Celebrating the spirit of the holidays, Diane and I are suffering through our last freezing cold Christmas while visiting her family in the arctic cold environment of Edmonton, Alberta. Delivering news of our upcoming move to Malaysia to her parents, it seemed only natural to experience ice and snow, break out heavy parkas and remind ourselves one more time why Canadians move to the tropics and not vice-versa. Separated from technology in a wireless house reminiscent of the old days (the 1990’s), I scheduled this post thinking everybody loves to eat around the holidays. Although Penang has Southeast Asia’s best cuisine, I started thinking about the things we will likely NOT find anywhere in Malaysia.
Sadly, most everything on the list is also not available in Northern California, at least not in its palatable form. Realizing that native New Yorkers celebrate their own original version of food, I compiled a list of 12 lip smacking delicious foods found only at a (non-existent) Kosher/Italian New York style hawker stand. Unclear if that would fly with so much incredibly great other stuff and since the MM2H visa prohibits most forms of employment income, pictures and memories are no doubt the closest I’ll get until my next trip back to Brooklyn.
Unfamiliarity with some or even all items on the list is normal for many in Asia so don’t scratch your head wondering why you never heard of an item. Curiously inquisitive when it comes to food, leaving North America makes me want to indulge in other interesting dishes like bugs, durians and goat’s head soup (All delicious as far as I’m concerned). Wishing to share as much of my culture as possible, I offer my choice for the top 12 foods not found in Malaysia. Selemat Menjamu Selara !!
1) Hot Pastrami
Although readily available as both processed and “deli style” throughout much of the USA, real New Yorkers understand that the only place left in America for real pastrami is the world-famous Katz’s Deli in the lower east side of Manhattan. Originally served in homes of poor Jewish immigrants, pastrami is preserved, cured and designed to improve the flavor of poor cuts of meat like beef brisket. Unlike the garbage served up everywhere else, real pastrami is made from the navel end and involves a five step process practiced by only a handful of delis.
- Curing: Cured for two weeks to bring out full flavor and enriched with sodium nitrate to keep it pink as it cooks, pastrami is not supposed to be healthy.
- Rubbing: Katz’s rub is a company secret but starts with onion, pepper, coriander, garlic and pepper. Before smoking, it’s rubbed giving it the black crusty bark.
- Smoking: Hardly any deli smokes their own meat anymore due to cost and space requirements and Katz’s sub contracts theirs. Smoked for four days, they use a secret blend of wood chips to enhance flavor
- Boiling: After days of being cured, rubbed and smoked, the meat returns home and jumps into a vat of boiling water. Skilled at their craft, the old Jewish guys know when it’s ready from the touch but I suspect that the new wave of Spanish employees don’t.
- Steaming: Finally, the meat is unloaded into steamers behind the deli counter to add tenderness and loosening it enough to literally melt in your mouth. 30 minutes later, it’s sliced. Considered the hardest part, only skilled cutters understand how to remove the pastrami’s membrane of skin and slice thin against the grain with as few knife strokes as possible.
Even after all this, assembling the perfect sandwich is equally hard. Balanced perfectly between lean and fat, a real pastrami sandwich never piled too high. (the featured picture is actually from the now defunct Las Vegas branch of the Stage Deli, which sadly. closed its doors recently, leaving only Carnegie and Katz’s). And NEVER EVER use anything beside spicy yellow mustard and rye bread with caraway seeds. Once Diane used mayo and we almost got divorced.
2) Dirty Water Dogs
Possibly the world’s simplest lunch, only New York City serves up a boiled hot dog on a soft bun with a unique combination of red onions and sweet sauce with spicy yellow mustard. NEVER EVER use ketchup. Nicknamed for the rather gross looking water from the mobile pushcart that serves them, an original one is only made by Sabbrett, a local company supplying the New York area and beyond. Originally the ubiquitous New York street food and run by vendors of middle eastern descent, the dirty water dog is now an oddity, having been replaced with a cornucopia of ethnic crap from a gang of “food trucks”, usually failed chefs, low wage prep cooks and anyone else that thinks they can run a business because they worked at a restaurant once.
3) Real Bagels
Forget what you’ve heard from your blog friend in Montreal, Los Angeles or Philadelphia. Only New York knows how to make real bagels. Boiled with a perfect combination of chewiness and toasted toppings that everyone else seems to screw up, Brooklyn’s bagels are the best and belong in a league of their own. Although the corner bodega in my hometown neighborhood of Bay Ridge has shifted owners from Jews to Koreans to Middle Easterners and now Mexicans, somehow they retained the secret ingredient to making enormous onion and garlic bagels that rival anything. Containing high carbohydrates and way up there on the Glycemic Index, you’ll know if it’s real when you doze off fifteen minutes later from the blood sugar dump.
4) Brooklyn Pizza
Observing the picture closely, you’ll notice there’s no sausage, pepperoni, pesto, chicken, bar-b-q sauce, artichokes or any of the other ten thousand things added to imitation pizza all over the world. Folding it in two and letting the grease drip off the thin crust is the only way to eat real pizza. Made with only pizza sauce, cheese and a special blend of crust invented by Italians that settled in Brooklyn, nothing tastes like Brooklyn pizza. And please use only paper plates, and make sure you add a dash of hot pepper and grated mozzarella.
Known as donairs in Canada and pronounced “Year-Row” everywhere except New York where we say “Jye-Row”, this Greek staple is available in some variation all over the world. Setting New York apart is the Greek population from Astoria, Queens that perfected the art of this marinated combination of lamb and beef in a pita by creating a white sauce similar to tzatiki but unlike anywhere else. Originally found only on pushcarts, Greeks mostly graduated to better things, passing on their art to a new wave of middle eastern immigrants that carry on the tradition. Tasting best outside when it’s cold, a dash of hot sauce completes this pleasing treat.
6) Gabilla’s Knishes
Also known as latkes or potato pancakes, this simple combination of mashed potatoes, onions and spices baked in crust unlike any other, knishes are an Eastern European classic that is often imitated but never the same as the original Coney Island Knish. Originating in 1921, Gabila’s is a New York landmark and largest producer in the world. Originally the perfect side dish with a dirty water dog, they used to be sliced by the vendor and splashed with a heap of the same spicy mustard as the hot dog. Available in a variety of ridiculous flavors, only potato and kasha varnishkes satisfy this old world New York Jew.
7) Lox, Onions and Eggs
Possibly my favorite breakfast ever, you’ll hardly see this anywhere besides New York City and perhaps a pocketful of Jewish delis. Distinctively different from smoked salmon, which refers to any type of salmon cured with hot or cold smoke, lox is salmon cured in a salt-sugar rub or brine. Real lox is made only from the belly portion. As the richest, fattest and most succulent part, it tastes overly salty and is delicious on a bagel with capers and red onions. Good luck finding the real thing.
8) Fra Diavlo Clams
For unknown reasons, most Americans eat almost anything served spicy except Italian food. Served in almost any New York Italian restaurant, this spicy tomato based sauce adds pizzazz to anything from pasta to clams. Literally translated, fra diavlo means “brother devil” and the sauce starts with tomatoes and chili peppers. Reminiscing about childhood dinners in old world Italian eateries often patronized by mafia kingpins, I salivate just thinking of a seafood dish doused in piping hot spicy sauce.
9) New York Style Cheesecake
Don’t let anybody tell you they know good cheesecake unless they were born and raised in New York. Creators of the original and world’s best cheesecake, Junior’s is a landmark restaurant founded by Harry Rosen in 1950 and nothing else on Earth comes close. Combining the flavors into a sweet, creamy and slightly tangy masterpiece, it ranks up there with New York’s most famous food landmarks and is enjoyed by mayors, dignitaries, movie stars, celebrities and average schleps. Proving internet reviews are totally stupid, Yelp’s there star review shows that most of the world simply doesn’t understand and real New Yorkers don’t care. Go to Cheesecake Factory with Sheldon and the rest of the crowd and send some of the real stuff to Penang !!
10) Sausage, Peppers and Onions
Always the first thing I order when my old-fashioned parents drag Diane and me to L & B Spumoni Gardens, a landmark restaurant in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, this simple delicacy can’t be duplicated anywhere else in America. Understanding the perfect blend of spices for a real Italian sausage, I’ve been stuck with overpriced sad versions of West Coast “Italian style delis” for too long and having tasted Thailand’s version of Italian food, I don’t expect Penang will satisfy my craving any time soon.
11) Matzoh Balls
Diane calls it Jewish peasant food similar to jook (porridge) and she’s basically correct. Probably only Jews, both religious and non-religious can appreciate this soup dumpling made from a mixture of matzoh meal, eggs, water and a fat. Usually served at the Jewish version of Easter, otherwise known as Passover, real matzoh balls are made with schmaltz (chicken fat) and dropped into a vat of boiling hot chicken soup. I’m told there’s a Jewish cemetery in Penang and with the number of Malaysian Jews peaking at 172 in 1899, I’m guessing my chances of real matzoh ball soup died along with those settlers.
12) Canadian Treats
Since we’re here in Canada with Diane’s family spending our last holiday season in the cold, I had to include three uniquely Canadian snacks that I’ve done without since moving back to California in 2007. As the world’s fattest nation, Americans pound down more garbage than any nation yet limit their flavor choices to a relatively small collection of mostly Mexican influenced tastes like salsa flavored anything. Missing out on the world’s best chocolate bar, a wide array of flavored chips and different variations of the same candies, I’m hoping I find some Canadian expats with ties to the local Superstore back here in Alberta. Or maybe I’ll learn to like palm-sugar stuffed crepes and Kuih