Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Ollanta for Short

Ollantaytambo, Ollanta for short, is a town in Peru's Sacred Valley of the Incas, on the way from Cusco to Machu Picchu. It has its own formidable Inca ruin (an uncompleted fortress, abandoned with the arrival of the conquistadores), and there's a train from Ollanta to Machu Picchu. Most tourists who get to Ollanta go for those two reasons. But I'm glad I spent an extra day just hanging out in the town.

Ollanta is known as the "Living Inca City" because the main residential area is still the original Inca-built town, a nearly square grid of narrow streets and alleys, with most homes built on original Inca stone foundations, many including the original portals. It's fascinating, and I think most people who pass through just to see the ruins or catch the train miss it.

This town of about 12,000 got a windfall about 5 years ago, when Perurail started running about 6 trains a day from Ollanta to Machu Picchu, instead of the 1 or 2 they previously had. It brought a lot more tourism to the town, but it hasn't been spoiled. People still go about their very traditional lifestyles and very little English is spoken. While I stayed in Ollanta I used Spanish exclusively.

I'm glad I stayed in Ollanta instead of Machu Picchu Pueblo (formerly called Aguas Calientes), at the end of the train line. Taking the train from Ollanta (1 hr. & 20 minutes) I still had over six hours at Machu Picchu, which I think is more than enough for most people (unless you want to see the sun rise over the ruins). Machu Picchu Pueblo is simply a constantly growing tourist hub lacking in charm: English spoken everywhere, restaurants with touts, lots of places for muesli or cappuccino.

I had originally planned to spend less time in Ollanta. My game plan was to get there with a tour bus that hits other Sacred Valley ruins and markets along the way on a Tuesday (one of the market days), then go to Macchu Picchu on Wednesday and return to Cusco on Thursday. But I was unable to get a train reservation to Macchu Picchu until Thursday, so I had a day to hang out in Ollanta. It actually worked out fine. The ruins at Ollanta require climbing hundreds of steps, quite a workout, and a day between that and Machu Picchu was a blessing in disguise.

I loved my lazy day in Ollanta, wandering the old Inca streets, eating guinea pig, drinking chicha with local old folks, and looking at the ruins from the window of my hotel, the Hostal Sauce.

My stay in Ollantaytambo was one of the most rewarding parts of my visit to Peru. If you're planning a trip to Cusco and the Sacred Valley, I highly recommend you stay a day or two in Ollanta and just go with the flow.

The strange yellowish structure (click photo to enlarge) on the side of the mountain near the Ollantaytambo fortress is believed to have served as a granary, but nobody is quite sure how the Incas accessed it!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Which Came First, the Chicken or the Waffle?

And where and when did they come together?

Did it happen in Harlem? Was it brought from The South? And what about the Pennsylvania Dutch? Did African Americans and German Americans have the same brilliant idea, unbeknownst to each other? That's my guess, perhaps because I want hold on to the Harlem nightlife angle, which has great appeal. The story goes that Wells Supper Club popularized the dish, even if they didn't invent it. Fried chicken and waffles, which Wells started serving in 1938, became a hit with patrons who flocked to the restaurant in the wee hours, after shows at the Savoy, the Apollo and countless other venues now long-forgotten. A late dinner? An early breakfast? Why not kill two birds with one dish?

But chicken and waffles really took off in the seventies, when Harlemite Herb Hudson brought the beloved dish to Hollywood and opened Roscoe's House of Chicken and Waffles. Here was a place that not only served the dish, it specialized in it. The restaurant's popularity with black celebrities gave it a major boost, and gave the dish a higher profile. Other restaurants and chains specializing in the combo followed.

Chicken and waffles is an irresistible combination, as far as I'm concerned, but somehow I had never gotten around to trying it. There are a number of places in Harlem that serve the dish today, but Amy Ruth's is reputed to be the best, so that's where I went for my first taste. My verdict? The waffles at Amy Ruth's are fantastic, fabulously fluffy and buttermilky, but I was disappointed with the fried chicken. The meat was on the dry side and the breading was rather bland. I had a taste of the smothered chicken (which one can also order atop a waffle), and that was somewhat better. The macaroni and cheese was too dense for my taste, but the collard greens, cooked with smoked ham hock, I believe, were fabulous. Prices are reasonable and service is cordial. Too bad the fried chicken isn't better.

Amy Ruth's
113 W. 116th St. (near Lenox)

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Return of the Hunan

I was excited to learn, several months ago, that an authentic Hunan restaurant had opened in Queens.  Hunan restaurants, the real thing that is, are well nigh impossible to find in the U.S. Forget about the multitudes of places with names like Hunan Garden, Hunan Palace, Hunan Empire, Hunan Dynasty, Grand Hunan, Great Hunan, or Little Hunan that serve generic Americanized Chinese food.  I think Chinese restaurateurs must use some kind of name generator to come up with a moniker for their business.  Take Szechuan or Hunan, add Grand, Great or Little before it, or Garden, Palace, Empire or Dynasty after it, and voila, you have a generic American-Chinese restaurant.  They're interchangeable.

There was a brief time, in the seventies, when New York had several Hunan restaurants, hot on the heels of Nixon's China trip.  The most famous Hunanese chef/restaurateur in New York at the time was Peng Chang-kuei (inventor of General Tso's chicken and bean curd home style), who was born in Hunan province and had come to New York by way of Taiwan.  Though his cooking was championed by Henry Kissinger, you shouldn't hold that against him. After a brief flowering of true Hunan and Sichuan cuisine in New York, where Americanized Cantonese had been the standard Chinese fare for decades, those spicier cuisines became bastardized and morphed into the Americanized Chinese food we know today.  By the end of the seventies you'd have been hard-pressed to find an authentic Hunan or Sichuan restaurant in New York.

In the past ten years or so, real Sichuan food has returned to New York, spearheaded by the Grand Sichuan chain and ably represented by Manhattan's Wu Liang Ye and Szechuan Gourmet (which also has a Queens location), and Flushing's Spicy & Tasty and Little Pepper.  It took a little longer for Hunan to return.  Let's hope it sticks around.

While there are similarities among the spicy cuisines of the western Sichuan, Hunnan and Yunnan provinces (and all fall under the Chuan category in the "four schools" classification of Chinese cuisine), there are a number distinctive differences.  Hunan cuisine, overall, I find less oily than Sichuan food, and its dishes are more reliant on pickled chillies than the aromatic Sichuan peppercorn for spice and oomph.

I organized a group of ten to try a range of dishes at Flushing's Hunan House. We started with two cold appetizers.

The tree fungus (moyee, also known as tree ears or clouds ears) in vinegar sauce was crunchy and refreshing.

Cucumbers with scallion sauce was bathed in a dressing of finely minced scallion and oil.  It was subtly delicious, and one can also order the same sauce with cold tofu.  I believe I've seen one Sichuan menu where the sauce was referred to as "scallion pesto."

Hunan being an inland province, there's not much in the way of seafood in the cuisine except freshwater fish.  We decided to try the fish head (shown at top), and what a formidable head it was (though one has to forage diligently for the meat), topped with pickled chillies.  It got mixed reviews, and perhaps the whole fish with the same preparation would have gone over better, even if it would have stripped us of some macho foodie cachet.

For the most part we went with meat dishes, three of them pork.  You can never have too much pork, and you can quote me on that.

Steamed spare ribs in bamboo came in a boatlike vessel I've mostly seen used for rice dishes.  It had a peppery, soupy sauce.  One diner remarked that the flavor reminded her of a Mexican dish, and I immediately knew she was thinking of adobo de puerco; it was an apt comparison. The dish got mixed reviews from the table.  I liked it quite a lot while others were frustrated by the scant meat to be found on the chopped bones.

An item on one of several specials menus is referred to as Fuzhi meat dish, and consists of pork belly chunks with a rice flour coating, steamed in lotus leaves. This dish too got mixed reviews.  About half of the table rated it among their favorites, but I was disappointed, perhaps because I've yet to find a steamed pork with rice powder that equals that of the long defunct Chinatown Sichuan restaurant Ting Fu Garden.

I think the big winner in the pork category was unquestionably the "braised pork Mao style," otherwise known as red-cooked pork.  Made with chunks of belly pork, the dish was mildly spicy (more so than the version I've had at one of the Grand Sichuan branches).  While rice wine and soy sauce figure in all recipes for red cooked pork (hongshao rou) I've seen, the spices can vary.

Sliced lamb with cumin dishes are popular in a number of western and northern Chinese regional cuisines, and I'm guessing the cumin came via the silk road trade route through Xinxiang province.  Everybody enjoyed this one, though I'm more partial to the crispy version I've had a number of times at Szechuan Gourmet and the truly amazing northeastern version at Waterfront International (now called Fu Run). 

Another item from one of the specials menus is the lean dry duck with soybean paste.  More prominent than the soybean paste was the mix of chopped chillies atop the dish.  It was indeed lean, and crispy, but dry is a bit of a misnomer as the meat is quite moist.

The Hunan-style sliced fish was coated with a complex spice paste and served with steamed bok choi in a way that resembled the Shanghai meatball dish called lion's head.  The waiter told us the fish was frogfish.

Hunan House has a more extensive and more interesting vegetable section of the menu than you're likely to find at most authentic Sichuan restaurants in New York.  We went with a dish called "pickled with mustard greens."  It didn't taste expecially pickly, but it was a wonderful dish, with subtle spicing.

There are a number of tofu dishes on the menu.  It was a hard time choosing one, but we went with the mashed peppers with tofu.  Slices of firm smoked tofu, in a light sauce, are topped with a mound of the mashed peppers.  Several diners remarked on the tofu's resemblance to smoked mozzarella.  What's nice about this dish and several others is that they're served in a way that allows the diner to adjust the spiciness of his portion.

Perhaps the dish that was most unique of all (and now that William Safire is dead I can say "most unique" without fear) was the white chili with preserved beef.  I had never seen nor heard of white chillies before.  The chewy pieces of moderately spicy peppers were a perfect match for the chewy, salty but not overwhelmingly so preserved beef.  The dish was a textural complement to the rest of the meal.

Hunan House is, I'm prepared to declare, an outstanding restaurant.  It features a large menu of regional dishes, many of which can be found at no other restaurant in the city.  The range of preparations and textures along with the subtlety and complexity of flavoring are quite remarkable.  While the Sichuan restaurants I've been to all seem to have strengths and weaknesses among their offerings, Hunan House was amazingly consistent.  Of the twelve items we ordered at least eight were admired by all and the other four got mixed reviews.  There was nothing that everybody declared a loser, and that's an impressive thing.  

Hunan House
137-40 Northern Boulevard (between Main & Union)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Malaysian Food: The World's Great Fusion Cuisine

I'm generally skeptical of fusion and pan-Asian restaurants, places with concepts and menus put together either by hot-shot chefs who are trying to come up with bold new flavor combinations or by mediocre Asian restaurateurs who are trying to cover all bases. On the other hand, conquest, migration and trade have certainly influenced almost all cuisines to some degree throughout the course of history by bringing in "foreign" elements. And certain cuisines have developed through a more aggressive melding of diverse influences. The cuisine of Macau, for instance, mixes Chinese cooking techinques and ingredients with those of Portugal and the other former Portuguese colonies. The food of the Indian Ocean islands Mauritius and Reunion melds the cuisines of the French settlers, Indian workers (once known by the politically incorrect term "coolies") and Chinese merchants and workers. For my money, the world cuisine that most brilliantly incorporates multiple influences is that of Malaysia and Singapore.

Perhaps the greatest food trip of my life was the one I took in the early nineties to Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia (though the one that included Bologna and Verona would make a worthy opponent). In Thailand I found that the best food was to be found at food courts and night markets rather than restaurants. The food was dirt cheap, and much of it wonderful, but after a while I found that Thai food lacked real variety, despite the regional variations.

Once I got down to Penang, Malaysia, where I spent about a week, I was in foodie heaven. As in Thailand, much of the best food in Malaysia is sold by outdoor vendors, most specializing in a particular item. Certain dishes tend to be made by members of particular ethnic groups, though in the U.S. a great deal of them find their way onto menus of restaurants run by ethnic Chinese from Malaysia. In Malaysia the best way to eat is to go to one of the hawkers centers, outdoor clusters of vendors selling one or two specialties. You take a table with a number on it, go up to the vendors and order your dishes, give them your table number, and they bring the food to you when it's ready. One of the most famous hawker centers in Penang is at Gurney Drive, a pleasant waterfront setting that is bustling at night. Something I noticed in both Singapore and Malaysia was that all ethnic groups seemed to enjoy each other's food, and sometimes dishes weren't relgated to any particular sub-cuisine.

Hawker Centre in Penang (probably Gurney Drive)

The main ethnic groups of Malaysia are Malay, Chinese and Indian (predominantly Tamil, but also some North Indian). One can find excellent South Indian food in that region, as good as in India. Traditional South Indian cuisine hasn't found its way, in general, onto overseas Malaysian restaurant menus. You won't find a dosa at a Malaysian restaurant. But you'll most certainly find roti canai (pronounced "chanai"--"c" before a vowel in Bahasa Melayu, the Malaysian language, is pronounced "ch") at every Malaysian restaurant in the U.S.

Usually described as "Indian pancake," it's a flaky, multi-layer fried bread that's served with a curry dipping sauce with meat. In Malaysia I think I had it mostly from little roti shops run by Indians, and I think they were Indian muslims as opposed to the mostly vegetarian Tamil Hindus. According to one site I found:

The most widespread local Indian stalls, eateries and restaurants you will find in Malaysia, are Indian-Muslim. Affectionately referred to by locals as Mamak stall or Mamak restaurant, they serve an extraordinary cuisine of Indian-Muslim food - a culinary assimilation of Indian and Malay cooking styles. The curries and entrees are unmistakably Indian, yet unlike those found in India.

Indian Muslims also ran many of the foreign exchange places. At first I found this odd, but I learned that foreign exchange, unlike money lending, does not break the Islamic prohibition against usury.

A pickled vegetable salad common at Malaysian hawker stands as well as overseas Malaysian restaurants is called achat or achar (achar is the name for pickle in India).

The Malaysian version has a tangy sesame-peanut dressing. It's also a component of nasi lemak, a composed plate of coconut rice ("nasi" means rice), some curry (usually chicken or beef), dried tiny fish (ikan bilis), achat, cucumber, and crushed peanuts. It's often eaten for breakfast, and I found mine in Penang at stands run by Malay women. But the Indian influence is apparent, as it is on much of Malay and Indonesian cuisine. In fact, when I first tried Chicken Chettinad, in Chennai (Madras), I noticed the similarity to an Indonesian and Malaysian dish, daging rendang, meat (usually beef) with a dry curry. In Indonesia it is truly a dry spice coating, but the Malaysian version is a thick gravy.

When I told the waiter at that Chettinad restaurant in Chennai about the similarity to Malaysian food he explained that the Chettiyars are a Tamil non-vegetarian Hindu merchant class who traveled throughout Southeast Asia and facilitated a two-way culinary exchange. I prefer the Malaysian style of beef rendang to the Indonesian version, by the way.

Noodles are central to Malaysian cuisine, and were certainly introduced by the Chinese, but popular noodle dishes incorporate various influences. Mee goreng (which combines the Chinese word for noodle with the Malay word for fried) is sometimes called Indian Mee Goreng on U.S. Malaysian menus. Hokkien mee is a thick, yellow wheat noodle served in a brown soy-based gravy with mixed meat and seafood, and the name comes from one of the main Chinese groups in Malaysia, originally from Fujian province (Hokkien is the name for Fujian in the dialect of that province). Mee Jawa, a thick tomato-noodle soup, is of Indonesian origin, as the name implies. Perhaps my favorite Malaysian noodle dish is char kuey teow. Kuey teow is a flat rice noodle, similar to the noodle used for pad Thai, and char just means fried (a variant of "chow"). It's medium-spicy and contains a mix of seafood and sometimes Chinese sausage.

Another dish that's ubiquitous on Malaysian restaurant menus, as well as on many Vietnamese menus, is Hainan chicken rice. It's boiled chicken served on the bone atop very rich, oily rice that's been cooked in fatty chicken broth. It's served with several condiments. Hainan is a southern Chinese island that many overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia hail from.

One of the most popular vegetable dishes in Malaysia and Singapore is kang kung belacan, Chinese water spinach cooked with a preserved dried shrimp paste that is also the base for a Malaysian chili sauce (sambal belacan).

Belacan has a rather funky taste, but used judiciously it adds a wonderful dimension to many dishes. Similar preserved shrimp sauces are found throughout Asia.

When I was in Malaysia and Singapore, satay--grilled, skewered meat--seemed to be an item that was always made by Malay men.

It originated in Indonesia and is served with a peanut dipping sauce. In Singapore there's a famous outdoor venue called the Satay Club where numerous vendors cook their sticks on charcoal grills. It's actually one of the few outdoor venues I could find in Singapore when I was there. Most of the food hawkers had been relegated to sterile shopping center food courts by the anal-retentive leadership of the island who believed that al fresco food preparation was unsanitary.

The fusion cooking of Malaysia and Singapore is generally referred to as Peranakan or Nyonya cuisine. The word "Peranakan" itself refers to a more general cultural or ethnic fusion, growing out Chinese-Malay intermarriage, common in the 19th century. The male descendants became known as "babas" and the women "nyonyas."

All of the food photos above are from a recent dinner at the appropriately named Nyonya, in Chinatown, one of New York's better Malaysian restaurants (though I more frequently go to the Sunset Park branch). One dish that Nyonya does particularly well is cheng lai stingray, which is cooked with a spicy lemongrass sauce.

I've only scratched the surface of Malaysian food here. Because of the diversity of the cuisine, most Malaysian restaurants have very large menus, and the hardest part of a Malaysian meal is deciding what to order. At my recent dinner for six at Nyonya I focused on some of the greatest hits of Malaysian cuisine, making sure all of the major strains were represented.

Malaysian restaurants are "pan-Asian" without the artifice . . . and bad sushi ain't on the menu.

194 Grand Street (between Mott & Mulberry)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Pheasant Under Glass

When I was a kid, pheasant under glass was the cliche for ritzy food, but often with a touch of pretension-mocking irony. There were countless references, in cartoons, TV shows, conversation. I think some restaurants served the dish at least into the seventies. Now I'm sure you'd get a blank stare if you made a pheasant under glass reference to a kid. I don't know if there's any single culinary equivalent as a cultural reference today, perhaps because the old-school stuffy dining paradigm that persisted into my childhood has been mostly jettisoned.

I decided to putter around the internet looking for references to pheasant under glass. There were surprisingly few, perhaps because the dish had completely disappeared by the digital age.

The term certainly had enough currency in 1969 for it to be used as the joke title of an episode of "Get Smart" (where a Professor Pheasant is imprisoned under a glass dome). One of the odder references I found was a quote from Aretha Franklin in 1982. "Disco," Aretha said, "is like having pheasant under glass when you really wanted ribs!" I'm assuming she was referring to the overproduction of disco and its relative lack of soul, but the analogy doesn't quite work.

As recently as 2001, The New York Times published a recipe for pheasant under glass, to accompany a nostalgic piece by playwright and food writer Jonathan Reynolds.

I've never had pheasant under glass, but now that I've attained the age of nostalgia I feel a terrible emptiness because of it. Just once before I die I'd like to eat pheasant under glass. And when it's presented to me I want the waiter to say, "Dinner is served!"

Image by Allan Bealy

Monday, October 12, 2009

Gambling on Flammenkuche in Cusco

Colmar (Alsace)

I fell in love with flammenkuche, or tarte flambee, in Alsace. It's deadly stuff, a down-payment on a heart attack, as is most Alsatian food. Flammenkuche is one of the great members of the extended pizza family. In its simplest form, onions, bacon and creme fraiche or fromage blanc sit atop a thin pizza crust. Adding gruyere makes it gratin. Adding mushrooms makes it forestiere. I couldn't get enough of it when I stayed in Strasbourg and visited Colmar. Flammenkuche was one of the reasons I returned to Strasbourg (though it has many other charms, culinary and otherwise), on another trip to France.

I'll bet are plenty of places in Paris to get a tarte flambee (for Paris I'll use the French name, rather than the Alsatian one), but I've never tried one there. The two I've had in New York (Cafe d'Alsace and the Bar Room at The Modern) were totally disappointing. The only town outside of Alsace where I've had a great one was Montreux, Switzerland, when I was there for the jazz festival in the late nineties. I asked the waitress if she were Alsatian. "No," she replied, "I'm Swiss, but the owner is from Alsace, so you get the best of both worlds!"

Flammenkuche, Cusco-Style

It was a longshot, but when I saw that there was a French-Mediterranean cafe in Cusco that served flammenkuche, I just had to try it. So for one meal I took a break from my exploration of Peruvian cuisine. The place was just off Plaza San Blas, and all the other diners were French. The chef-owner is a young guy from Saint-Etienne, near Lyon. I neglected, unfortunately, to note the name of the place, but its menu included familiar cafe items like salads, croque monsieur, and couscous.

If it had turned out to be a great flammenkuche I'd have had something to write about. A great flammenkuche in Cusco--who'd have imagined? But it wasn't a great flammenkuche, or even a good one. There was no creme fraiche or cheese, just bacon and onions, and the crust was nothing like a pizza or a flatbread, but more like a crispy tortilla. It was sort of a flammenkuche tostada.

Still, I did have something to write about after all.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Bart's Birthday

Bart, me, and Harvey at Harvey's Bar Mitzvah, 1961

My brother Bart died a couple of years ago. Today would have been his 65th birthday, an American milestone he never made.

We weren't really that close, especially in later years. He was 12 years older than me, and by the time I was 7 or 8 he was out on his own. But Bart was a formative influence on me in a number of ways. My father died when I was 2, so my two brothers, both somewhat older, filled in some of the father-figure slack. Once, on an outing to Sam Goody's record store, ca. 1964 (a Beatles-buying expedition), a clerk said to Bart, of me, "He's a cute kid. Is he your son?"

A passion for music is one of the things I got partly from Bart. He was an obsessive record collector. Like our father before him, Bart was a big fan of the Great American Songbook and its interpreters, especially Sinatra and his crowd. As I got older we found mutual territory in jazz singers. But when I was younger Bart encouraged my burgeoning musical interests, sparked largely by the seismic cultural effect of Beatlemania, when I was 8 years old.

He was also an adventurous and enthusiastic eater. I first tried calamari on Bart's recommendation, at a local Brooklyn Italian restaurant. Back in the mid-60s calamari was not the ubiquitous menu item it is today. Back then it was considered weird or exotic food.

My brother was never one to do anything in moderation. Many of my earliest experiences of regional Chinese cuisines, in the early-70s, were in his company. Bart was especially excited by the newly available spicy Szechuan cuisine. One time he went to a Szechuan restaurant in Chinatown, Szechuan Taste, I think, and asked the waiter, "What's the spiciest dish you have?" The waiter named a dish and Bart said, "Give me one of those--and make it twice as hot."

Bart had a great sense of humor, which contributed greatly to his success in the sales game. Styrofoam is a pretty dry product line, but Bart kept his customers in stitches with an endless barrage of jokes. Whether they were good or bad, he really didn't care. In fact, he had a real talent for delivering bad jokes. His wit could be acerbic (a family trait, I think). Once, at a rare restaurant outing with both of my brothers, at least ten years ago, in Chinatown of course, I was reminiscing about the old neighborhood and our childhoods. I have a particularly acute long-term memory, and Harvey, the middle son, said, "How do you remember these things? You should go on Jeopardy." To which Bart replied, "What would his subject be? Dysfunctional family trivia?"

Today, on his birthday anniversary, I'm remembering my brother publicly.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Chicha, the Beer that Made the Incas Famous

Chicha vendor in her chicharia, Ollantaytambo

Chicha, a kind of beer made from malted corn, has been brewed continuously in much of South America since Inca times, in the fifteenth century. It's traditionally made by women and only served in humble chicharias (private homes or simple shops) rather than bars or restaurants.

In Cusco and the Sacred Valley a chicharia announces itself by hanging a red or blue bag on a broomstick or some other kind of wooden pole. When I was staying in Ollantaytambo I noticed a chicharia right on the main plaza and decided to go in for an adventure. I entered a courtyard, and at the left I saw an entrance to a little place where a bunch of old people in tradtional local garb were sitting. "Ay chicha aqui?" I asked.

"Si, si," someone said and motioned me in. I was served a big (maybe 20-oz.) glass of the cloudy yellow brew and told the cost was 50 centimos (about 17 cents). I sat down and started drinking my chicha.

The flavor of chicha is tart. I've seen it described as cider-like. The flavor reminded me a bit of a coarser version of a Belgian witbier. I noticed the other drinkers swirling their glasses around. This is to keep the corn sediment dispersed throughout the drink, so it doesn't settle completely to the bottom of the glass. Chicha is fairly low in alcohol (average 2%), so people drink many large glasses to get a buzz on.

An old lady, who may have been the co-proprietress, asked me, "De donde es?"

"Nueva York."

She seemed impressed. She looked at the others. "Nueva York!" she said.

This woman did most of the talking. My Spanish isn't very good, and I had a hard time understanding her through her semi-toothless abuela diction. I probably got about 30% and just nodded a lot. At one point I said (in Spanish), "In New York we don't have chicha. Only beer."

"Do you have corn in New York?" she asked.

"Yes," I said, "but only to eat. Not to drink."

For more about chicha, see Bill Ridgely's excellent article.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The Chola Dynasty

Chola temple at Tanjore

The Cholas, a Tamil dynasty, ruled South India from the 9th through 13th centuries. Perhaps the greatest cultural legacy of the Cholas, stunning temple architecture notwithstanding, is their exquisite bronze statuary. A major exhibit of Chola bronzes opens today at New York's Asia Society.

But there's another Chola dynasty, a current one--a restaurant dynasty. With Chola (232 E. 58th) as its flagship, the group runs a number of multiregional Indian restaurants throughout New York and New England. Chola itself has what is probably New York City's best Indian lunch buffet, and they offer it on weekends too.

The group also includes Tadka (229 E. 53rd), which I wrote about to extol the virtues of its fabulous vindaloo. They've recently opened another Manhattan restaurant, this time with an Indian truck stop theme, called Dhaba (Lexington between 27th and 28th). Dhaba offers a number of gussied-up snack foods, including a wide range of chaats, Indian-Chinese dishes like gobi Manchurian and chili chicken, as well as some familiar Indian restaurant staples. Its menu tends more toward North Indian, while the other restaurants have a range of northern and southern dishes, both vegetarian and non-vegetarian. When I dined at Dhaba I was surprised at how large the servings were, so bear that in mind when ordering.

Calamari Cochin

I spent Labor Day weekend in the Berkshires and ate at Bombay Bar & Grill, their outpost in Lee (435 Laurel St.). Like Chola, the menu includes many South Indian non-vegetarian items not normally found on New York menus, let alone in Western Massachusetts. We enjoyed several Keralan dishes, including the calamari Cochin (a masala fried squid appetizer) and Cochin snapper, a whole tandoor-cooked snapper topped with a Kerala shrimp curry. The snapper as well as the Chettinadu rack of lamb (a Tamil preparation with a black pepper and coconut sauce) were served as "pre-plated dinners," along with vegetable biryani, salad and garlic naan. We topped off the meal with Kundapur vegetables, a moderately spiced coconut milk-based dish from the southern state of Karnataka. The dishes were bounteous, and we were especially impressed by the six respectably-sized lamb chops.

Chettinadu Rack of Lamb

Chola, Tadka and Dhaba are three of the best Indian restaurants in New York City, and Bombay Bar and Grill is likely one of the best restaurants, period, in the Berkshires.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Perseverance and the Writer

My essay "The Great Unfinished American Novel" appears in the latest Mung Being, the Craft issue.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Chilly Buff and Goat's Guts

Before I tell you about my dinner at Mustang Thakali Kitchen, a Nepali restaurant in Jackson Heights, please indulge me while I show you a few snapshots from my trip to Nepal in the winter of 1990-91.

Dhulikhel with Himalayas in Background

Swayambhunath Stupa

Bagmati Ghats


Mustang Thakali Kitchen specializes in, as the name says, Thakali cuisine, from the north of the country, as opposed to the Newari cuisine of the Kathmandu Valley, but I'm not going to try to figure out, let alone explain, what the differences are. I will go on record and say that I found Mustang's food significantly better and more consistent than that at another Nepali restaurant in the same neighborhood, Himalayan Yak, which I was never moved to write about. Both restaurants also feature dishes from neighboring Tibet. There are many Tibetan refugees in Nepal, and a number of Tibetan dishes, especially momos (dumplings), can be found at restaurants in Kathmandu.

I went to Mustang Thakali Kitchen with a large enough group to try a bunch of dishes. Though there are a number of vegetarian options on the menu, and though the Nepali diet is largely vegetarian, it's the variety of meat flavors and textures that really make the restaurant special.

One of the best bets to start with is the samya bajee, a bento box with a combination of spicy cold chicken, the dry and crunchy "beaten rice," marinated soybeans, and, best of all, bhutuwa goat, a moderately spicy combo of goat's liver, intestines and stomach. If you're into innards, bhutuwa goat is the dish for you.

Another of the evening's hits was the chilly buff. Buff is water buffalo, one of the most common meats in Nepal. It has an only slightly gamey flavor, and I found it to be one of the tastier dishes of the evening. "Chilly" seems to be the preferred spelling of chili on most Himalayan restaurant menus.

Mutton fry is not mutton at all, but fried goat meat, and quite delicious, as was the sukuti beef, sauteed with "Nepali spices." When I ordered the latter I mistakenly thought I was ordering the beef jerky dish that Robert Sietsema wrote about in his Village Voice review. That one is actually called sukuti sadeko. It was a case of mistaken sukutis.

Pay no attention to the menu's distinction between appetizers and entrees, as it seems largely arbitrary. All of the dishes above came from the appetizers section, while dumplings are listed as an entree.

From the entrees portion of the menu, the vegetable thali was rather sparse and disappointing, but the vegetable momos were wonderful, among the best meatless dumplings I've tasted. The ghoken, a buckwheat roti that was served with a chicken curry, was rather bland, but had an appealing, fluffy texture.

I think the key to satisfaction at Mustang Thakali Kitchen is to be adventurous and to eat lots of meat.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

When the Carlsons Become the McBrides

This is the other song I performed with Lee Feldman at Joe's Pub in July. It's slower than "Everything Reminds Me Of You." Most of it, that is.

Be Lee..Peter Cherches from JMJProductions on Vimeo.