Monday, September 24, 2012

The Multi-Ethnic Eating Tour

Today I went on the the Multi-Ethnic Eating Tour of the Lower East Side. In the 1800s, the LES was home of every major immigrant group to New York. Most of them moved in, prospered, and moved on. The Germans, Jews, Italian, Irish and others all arrived in the Lower East Side in waves; they settled, worked, lived, and in many cases, prospered and dispersed around the city. The exception was the Chinese who settled in the LES and stayed, developing what is now the part of the city knows as Chinatown. The Multi-Ethnic Eating Tour touches on the history of all of these groups and offers nibbles from most of the groups to illustrate the point.

Our tour-guide, Elizabeth, a graduate student from Columbia, gave us the rundown on the various immigrant populations -- where and how they lived, what they ate, and the traditions they brought with them. She told us that the biggest immigrant group to New York City was from the Dominican Republic, and that while the overall immigrant population to the United States is 10-12%, that number jumps to 30% for New York City. After giving this first factoid, she produced our first "bite" of the afternoon, fried plantains. They were starchy, sweet, a little spicy, and filling. We then moved down the street to the Pickle Guys. The name pretty much says it all - nothing in there but pickled this and that. We poked our heads into the tiny space full of pickle barrels while Elizabeth picked us up some kosher dills and... pickled pineapple. The pineapple apparently comes from a Trinadadian worker at the shop who said his mother made the best pickled pineapple around and got the recipe from her - it was delish - flavored with cloves and jalapenos.
pickled turnips

We then moved on to Sweet Life, a tiny candy store, where Elizabeth picked up some halva for us. Halva is a Middle-Eastern delicacy made from sesame paste. This variety also had a touch of cocoa, and it was sweet and crumbly and... interesting. My feeling is that if you're going to make something sweet, you can't go wrong with butter, sugar, cream, chocolate, vanilla, maybe some fruit if you want to go crazy... and maybe keep the sesame for your savories. Just my opinion. Elizabeth told us an anecdote about some sultan in the mumble-mumble...I didn't jot down the date who loved Halva so much that he had an auxiliary kitchen built onto his main palace kitchen just for making Halva. I'd go with a chocolate mousse kitchen. Or maybe one just for gelato.

Down a little further we hit Chinatown for some fresh tofu (good, but it would have been fantastic with a drizzle of sesame oil) before making our way to the Italian district for cannoli, soppressata- a fantastic dry salami, fresh mozzarella, and wonderful aged Parmesan, before circling back through Chinatown for lychee and black sesame ice cream. Again with the sesame desserts! I tried it and then ate around that part, just hitting the lychee flavor.
in Di Palo's cheese shop
After the tour was over, one of my favorite things happened - I had been chatting with a girl on the tour who was also on her own, visiting from England, and as we were talking while walking toward the subway, we decided to stop for a drink along the way. We bonded over my intense jealousy that she had somehow managed to score (miraculously, as far as I was concerned) a ticket to "The Book of Mormon" for that night and had time to kill before her show. We stopped at Grand Central so she could look at the wonderful central hall, and then ended up getting dinner together before she had to run off to the show. Her excitement at getting to see the show, combined with her love for Trey, Matt, and Jon Stewart, plus her great enthusiasm for travel, me terribly fond of Tess by the end of the night. Also when we were listening to the spiel of someone who was trying to entice us into his restaurant by describing the special, which was chocolate fettucini with vodka cream sauce and grilled shrimp, and my response was, "that sounds horrible!" she totally cracked up, so that made me like her even more.