#148: amazing Gambian hospitality

 

Sometimes, people are simply amazing.

friendly Gambian women, making an epic feast from scratch

trust me: these ladies are amazing

 

With mixed success, I’ve been a cold-calling fiend lately: if you’re a UN Mission, a community organization, or a New York-based artist from any of the remaining hard-to-find countries, I’ve probably tried to contact you. I’ve even spent entire rainy afternoons wandering through the Bronx, chasing vague rumors of Gambian cuisine. In my search for Gambian food in New York, I contacted two different Gambian community groups via phone, facebook, and email; nobody responded.

Then I tried a third organization, the Gambian American Network (GAN). A wonderful fellow from GAN named Ansumana was kind enough to put me in touch with a gentleman named Sam, who put me in touch with a wonderful woman named Fatima, who graciously invited me to a Gambian naming ceremony that was taking place just two days later. None of them actually met me in person until I showed up on a Friday afternoon in the Bronx, along with an enormous appetite and my friend Kapambwe, a visiting Zambian student that I was hosting for the weekend.

And it was a good thing that I showed up with an enormous appetite, because our hosts – including Fatima and a dozen other friendly Gambians – generously offered us wave after wave of incredible cuisine.

hand-making the fattaya

hand-making the dumplings, called fataya or domade

 

In case you’re wondering, Gambian naming ceremonies typically take place a week after a child is born. Basically, friends and family gather to decide on a name for the child and celebrate the child’s birth. In spirit, the naming ceremony strikes me as similar to, say, a Greek baptism: sure, there’s a distinct religious and ceremonial component to a Greek baptism, but Greeks get particularly excited the opportunity to throw a huge party and celebrate life.

Incidentally, I hear rumors that Bengalis organize epic celebrations when a child is old enough to eat his or her first solid food. I think that’s absolutely brilliant: “Hey everybody, now that our kid can eat… let’s throw a huge party so we can eat!!”

Anyway, Fatima and her friends and family proceeded to treat us simultaneously like honored guests and long-lost cousins, feeding us plate after plate of outstanding, home-cooked food.

The first plate was one of those dishes that made me squirm with excitement as I ate it. It was groundnut (similar to peanut) stew with lamb – broadly comparable to the Senegalese mafe that’s a staple in New York’s West African restaurants – but this version was homemade, and wonderfully fresh and silky and spicy:

groundnut stew: a bromance

groundnut stew: a love story

 

I’ve eaten versions of groundnut stew with all sorts of starches – rice, fufu, couscous, attieke (toasted cassava), and even pasta – but this afternoon’s stew was served with fonio, a millet-like grain from West Africa that I’d never tried before, which had been cooked with blended okra. You couldn’t actually see or taste the okra, but it gave the grain a wonderful consistency.

fonio... shhhhhhhhh!

fonio… shhhhhhhhh!

 

Interestingly, some West Africans — not including Chef Pierre Thiam — are concerned that wealthy Western consumers will become obsessed with fonio, and make the grain unaffordable in West Africa. Something similar happened with quinoa, which has become less affordable for Bolivians as its popularity exploded in the West. So let’s pretend that I didn’t love it? Moving on.

Anyway, if the groundnut stew had been the end of the meal, Kapambwe and I would have left the Bronx with contented smiles on our faces. We weren’t overstuffed yet, but we certainly weren’t hungry anymore, and we’d just spent a couple of hours with some wonderfully warm and interesting people. But Fatima and the rest of the women were just getting warmed up.

The next round of food featured one of those homemade chunks of chicken that borders on divinity. The chicken had been marinated in a spicy rub spiked with – I think – Maggi and hot peppers, and it was served with a warm, hearty potato salad.

plate #2

 

Life felt amazing at that moment. We’d eaten two delicious meals in less than 45 minutes, while chatting with some lovable people. That’s a perfect afternoon, right? We were absolutely stuffed by then, and starting to smile those groggy grins that follow a gargantuan meal.

But we weren’t done. Fatima brought out some large, handmade cornmeal dumplings, reminiscent of fried empanadas, stuffed with bluefish, onions, and spices; she called them domade, but another woman referred to them as fataya. As Fatima put one on each of our plates, I immediately apologized: “I’m already so stuffed – please don’t take offense if I can’t finish it!”

Of course, I finished it, not out of politeness, but because it was absolutely amazing. In related news, I also finished a button on my shirt, which popped off and rolled across the street.

fattaya; busted shirt not pictured

fataya or domade; busted shirt not pictured

 

Before we finished the dumplings, Fatima brought out a plate of lamb for each of us, baked in a spicy mustard-onion sauce and finished on a charcoal grill. My buddy Kapambwe – who, incidentally, had only eaten a little bit of bread all day – begged for mercy. I told Fatima that we’d share a single plate; Kaps insisted that he couldn’t eat another bite. But the lamb was so darned good that we finished the plate.

lamb!

delicious grilled lamb; busted chair not pictured

 

By then, the two of us had eaten a total of five plates of food and two large fried, fish-stuffed dumplings. In related news: I might have broken a chair. We were already running late for our next meal, so we started preparing to leave. Fatima insisted that we couldn’t leave without trying one last treat: thiakry, a pudding-like mix of sweetened yogurt and sour cream, topped with millet and raisins.

plate #5!

I’m bad at math, but I think this is our fifth serving of food

 

I insisted that I really couldn’t eat another bite, but didn’t want to be rude, so I tried it. Kaps did the same, then ended up taking the rest home.

I ate all of mine. Thiakry is vaguely similar in spirit to the yogurt-granola parfaits that have become fashionable, except that it’s actually amazing: Fatima’s version tasted incredibly fresh and not terribly sweet, with a nice, chewy texture provided by the millet. After we were finished eating, Fatima generously offered us a ride to the subway station, so that we could make it to our next meal on time.

Incidentally, this meal took place on Kapambwe’s very first day in New York City, and his friends in Rochester had warned him that he should avoid the Bronx because it’s dangerous. I hate that stereotype — why do people think that the Bronx is filled with monsters? Kapambwe – who is far too smart to believe lame stereotypes about the Bronx or anywhere else – thought that was pretty funny, and we took as many selfies as we could with signs containing the word “Bronx” or “Bronxwood.”

So yeah: instead of running into danger, he met some of the most genuinely kind and open people you’ll ever meet in New York – or anywhere else. Things work out.

he looks very, very scared after his post-meal food coma

He looks very, very scared during his post-meal food coma, right?

 

Huge thanks to Fatima, Asumana and Sam at the Gambian American Network, and all of the wonderful people I met at the naming ceremony. If you have comments or suggestions — or can help me track down other hard-to-find African cuisines — please email me at unitednationsoffood@gmail.com, or connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.

 

Olive oil shots, anybody?

 

One of the small perks of being a food blogger is that you occasionally get invited to random, interesting meals. Yes, of course they’re designed as marketing opportunities. But sometimes, they’re pretty darned fun, anyway.

So I was invited to an olive oil tasting – and I probably wouldn’t have guessed that such a thing existed. The event, called Flavor Your Life, was sponsored by the Italian government and the European Union, and featured products made by Farchioni, a large, family-owned Italian producer of all sorts of tasty treats, like beer, wine, pasta, and… well, olive oil. Our hosts for the evening included an all-star team of Italians, including Chef Andrea Tiberi (who traveled from Umbria for the event!), Lou DiPalo of Di Palo’s Fine Foods fame, and a charming fellow named Marco Farchioni, whose family has owned the eponymous company for about as long as the United States has existed.

shots for everybody!!!

shots for everybody!!!

 

Olive-oil tasting, as it turns out, is very much an acquired skill. If you’re really good at it, you could even get a job as an inspector for the Italian government: to be classified as extra-virgin olive oil, the stuff has to be tasted by a highly trained expert. I am not making this up.

For whatever it’s worth, I would be a pretty lousy olive oil inspector. We sampled four different oils from different regions of the world, all produced by Farchioni. Some of the oils’ superficial differences were obvious enough: some taste a little bit grassier than others, and some have slightly different hues, though we learned that the color of olive oil has nothing to do with its quality or flavor.

Here’s the really interesting part: different olive oils can seem more or less… spicy, sort of. You’ll literally feel a different peppery pinch in the back of your throat, depending on the quality and origins of the oil. Hm.

Unfortunately, some of the nuance was lost on my rookie palate, and nobody will hire me as an olive oil inspector anytime soon. But if there’s a gig as a pasta, roasted goat, or cornmeal inspector, sign me up.

Anyway, our hosts kindly treated us to a four-course meal featuring plenty of olive oil. We started with an excellent farro, lentil, tomato, and asparagus salad:

seasoned with olive oil

seasoned with high-quality olive oil, of course

 

And then there was a trio of bruscetta:

seasoned with -- wait for it -- olive oil!

adorned with — wait for it — olive oil!

 

For our main course, we enjoyed a nice plate of pasta with cheese and truffles:

with a dash of olive oil, of course

with maybe possibly a few dashes of olive oil

 

And for dessert, a nice panna cotta, with just the right amount of sweetness and jiggle:

NYC food blogger at Flavor Your Life olive oil tasting

 

And here’s the other random thing I learned while we ate that tasty truffle-y pasta: in Italy, truffles aren’t hunted by pigs because Porky is apparently too hard to control when he gets excited. Italians use dogs instead, who will happily surrender the truffle in exchange for a dog treat.

So yeah: olive oil can taste peppery, and pigs are not ideal truffle hunters. Who knew?

selfie taken during my last truffle hunt

selfie taken during my last truffle hunt

 

 

#147 Kyrgyzstan: angry bulls and bad food bloggers

 

As you can probably tell from my recent blog posts about non-Gambian food, Tunisian food, Kenyan food with an asterisk, and Costa Rican food with another asterisk, I’m starting to struggle a little. I have fewer than two dozen countries left. They’re hard.

caption here

but eating a nice salad with assloads of dill isn’t hard, even if it’s not really Kyrgyz…

 

My latest desperate food-hunting activity: cold-calling United Nations missions, looking for somebody who might be willing to cook. The bad news: nobody answers the phone in most small-country UN missions, and I often get routed back to a cranky American operator at a central UN switchboard. But when I called the Kyrgyz mission, a very nice gentleman answered, and advised me to contact the New York City Kyrgyz Club if I wanted to find Kyrgyz food.

So I did that. Unfortunately, the NYC Kyrgyz Club seems to have vanished into thin air. I sent messages via email and Facebook. No response. When I called the Kyrgyz Club’s telephone number, the poor fellow who answered the phone explained that he didn’t know anything about Kyrgyzstan and wished that he had a different phone number.

I even tried to attend the Kyrgyz Club’s annual Nooruz celebration at 8:00 on a Monday morning, at the iconic Charging Bull statue near Wall Street – which, incidentally, the New York Stock Exchange tried to repress. I went to the bull at the appointed hour, and instead spent two hours munching bagels in a nearby café, eyeballing the bull through the window. Not a Kyrgyz in sight.

I'm pretty sure that the bull is charging because it's hangry, and will be in a better mood after some nice Kyrgyz ashlam-fu

my theory: the bull is charging because it’s hangry, and just wants some Kyrgyz ashlam-fu

 

So the Kyrgyz Club, sadly, seems to be nothing more than a rumor these days. Fortunately, the nice man at the Kyrgyz UN Mission also recommended that I eat at Nargis Café in Brooklyn. When I gently protested that Nargis Café is owned by people from Uzbekistan, not Kyrgyzstan, he didn’t flinch: “Yeah, but the food is pretty much the same,” the nice Kyrgyz gentleman responded.

well, I guess most pickle plates pretty much look the same...

well, I guess it’s true that most central Asian pickle plates pretty much look the same…

 

Ironically, this was not the first time that I’d caught a Kyrgyz official with his hand in the proverbial Uzbek cookie jar. Years ago, I met a member of the Kyrgyz United Nations mission at a place called Alladin (not to be confused with Aladdin, a nearby restaurant with a different spelling) that served tasty Uzbek horse meat salad. Sadly, that particular place was wrecked by Hurricane Sandy a few years ago.

Anyway, I did what the nice Kyrgyz man said to do, and I ate at Nargis Café. The food was indeed amazing. We started with a hot loaf of bread (lepeshka) and salad bojon, a fresh eggplant spread with garlic:

salad bojon from Nargis Cafe Uzbek restaurant NYC

 

We then ate a couple of different dumpling-like creatures, starting with khonim, consisting of pasta-like dough stuffed with beef, lamb, potatoes, and onions, and served with tomato and yogurt sauce:

Bukharian Uzbek khonim from Nargis Cafe Brooklyn

 

And then there was an excellent and unique version of manti – stuffed with pumpkin, of all things:

pumpkin manti from Nargis Cafe Bukharian Uzbek restaurant NYC

 

Here’s lagman stew, made from vegetables and meat in a nice, beefy broth, with plenty of dill and other herbs:

Bukharian Uzbek lagman stew from Nargis Cafe Brooklyn

 

And my very favorite dish of the day was bhash, translated on the menu as “green plov.” I’ve never met a plate of central Asian plov I didn’t like, and I’ve even eaten it from Ziploc bags on random street corners. But this version was particularly special. The description on the menu was both amusing and accurate: “diced lamb, chicken and liver, and good amount of mixed herbs, very tasty.”

yup, very tasty

yup, very tasty

 

So yeah, the fellow at the Kyrgyz UN mission was completely correct: Nargis Café is pretty badass.

But here’s my dirty little secret: I ate legit Kyrgyz food in Brooklyn a long time ago. I just never wrote about it.

For a hot second several years ago, there was a restaurant in Brooklyn – not too far from Nargis Café – named Café Avat, with a Kyrgyz chef. I ate there, took photos, then forgot about the whole thing. Apparently, the brain cells tasked with remembering the event were killed in another tragic bourbon accident.

I figured that it was no big deal if I didn’t write about it right away, because it’s not like the restaurant would vanish into thin air or anything. I mean, I could always go back and eat another meal there…

Oh wait. Yeah, that place did vanish into thin air. But the food was pretty good. Hey, look – kabobs and pickles!

Kyrgyz kabobs at Cafe Avat Brooklyn

Kyrgyz pickled vegetables at Cafe Avat NYC

 

And this one here is hanim – very similar to Nargis Café’s dumpling-like khonim, but stuffed only with shredded potato, and served with a tomato sauce:

Kyrgyz hanim at Cafe Avat NYC

 

My favorite dish of the day was probably the pleasantly beefy and garlicky gan-fan, which is similar to the lagman stew that’s popular throughout the region, except that gan-fan is served atop rice, instead of in a noodle soup:

Kyrgyz gan-fan at Cafe Avat Brooklyn

 

And finally, there was the ashlam-fu, a cold cucumber, tomato, and noodle salad, topped with a red-pepper sauce and served with an interesting twist: totally non-photogenic slabs of bright-white mung bean jello. Fascinating, and unlike anything else I’ve ever seen in a salad:

Kyrgyz ashlam-fu at Cafe Avat Brooklyn

jiggle jiggle

 

So yeah, I’ve had Kyrgyz food, prepared by a Kyrgyz chef in New York City. You can’t have any though, because I’m a crappy food blogger, and the restaurant is long gone.

But there’s nothing wrong with doing what the Kyrgyz diplomats tell you to do: just go to Nargis Café, and order something with lots of green herbs in it. I suppose that it’s much easier than hanging out with an angry bull statue, hoping that Kyrgyz food will magically appear.

 

Nargis Café Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Nargis Cafe
2818 Coney Island Avenue, Brooklyn
Subway: Sheepshead Bay (B, Q trains)

 

Know of anyplace that still serves Kyrgyz food? Any idea where Cafe Avat’s Kyrgyz chef might be working now? Want to help me find other hard-to-find cuisines? Email me at unitednationsoffood@gmail.com, or find me on Twitter (@UNofFoodNYC) or Facebook. If you find me something blog-worthy, I promise not to be a slow lazy starchy ball of soggy calories, and I’ll actually write the post before the place closes down next time.

Jubba Restaurant: San Jose Train Station Somali

 

I hate to be one of those food bloggers who massively overuses the word “best”, but I think I might have eaten the best African food of my life recently. And that’s saying something, since I’m a little bit obsessed with African food.

I didn’t see any “ristorantes”, but I did see some awfully tasty green sauce

I didn’t see anything that you’d call a “ristorante”, but I did see some awfully tasty green sauce

 

Jubba Restaurant, in sunny San Jose, California, is incredibly easy to miss. Drive forever through some urban sprawl, turn into the nondescript housing subdivision when you see the tiny sign that inexplicably says “ristorante,” continue to the light rail station, then the follow the smell of Somali food to a place that really doesn’t look like it should serve Somali food, because it’s right next to a freaking suburban train station.

Then pretend you’re a hippo and eat everything, because holy crap, this place is amazing.

Jubba is owned by an incredibly friendly family of Somalis who know how to handle their meat. The menu is small, and that’s a good thing – really, do you need more than a dozen items, when all of them are phenomenal?

as threatened: tasty green sauce

phenomenal sambusas, with tasty green sauce

 

We started with some underpriced fried appetizers: mandasi (fried dough made with coconut milk, $1), and probably the most perfectly seasoned sambusas ($1.50) – the East African version of samosas – I’d ever eaten, stuffed with finely minced beef, onions, and spices. Both appetizers were served with a magnificent green sauce that looked like some sort of avocado cream sauce, but tasted like it might have a mix of chilies, onion, and maybe clove and ginger. I loved it.

 

mandasi

nice coconut pillows

 

We ordered four entrees, all of which looked remarkably similar – but were absolutely ludicrously delicious. It’s like these guys have some sort of magic frying pan back there: the onions were beautifully caramelized, and everything had this amazing char to it. And maybe tamarind and a bit of cumin and ginger? I don’t know. But it was epic.

Here’s the beef suqqar, also served with mixed vegetables and a side of chapatti, a grilled flatbread that’s popular in East Africa:

beefy

beefy

 

And this is the chicken suqqar with vegetables, served with a side of injera, a much spongier, slightly fermented flatbread:

 

not beefy

not beefy

 

Here’s the tilapia with vegetables, served with rice :

 

wait... water chestnuts?!

wait… water chestnuts?!

 

Before I continue: yeah, there are water chestnuts on that fish. Nearly all of my previous encounters with water chestnuts have been in Chinese dishes, and I’d never thought much of them – they’re usually canned and bland. But they were amazing in Jubba’s dishes – a crunchy change-of-pace vegetable, just when you need it in the middle of a strong-flavored meal.

And then there’s my favorite thing ever: goat.

 

better than beefy

better than beefy

 

You know, I used to think that goat was gamey and unappealing. When I ate an Uruguayan chivito (literally, “little goat”) sandwich, I was totally relieved that it didn’t contain any actual goat. Now, I love the stuff – it strikes me as being more flavorful than most meat; beef seems bland and stringy by comparison.

Anyway, Jubba’s goat is charred like a boss, and served with more of those deliciously caramelized vegetables and a side of rice. (“Charred like a boss” – um, that’s a phrase, right?)

You know I’m stoked about the food when I insist on taking pictures of the owners and staff. I know – it’s a really silly habit, but these guys are pretty awesome:

yeah, I know...

take a bow, gentlemen

 

The worst thing about Jubba? It’s in San Jose. I don’t live in San Jose. It’s too bad that the subway can’t take me to this random-ass subdivision of San Jose for $2.75, no matter how many times I swipe my Metrocard.

 
Jubba Restaurant
5330 Terner Way
San Jose, CA

#76B: New York Mexican food, with less whining

 

New Yorkers love to whine about the Mexican food here. I sorta understand why: Chipotle and Qdoba easily sell more burritos (which, incidentally, were pretty much invented in California) than every other Mexican restaurant in Manhattan put together.

Don’t get me wrong: I like a good Chipotle burrito as much as the next guy. But I love mole and fresh tortillas and the bazillions of interesting Mexican dishes that go way beyond tacos and burritos. Hell, UNESCO declared Mexican food one of the world’s great cultural treasures a few years ago.

The UNESCO declaration focuses primarily on the traditional foods of Michoacán, which are tough to find in New York, but if you venture to the South Bronx, you can find Mexican regional treasures of a different sort: Oaxacan food, served by the wonderfully warm family that owns La Morada, a charmingly quirky restaurant with purple walls and an outstanding book collection.

Like any good Mexican restaurant in the United States, La Morada offers a familiar array of tacos, burritos, and enchiladas, as well as the glorious sound of… holy crap, are they hand-making my tortillas and pounding my guacamole right now? Killer.

The tamales are pretty good, too:

tamales

 

And the gorditas – blissfully obese corn patties stuffed with cheese, salsa, and veggies — might look pretty familiar, but La Morada also makes the gorditas by hand for each order:

gorditas

 

And I’m sure that you’ve seen chicken stewed in a green sauce, but this is a little bit different: it’s green mole sauce, made with green chile and (usually) pumpkin seeds, among other ingredients:

mole verde

 

And I’ll admit that mole blanco isn’t exactly the most photogenic thing ever: it just looks like cream sauce. And mole blanco usually does contain milk, but the list of other potential ingredients is fascinating: peanuts, sunflower seeds, white pinion nuts, white corn tortillas, banana, onion, or apple, depending on the exact recipe. We ordered ours atop a chile relleno, a moderately spicy fried chile stuffed with cheese:

white

 

And then there was barbacoa — roasted lamb:

lamb

 

But one of my two favorite dishes was the mole oaxaqueño – a ferociously red sauce with a hearty dose of chilies, typically blended with raisins and nuts, among other ingredients. Ours was served with pork and a side dish of lousy photography:

spicy

 

And then there are the vegetable enchiladas. No big deal: you’ve had enchiladas before. But these are stuffed with vegetables and… hibiscus. Yes, hibiscus: the reddish flowers – also known as sorrel, jamaica, or bissap – used to make a wide variety of teas and punch-like beverages that are popular throughout south Asia, Latin America, Africa (including Guinea), and the Caribbean (including Trinidad & Tobago).

hard to spot the hibiscus

 

The hibiscus is a nice touch in an enchilada – a little bit citrusy, but not overpowering, and way more interesting than most California-burrito fillings. Sadly, you won’t find hibiscus burritos at Manhattan Chipotle locations just yet – but the South Bronx isn’t that far, right?

 

La Morada Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

La Morada
308 Willis Avenue, Bronx
Subway: 3rd Ave – 138th Street (6 train)