#129 Moldova: obey food website

 

Please allow me to indulge in a ridiculous, fattening fantasy for a moment.

if you shove Moldovan veal tongue in my face, I promise to like it

if you shove Moldavian veal tongue in my face, I promise to like it

In my alternate-universe version of New York City, all ethnic restaurants would proudly serve their national dishes.  Nobody would hide in the international food closet.  There wouldn’t be any more Bengalis masquerading as “Indian” chefs, Senegalese restaurateurs claiming that they’re merely “African,” Algerians allowing themselves to be mistaken for Moroccans, or brilliant Laos who spend their days making Thai and Vietnamese food.  Makers of “obscure” ethnic foods would proudly shove their national dishes in our faces, and make us like them.

So I was pretty thrilled to see some serious Moldavian chest-thumping at the aptly named Moldova Restaurant in Brooklyn.  If you visit the restaurant’s website, you’ll be greeted by a rotating array of proud taglines: “Feel the atmosphere of welcoming Moldavia!” or “You can’t say you know the taste of Moldova until you try authentic mamaliga!”

OK.  If you insist, I’ll try some authentic mamaliga.  And so will eight of my friends, including Dave Cook from Eating In Translation, Eric Malson from Eric Eats Out, and Peter Cuce from Project Latte.  We had way too many cameras.  It was kind of embarrassing.

camera-toting food bloggers are embarrassing, but nobody can ruin fried pork belly and mamaliga

camera-toting food bloggers are embarrassing, but not even food bloggers can ruin fried pork belly and fried mamaliga

The food wasn’t embarrassing at all, though.  Because the website told us to, we ate lots of authentic mamaliga (polenta):  mamaliga with fried chicken livers ($9.99), mamaliga mixed with sour cream and feta cheese, mamaliga with grilled pork neck ($12.99), mamaliga with scrambled eggs (mamaliga trapeza, $12.99), and—this is the really exciting part—fried balls of mamaliga stuffed with feta cheese, and served with fried pork belly (ursuleti, $6.99).

The ursuleti is a Best Dish Ever nominee, simply because the combination of salty fatty pork and salty fatty cheese and salty fatty fried polenta is absolutely irresistible.  (I’ve probably accumulated about 250 Best Dish Ever nominees by now…but who’s counting?)

After the website’s instructions to “try authentic mamaliga” worked so well for us, we decided that it would probably be smart to meticulously follow every instruction that appears on the Moldova Restaurant homepage.  The website told us to “feast every day.”  So we feasted.

maybe the tasty Moldavian sausage made Frumos fat?

maybe the tasty Moldavian sausage made Frumos fat?

 

We had some tasty chilled veal tongue with horseradish sauce ($6.99), an obligatory plate of pickled vegetables (cucumbers, cabbage, and red and green tomatoes, $9.99), a side of potatoes fried with mushrooms, and some phenomenal seared kielbasa served with peas and onions (carnaciori, $8.99).  We even ate a cheese- and meat-stuffed pelmeni doppelganger called “Coltunasi Fat Frumos” ($6.99).  I have no idea who Frumos is, but I totally understand how he got fat.

Dunarea shrimp salad at Moldava Restaurant NYC

or did the avocado and imported shrimp fatten Frumos?

But the most intriguing line on the website was probably this one:  “There is no sea in Moldavia, but there is the amazing Dunarea shrimp salad. :)”  (Yes, the smiley face actually appears on the website.)  The Dunarea shrimp salad was a terrine of shredded daikon, avocado, cucumber, shrimp, and fish roe, all coated in a mildly spicy, lightly mayonnaise-y dressing.  The dish reeked of California Asian fusion cuisine, and it was easily the biggest non-sequitur of the meal.  How, exactly, did landlocked Moldova develop a dish with shrimp, avocado, and fish roe?  I mean, the website was right and everything—the salad really was amazing, if somewhat heavy for something called a “salad,”—but the dish was definitely a curiosity.

gee, I'm glad that obeyed the website

tastes even better than it looks, just like the website says

Since everything had gone pretty much perfectly so far, we continued to obey the Moldova Restaurant website when they told us that “our desserts are even more delicious than they look.”  So we ordered one of everything, including cherry-stuffed blintzes (clatita cu visina, $6.99), baked pears and apples stuffed with nuts and honey ($5.99 each), an order of stuffed dried plums ($6.99), and a stellar pumpkin-stuffed crepe ($3.99).  I’ll agree that the desserts were pretty, and I’ll also agree that the desserts probably tasted even better than they looked… but in fairness, they all resembled similarly fruity, simple, delicious desserts that you would find in other Eastern European eateries.

But that didn’t stop the Moldova Restaurant website from bragging:  “Yo Romania!  Hey, Ukraine!  Look over here, Russia!  Moldavian food kicks your country’s culinary ass!  BOOM!  In your face, Eastern Europe!”

OK, fine.  The website didn’t say that.  But it probably could have.

Keep thumping your chests, Moldova Restaurant.  You’ve earned the right.

Obey Food Website II

just do what the nice Moldavian food website says, and you’ll be happy

Moldova Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Moldova Restaurant
1827 Coney Island Avenue, Brooklyn
Subway: Avenue M (Q train) or Avenue N (F train)

#125-128 The 2012 African Motherlode: Guinea-Bissau, Niger, Gabon, and Burkina Faso

 

Just over a year ago, I looked at a map of Africa and thought: I’m screwed.

Moroccan spiced salmon and Gabonese pate... and this is barely the tip of the huge, tasty African iceberg

Moroccan spiced salmon and Gabonese pate… and this is barely the tip of the huge, tasty African iceberg (photo courtesy of www.ganxy.com)

At the time, I’d already visited—or at least eyeballed—nearly every African restaurant in NYC. But there are roughly 50 countries in Africa, and I had only been able to find food from about a dozen of them within the city limits.

The sad truth is that I had pretty much given up on my dreams of inhaling food from every country in the world, simply because of the challenges of finding African food. I was still inhaling plenty of food, but I figured that I’d never even begin to approach country #160.

And then, thanks to the magic of Dave Cook’s Eating in Translation website and a well-timed tip from fellow chowhound Glendale is Hungry, I found out about the 2011 United Nations African Mothers Association (UNAMA) fundraiser, where I encountered food from 16 African nations, including 10 that had previously been un-findable in New York City. Thanks to UNAMA, my gluttonous goals no longer seemed impossible.

This year, UNAMA once again fed me some spectacular homemade African food for the incredibly reasonable price of $35, with all proceeds benefiting Hurricane Sandy relief. Sadly, I wasn’t able to attend the event in person, but my favorite technology entrepreneur generously agreed to act as my stunt-double. Aleks took tons of photos, met amazing event organizer (and professional caterer!) Eva Forson, and brought a monstrous tray of food home for me to eat the next day. And you know that few things make me happier than massive trays of African food, even if they’re leftover.

massive tray of African food... (jiggle jiggle)

a four-pound take-home tray of African food… thanks, Aleks!  (and yes, I think he actually weighed the tray)

I’ll crash my own website if I try to describe every single African dish offered at the fundrasier, but here are a few highlights:

  • Burkina Faso: riz harricot and sauce au poulet (chicken stew and rice cooked with beans)
  • Gabon: fish pate and turkey pate
  • Benin: delicious corn flour patties topped with a gentle tomato-based stew, vaguely resembling the excellent Angolan cou-cou from the 2011 event

    and remember:  corn just visits

    Burkinabe and Beninese dishes.  But remember:  corn just visits.  (photo courtesy of www.ganxy.com)

 

  • Niger: a wonderfully fluffy couscous with meat and vegetables
  • Guinea-Bissau: goat stew with olives, tomatoes, potatoes, and parsley, served with mildly garlicky fried codfish cakes, which are always pretty awesome
  • Sudan: kufta, which resemble heartily spiced, cigar-shaped meatballs
  • South Africa: malva pudding, traditionally made from wine and apricot jam
  • Ghana: plantain bread and stewed black-eyed peas
  • Tanzania: chapati with a hearty meat stew

    Tanzanian and Ghanaian food at UNAMA fundraiser NYC

    You know what NYC really needs? A Tanzanian chapati food cart. Can I be the first customer? (photo courtesy of www.ganxy.com)

  • Algeria: stewed vegetables, chickpeas, and meat, reminiscent of the tagine served in my favorite Algerian restaurant
  • Angola: chicken-eggplant-okra stew
  • Madagascar: the legendary banana donuts of Madagascar, along with a delicious but  less-heralded chicken and green peppercorn stew

I’ll be honest: by eating leftovers more than 24 hours after the event, I missed out on the full awesomeness of the African feast. Fufu, for example, really isn’t as appealing when it’s been microwaved. The same is true of the Gabonese fish pate, which had a wonderfully nuanced flavor, but probably had a better texture when it was fresh. That’s my fault.

But you can never go wrong with Ghanaian plantain bread, Nigerien (not to be confused with Nigerian) couscous, or Bissau-Guinean goat stew, even when it’s a day or two old. Heck, you can never go wrong with monstrous quantities of homemade African food under any circumstances, but especially if it’s for a good cause. See you in 2013, UNAMA.

I almost cleaned a four-pound tray of food. Jiggle jiggle.

I almost conquered a four-pound tray of African food! Jiggle jiggle.

#0 Kuala Lumpur night market: duck tongue, century eggs, and a random bottle of snakes and scorpions

 

As a white boy who loves to travel, I absolutely live for the moment when a friendly foreign host gets that evil glint in their eye at a street stall.  It’s a mischievous glimmer that says, “heh heh heh, it’s going to be hilarious to watch the white American boy eat this.”  Previous evil-glimmer experiences involved noodle-stuffed pig intestines in Seoul, chilled pigs’ feet with hot sauce in Mexico, grilled brains in Argentina, and more animal innards encounters than I can dream of counting.

does anybody else think that duck tongue kind of looks like a misshapen bug?

I honestly love the evil glimmer, even if I never managed to develop a taste for brains.  I always get to taste something interesting, and I occasionally get to try something delicious.

In the incredibly underrated city of Kuala Lumpur—which is, for my taste, an even better culinary and cultural destination than Singapore—we stayed in a spectacular guesthouse called Sarang Rooms, and the amazingly friendly co-owner, Christina, offered to take us on a tour of the night market.  And it turns out that the entire tour is an Evil Glimmer Tour.

no really… it’s not bad

We started with spicy duck tongue, which looks pretty hideous when you see it at the stall.  It’s like an emaciated and horribly deformed chicken wing, with some extra cartilage attached.  And it tastes like… well, an emaciated chicken wing, with lots of crunchy cartilage and an appealingly spicy sauce.  Not bad.

For our next stop, we tried century eggs.  Our wonderful hostess prefaced our snack by explaining that century eggs get buried for 100 days until they become black and congealed. And then she told us that century eggs were featured on an episode of Fear Factor, and everybody on the show yakked.  And then she took us to the vendor that sold them.

So yes, century eggs are black and congealed—they look like blackened orange jello with a dark puke-green-black yolk, and this particular Malaysian Chinese stall served them with pickled ginger and pickled papaya.  It was one of the scarier-looking things I’ve ever eaten, but it just tasted like a fairly normal deviled egg—slightly creamy and a little bit gelatinous, but perfectly tasty, especially with the ginger and papaya.

Christina also tried to feed us stinky tofu, but the line at the stinky tofu stall was unbelievably long, so we had to settle for a few minutes spent basking in the irresistible sweat-sock odor that lingered in the warm Malaysian air.  I wouldn’t have minded a few bites of the tofu–at least I would have gotten some calories in exchange for the agony of trying to breathe in the general vicinity of the tofu stand.

And then we found this stuff.  I could swear that one of the creatures in the bottle got an evil glimmer in his eye as soon as he saw a pair of white people walk by.

 

#0 Eating Australia: chew the crocodile before it chews you

 

As threatened in a crusty old blog post about Australian food, I finally spent a month in Australia.  And for most of the trip, I felt a burning sensation in my ass.  I think it was caused by the fact that money was flying out of my wallet so fast that it created sparks, which singed my anus.

Nothing against Australia, but the exchange rate was not exactly my friend.  Pretty much everything was about 30-40% more expensive than in New York City.  Including the food.  And that makes me unhappy.  Our entire trip was like a money hemorrhoid.

(Incidentally, I’m very proud that I managed to use the word “hemorrhoid” on a food blog.  Do I deserve a cookie?)

So during our trip to Australia, we weren’t exactly dining in five-star restaurants… but then again, I never really do that sort of thing, anyway.  But we still managed to have some pretty ridiculously great meals, if not quite as often as in, say, Hawaii.

At an upscale Greek restaurant in Sydney (paid for, thankfully, by an Aussie friend’s corporate expense account), we ended our meal with baklava ice cream, featuring layers of pistachios, shredded phyllo, and honey wedged between layers of ice cream.  Here, look at this picture and get jealous:

 

baklava ice cream (money hemorrhoid and singed anus not shown)

 

Since nothing else was terribly affordable, we ate sh*tloads of Aussie pies during our month in Australia, in at least a dozen different flavors:  beef and mushroom pies, cracked pepper pies, apple pies, egg and cheese pies, mashed potato pies, chicken curry pies, vegetable pies, chicken and vegetable pies… well, you get the point.  The cracked pepper (and ground beef) pie from a tiny bakery in Bombala, New South Wales was definitely my favorite, but all of the dozens of pies we ate were pretty decent, and they were—by Australia’s cash-hemorrhaging standards—reasonably inexpensive.

Strangely, none of the pies we ate in Australia were quite as good as the brekkie pies at Tuck Shop in New York City, though.  Good job, Tuck Shop:  you made the bakers in your home country look inferior.

you still win, Tuck Shop

 

Things got a little bit more interesting in the little outback town of Coober Pedy, where pretty much everybody lives underground to escape the heat, and where most of the locals are part-time opal miners.  It’s an interesting, dusty place, with a total population of about 1700 residents.  We slept underground.  It was awesome.

our underground hotel room

In addition to being a fascinating little town, Coober Pedy is home to a restaurant called John’s Pizza, which serves some of the best pizza I’ve eaten outside of Alaska.  Highlights included an emu pizza ($12 for a 9” pizza… not bad) topped with asparagus, Camembert cheese, cranberry sauce, and emu metwurst. John’s also serves a smoked kangaroo pizza ($13) with eggplant, peppers, and olives.  The kangaroo just tasted like smoked beef and the emu metwurst just tasted like a mild sausage, but the pizzas were outstanding, with or without the unusual choices of meat.

Here, look at a pair of pizza pictures, and see if you can identify the exotic bush meats:

 

mmm… exotic bush meat

 

And of course, since Aussies told me that I had to be careful not to get eaten by a crocodile, I thought I should launch a pre-emptive strike, and eat a crocodile before it ate me.  So I did.  Not the whole thing, though—just a burger-sized chunk of crocodile at Litchfield Caravan Park, an hour or two south of Darwin.

 

preemptive wildlife strikes always taste better with beets, carrots, cucumbers, and French fries

 

Crocodile meat isn’t the most glamorous stuff on earth:  it tastes like a cross between chicken, a mild whitefish, and calamari steak.  It doesn’t really have much flavor besides a very vague ocean-y taste, and the meat is a little bit rubbery.  I inexplicably really liked it, though it was helped along by a generous dose of beets, a fried egg, Aussie bacon (which resembles Canadian bacon), onion, lettuce, shredded carrots, and ketchup.  But really—I swear that I could taste the vaguely ocean-y meat under all of the toppings, and I could swear that I actually liked it.

My wallet, on the other hand, liked nothing about Australia.  Besides, perhaps, boarding our flight to Singapore, where we would at least be surrounded by cheap frog porridge.

 

is it my imagination, or is the happy eminent frog reaching for his ‘nads?

 

Yo, tourists! Eat more Hawaiian food. Now.

 

According to potentially unreliable internet sources, there are 64 McDonald’s restaurants, 27 Subway restaurants, and at least 15 Starbucks outlets in Hawaii.  I don’t mean to be cruel to America’s favorite chain restaurants–I am, after all, apparently enough of a McDonald’s expert to be cited as reference #58 on a Wikipedia article about McDonald’s.  But there’s something particularly sad about the proliferation of crappy chain food in Hawaii, because Hawaiian food is effing amazing.

Why didn’t anybody tell me about Hawaiian food before we went to Hawaii?  Almost every American I’ve ever met has been to Hawaii, and the only thing anybody ever mentioned was some bullpoop about Spam sushi.  And my mom couldn’t stop talking about some delicious-looking fried doughnuts called malasadas, which are actually of Portuguese origin.  But nobody ever told me about poke or lau lau or chicken long rice. WTF?

Apparently, tourists in Hawaii are too busy eating Big Macs to even notice that Hawaii has its own cuisine.  It makes me sad that McDonald’s seems to massively outnumber Hawaiian restaurants, especially near touristy areas like Waikiki.  Really, would you rather eat some fish prepared by a smiling Hawaiian, or would you prefer to eat a boxed meal served by this creepy dude?

 

this is why I have scary dreams about clowns… I mean, the guy isn’t even offering any food, he’s just standing there, smiling and looking creepy, like he’s going wait until I turn my back, and then club me over the head with a brick of lard and eat my innards

 

Anyway, we managed to dodge the millions of Happy Meal-munching tourists at Waikiki, and we headed up to a small North Shore town called Hauula, where we rented an awesome little studio from a really nice Hawaiian family.  They fed me a ripe papaya straight from the tree in their yard (“grown with aloha”), and that means that I’ll love them forever.

And if that wasn’t enough, our Hawaiian hosts kindly sent me across the street to a place called Papa Ole’s Kitchen, where I ate an amazing dish called pastele stew, made from shredded pork, olives, and Hawaiian chili peppers, and served with two large mounds of rice and some (tasty, but totally unnecessary) cole slaw.  Really, the world needs more dishes made from pork, olives, and Hawaiian chili peppers:

 

mmm… massive mounds

 

After Papa Ole’s whet our Hawaiian food appetites, we decided that we needed to try lau lau and poi, so we found a deli in Kaneohe called Masa & Joyce that serves a “Hawaiian plate.” For a mere $11.50, our new Hawaiian friends fed us lau lau (spiced shredded pork, cooked in some lily-like greens called ti leaves), chicken long rice, white rice, lomi lomi salmon, and a dessert called haupia.  The lomi lomi salmon was basically a fishy version of pico de gallo, but the chicken long rice was an absolute revelation.  It’s like the best chicken soup ever, but with cute clear noodles instead.

 

 

Our $11.50 meal also came with a dessert called haupia–it’s sort of like a chewy coconut jello cake, except that it’s actually really good. We also felt obligated to try poi, a Hawaiian staple made from mashed taro root.  It wasn’t really my thing–it’s a glutinous, flavorless purple glob, served slightly chilled–but I can see how it might go well with lau lau if you’ve developed a taste for the stuff.

 

poi might also go well with brains

 

And then, we discovered the awesomeness of Hawaiian poke (pronounced “POKE-eh”).  It’s basically Hawaii’s answer to ceviche, made from raw fish or squid or octopus or seaweed or even edamame, soaked in any of a number of soy-, chili-, garlic-, algae-, seaweed-, or citrus-based marinades.

Very few restaurants on Oahu’s North Shore serve the stuff, so we raided a Foodland grocery store for soy-garlic edamame poke, a wonderfully tender imitation crab poke with marinated onions, and some fantastic ahi limu poke, made from ahi tuna marinated in soy sauce, garlic, chili flakes, and a type of Hawaiian algae called limu.

 

 

For our final breakfast in Hawaii, we returned to our friends at Papa Ole’s Kitchen, and tried the loco moco ($9.25):  two big scoops of rice, a massive (easily ¾ of a pound) hamburger patty, and three fried eggs, all topped with a wonderfully salty beef gravy.  I’m pretty sure that “loco moco” is Hawaiian for “holy shit you crazy little white dude, you’re going to eat this whole thing?!?”

 

yes, the hamburger patty is large enough to stick out from under three fried eggs… and yes, of course the little white dude is going to eat the whole thing

 

I ate the whole thing, with the exception of a few stray bits of rice and burger.  And that was just breakfast.  My dreams of fitting into my bikini were completely ruined, but at least I was happy, and had avoided the ubiquitous Hawaiian Egg McMuffin during our trip.

 

I win! (Bikini not shown.)

Papa Ole's Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Papa Ole’s Kitchen
54-316 Kamehameha Hwy
Hauula, HI (yes, tourists: you can take a bus there)

Masa and Joyce on Urbanspoon

Masa & Joyce
45-582 Kamehameha Hwy
Kaneohe, HI 96744