It’s one of the great mysteries of New York City: why are there something like 50,000 Nicaraguans in the Tri-State area, but no Nicaraguan restaurants anywhere in the five boroughs? I don’t get it.
Fortunately, I hit the Nicaraguan jackpot when I emailed Lidia Hunter, creator of the Nicas en NY y NJ Unidos Facebook page and the now-dormant Nicas en New York blog. She graciously spent pretty much an entire weekend(!!) with me, introducing me to some of New York’s Nicaraguan awesomeness.
My Nicaraguan weekend sprawled across three days. On Saturday night, Lidia invited me to a fundraiser in Crown Heights hosted by Las Primas, a Nicaraguan softball team. On Sunday, Lidia took me Discoteca La Boom in Woodside, site of a massive Nicaraguan party hosted by ExpoNica NYC. On Monday, I even had Nicaraguan coffee at Nica-owned Café Integral in Soho, accompanied by a charismatic Nicaraguan student I had met at a (non-Nicaraguan) event two days earlier.
So yeah: a whole weekend of Nicaraguan-ness! Honestly, the sheer quantity of amazing people and wonderful dishes made my head spin, in the best possible way.
That, or the Toña and Flor de Caña made my head spin. Or both.
I can’t possibly fit everything I learned about Nicaragua and Nicaraguan cuisine into a single blog post, but here are a few highlights of the weekend:
At the Las Primas event on Saturday night, the first plate of food I tried was delicious, and it had an absolutely glorious name: vigorón. My Spanish is rusty, but I think the rough translation is “big and vigorous,” which is pretty apt when you top boiled yuca with fried pork, a fresh cabbage salad, and a homemade Nicaraguan hot pepper sauce:
and a cold Toña gives you even more vigor
Several Toñas later, the lovely ladies of Las Primas brought me some fritos. No, not those Fritos. These are much better than the packaged American type: the Nica variety features long, flat slices of crispy fried green plantains, topped with stewed pork, cabbage salad, and – if you’re into that sort of thing – more hot sauce. Nicaraguan fritos are pretty much everything you could possibly want from nachos, except with more pork and tastier “chips.” Epic.
Palo de Mayo (Maypole)
So there’s this tradition that I’d somehow never heard of: pole dancing.
No, not that kind of pole. This is a maypole, better known as palo de mayo in Nicaragua: basically, a tree covered in ribbons that becomes the center of dance floors in the springtime.
I’m sure that there’s a long, fascinating story behind it, but rumor has it that the Nicaraguan palo de mayo somehow evolved from the European tradition of ribbon dances. On Saturday, my Nicaraguan companions explained that the tradition took on a local flavor as it spread first to English colonies in the Caribbean, then to parts of Central America. Roxy, one of my new friends from the Caribbean coast, theorized that the ribbon dance became intertwined with existing Caribbean and Central American fertility rituals, leading to a decidedly sensual, non-British style of dance.
Guillermo and a maypole; sensual, non-British style of dance not pictured
There is incredible regional variety in Nicaraguan cuisine, and when one of Las Primas passed me a plate of Nicaraguan beef patties, my new friend Hopee – from the northern Nicaraguan state of Matagalpa – looked confused and asked, “What’s that?”
What, this? It’s really good rum, served with a side of patties…
Apparently, Nicaraguan patties aren’t terribly common outside of the Caribbean region. The version I tried – which most likely evolved from Jamaican patties – was stuffed with some beautifully seasoned ground beef. The result is fantastic, and reminds me of the wonderful baked empanadas I ate in Chile, except that the meat is more finely minced, and has more spice to it. Great stuff.
On Sunday at Discoteca La Boom, the team at ExpoNica NYC kicked off my evening of Nica food with enchiladas. No, not Mexican enchiladas. The Nicaraguan type resembles a lightly fried empanada, stuffed with beautifully peppery ground beef. On this particular day, the enchiladas were served with a fried ripe plantain and some addictive, salty, fried Nicaraguan cheese, which reminded me of a fried version of the haloumi at my favorite Greek Cypriot restaurant.
fried Nicaraguan awesomeness
Sunday’s band: La Nueva Compañia
I love these guys – they’re a band from Managua, currently on tour in the United States. My friend Hopee explained that most of the songs they played on Sunday were high-energy homages to some aspect of Nicaraguan culture or history. Such fun music, even if I didn’t always understand 100% of the lyrics.
Plus, those straw hats are pretty epic.
You’re surely familiar with Mexican tamales, but these beasts make the Mexican sort look downright scrawny. Nacatamales are meal-sized, and closer in spirit to the epic Belizean tamales you can get in Linden Park, except that the ingredients are a little bit different: the corn masa is silkier, and it’s studded with pork, onions, garlic, tomato, peppers, green olives, and raisins, among other treats – and wrapped and steamed in a banana leaf.
Also pictured: a nice, cold cup of Nicaraguan cacao — a rice-based drink that vaguely resembles horchata, but with a much richer flavor from the cinnamon and fresh Nicaraguan cocoa beans.
Stuff I didn’t eat: pupusas and rondon and lobster soup and…
Of course, the Nicaraguans I met eagerly described other amazing Nicaraguan dishes that we didn’t happen to have in front of us. A sampling:
- Rondon: a dish from the Caribbean coast, vaguely similar to Grenadian oildown – vegetables, meat, and/or fish, stewed forever in coconut milk and spices. (Whimper.)
- Nica pupusas: I’ve had countless Salvadoran pupusas, but my friend Eduardo – from the northern city of Estelí – explained that the northern Nicaraguan version is made by mixing tomatoes and peppers into the corn masa, giving the pupusas a reddish hue and more flavor. Sign me up!
- Lobster soup: apparently, the Corn Islands – off the Caribbean coast – have a time of year called “lobster soup.” Basically, everybody makes – well, lobster soup. You can wander around from bar to bar – or house to house – drinking Toña or rum and eating lobster soup, often offered by complete strangers. Sounds amazing.
I could go on and on. Every time I ate something wonderful, somebody told me about something else I needed to try, often available in only one corner of the country. My friend Hopee, from Matagalpa in the north, explained that she sometimes won’t even recognize food from other regions of Nicaragua; in terms of cuisine, Managua or the Caribbean coast might as well be a whole other country.
All of this culinary diversity from a nation that’s smaller than New York state. Pretty awesome.
And the very best thing that I experienced over the weekend was… drum roll please…
Yeah, I ate great food all weekend, since – well, you know, eating is my only real skill. But sometimes the food takes a distant, distant backseat to the fantastic characters I meet.
I fell in love again and again over the weekend with all sorts of friendly people: the charismatic DJ who spent half an hour talking about Nicaraguan music and dance traditions, the fleet of chefs who patiently walked me through their cuisine, and the complete stranger who offered me a ride home – from Crown Heights to Astoria, far out of his way! – when he saw me leave the party and head toward the subway on Saturday night. Everybody I met had a nearly magical way of making me feel like an honored guest and a long-lost cousin, all at the same time.
So of course I loved the big, hearty plates of Nicaraguan food. But at the risk of sounding totally cheesy, I was even more enthralled by the big-hearted people I met. You rock, New York Nicas.
Huge thanks to all of the incredible people I met during the weekend, including Hopee, Eduardo, Gema, Gladys, Shanell, Roxy, Jaykel, Evelyn, Guillermo, Marlene & Rolando from ExpoNica, ExpoNica chefs Martha Saballos and Maria Mercedes Caceres… and especially Lidia Hunter, who made all of this possible. Lidia, you’re a saint!!!
Saint Lidia, with Gema from Las Primas
I really wanted to believe that it was magic. Suddenly, I was in Bryant Park, with a monstrous steak in front of me. Actually, it was better than that: I had a big ol’ box of Costa Rican casado, an epic combo platter consisting of fried plantains, rice, black beans, a fried egg, some fried pork, and a gently charred steak, roughly the size of a fat skateboard.
yup, looks like Bryant Park
I looked around. Yup, this was New York City. And I had four pounds of Costa Rican food in front of me. I ate it all. And then it dawned on me: is it possible that I (gasp!)… cheated?!
OK, fine: yeah, I cheated. But just a little bit. I went to a restaurant called Olga’s Place in Elizabeth, New Jersey, solely for the purpose of trafficking a massive load of Costa Rican food back to Manhattan. It was kind of lukewarm by the time I reached Bryant Park, but it was still awesome. Really, how can you possibly go wrong with fried plantains, a fried egg, fried pig, black beans, and a skateboard-sized steak?
And while I’m asking rhetorical questions: why aren’t there any Tico-owned Costa Rican restaurants in NYC? You can get tasty Costa Rican food made by a wonderful Honduran in Queens. But there aren’t any Ticos who sell Tico food.
So here’s another question: if you’re from Costa Rica, would you really want to move to NYC? In Costa Rica, there are beautiful beaches, a largely unspoiled cloud forest, warm weather, warm people, fried plantains, and no military. In NYC, there are cramped apartments, crowded beaches, chilly winters, humid trash-scented summers, outrageous rents, and too many spoiled little yappy-type dogs.
way better than a yappy-type dog
We also have food from at least 143 nations, but if that doesn’t blow your hair back… wait, why wouldn’t that blow your hair back, and why wouldn’t you want to live here? I don’t get it.
Anyway, the meal was pretty freaking great, even if it wasn’t exactly at its peak freshness after traveling underneath a river. The enormous steak had a perfect char to it, and it was adorned with my favorite condiment: more fried stuff, plus a thousand calories of rice and beans. Life is good, even if I just earned yet another asterisk.
237 Lt. Glenn Zamorski Drive
So when we say the word “country”, what the hell do we actually mean?
Most of us would agree that Taiwan is a country; China and the (other) United Nations definitely disagree. Puerto Rico is technically a territory, but it has its own national soccer team, and it definitely has its own cuisine. And what about Western Sahara or Palestine or Tibet? None are full UN members, but they could arguably be called countries, depending on your politics.
My stomach has its own politics: when in doubt about a certain locale, my stomach calls it a country. More food that way.
So… yeah. Tibet. If you haven’t noticed, there are quite a few Tibetan restaurants in New York, mostly in Jackson Heights – but some are remarkably difficult to notice:
people selling cell phones are apparently louder than momos
Sadly, Lhasa Fast Foods has been temporarily closed for pretty much the entire spring, presumably to excavate itself from the mountain of phone advertisements. But a friendly Nepalese shopkeeper pointed me to Phayul, located a block away, in another easy-to-miss spot above a barbershop.
It wasn’t long before my tongue was completely numb. No, really. We ordered a bowl of tsak sha la kor hot, a stew made from beef, red chilies, thinly sliced daikon, and “mountain herbs.” I asked our server if the “mountain herbs” had a name in English; she called out to one of the chefs, who smiled warmly, waved an open container of a dried fennel-like substance in our direction, and shrugged.
warm, spicy, and pleasantly paralyzing
I’m not making this up: as I slurped the soup, my tongue kept going numb. It wasn’t unpleasant. The culprit seemed to be the peppercorns, not the mountain herbs or red chilies. But I could be wrong.
Our other four dishes didn’t do quite as much to paralyze bits of our faces, but they were equally tasty. We enjoyed a spicy version of stir-fried chicken in a peanut sauce, seasoned with more red chilies:
warm, spicy, and pleasant, but not paralyzing
And then there were some spicy pan-fried potatoes (shogo katsa), with plenty of scallions:
Ewww, vegetables! Wait… what?
Before I continue, here’s a cautionary tale for any parents out there. On this particular evening, I dined with a fascinating woman who works in the Democratic Republic of Congo and has roots in France, Martinique, and Cuba. Her mother fed her blended vegetables until she was 12. Yes, blended – like baby food. Until she was 12.
She hates most vegetables to this day. “You actually eat green onions?” she asked somewhat incredulously, as she plucked them out of her potatoes.
So yeah: vegetable-wrecking is bad.
Anyway, no vegetables were harmed in the making of the momos, the excellent dumplings that are probably Tibet’s best-known dish. Phayul’s are wonderfully juicy on the inside, stuffed with a soupy mix of ginger, cilantro, and in our case, beef. Your chin has been warned.
drippy chin not pictured
And then there was the hearty stew that just didn’t sound quite right: tsak sha dro thuk, translated as beef soup with oatmeal. Oatmeal? Huh?
The stew itself was probably our favorite dish of the evening. It was hearty and beefy and pleasantly salty, with chunks of bone cooked with the oatmeal so that the marrow flavor could seep in. The stew also featured a hint of red chilies, but – for better or worse – it didn’t quite have the firepower to paralyze my tongue again.
37-65 74th Street, Queens
Subway: Roosevelt Av./74th St. (E, M, F, R, 7)
Like any good Iowa boy, I was taught to keep my promises – even if they’re kinda silly. Six years and 142 countries ago, I made two rules for my little food project: 1) each meal has to happen within the five boroughs of NYC, and 2) it has to be prepared by somebody from that country.
But holy crap, this is getting tough. Several Kenyans have passed through my proverbial Rolodex; none have led me to a meal yet, and I’m 100% certain that there are no Kenyan eateries in New York City. But that miskaki stuff sounds awfully good – marinated meat and onions and peppers, served on a sizzling platter with basmati rice.
So screw it: Teaneck, New Jersey, here I come!
When I walked into Addy’s Barbecue, Addy was wearing an Iowa Hawkeyes sweatshirt, which I took as a positive omen, since I’m from Iowa and stuff. I trust a Kenyan in an Iowa shirt do the right thing with meat – or corn – and fire, and I’ll bet that he makes a mean burger or rack of ribs. But he also makes mishkaki, an East African version of meat kabobs.
In some parts of the Middle East and East Africa, mishkaki is served on skewers, but Addy’s version of steak mishkaki is a wee bit more dramatic: it’s served on a sizzling iron skillet, with tons of caramelizing onions and a few jalapeños. The beef had been glazed in cumin, ginger, and tamarind – among other spices – giving the sauce an extra hint of sweetness to balance out the jalapeños.
like a good Lifetime movie: dramatic and steamy
By now, you might be wondering: tamarind and cumin? In Kenyan cooking? But those sound Indian…? As it turns out, Indian flavors have influenced East African cooking for centuries. The Omani sultanate (mostly) controlled Zanzibar from 1698 to 1964, and Omani traders played a key role in the spice trade, introducing Indian techniques and ingredients to the Middle East and East Africa.
If that wasn’t enough, a large Indian diaspora was drawn to Kenya in the late 1800s, initially as workers on the Kenya-Uganda railway, also known as the Lunatic Express because so many people – mostly Indians – died in the construction of the route, including many who were eaten by a notorious pair of lions. People of Indian descent were forcibly expelled from Uganda in the early 1970s, but somewhere around 1.3 million people of Indian descent remain in Kenya today.
Did you say something intelligent about African history? Sorry, I can’t hear you over the smell of basmati rice.
OK, enough history: I was eating a huge plate of seared, seasoned beef, served with basmati rice and a tamarind-topped salad, which makes it hard to think about history. Plus, there was a gigantic mango lassi…
…which causes gigantic brain freeze
There was just one problem: I was still in New Jersey. After I finished my plate of rib-eye mishkaki, I ordered some chicken mishkaki to go. Just so I could, you know, eat it in New York City. The bad news was that it was getting dark, so you can’t really tell that the mishkaki and I were in Herald Square:
hey look, there’s Kenyan food in Manhattan!
So here’s the Kenyan chicken mishkaki in the 34th Avenue Subway station:
hm, even mishkaki knows how to swipe a Metrocard
The chicken mishkaki loved traveling so much that it begged me for a trip to the Eiffel Tower. I said no, and ate it. The mishkaki, I mean. Not the Eiffel Tower.
So I guess the meal deserves an asterisk. I ate Kenyan food in New York City – it just wasn’t prepared in New York City. Close enough?
Anyway, Addy tells me that he’s working on expanding his menu to include other Kenyan items (ugali!), and might even be eyeballing an expansion into New York City. Go try his food, and tell him to hurry up and cross the river so I can eat Kenyan food more often… and get rid of this darned asterisk.
1199 Teaneck Road
I don’t love the asterisk, so if you know anybody from Kenya or nearby countries (Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Central African Republic) who might be willing to speak with me, please email me at email@example.com or find me on Twitter or Facebook.
Nuevo Jardin de China is one of those places that I’ve walked past literally 100 times, without really noticing it. Chinese food in Astoria? Meh. Not when there’s baklava and mezedes as far as the eye can see.
But wait… “Nuevo Jardin de China” is, um, Spanish. Fine, it’s probably just one of those places that New Yorkers love to joke about: we have Mexicans who make Chinese food and Chinese immigrants who make tacos. This must be in the latter category, right?
Nope. This is authentic fusion: the restaurant is owned by ethnic Chinese immigrants from Cuba. Chino-Latino food used to be incredibly common in NYC, and there are still more than a dozen NYC restaurants owned by ethnic Chinese from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, or Cuba.
If you’re not a veteran of the New York Chino-Latino scene, Nuevo Jardin can be a little bit disorienting. The staff all look Chinese, the small TV above the bar shows Sinovision, and the bar features gooey tiki-bar-type drinks. But the stereo was blaring salsa music when I walked in. I could swear that the Hello Kitty statue was totally moving her hips instead of just her paw.
Anyway, I was mostly curious about the “Latino” part of “Chino-Latino food”, so I ordered the lunch special of ropa vieja to go – literally, “old clothes,” a Cuban dish consisting of beef simmered in peppers and onions until it disintegrates into soft threads of meat.
Once I opened my to-go bag, I was even more disoriented. The bag contained odd array of condiments: sweet and sour sauce, soy sauce, butter, Italian dressing and a slice of lemon (for the iceberg lettuce salad), and two fortune cookies. The ropa vieja was also served with a chunk of baguette and shrimp-and-pork fried rice.
my stomach is about to feel great, but my brain really hurts just looking at this
The ropa vieja looked and tasted like typical Americanized Chinese food: the beef and onions and peppers were stewed in a sweet, unnaturally red sauce – sort of like the sweet and sour pork sauce at, say, Panda Express. It wasn’t what I expected, since it didn’t remotely resemble any other ropa vieja I’d ever eaten before. I ate half of the dish, then put it aside while I survived a three-hour work meeting. I wasn’t excited to eat more of it.
After my meeting, I ate the other half anyway. Because, you know, it was food, and it happened to be in the same room as me. And a funny thing happened: I actually enjoyed it. Yeah, the sauce was on the sweet side, but not unpleasantly so, and it had a nice onion flavor to it. The fried rice seemed incongruous at first, but it was actually pretty good, and the extra bits of meat and egg and shrimp and oil mellowed out the sweetness of the sauce.
on closer inspection… shiny, but not bad!
So here’s the thing: at first, my not-totally-open mind was playing mean tricks on my stomach. When I expected Cuban ropa vieja, I thought the dish was gawdawful. But as soon as I forgot my expectations and energetically stuck my snout into the leftovers… well, it was actually a pretty tasty meal.
So yeah, maybe Chinese ropa vieja doesn’t seem to make much sense at first. And neither does a salsa-dancing Hello Kitty statue. But both could be kinda cute, right?
Nuevo Jardin de China
32-05 Broadway, Astoria, Queens
Subway: Broadway (N, Q trains)
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