nourished by the time all that fiber had worked its way through our systems.

Robert Sietsema, our ethic food guide

Robert Sietsema, our ethnic food guide

I feel like I’ve found the Holy Grail. I even wondered at first why I’m even going to bother continuing to attempt to eat food from every nation on earth in New York City. It seems that it’s been done, and well documented. But then I took a closer look and thought, not quite. There is no entry for Algeria in Robert Sietsema’s The Food Lover’s Guide to the Best Ethnic Eating in New York City. Whew! I now have reason to keep going.

Robert Sietsema is longtime Village Voice food critic, and author of now-on-hiatus foodzine Down the Hatch. His book is a mandatory resource for anyone who is interested in multi-national eats in our fair city. First published in 1994 with the title Good & Cheap Ethnic Eats Under $10, the latest revision came out in 2004, and includes entries for what appears at first to be every cuisine under the sun. The guidebook, slim and rectangular, in a shape and size not unlike the Zagat guides, is organized by region/country/cuisine, more or less in alphabetical order. Each entry is limited to one paragraph, and includes a rating of one (good) to three (amazing) stars, a $ if the meal is more than $20/person, and other symbols if spicy food is available, the fish is particularly good, and/or if the establishment is vege friendly. A helpful little box of common food items to look is placed at the beginning of each section. All five boroughs and New Jersey are well covered, and a neighborhood index makes browsing your local hood easy.

This book is going to be a huge help when we get to places like Azerbaijan and Guyana, and for figuring out which restaurants in Flushing have Sichuan food and which represent Beijing. But with 100 cultural and national groupings represented, it is definitely not exhaustive of the entire UN.

We can already pride ourselves on having identified, located, and devoured Algerian cuisine in Astoria, Queens. Supereg will be filling you in on the details of that adventure very soon. In the meantime, I’m going back on the hunt for Andorran food (also not represented in the Sietsema book), which is proving to be our first real challenge.

Albania on Arthur Ave

September 2, 2008

Continuing down the UN’s list of nations, we learned that Albania comes after Afghanistan.  A lot of Albanians apparently live in the Bronx so we took the 5 train to the Pelham Parkway stop, an hour from downtown Brooklyn.

We went two places.

First up was Dukagjini Burktore, a small storefront with 4 tables on Lydig Avenue.  The menu was even smaller, complete with six items:  meat burek, spinach burek, cheese burek, yogurt, espresso and cappuccino.  This was enough.   Burek is fantastic, essentially a phyllo pie with filling.  At $3.50 per slice, we had four.  The yogurt was unflavored, thin but not watery, cold and satisfying.  Operated by the same family for 14 years, worth the train ride.

After dodging rush hour traffic on our walk across Bronx Park, we finally found our way to Arthur Avenue, the Bronx’s famed Little Italy.  I had never been before, but of course had heard from everyone about the Italian joints in the neighborhood, sausages hanging in windows and outdoor pastry shops, and gelato and hand-rolled cigars.  The street was quiet as apparently a number of restaurants close for extended August vacations.  Albania, separated from the heel of Italy by 74 kilometers of Adriatic Sea, was represented by one spot on the strip dominated by its larger, more celebrated neighbor.

We thought the Gurra Café, 2325 Arthur Avenue, was some sort of Balkan Social Club when we stumbled upon it.  We recognized the Albanian flag outside, and spotted tough looking, square jawed middle-aged dudes with closely cropped hair sitting at the table outside, talking quietly.  We went in anyways, taking our seats in the corner under the TV broadcasting poorly dubbed music videos from somewhere in eastern Europe, the women broadcasted undulating their hips ever so slightly and the men looking confused but happy to be there, singing pop songs in a language I didn’t understand.  The restaurant itself was very nice, dark woods and green paint, ceiling beams meeting in the middle of the room to form an inverted V.

Our waiter was friendly and helpful.  When we first walked in he smiled and asked, “Do you know that this is Albanian food?” Clearly a lot of people stumble in thinking the food here is Italian. We said yes, that’s what we were here for.  He suggested the combo meal so that we could have a sampler, and promptly brought us two much needed beers.  We watched the bad Balkan pop videos on the screen above us, and happily sipped while waiting for our food.

The food was decent, typical of what I think we’re going to find as we visit other spots from the region.  We split up a combo meal and got salad with chunks of a mild type of feta-like cheese and a variety of smoked meats, including Qebapa (Kosova style sausage), Suxhuk (Albanian sausage), Pleskavice (flat Albanian meatball), and veal.  A basket of fluffy, round, almost Turkish-style bread accompanied the meal.  Stuffed as we were from all the burek just an hour earlier, we managed to put down about 2/3 of this feast, and took the rest home to enjoy the next morning for breakfast (which we did, with fried eggs).

When we finished, we told our waiter about what we were doing, trying to find food from every country in NYC, blah, blah, and he said we could get most of it right in that neighborhood.  Looking at the citi-data for the area, it certainly does seem that there is quite an ethnic mix.  On the list of first ancestries reported, the vast majority claim Italian ancestry (3239 residents), and a good number hail from Albania (1313 residents), with many other ancestries (from Sub-Saharan African to Hungarian) included on the list.  But when we told our waiter we had come here looking for Albanian food, he said, actually, this restaurant’s proprietors were from Kosovo.  Then he laughed and said that because the two countries had been one until recently, it’s all the same thing really.  We agreed, finished our beers, hopped on the D train, and were home within an hour.