Did you eat lunch?

The man in the white apron plates mussels outside the Korean shellfish barbeque restaurant - jogae gui. I’d spot him most mornings, through the narrow gap between the cold noodle take-away and The Seaman’s Club, or in the evenings on my way to Baskin Robbins’ ice-cream parlour.

At twenty-nine, I was a jogae gui virgin.

I filmed the shellfisher one afternoon, his consent given by a cursory nod, cracking and splitting shells: mussels the length of your hand, clams as wide as your palm. His deft knife-work is lascivious: twist, crack, split, twist, crack, split. We exchange smiles on most occasions, sometimes a perfunctory Korean greeting. But too many distractions might send the knife plunging deep into the flesh of his ungloved hand. So I walk quickly on.

It took me a year to go into his restaurant and eat; I needed a dinner date who’d know what to do. Korean barbeque rituals are learned as you grow up. You listen to your parents judging the heat by the colour of the embers; they tell you the grill is not hot enough because the air above it does not wobble. They snatch your hand away if you lean in too close and scold you so you’ll learn. At twenty-nine, I was a jogae gui virgin.

Tofu_dubu

When mussels and other molluscs are condemned to the grill, they reveal their secret weapon, their one and only act of insubordination: self-annihilation.

‘Quick! Take it off before the clam explodes!’ my dining companion commands. I lift the mollusc with the tongs, but am too late and shards of shell shrapnel discharge themselves, narrowly missing my face.

I have burnt the largest mussel on the grill – The Daddy – that the shellfisher had ceremoniously presented at our table. A white plastic bucket sits beneath each round, galvanized barbecue station – a graveyard for the spoiled – into which the blackened shell and its curled, dead remains are thrown. A group of middle-aged men talk loudly and jovially over one another through mouthfuls of shellfish as the air greys with their cigarette smoke. Steadily emptying green bottles of soju – rice wine – clutter their table.

I am still hungry.

At the barbeque station next to us is a well-dressed couple; the red in his check shirt is striking against her livid-green blouse. She is in charge of the grilling and the monitoring. He leans his upper body to the left – still talking – in anticipation of a shellfish-seizure. She whips a clam off the grill with tongs, scoops the torpid contents out with a pair of silver chopsticks, delivers a smudge of red gochujang (hot pepper sauce) and places it, delicately, into her boyfriend’s mouth.

I wore a hairy jumper to dinner and stray fibres keep catching in the heat as I reach across the grill with my tongs. Small, transitory fires on my clothes add to the anxiety of eating  jogae gui.

pickled garlic

Across the road from the jogae gui restaurant, where an evangelical church with shepherds and cartoon lambs on its double-doors faces the street, is the Bonjuk restaurant – a franchise selling healthy Korean cuisine.

I don’t have to prepare my seafood here.

The day after a shard of shark fin-shaped glass went into my hand and I needed twelve stitches, I went into Bonjuk alone for the first time. I was so grateful for good food you could eat one-handed with a spoon. All the dishes came in large, stone bowls: soups, porridge, bibimbap, and gul jul guy – spicy oyster soup with glass noodles.

Bonjuk saw me through those one-handed weeks.

perilla leaves for bulgogi

... little bowls of colourful promise: pickled ribbons of deep green seaweed and hot-pink slices of radish.

Sinpo was my neighbourhood in Incheon – my city by the sea for two years. And you could eat fresh oysters anywhere. Bonjuk restaurants only sell the gul juk gui where oysters are in abundance; the empty shells sound like castanets as they are scraped from the bowl and tumble into the bin.

The first time I ate at Bonjuk the waitress, a woman in her middle years with admirable posture, looked warily at my bandaged hand and asked me if I was meeting someone. ‘I’m on my own,’ I told her. One other lone diner was sat in the middle of the restaurant at a beige Formica table. The waitress laid a place in front of him, took my elbow and guided me into the seat opposite. He looked up, startled by the bandaged foreign woman (Russian? Strips at The Seaman’s Club?). Embarrassed, I insisted I was content to eat alone.

Gul juk gui was a lucky guess; I could read Korean well enough but the nuances of heat, the type of dish it’s served in, and many vegetables were still a mystery. Oyster soup could be anything. A portion could feed two, but I always emptied the bowl. Most of it could be eaten one-handed with a spoon; the noodles with flat chopsticks, ideally with two hands, coiling the noodles into the spoon. Bite down hard on the oysters – they’re more resistant than you think – and their rubbery skins give, releasing a briny piquancy that mingles with the fieriness of the soup and conjures the sea.

The side dishes that come with each Korean meal are little bowls of colourful promise: pickled ribbons of deep green seaweed and hot-pink slices of radish. Along with the oysters, gul juk gui gave me all my iron and zinc. I needed to heal; I’d lost a lot of blood when I cut my hand.

But it would have been nice to share gul juk gui with someone.

Our first date was a traditional Korean meal with all the side dishes carefully displayed in jade ceramics - banchan.

Jae-ik and I met at Culture Complex – the language exchange centre where he was the manager. I liked his thick glasses and sticky-out hair. When I explained the unfortunate name for his language programme, he laughed, and wrote it down in his pocket-notebook under ‘homonyms’.

Our first date was a traditional Korean meal with all the side dishes carefully displayed in jade ceramics – banchan. I asked him lots of questions about the technique, the history and the legends behind everything we were eating: Korean kingdoms adopted Buddhism as its state religion, and court kitchens cultivated elaborate ways to prepare simple, Buddhist dishes. My favourite was the miniature kimchi pancakes.

Jae-ik said that he found my appetite charming.

The bus on the way home was crammed with commuters so we had to stand, swaying unsteadily into one another as it charged around corners. He ran an index finger along the inside of my wrist, and whispered something in my ear.

Jae-ik’s first gift to me was a can of pomegranate juice from the 7/11. ‘It’s good for women—for down there,’ he said, offering it to me with both hands like it was an injured bird.

Jae-ik liked to eat Korean beef barbeque—bulgogi. One evening he sprung it on me that I was to meet his hyun, a respected older male friend, and that we’d all eat bulgogi together. Jae-ik was his dong-saeng, and therefore required approval from his mentor over his choice of girlfriend. His hyun spoke elegant English, better than Jae-ik, but as the soju flowed, the hyun got impatient and before too long both he and Jae- ik were talking in slurred Korean and I couldn’t follow. Not trusted with the barbeque, I sat bored and mute watching the kimchi frying on the hotplate, the edges of each cabbage leaf blackening and spoiling, the hyun’s cigarette ash showering the meat. The men shovelled over-done beef cuts into their mouths and then ordered yook hwe, a raw beef salad mixed with raw egg, and laughed when I made a face.

Jae-ik had red gochujang all over his chin.

On the train back to my flat, after dinner was finally over, I made Jae-ik sit with his head between his knees so he didn’t puke yook-hwe all over the carriage. He looked up through pink eyes, and told me that he was under a lot of pressure at home to get married. ‘I’m the oldest son,’ he told me mournfully, ‘I have to find someone soon. It might as well be you.’ We argued, and then he puked in my bathroom. His final gift to me was an ugly pair of sparkly earrings, an apology that confirmed we didn’t know anything about each other at all.

rice cakes_ddeok

Where British custom discusses the weather... Koreans ask about your last meal

My apartment block straddled Sinpo and China Town, and my bedroom looked out onto the Incheon port in the East China Sea. I found it satisfying watching the sun sink at different points behind the mountains as the seasons changed. December promised the best sunset. A flash of pink and auburn on the surface of the ocean before the sun dips finally, making room for dusk to move in. Neon Hangeul signs blink to life and take over the skyline.

It was Chinese settlers who brought Jjajangmyeon to Korea. They landed at Incheon and set up their shops on a tiny sliver of the city about a kilometre wide. Jjajangmyeon – chewy noodles topped with a glutinous black soybean sauce – even has its own song. Korean kids learn it in kindergarten and needle their parents for the noodles on the weekend.

In China Town, not far from a weary-looking stone Confucius, an enormous fiberglass effigy of a bowl of jjajangmyeon is on display. Visitors make their pilgrimage to China Town for the day, have their picture taken with the noodles, and then eat a bowl of it in one of the ubiquitous Chinese restaurants. Outside the Jjajangmyeon museum, a colossal statue of a chef in whites is frozen in mid-run, clutching a take-away box of jjajangmyeon.

It is possible to map the evolution of Korea’s cuisine against the country’s own extraordinary evolution from feudal state, to military dictatorship, to capitalist democracy. Contrary to the stereotypes of an inflexible and rigid culture – it was once referred to as ‘The Hermit Kingdom’ – Korea has moved with the times. Jjajangmyeon is a perfect example of this: Koreans have selected the appetizing parts of Chinese influence and turned them into a national dish, complete with its own festival.

American influence has also had its way with Korean cuisine, and this came as a shock – when I found pieces of deep-fried Spam on my tray in the school canteen. Rows of Spam in blue and yellow tins line supermarket shelves, and are a popular gift to take home during the Chuseok holiday. Army Stew – a spicy (and revolting) Spam based noodle soup is sometimes called Johnson’s Stew in honour of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who visited Korea in 1966 and promised economic aid. Spam, an uninviting flabby by-product of a free-market economy, has attained mythical status.

Contrary to the stereotypes of an inflexible and rigid culture... Korea has moved with the times.

Where British custom discusses the weather in meaningless detail before easing into lucid conversation, Koreans ask about your last meal: ‘Did you eat something?’ is the opener for most greetings. If I said ‘no,’ I would be handed a snack dug out of a handbag – usually a rice cake, tteok. And on one occasion, when I said I had not eaten breakfast, I was marched to a nearby restaurant and forced to eat a bowl of bibimbap – rice and bean sprouts – until I was full, pae-bol-oy-yo. I soon learned that the stock answer was always ‘yes,’ in the same way that the British don’t expect anyone to not be ‘fine’.

But I never really got used to this overly personal greeting in the two years I lived in Korea. You could be hurrying past a colleague in a busy corridor, who’d meet your eye and shout, ‘Did you eat lunch?’ and frantically mime spooning food into their mouth, in place of a wave. There’d be no time to stop and answer, so the question was always left hanging, like an awkward expression of unrequited love. I made it my business to email the colleague who’d enquired and finish the exchange: ‘Yes, I ate lunch. Thank you for asking.’

Hannah Garrard. Photographs – courtesy of the author.

Did You Eat Lunch has been selected for the 2015 Words and Women Anthology.

Itata and the roots of Chilean wine

I am indebted to the De Martino family for their research into this fascinating region of Chile. It is fair to say that they rediscovered its potential as part of their quest to identify original terroirs in Chile.

Itata is not a region which the wine cognoscenti know a great deal about

The wines from here are very particular, deeply embedded in the traditions of the locality. Our knowledge of Chile tends to be based on matching certain grapes to certain regions– Syrah with Choapa & Elqui, Chardonnay with Limari, Sauvignon with Casablanca and the coastal regions, Carmenere & Cabernet with Maipo. You have to journey further south to where the Spanish first colonised to find the original varieties, Pais (ironically known as the Mission grape) for red and Muscat of Alexandria for white. Rather than the huge monocultural estates of the north, the land here is spread across wild rolling hills, a patchwork of small organically-farmed, horse-ploughed vineyard parcels of thick-trunked bush vines still owned by the local huasos.

When the Spanish colonizers landed at the Port of Concepción, they brought with them the Muscat of Alexandria and Pais (Listan Prieto) grapes. As a result, the first grape vines in Itata were planted in 1551. These grapes came from the Canary Islands originally and had been collected en route to Latin America. Due to destruction caused by subsequent earthquakes and the desire to “improve” the quality of the wines, other grape varieties –including Cinsault and some rare whites that are only known by their local names (such as Corinto) – were introduced to the region at the beginning of the 20th century.

From the beginning, Itata wines were highly-regarded as evidenced by the following quotes:

“Vine growing adapts much better to the southern wine provinces, the wine of Concepción is superior in quality to the ones from other areas” – Eduard Poeppeg, German traveller. 1828.

“The French have a singular affinity to the city of Concepción, and they claim the reason is the excellence of their wines”- Miguel de Olivares, priest. 18th century.

As winemaking and grape-growing expanded across the country other wineries began to gain influence. These factors, in addition to Chile’s increasing centralization, caused Itata to slowly lose its prominence and eventually become all but forgotten as a wine region. However, in recent years the valley has recovered its relevance and is now recognized as a treasure of the Chilean countryside. In this way, the Itata Valley has allowed growers to return to their origins, rediscover forgotten varieties and examine the work carried out by the first winemakers in the country.

The gorgeous landscape of the Itata Valley and the surrounding coastal areas where vineyards are located include steep hills planted with vineyards and imposing pine forests. The fast-flowing Itata River complements this stunning panorama, and its crystalline waters make this a truly unique location. In Itata there are a variety of small subsistence farms for whom viticulture is a way of life; they produce artisanal wines using traditional methods and sell their products locally. Thanks to their resilience, it is still possible to find vestiges of history reflected in vineyards that date back over 150 years

ItataLandscape

Vineyards are worked using horses, and axes are still the pruning tool of choice

The local cuisine is dominated by rabbit, hare, and chicken stews, as well as legumes and local sausages that are famous all across Chile. Wild mushroom foraging, which is carried out during the autumn and spring, is also popular. On the coast, blue crab (jaiba), conger eel (congrio) and corvina, similar to a sea troutare the main attractions. The vibrant and taut Itata wines perfectly complement these traditional dishes.

The climate of coastal Itata experiences high levels of precipitation – up to 1,000 mm per annum – and makes dry-farming (without irrigation) possible. The Pacific Ocean also exerts a cooling influence which tempers the climate and helps to produce fresh and vibrant wines.

The soil is composed of granite deposits from the Coastal Mountain Range formed during the Jurassic period. The mostly loam soil has excellent drainage and close to 20% clay content, which helps retain humidity and fortify the plants during the driest summer months. Quartz is also commonly found in the soils of Itata.

The vineyards are dry-farmed and use a very low goblet training system (known here as “cabeza”) creating an unsupported bush vine. The vines are planted on original rootstock and the oldest vines in the area date back over 150 years. Vineyards are worked using horses and axes are still the pruning tool of choice.

 

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Amphorae in Chile

An amphora is a ceramic vessel whose properties vary according to the characteristics of the soil from which it is derived. Chilean clay comes from a variety of sources, including granite, calcium, volcanic rock, and ochre. The latter is the most common type of clay found in the central coast and the most utilized for making these earthenware containers.

Amphorae arrived in Chile with the Spanish conquistadors, however historian Gonzalo Rojas assures us that, “From an anthropological point of view, the amphorae are a powerful symbol of the mestizaje between the Hispanic world and the pre-Columbian indigenous world. Not only because both indigenous and Spanish artisans — laymen and religious men — participated in their production, but also because of the craftsmanship that’s entailed; this work also had its roots in the ancestral farmer-potter traditions of the America´s indigenous populations.”

Local pre-Columbian cultures are thought to have used their amphorae as vessels for making alcohol around 1500 AD; however these vessels were of a different shape and design than those brought by the conquistadors. Chilean amphorae developed as a result of the blending of both cultures and styles. In this way, the amphora became a uniquely significant cultural artefact for the country. Production peaked during the La Colonia period (1598-1810), when they were primarily used for fermenting and storing wine, an activity which was carried out across the country, from the Atacama region all the way to the BíoBío River. On a smaller scale, amphorae were also used to store grains, olive oil, and other liquids, as well as transporting goods.

With the arrival of barrel-making in the 19th century, amphorae were replaced by containers made from other materials. The wine industry preferred wood as it requires less care when being moved, was relatively light-weight and easy to repair. In this way the raulí  barrels (known as “pipas”) became the container of choice for wine fermentation and ageing throughout the country, relegating 200 years of tradition to the resilience of a few committed artisanal producers immersed in the depths of the countryside.

Amp

They are wines that will make you smile

De Martino and the amphorae

The idea of producing wine using traditional terracotta amphorae emerged in 2010, as a result of De Martino’s decision to craft wines with strong, unique personalities, while maintaining a fresh and gastronomic winemaking style. This project inspired them immediately as it tied in with their mission to recover ancestral winemaking techniques.

The Viejas Tinajas wine range began as an experimental programme with only 14 amphorae, which collectively produced their 2011 Viejas Tinajas Cinsault. The following vintage they incorporated new vessels and added the Muscat grape variety, thereby completing the range’s white and red duo. They currently have 172 amphorae of all different shapes and sizes, ranging between 200 and 1,800 litre capacity. Many of these are over 200 years old. Wines fermented and aged in amphorae have a unique textural signature and stand out for their varietal purity, freshness, and delicate nature.

Q & A with Sebastian De Martino

What attracted you to Itata initially – had you ever tasted wines from this region?

What attracted us was its history (quite unknown and mysterious even), the southern location (high rainfall and dry farming), the varieties not found in the northern regions, the maritime influence, the landscape dominated by rolling hills, plus the granite soils. Even in Chile it was difficult to find wines from Itata as in the past either they were sold locally or wine companies from the north would buy the grapes at low prices and blend them into their basic wines.

We therefore decided to organize a scouting trip where we discovered several new wines. Unfortunately, at the time although you could find great fruit behind the wines you would also see various “commercial” practices that militated against the expression of terroir. This was no doubt due to these local producers selling wines for blending or being advised by oenologists with different philosophies.

How different is Itata to the north (I mean the area around Santiago) in terms of the people and the culture?

The area is where Chile’s first vineyards were planted and the original vignerons are still found. Properties are smaller and more fragmented (no fencing, for example). In the north the wine culture followed the “Bordeaux” model since the wealthy families travelled in the 19th century to France to learn from the examples there. The south, however, is wild with a long standing history that we are just starting to rediscover ourselves.

Why did Itata lose its fame as a wine region (considering this region was important in the origin of vine planting and culture in Chile)?

Good question – we are still trying to understand what happened! Most likely since the arrival of the French practices in the 19th century, and the planting of vines in the northern regions of Chile, everyone thought that the wines of Itata were in the “past” and no longer relevant.

How many wineries other than De Martino are producing wines from Itata region alone (ie not blends between two or more regions)?

Besides the local producers, some of whom are making surprisingly good wines, there are about 8 companies which have come down from the “north” to produce wines in the area. The style of these wines spans a broad spectrum and tends to reflect the philosophy of each of the wineries behind them. We are proud though to be the first who committed to the region by acquiring a small plot containing historical old vines and field blends of varieties that we are just starting to understand .

What do you see as the future of this region?

Itata, in our opinion, has a very bright future. As I have mentioned there are few places where you can find such old vines, dry farmed, granite soils and unique grape varieties. The history of the place is just beginning to be rediscovered and the style of the wines – or the possibility which Itata offers to produce wines – are not found in in the northern regions of the country and, in our experience, in few places of the New World.  We feel we are still just scratching the surface, and learning about the potential of the area; there will be more to come.

Are there any other regions in the world that you think have the same feel as Itata?

Parts of the region resemble Galicia in Spain, whilst the fruity style of wines tend to remind one more of Beaujolais (the natural producers who work there) or perhaps even the new Languedoc. The wines are defined by their vibrant character and nerve.

They are wines that will make you smile.

Doug Wregg. Photographs courtesy of the author.

 

 

 

 

 

Living – and Eating – in Queens, New York

For years, even Manhattanites refused to cross the East River into Brooklyn or Queens, so you certainly wouldn’t have found either of these subordinate New York City boroughs making their way onto tourist itineraries either. But the tables are turning—quite literally.

Queens...has recently thrown its chef’s hat into the ring.

Brooklyn has been holding its own as a hotbed of coolness, particularly in the gastronomic realm, for more than a decade now. The boon of farm, ocean and forest-to-table eateries—not to mention the coffee, tea, and matcha cafes, the trucks that dole out steamed, grilled, and fried food all hours of the day and night, the artisanal bakeries, the gastropubs, wine bars, dessert bars, microbreweries, distilleries, and cocktail-slinging speakeasies with their herb-infused simple syrups and their small-batch liquors—has lead to a culinary explosion that now extends far beyond Kings County.

But the brooklynisation of America that has influenced the eruption of white subway-tile clad, reclaimed wood-countered, dimly Edison-lightbulb-lit, urban-rustic-chic eateries and drinkeries from Williamsburg (Brooklyn’s epicentre of hipness) to California is old news. What’s new is that Queens, long considered Brooklyn’s almost entirely un-compelling sidekick to the north, has recently thrown its chef’s hat into the ring.

Food writers from the New York Times and other food-focused magazines and blogs have been evangelising about Queens cuisine with regularity for sometime now, but the borough has largely remained under the radar for most. However, with Queens topping Lonely Planets “Best in the US” list for 2015, our humble borough’s secret is out. Now even international tourists know that we have world-class museums and sculpture gardens, an east coast Tinseltown, a colourful music history, a surf scene, a county farm on the ground and a few more up on the rooftops. And being one of the most ethnically diverse places on earth, we’ve got food that will blow your mind.

This is not to say that the restaurants in Queens rival the level of artistry, sophistication, or innovation that can be discovered in Manhattan’s finest restaurants or that you’ll find the same obsession with hyper-locavorism that has put the greenmarket-driven seasonal New American fare of Brooklyn on the gastronomic map. What we offer instead is a nearly incomprehensible concentration of eateries that showcase authentic cuisines from all over the world.

Flushing Xian FF soup 2

...being one of the most ethnically diverse places on earth, we’ve got food that will blow your mind

The enclaves of Queens are teeming with chefs and food purveyors from Europe, Africa, Asia, and North, Central, and South America. And, reflecting its origins, the food culture here is not limited to traditional sit-down restaurants. You might be grabbing the best kebab, curry, or plate of momos (Tibetan or Nepalese dumplings) you’ve ever sunk your teeth into from a food cart on a corner in Jackson Heights while a subway train roars above your head or the most scrumptious Taiwanese pork bun on the subterranean level of a Flushing food mall, where pungent, heady aromas of hot oil, Asian 5-spice, grilled meats, stir-fry, and spicy broths thicken and perfume the air.

And sometimes, in Queens, the most amazing food just materialises in an unexpected setting, such as when you’re sipping a sweet and salty lime-, lychee- and chile-laden cocktail at the Thai bar Pata Paplean in Elmhurst at 4PM on a Saturday, and even though the bar only serves drinks and bar snacks (as far as you knew), you’re suddenly presented with the option to order a bowl of sweet and tangy noodle soup brimming with pork and fish balls and a zing of lime juice, fish sauce, chile, and cilantro. Naturally, you seize the moment. Gobsmacked by the heat and bright flavours, you start to mentally reorganise your life so you can come back and slurp down these magnificent noodles every day. But then you’re informed that noodles are only served here for a few hours a few days a week. Sometimes you’re just lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.

Flushing Happy Food

As with many American families, the first big trip of my childhood was to Disney World. I was nine years old, and what was most memorable about it for me was not the Magic Kingdom but the international food pavilions at the newly opened EPCOT Center. This was back in the early 1980s, so American food culture was still, for the most part, in the dark ages. Not yet having been exposed to many foreign cuisines, I was intensely curious about what people ate in Japan, France, Germany, Mexico, and other parts of the world. I remember being surprised and delighted that nothing tasted as I had expected. I had no frame of reference for the new sweet, sour, and spicy flavours that were sparking my taste buds. It was an awakening. This feeling returns repeatedly in Queens as I deepen my explorations into the regional cuisines of countries whose food I thought I knew.

Though my palate has evolved with a couple of decades of international travel, I still experience anticipatory glee when I read a description on a menu and I can’t really imagine what the thing will look or taste like, even if I recognise some—or most—of the ingredients. The initial element of surprise can occasionally turn to disappointment, but taking the risk and ordering the mysterious item often reaps delicious benefits. For instance, a combination of pork organs and blood with the right spice, herbs, and seasonings can be transformative—and yes, seriously delicious, as evidenced by the num tok noodle soup served at Plant Love House, an adorable little Thai restaurant run by two sisters and their mom in Elmhurst. A tongue taco sprinkled with cilantro, a spritz of lime, and a squirt of crema (a Mexican version of sour cream or crème fraiche), like the one thrown together by the women inside the Mexican truck, Tacos Rey de Oro, that’s often parked below the 52nd Street and Lincoln subway stop in Woodside, turns out to be the ideal after-midnight morsel. Next, I’m looking forward to trying the jellyfish hearts at Fu Ran (formerly Fu Run), a Chinese restaurant in Flushing that specialises in food from the northeastern Dongbei region.

 

Elmhurst Khao Kang dessert

Walt Disney may have designed the EPCOT Center to showcase a microcosm of global culture, but Queens is the real deal. Four or five subway lines can take you on an authentic culinary tour of the world (and this is still only a small fraction of what the borough has to offer). Heading out on the N or Q train will land you in the Greek, Egyptian, Middle Eastern, and Eastern European neighbourhoods of Astoria. The first ten stops on the 7 Train will take you out to Irish pubs, Italian pizzerias, French bistros, Middle Eastern bakeries, Turkish falafel joints, Thai steam tables, spicy Korean hotpots, Filipino barbeque, and some of the city’s best Japanese food. After that, you’ll pass through Jackson Heights, which is still thought of as Little India, though it’s now home to many Pakistani, Himalayan, Tibetan, Nepalese, and Mexican restaurants too. The 7 and the R and M trains will deposit you in Thai Town or Little Bangkok, officially known as the neighbourhood of Elmhurst, which in addition to all of the Thai eateries also has its share of Indonesian and Vietnamese food. Flushing, our Chinatown, is at the end of the 7 line. Here you can feast on food from China’s most sought-after culinary provinces, including Szechuan, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Hunan, and Guangdong, as well as its more obscure, like Dongbei and Yunnan. But you’ll also find a holdover of Korean restaurants here along with the occasional Korean barbecue cart perched on the sidewalk grilling up skewered meats and serving them with a side of chilli-soaked kimchi. Before the Chinese took over, Flushing was home to a large Korean population. Koreatown has since branched out farther east into Murray Hill, Bayside, and beyond. Finally, the E and the F trains will drop you in the Caribbean, African American, and South Asian enclaves of Jamaica.

Elmhurst Pho Bac Vietnamese

Like fashionable neighbourhoods in cities all over the world, Queens’ surge toward popularity began with artists

Our borough has boasted ethnically diverse cuisine for decades, but it is only recently that people began celebrating it. The buzz about Queens food culture really started in Long Island City (LIC), the southwestern-most neighbourhood in Queens. It’s almost as if the culture of “food cool” came across the Newtown Creek by way of osmosis, or perhaps via the Pulaski, which is the drawbridge over there that links Brooklyn to Queens. Whether it was a result of the waning trend and oversaturation of Brooklyn’s glorification of its own grub or a matter of zeitgeist, it’s hard to say.

Like fashionable neighbourhoods in cities all over the world, Queens’ surge toward popularity began with artists. The former PS1 art exhibition space (known, since 2000, as MoMA PS1) has been a beacon of creativity in the area since it was first erected in a late 19th century public schoolhouse back in the early 1970s. Artists began funnelling into this industrial quarter and took up residence and workspaces in the increasingly defunct factory warehouses throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. A gallery and coffee-house culture ensued, followed by a new wave of restaurants and bars, which helped put LIC on the map as a cultural destination and paved the way for a complete renaissance.

Now considered the swankiest Queens neighbourhood, it boasts a skyline of luxury residential high-rises, a picturesque waterfront park overlooking Manhattan, art galleries, sculpture gardens, theatres, dozens of trendy restaurants and bars, greenmarkets, a weekend flea and food market, and an annual food festival. Even if it feels more like an extension of northern Brooklyn, LIC offers a good first taste of Queens, especially for tourists, as it’s just one subway stop from Midtown Manhattan and there are some real standout places to eat, drink, and visit.

In terms of eating, people flock here for M. Wells Dinette and the M. Wells Steakhouse. However, I’d steer you toward LIC Market, an earnest little restaurant just a stone’s throw from MoMA PS1 on 44th Drive. Chef-owner Alex Schindler is passionate about creating internationally influenced New American dishes with local and seasonal ingredients. At any time, you may find Japanese, Italian, or Latin American influences highlighted on the ever-changing menu, but Schindler has a way of delicately wielding his seasonings so that the pure flavours of his locally-sourced main ingredients remain the most resonant in each dish. He makes a great chocolate croissant too, with just the right combination of crispy and fluffy, salty and sweet, bitter chocolate and bready elements. Other neighbourhood gems include the old-school French bistro, Tournesol, where they whip up their own homemade terrines, and its sister wine bar, Domaine, both on Vernon Boulevard. The expertly mixed signature cocktails at Dutch Kills Bar on Jackson Avenue are the best I’ve had in the neighbourhood.

As a New York City dweller, I’ve migrated from Manhattan to Brooklyn to Queens over the past twenty years. My first Queens neighbourhood was Astoria. I moved there back in the summer of 2001. Having lived in Rome the previous summer and Paris the summer before that, it took a while for me to embrace the simpler flavours of Greek cooking which rely heavily on olive oil, lemon, oregano, and thyme—and honey for sweetening. But nearly a decade and a half later, I will still make special trips to Astoria for a dinner of fresh catch-of-the-day fish and boiled potatoes at Elias Corner, pistachio cookies and baklava from the Greek pastry shop, Artopolis, and on occasion, Czech beer and sausages at the Bohemian Beer Hall.

Lately, I’ve been devoting a lot of time to exploring the clusters of ethnic restaurants that jut out like constellations of deliciousness from the 7 train, the subway line that cuts across Midtown Manhattan at 42nd Street and then shoots straight through many of the best eating neighbourhoods in Queens, including where I currently live. Once predominantly populated by working class European immigrants, Irish, Italian, and German neighbourhoods like Sunnyside, Woodside, and Jackson Heights have been evolving to accommodate an influx of South and East Asian, Hispanic, and Caribbean immigrants, as well as a wave of upwardly mobile renters and first-time home buyers who are getting priced out of Manhattan and Brooklyn.

I relish the opportunity to get a proper pint and my fish-and-chips fix at pubs like Molly Bloom’s and The Dog and Duck in Sunnyside, but there’s one restaurant that surpasses the many other good ones in the neighbourhood: Takesushi. Locally, it’s said that this Japanese restaurant comes with a Park Avenue pedigree as owner, chef, and fishmonger, Robin Kawada, opened one of the first Japanese restaurants in Manhattan—on Park Avenue—more than 30 years ago.

Decades later, Kawada is still serving traditional Japanese dishes and ultra-fresh fish at his latest spot on 42nd Street in Sunnyside. His omakase selections are generous, manifesting in a seemingly endless stream of artfully executed small plates of fish and shellfish, and other seasonal ingredients. The Kaisen Don is one of my go-to dishes here. It comes in a regular and a deluxe version, each with an assortment of sashimi, a few thick ribbons of briny sea urchin, a sprinkling of salmon roe, and slices of seaweed, cucumber, and pickled ginger draped over a bed of rice with a little ball of tuna shavings—tuna surprise, as I always refer to it— tucked into the middle of the rice bowl. At Takesushi, the food is as fresh and delicious as it is tantalisingly beautiful, and sidling up to the bar to chat with Kawada can leave you feeling like you’ve just had a conversation with the interminably good-natured Socrates of sushi.

 

lamb_noodlesoup

Our borough has boasted ethnically diverse cuisine for decades, but it is only recently that people began celebrating it

In Jackson Heights, the 35-year-old Jackson Diner is a local institution where you can fill up on a vast selection of curries, dosas, tandooris, and Indian breads, but I’ve recently been enjoying the South Indian fare at Samudra, a vegetarian restaurant opened by Jagdish Shetty, a former hotel employee who emigrated from India nearly 30 years ago and whose dream it was to eventually open his own restaurant in New York. It’s worth a trip just for the enormous dosas, which look like three-dimensional abstract art popping off your plate. If you’re feeling carnivorous, Kabab King, a Halal restaurant on 37th Road, will be more likely to satisfy. For dessert, treat yourself to a Chai tea and check out the curious array of colourful sweets at shops like Raja Sweets and Fast Food or Rajbhog Sweets and Snacks, both on 37th Avenue, or Al Naimat on 74th Street.

With the arctic throes of winter upon me, I’ve been looking to spicy foods to help boost my weathered spirits. In particular, I’ve been enjoying the spicy lime and lemongrassy fare that can be found at the Thai restaurants in Elmhurst, particularly the fragrant, meaty soups at Plant Love House on Whitney Avenue which is run by Manadsanan Sutipayakul and her daughters Benjaporn Chua and Preawpun Sutipayakul. Last time I was there I warmed up with a delightful bowl of tom yum and a rich and creamy gang gai, a spicy green curry with tender pieces of chicken and melt-in-your-mouth eggplant poured over rice vermicelli noodles and then heaped with fresh basil leaves. I finished up with a piece of dessert toast, an ambrosial brick of bread that’s drenched in butter and toasted until crisp on the outside (yet still soft and fluffy on the inside), and then drizzled with warm honey. If you’re in a hurry though, I’d recommend checking out the cafeteria-style Khao Kang, a Thai hipster steam-table joint on Woodside Avenue where you can simply point at a few different curries and stews on the steam table and it’s practically instant gratification. Afterward, wet your whistle across the street with the inspired Thai cocktails at Pata Paplean.

I have also been frequenting the Golden Mall. Its chaotic and claustrophobic little hive of food stalls with menus on the walls all written in Asian characters makes you feel as though you’ve been transported to another country altogether. In the basement digs here, you can find some of the most succulent dumplings in all of New York at the Tianjin Dumpling House. When they arrive, be sure to douse them with garlic sauce, black vinegar, and chile oil. Another dish that’s not to be missed down there is the spicy cumin lamb hand-pulled noodle soup at the original Xi’an Famous Foods stall. The rich broth is infused with fiery Far East-meets-Middle East flavours, and you can watch as the hand-pulled noodle chef slaps, stretches, and tears little disks of dough into long, glutenous tendrils that will be imminently dropped into your soup.

 

Flushing New World Mall 3

The enclaves of Queens are teeming with chefs and food purveyors from Europe, Africa, Asia, and North, Central, and South America

New York City is often colloquially referred to as a “melting pot.” This cultural term was coined back in the early 1900s when waves of European immigrants were settling in New York and other American cities. The concept, which was originally put forth in a play written by Israel Zanwill, a Jew from England, was that all immigrants coming to the United States could be fused together and then forged into new American citizens.

Queens is one of the most ethnically diverse places in the world. But I don’t think of my borough as a melting pot. If anything, it’s more like a hotpot, a type of stew generally prepared by placing a metal pot over a heat source in the middle of the dining table. A variety of ingredients are then added to a simmering stock inside the pot—everything from meat, offal, and seafood to vegetables, tofu, noodles, spices, herbs, and condiments. Unlike in a crucible, the contents of the hotpot don’t meld together when heated. A sliver of beef is still a piece of meat, a chile a pepper. But as the ingredients simmer together, they impart their individual flavours to the stew, and this is what makes these one-pot meals so delicious and gratifying. As I see it, the diverse ethnicities of Queens are contributing exponential depths of flavour to our borough, literally and figuratively in both the culinary and the cultural realms.

Another memorable aspect of my childhood EPCOT holiday was the relentless repetition of the saccharine tune, “It’s a Small World,” which is still etched in my mind as the soundtrack to all of my memories of the trip. Perhaps it was Disney’s attempt at subliminally reinforcing the notion that peace and understanding around the world could be gained through exposure to other nations’ art and culture—and food. Incidentally, the first time the song was ever played publicly was at the 1964 World’s Fair, which was held in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens.

In the Queens Museum, the permanent collection contains something of a shrine to the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs, including a 867 sq m Panorama scale model of New York City. It is astounding to stand above it and see how big Queens is in comparison to the other four boroughs—Manhattan, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and the Bronx—that make up New York City. (Queens covers an area of 460 sq km, Brooklyn only 250.) And yet, fifty-one years later, Queens is proving that it is a small world after all. I guess that’s as good a reason as any to deem it the number-one place to visit in the United States this year.

I’ll save a seat for you at the hotpot, just bring some chopsticks.

 

Jen Laskey. Photographs courtesy of the author.