#130 Malta: sometimes, this blog thinger is pretty useful

 

My wife likes to say that United Nations of Food NYC isn’t really a food blog – it’s a cry for help. Yeah, I agree: it’s an online cry for help finding interesting international food. At least I think that’s what she meant…?

Anyway, a friendly Maltese-American reader heard my cry for help last week, and sent assistance in the form of a thoroughly entertaining email (thank you, Rachael!). Here’s a snippet:

I know that you’re in pursuit of foods from countries that have more than one million residents—but how about foods from countries that have less than half a million residents, but more than twice the amount of national pride? That has to count for something.

(For the record, if a country has less than a million residents but more than three calories, sign me up!)

Picture Malta, an archipelago in the heart of the Mediterranean ocean. Beautiful beaches (I mean really beautiful. Tom Cruise and Madonna are both frequent visitors, probably because it’s the last country anyone’s ever heard of and the closest thing this planet has to paradise. Did I mention that Britney Spears is ¼ Maltese?), friendly people, and yummy food. Authentic dishes range from the street-food pastizzi (stuffed filo pastry, usually with ricotta, meat, or peas) to rabbit stew. Wouldn’t you know it, you can get some of these authentic foods right here in NYC. We even have a Maltese Center in Astoria.

Ooh, rabbit stew and stuffed filo pastry! That sounds awesome. I wiped the drool off my keyboard (related: I don’t recommend touching my keyboard unless you’re either wearing gloves or have a strange drool fetish), hurried through a lamentably low-calorie meeting, and raced to Leli’s bakery in Astoria.

Charming, no?

Charming, no?

Leli’s is a thoroughly charming place, serving a glorious variety of cookies, breads, cakes, sandwiches, quiches, and drinks. I resisted the urge to snuffle through all of Leli’s offerings, and instead told the friendly Maltese owner that I wanted to try everything that could be considered Maltese. She smiled, and immediately pointed to the pastizzi. (I may or may not have drooled on command. Normal people totally do that… um, right?)

Pastizzi are savory filo-dough pastries, vaguely reminiscent of spanakopita or boureks. Leli’s offers three types: ricotta cheese, spinach & ricotta cheese, and beef & pea ($1.75 each). I ordered two of each flavor, and ate all six as I walked through Astoria; each pastizzi was a little bit larger than my fist, and all were delicious. (Related: my fists are starting to develop double chins of their very own.)

six pastizzi (two half-digested specimens not pictured)

six pastizzi (two half-digested specimens not pictured)

 

The pastizzi appeared to be the work of somebody with some serious baking talent: crispy, flaky layers of filo on the outside, with softer, moister layers of dough once you get past the initial layer of crunch. The spinach & ricotta pastizzi reminded me of a perfectly baked version of the individually wrapped Greek spanakopita that I grew up with, but with the sharpness of Greek feta replaced by the creaminess of a nice ricotta. I was also pretty excited about the beef and pea pastizzi, which seemed to feature a hint of clove.

sorry, I can't hear anything over the smell of fresh, round bread

sorry, I can’t hear anything over the smell of fresh, round bread

The only other Maltese item at Leli’s Bakery was Maltese bread, served in a variety of shapes and sizes; I opted for a medium-sized round roll (generously comped by the owner), since “round” is one of my favorite shapes. Even though the bakery was busy, the friendly (non-Maltese) woman at the counter kindly took the time to explain that the Maltese bread was deliciously crusty on the outside, soft on the inside, and possessed a mild sourdough flavor. She even explained how, exactly, the Maltese bread was different from other sourdough breads. But because I’m a terrible person with a one-track mind, I can’t tell you much of what she said, because I just couldn’t hear anything over the smell of fresh-baked bread.

The Maltese bread was delicious, even after… well, this is embarrassing, but I brought half the loaf home to my wife, and she put it in the refrigerator by accident and completely forgot about it, which I’m pretty sure is a violation of several international treaties with Malta. The crazy part? It was still delicious two days later, after a quick cameo in the oven.

But yeah, I probably violated Maltese law by letting that bread land in the fridge. Extradite me to Malta, somebody? Please? Maybe they’ll feed me that Maltese rabbit stew in prison.

Huge thanks to Rachael Xerri for the tip! If you can help me find the elusive Maltese rabbit stew or other tough-to-find ethnic cuisines, email me at unitednationsoffood@gmail.com or find me on Twitter (@UNofFoodNYC) or Facebook. If you invite me to a meal, I promise not to drool on your keyboard.

DSCN7108

Click to add a blog post for Leli's Bakery & Pastry Shop on Zomato

Leli’s Bakery
35-14 30th Ave., Astoria
Subway: 30th Ave. (N or Q train)

“pickled herring and animal innards are particularly pleasant”

 

To my tremendous surprise, this jiggly six-year-old corner of the internet has suddenly received more than its share of publicity this week. Some highlights:

  • Time Out NYC – Apparently, I said that “pickled herring and animal innards are particularly pleasant.” WTF?! I mean, I did say something like that, but it’s funny to see it in print.
  • Gothamist – I think I referred to fried food as one of “the finer things in life.” I might be bad at interviews.
  • Reddit — Thanks to “mfairview”, who started this wave of attention.
  • Trip Advisor – The guy who made comment #4 is a real dick. Oh, wait.

Thanks to the (totally undeserved!) attention, I’ve literally received more questions about the United Nations of Food project this week than in the past six years combined. The most common question: is the project dead, you lazyass food blogger?

Nope, it’s not dead. It’s been dormant, thanks largely to my laughable decision to attend graduate school. I simply haven’t had time to eat myself into blissful international stupors terribly often, and I’ve had even less time for food blogging. I have five half-written posts (Armenia, Costa Rica, Kyrgyzstan, Dominican Republic, and Peru) rotting in my hard drive, and just can’t seem to get them up.

Wait, that last phrase sounded funny for some reason.  *Shrug*

The good news is that graduate school supposedly doesn’t last forever, and I’ll have the freedom to clobber-oomph-ham-hock back into my usual gluttonous habits before too long. The bad news is that the remaining countries on my list are incredibly difficult to find.

So for any New Yorkers who have stumbled in here: my fantasy is that a wonderful, well-connected United Nations employee or ambassador will adopt me as a pet, and help me snag invitations into the kitchens of UN missions. At this point, United Nations of Food is an exercise in networking – home-cooked meals are probably my only hope of ever finishing the project. So if you can help with the networking, please drop me a line at unitednationsoffood@gmail.com.

Finally, a two quick shout-outs to amazing restaurants outside of NYC (full posts coming soon, hopefully):

  • If you’re in Union City, NJ, check out our friends at Juana y Gloria. Great Dominican food and wonderful people.
  • If you’re anywhere near the Miami airport, don’t miss El Pollo Inka. Everything is amazing, but try the Peruvian octopus-avocado-olive sushi, known as causa rolls. Don’t fear the purple.
Causa roll at El Pollo Inka, Miami. Purple!

Causa roll at El Pollo Inka, Miami. Purple!

 

 

 

 

 

 

#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.