Saturday, June 27, 2015

Sapthagiri: Vegetarian Kosher South Indian Food in Jersey City.

A lot of people in New Jersey feel that the real world is over the river in New York. They are wrong. New Jersey is - and always has been - the starter home of globalization. With rental prices insanely high in the city itself, newer immigrants have to look outside to find affordable housing. Jersey City was one such urban basket case waiting to be revitalized. Long the butt of coarse Jersey jokes and considered the Chernobyl of the Meadowlands, rated even lower on the Jersey snob scale than neighboring Newark, Jersey city is now home to thousands of middle class families from India. While the Woodside neighborhood in Queens is known as New York's Little India, Jersey City's Indian population has drawn far more people from the technology centers in India's south.

Rice with meat, or without, and a Bollywood DVD for later!
Newark Avenue is the commercial center for folks from Bangalore and Kerala who spend summer evenings strolling along in gender segregated groups, munching fresh Indian sweets and mango ice cream, chatting in Tamil and Malayalam, and driving madly around honking horns in recently leased cars that seem straight out of a Bollywood movie. Just like home. Except this is home. In Jersey City.

Sweet or spicy hot, and nothing in between.
I learned about the wonders of this amazing restaurant row from reading the blog of Ed Ward, the cranky NPR rock historian who recently moved back to the USA after decades of vividly grumpy blogging and writing in Berlin and France. Ed found one of the cheapest hotels in the NYC region a few streets away from the convenient PATH train, run by Indians in the middle of this subcontinental smorgasbord. He pointed out that while most of us are familiar with the cuisines of North India, there are fewer places where you can try south Indian food, which caters to far larger proportion of pure vegetarians. Personally, I find Indian vegetarian food is the only food I enjoy during my brief and sad forays into the meatless realm. And so off we went to Newark Ave.

Donuts! Spicy lentil donuts! 
The "pure vegetarian south and North Indian cuisine" restaurant Sapthagiri had the best reviews on New Jersey Indian websites and on Ed Ward's blog, so it was a no brainer. With my son, Aron in tow, as well as sister and quasi-sister along, we sped down the Jersey Turnpike and were there a mere half hour after leaving Teaneck, in the heart of Jersey's bland kosher enclave. We weren' disappointed. The menu is enormous, and cheap. Not only that, but Sapthagiri accommodates all kinds of religious food restrictions. Not only does it have a certificate attesting to it having been checked and found kosher by local rabbis, it also serves dished for the rarely considered Jain population. Jains pre-date Hinduism by a few centuries and they have a strong respect for all forms of life - ahimsa means eating no animal product at all - and go as far as forbidding the consumption of roots and tubers that might disturb small insects beneath the soil. That means no onions, no garlic, no carrots, no potatoes. Not every dish here is Jain ahimsa-free. Small amounts of animal suffering - mostly to onion bugs - are allowed.  Then we ordered some appetizers: samosa, puffy rice iddly, and medu vada, lentil donuts, all of which are soaked in a spicy lentil dal soup. Stupid move: we didn't realize how much more food was to come...

" Pani Puri" And I thought "special chats" were only an internet scam.
I also took a wild stab at the menu and ordered pani puri, described as a "special chat." I had no idea what it was, so I asked the waiter to demonstrate how to eat it. He did, using one of the fried puri and then bringing a plate of five more to replace the one used as an example. Puri are small, hard fried globes of thin bread. You pop a whole in the top and fill it with some spiced chickpeas, and then spoon a watery mix of spiced water and tamarind into it and pop the whole thing in your mouth where it explodes like a crispy water balloon filled with spice.

Fumie's animal friends admire a Southern Indian thali.
Next: a thali - south Indian mixed veggie curries, dal, pickles, and sauces with rice and chapati. this was $12.99 and more food than anybody could finish. Not only that, but as soon as you had finished one bowl of some tamarind sauce or chick pea curry the waiter would appear offering to top up your serving with more, on the house. Essentially, its all you can eat. The waiters are friendly and patient, working as a crack team of foodie pros making sure you have enough chapati and sauce. Aron seemed to like it, surprising since he comes from a country where vegetarian food consists of two kinds of potato and cabbage.

Brain cells exploding with delight. No animals were harmed in the making of this photograph.
I ordered a dosa, the thin, crispy rice pancake of south India. Mine was a Mysore Masala dosa, slathered with a spicy sauce and then folded around a mound of spiced potato, peas, and ground cashew nuts. Dosa are one of the things I crave while living in Hungary. I can get them in Berlin, or in Britain. The Mika Tivadar kert bar on Kazinczy utca around the corner from my flat in Budapest, has a truck serving dosas, but when I checked it out I could not discern any aroma that would identify the food as Indian in any way. Or food for that matter. And their dosa looked suspiciously like a palacsinta, so as often  happens when faced with the Hungarian take on ethnic street food, I passed.

Again: never eat anything bigger than your head.
Halfway through this the waiter offered to bring me more lentil dal, checking to see which of the thali bowls might need filling. Are they mad? I thought? At these prices how can they make any money doing this? Easily. The place was packed at 8 pm, mostly Indian families but also what seemed to be the entire Rastafarian community of the Newark metropolitan area: vegetarians all. Me? I am only an occasional vegetarian. Soon I will post some of my adventures into the world of radical ahimsa... Shake Shack!

804 Newark ave. Jersey City, New Jersey 07306
Open 7 days 11 AM to 10 PM. No reservations.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

I Like Chinese... Flushing, New York.

There is no question that there is an unseen world. The problem is, how far is it from midtown and how late is it open?” Woody Allen
When I die take me to a Chinese food mall in Queens.... pleeeease?
Ah, to be back home in New York! Yes, home, because I, unlike billions of unfortunate Earthlings, was actually born and raised here. I don't live in New York any longer, but it lives in me. I live in the unseen world beyond midtown and only come home on annual pilgrimage. I'm in New Jersey, and New York City is a mere five miles away. My first pilgrimage was to Flushing, Queens, New York's largest Chinatown. You can find Chinese food everywhere in the world, but it isn't the same as Queens. Take the 7 subway all the way to the end of the line and there you will find some of the best regional Chinese food in North America.

The cheapest great thing you can put in your mouth in new York.
As you leave the subway, the corner is home to the legendary one dollar duck bun lady. No longer a single lady selling Peking duck buns, this is now a full on snack empire, with several Duck Ladies and the prices have soared to $1.25 for what may be one of the best things for sale in edible New York. Steamed bun, slice of Peking duck, crispy skin, scallion and hoisin sauce. 

Three bites of crispy duck goodness.

Flushing is vast: it would take months to really get a grasp of all the Chinese lunches available here, not to mention huge Indian and Korean populations. While Manhattan's old Chinatown is a bastion of old school Cantonese food, and east Broadway is home to newer and cheaper Fujian places, Flushing is the home base for a much more diverse Chinese community. There are Northern Chinese, Hui Muslim, Szechuan, and various oddball minority Chinese restaurants. There are street vendors, noodle shops, windows selling snacks, dumpling trucks, dim sum and seafood palaces. And most importantly, there are the food courts. 

Aron trying a new herbal iced tea in front of the Jmart-New World food Mall.
The two best known are the Golden Mall food Court a small and decidedly down-market snack mecca. This is where the famous Xian Famous food chain began on the reputation of their hand pulled noodles and the legendary lamb face salad.

Cute little lamb faces chopped into a spicy salad.
For a cleaner, less crowded experience, we walked across the street from the subway to the entrance of the New World Mall. In the basement food court there are about thirty places serving different styles of Chinese cuisine - all at affordable prices. A guy hand pulls noodles to order at one, another does Uigher lamb kebabs at another, and all kinds of dumpling and hot pot stands compete for your appetite. Always looking for something adventurous (remember the poop soup at Bo Ky?) I spotted a Taiwanese shop advertising this. 

Is that a Polish traffic warning or a Chinese lunch?
Stinky tofu! The food so radically repugnant that Andrew Zimmern of Bizarre Foods could not down a serving! I had to try it! Stinky tofu is fermented tofu. And tofu is basically fermented soy beans. So what do you get when you ferment an already fermented food? Basically this is what happens during our digestive process. The result, as we all know from fart jokes, has a distinctive smell. 

Why was this not on my school lunch menu in the third grade?
This consisted of light tofu squares fried crispy and served with a hot sauce and ground daikon radish. It was actually quite good, especially on a hot day, but true to its name it was stinky. It actually did smell like something that had just been digested and... OK, it smelled like shit. Tasty shit, I will admit, but this was truly cuisine de toilet joke. I am glad I ate it, in the same way that I can proudly claim to have eaten raw sea cucumber, jelly fish salad, pig intestine andouillette sausage, and Bo Ky's unmentionable parts of pig soup. 

Crab filled Shanghai soup dumplings. Hand pulled noodles. Discuss.
This place is amazing. What can you say as you take the escalator down into the food court to be greeted by a huge banner advert in Chinese promoting a casino on the Mohegan Indian Reservation in Connecticut? 
As we say in Mohegan, "Côci numits, asu cánaw nupuyôtum"
I have only one answer to that question. I am home!

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Do Not Take the Salamis of the Hungarians!

"If you come to Hungary, stop by first and could you carry a package to my Mother?"

June may be the nicest month to be in Budapest, as well as the nicest month to get the heck out of Budapest. And so we are getting out. For one month. To New York. City. Skyscrapers and everything... just like I pictured it... ( click here and go to 4:30 on the video for the reference.) Expect a lot of NYC-centric posts in a short span of time: pastrami porn, Chinese food fetishism, hard core fried fish and wet, juicy clam shots. We are headed to the Kingdom of Chris Christie, the Jabba the Hutt of American Politics, New Jersey, four miles from the Shining City of Light and Goodness and White Castle. I have one month to kill a lot of innocent shellfish and I intend to use it.

Next stop: my digestive system!
On the other hand, no more affordable evening wine in garden bars, no more street cafes, no more... seventh district. For a month, that is. Since moving downtown it has been nice to get out on our bikes and pedal around the park sometime (although living on Klauzal ter means we do have a healthy amount of trees across the street, albeit in a park that reeks of dog poop, but that's what you get for living in the city.) We got to the Budapest Beer Festival last weekend. 

Beer. Beer. Beer.  Beer. Beer. Beer. Beer.
Who knew that Hungary had hundreds of craft beer brewers? Who cared? I tried a few and they tasted like.... beer. I am a wine drinker and I drink maybe ten beers a year, mostly in the Czech lands and Germany, where there are no craft breweries because the beer there is already good. But we did try some BBQ pork from the Befalo truck that we spied a few weeks back at the Food Truck festival. This being the first day of the festival, they had already run out of beef, but the swine flesh was divine.

This fed us for over ten minutes!
We also hit the Sunday farmer's market at the Szimpla Kert, just down the street from our flat. Hungary's new laws forbid most stores from opening on Sunday, except ones that we don't shop at (noted for their cute alphabetic name) because they donated 1% of their sales money to the Jobbik Party campaign before switching allegiance to victorious FIDESZ after the last campaign. Yes, we used to have to shop at one when we lived in Zuglo, but we always called it "The Nazi Shop." "Honey, I'm going to the Nazi Shop! Need any milk?" But we now have a choice of non-Nazi shops to ply with our custom.

The apricots conquer the world, or at least all the palacsinta contained in it.

Like I said, I will be flying to New York in a couple of days, so I had to pick up the traditional edible gifts for the old country for my Mom: lekvar and paprika. Yes, I am going back to the USA where we eat... chicken paprikás and mamaliga and spread apricot lekvar over everything. No poppy seed anything after the drug puppies at JFK went nuts over a couple of poppy seed beigli pastries I brought home one Christmas season, causing my luggage to go to baggage jail for observation. 

And although I will be in the Land of Okra and Fresh Fish, I will miss some of the goodies we get here in Hungary: fresh cherries and strawberries, tomatoes that are red and edible, tender new cabbages, fresh asparagus, and home smoked salamis.

The whole of Budapest is abuzz with talk of Anthony Bourdain's latest Budapest episode of Parts Unknown. As always, Hungarians love it when somebody notices them, and Bourdain's show ignited the National Atavistic Self-Stimulation Response on a grand scale. News sites analyse the episode, food bloggers follow in the Great Man's footsteps to the Pleh Csarda - a gritty chow barn near where we used to live - and the right wing grumbles that Bourdain found happy Gypsies instead of bemoaning the fate of poor, downtrodden Hungary. If any adjective can describe this particular episode of Tony's work, it would be "nice." Bourdain avoided any controversy, a thing which Hungary manufactures in abundance, and he avoided the tourist cliches that made his trip to Romania a full out disaster.

Bourdain versus the world's largest Shnitzel!
And he liked the giant shnitzel at the Pleh Csarda, so I will have to make a trip to Hiram's hot dogs in Fort Lee in his honor as soon as I get back to Jersey. And before we pack that last bag, a word for our government: stop making Hungary the embarrassing jackass of the European union with your xenophobic poster campaign. The poster campaign accompanies a long questionaire being sent to every household called the "national consultation" which includes a list of leading questions equivocating immigration with refugee status and terrorism.

The official sign: "If you come to Hungary, Do not take Hungarian Jobs!"
The last week has seen these huge ugly anti-foreigner posters going up all over Hungary announcing - in Hungarian, as if Syrian and Libyan refugees made sure to take a course in the language before setting across the border to their target country... "If you come to Hungary do not take the jobs of the Hungarians" or "If you come to Hungary respect our customs!"

"If you come to Hungary, please bring two beers and a loaf of bread!"

Needless to say, Hungary has one of the EU's lowest percentages of foreign residents or refugees, and given the history of Hungary sending refugees abroad, well, it is little surprise that a campaign is going on across the country to deface the posters.

"If you come to hungary, you'll need a translator!"
This of course led to a typically Hungarian spy vs. spy situation where the police are sent out to watch for these political defacers and arrest them before they can proudly turn themselves into the police. One photo showed a detective taking samples from a poster for DNA analysis. And then there are the inevitable snarky responses.

"We hate everyone!"