East Harlem “El Barrio”: Less Than You Expect

Reading about East Harlem, or “El Barrio”, is extremely exciting. Marketing materials, including websites, boast about a live neighborhood filled with tastes of Latin American cultures. Many influential musicians came from or mention this neighborhood in their music, including Bob Dylan. However, with the exception of the El Barrio Museum, on 1230 5th Ave between 104th and 105th streets, the reality is very different. Of all the neighborhoods I have visited, El Barrio has been my least favorite despite being the one I found the most information about online. I do recommend peeking into the museum as it had some interesting pieces and it’s free for NYU students. Also the staff were very friendly and will randomly start giving you their explanations and interpretations of the pieces.

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An “attraction” mentioned several times during my research was La Marquetta, a market specializing in Latin American and Caribbean ingredients. Also, because we are close to Christmas, there was supposed to be a Christmas market. In fact, descriptions of this place depict it as a mecca of Latin American and Caribbean cultures with ingredients, handicrafts and souvenirs from these areas of the world. But the experience, as the friend I got to explore with me said was “decrepit”. We were there at 2:00 pm on a Thursday and only three stores were open. The entire place looked abandoned. The main fruit stand was open and dozens of flies circulated the boxes of yucca, a root vegetable found in many Latin American and African countries that resembles a potato. After walking around the place and seeing a closed preserved fish stand with a dusty taxidermy mount of a grizzly bear, we decided to leave. Some women were talking and listening to African music in one of the three open shops decorated with a Ghanaian flag. We said good-bye to them.

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We left there disappointed but hopeful that the rest of our exploration would pick up. As we walked deeper into the center of El Barrio, my exploration partner Miss F informed me that she was very excited to try some Latin American culinary delights. There are lots of restaurants in El Barrio and many have pictures of the food posted in the windows. Twenty minutes later we reached the center of the neighborhood but nothing really called our attention. We decided to leave.  Overall, I was quite disappointed with El Barrio. However, I did not have a chance to explore the bar scene. According to the research, there are some really good Latin American bars with live music but I will leave that for someone else to explore.

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The second best place in America to polish your Polish: Greenpoint, Brooklyn

Polish language is big on consonants but it amazes me how the vowels pop up right in the exact place to make the word sound beautiful. Because Polish uses the Latin alphabet, plus a couple of exotic little symbols like ł, foreigners familiar with the Latin alphabet can still read Polish. I had tons of fun reading menus at Greenpoint in Brooklyn and figuring out if I wanted the halupki, the halushki or the kluski! All actual traditional Polish dish names cute enough to suit a potential small furry pet. After Chicago, Greenpoint has the second highest concentration of Polish immigrants in the United States. People from Poland are correctly referred to as Poles. Keep a watchful eye when writing stories about Poles who polish Polish poles because the computer’s dictionary refuses to alert you to capitalize the words denoting humans instead of objects.

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I have been to Poland, Gdansk, for a couple of hours as part of an itinerary on a Baltic Sea cruise. However, I am really looking forward to go back and visit Krakow. Perhaps with my future children because my soon to be husband has a little bit of Polish in his past (noted by the exquisite vowel to consonant ratio of my future mother in law’s maiden name: Liski) Anyway, as I walked through Greenpoint, something triggered a flashback of these few pleasant hours in Gdansk:  the many images of John Paul the II piously blessing everything from butcher shops to dentist offices. Pope John Paul the II is a great source of pride for Poles because; he was Polish, Catholics believe he did an outstanding job as a Pope and he became beatified in 2011,which means he can officially intercede on behalf of individuals who pray in his name. The Catholic Church plays a huge role in Polish culture. Partly because Latin Christianity has historically differentiated Poland from its neighbors, predominantly of other denominations like Orthodox Christianity, Lutheranism and during the Soviet Union days, atheism.

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Poland’s religious boundaries might be solid but its culinary ones are porous like cheesecloths. Cured meats, especially sausages, are staples in Poland and its surrounding region. Despite Germans, Russians and Slovaks eating sausages, and all being suspiciously similar in well, shape, they are substantially different in flavor and each group will claim theirs are the best. Also, both Ukrainians and Hungarians (not a direct neighbor but a very close one) have their own “unique” version of stuffed cabbage leaves or halupki, the “Polish” stuffed cabbage. I happen to love what is also sometimes called cabbage roll so I was enchanted trying the slight variations while I traveled through this region of the world. I think the best ones are in Hungary, no wait Ukraine, actually Russia; well I am not sure anymore but then again, they are all similar (awkward and confused face). You see my point. Fear not thou, Greenpoint is filled with delicious Polish restaurants and therefore with halupki. So if you have never visited this cluster of nations that enjoy stuffing cabbages, thank New York City’s diversity for providing you with your first reference point. You never know when it will come up in conversation.

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All this talk about religion and cabbage is too serious. It’s time to talk about sweets. Poles are big on sweets and during my visit I casually found Slodycze Wedel, a sweet tooth afflicted person’s paradise, or inferno, depending on the severity of the affliction. I suffer from this terrible affliction periodically but I am currently on remission so I had a good time at the store. The amount and variety of sweets at Slodycze Wedel is overwhelming. I suggest you do as I did and buy a selection of loose ones by the pound. Prices are excellent and packaging is aesthetically hypnotizing, like looking inside a kaleidoscope, making it hard to control yourself if you have issues with sweets. Try to be strong. Also, if you are trying to reach the heart of a special person through their stomach, the store specializes in extravagant, romantically themed boxes. Poles know a thing or two about romance it seems.

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Little Poland is relaxed because polish and non-polish businesses mingle freely. Despite the exciting bursts of Polish culture, the feeling is less compressed than Chinatown, Little Odessa or Koreatown. You might be walking on an average street, withdrawing some cash from an ATM when suddenly you turn a corner and boom the sound of a consonant filled conversation hits you. Seconds later you find yourself eating some sort of sausage outside of a catholic church. Wait where did the sausage come from? That is when you realize you are in little Poland, unless you are a vegetarian. Then you’ll probably experience some sort of different realization. 441_IMG_9805_BW

Small Bite, Huge Plate: Chinese Cuisine

After perusing the menus at restaurants during my previous visit to Chinatown, I was overwhelmed with the variety and decided to dedicate an entire post Chinese cuisine. I know many of you who read my previous post are wondering if I will eat the live fish. Sorry to let you down but I wont. But if anyone is brave enough to try it please contact me to let me know because I would love to document your experience. The number of ingredients, techniques, dishes an eating styles make Chinese cuisine one of the most intricate and diverse in the world. The traditional serving style for Chinese food is communal, or what is referred to in America as “family style”, and reflects the collaborative aspects of Chinese culture. To truly tell you all about Chinese food I would need years to travel around China and conduct primary research. But, unfortunately I do not have time for that so I will give you minuscule taste of Chinese cuisine by describing my experience with one type of dumpling and Peking duck, the country’s national dish.

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Lets talk about dumplings. Hundred of cultures worldwide include some version of a dumpling into their cuisine. Chinese cuisine has over one dozen styles of dumplings, each one differing in size, shape, cooking methodology and filling. Here is a guide to dumplings that can help you understand them better http://travel.cnn.com/shanghai/life/ultimate-guide-chinese-dumplings-466494  (Feel free to print it out and go on a dumpling scavenger hunt in Chinatown. Trust me, I would if I had time.) I tried Xiao Long Bao or what Americans call “soup dumpling” but Chinese refer to as “steamed little bags”. They are a delicate dough bag filled with a small ball of meat and juice, hence the idea of “soup”. These dumplings come inside a warm basket on top of a type of wax paper. The consistency of their dough is soft and the contents inside are hot. Unlike other types of dumplings with drier fillings, you can’t just take the dumpling straight from the basket into your mouth. There is a trick to enjoy the Xiao Long Bao experience. First, set the dumpling into a spoon with your chopsticks and be careful, handle the dumpling delicately to avoid breaking it. You want to enjoy the “soup”, not accidentally poke the dumpling and waste the juice. Second, take a nibble of the dumpling’s side and allow the juices to escape into the spoon. This will help the dumpling cool down and allow you to slurp the liquid from the spoon. Now you can conclude by eating the rest of the dumpling, ball of meat and dough. I know, it is exquisite and you didn’t burn your mouth, you are welcome. Here is a link of the place where you can reproduce this entire experience: http://www.joeshanghairestaurants.com/dumpling_eng.html And slurp away, according to Chinese eating and drinking costumes making noise is not considered impolite. On the contrary, a slurping sound is considered a compliment to the food. http://factsanddetails.com/china/cat4/sub19/item112.html#chapter-3

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For my second stop I visited Peking duck house on Mott Street, the center of Chinatown (http://www.pekingduckhousenyc.com). Peking duck dinner is always suggested for a minimum of four people but you can get half a duck for two. Some people, perhaps athletes, might want to go by themselves but I had to rally some people to come with me because even after a spinning class I can’t eat a whole duck. The preparation method for Peking duck is complex and time consuming but allows for interesting flavors, textures and many complains from animal activists. It begins at the duck’s birth; ducks destined to become the national dish are force feed to promote weight gain. Then after slaughtering them, eviscerating and cleaning them, air is pumped into he neck cavity of the duck to slightly separate the skin from the duck meat. I believe this is what allows the skin to become so crispy. The body is later glazed with a particular type of sweet syrup and roasted. Different places have different roasting methodologies. I actually did not ask what method does this particular place use. Part of the “show” of eating Peking duck is seeing how it’s carved. Steamed pancakes, plum sauce and fresh vegetable are traditionally served to accompany the duck meat. It is suggested to roll a little bit of the meat, sauce and vegetables into a steam pancake, fold, eat and enjoy. I hope these two bits of Chinese cuisine inspired you to go try these or other Chinese dishes. It is worth it and after all, know you know you have a lot of choice. See you next time for Spanish Harlem: El Barrio.

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Chinatown & Souvenirs’ Magic

Of the previous neighborhoods I visited, Chinatown covers the largest territory. Like a mouse in a maze, it is quite easy to get lost in the narrow streets filled with restaurants, souvenirs, jewelry, traditional Chinese herbs, foot massage places and more. However, Chinatown is one of the only ethnic neighborhoods I have visited up to now with an official NYC tourism organization information kiosk and website (http://www.explorechinatown.com) dedicated exclusively to assist visitors in navigating their experience. But in my opinion it is always more fun to explore new places without a map.

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The amount of trinkets at the shops in Chinatown is overwhelming. I am certain that many people come to Chinatown without any particular need but leave with a number of shopping bags. It seems that some people never knew they needed or wanted a glow in the dark iPad case that looks like Korean Pop sensation Psy until they saw one. Many tourists seem to have an interest in dried sea cucumbers. During my visit I saw at least three people taking pictures holding them and making a number of expressive, sometimes ridiculous, faces. I recommend visiting a teashop and asking the owners to help you choose some traditional tea. I learned a lot about tea during my Chinatown visit and I bought a beautiful tea that blossoms into a flower inside the cup.

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Chinatown has hundreds of restaurants. I have read and heard, from both Chinese and non-Chinese, that Chinese cuisine is one of the most intricate in the world. I can tell by looking at some of the menus. One restaurant even offered live fish in vegetable sauce on their menu. I wonder how you eat a live fish? For this reason, I have decided to dedicate an entire separate post entirely to the Chinese food experience in New York City’s Chinatown. After all food is one of the greatest expressions of a culture. If you are interested in learning more about this connection check out distinguished culinary historian Massimo Montanari’s book Food Is Culture where he: “..explores the innovative premise that everything having to do with food—its capture, cultivation, preparation, and consumption—represents a cultural act.” http://cup.columbia.edu/book/978-0-231-13790-4/

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My first visit to Chinatown (because I will conduct a second one for the food inspired post) is a good platform to discuss an interesting and nameless phenomenon I have experienced while travelling. Also, experiencing this phenomenon in New York City’s Chinatown supports my blog’s hypothesis that one can metaphorically travel without leaving NYC. Whenever I am in a foreign place surrounded by thousands of souvenirs, I hesitate on buying them because somehow seeing so many of them together makes them feel less special. But I overcome my hesitation and force myself to buy something. Later on when I get back home, unwrap the object and see it by itself –sometimes thousands of miles away from its place of origin– the object becomes magical again. I have so many souvenirs in my house and every time I look at them I experience the entire magic of my trip again but in the fraction of a second. I hope everyone has a chance to experience this feeling once in a while, which is why it is important to buy souvenirs. And you don’t need to leave New York City to experience this phenomenon, just visit Chinatown this upcoming weekend.

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A Russian-Speaking Neighborhood: Little Odessa, Brooklyn

As an experienced traveler I truly believe in the importance of conducting research about cultures to understand them accurately. In my recent visit to Hungary I learned that real Hungarian Goulash is actually a paprika based soup, and not, as many North American believe, a paprika based thick stew. It is small nuances like this one that help one truly understand a culture. Therefore, I want to begin my post about Little Odessa with an important cultural note. Odessa is a city in Ukraine, not Russia. And despite sharing some similarities, Ukraine’s language and culture are different from Russia’s. Now you can avoid making Russians roll their eyes at you by mistakenly telling them you are dying to visit Russia, especially Odessa. Little Odessa is therefore better referred to as a Russian-speaking neighborhood with Ukrainians, Russians and other nationalities from the former Soviet Union.

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Little Odessa is quite extensive covering around fifteen streets in length and a portion of the boardwalk next to the beach. A substantial part of the avenue is located underneath the metro tracks. It is approximately an hour away from Manhattan or more if you are coming from the upper part of the island. Some theories claim that the area’s name comes from its proximity to the sea like the city of Odessa, in Ukraine. The neighborhood offers everything for new and old immigrants from Russian speaking countries. Many locals along the avenue advertise services like calling cards, English classes and job placements. Those longing for a taste of home can satisfy their craving by visiting large grocery stores like Golden Label and Russian Bazaar, which are inundated with Russian and other Eastern European products. On the other hand, local explorers like myself can savor a little taste of Eastern European flavor without leaving the city.

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Speaking of flavor, a visit to little Odessa can help people overcome the popular misconception that Russian and Ukrainian cuisines are boring. Forget about the idea of boiled beets and sour cream. Pop into a smaller food store to try an exorbitant variety of pickled vegetables, cured meats and fish. Visit a bakery and resist immediately consuming a slice of their layered cakes filled with every sort of delicious ingredient, like nuts, jams and infused creams. Buy a pound or two of frozen dumpling available in spiced pork, veal or beef. Whatever you choose to do make sure you visit a local restaurant and have some traditional dishes. The variety of soups, cold salads, stews and desserts will amaze you.

photo-1For this post I visited Tatiana Restaurant located on the boardwalk, http://tatianarestaurant.com. The service fulfilled the unfriendly Eastern European stereotype but embracing it will only make your experience more realistic. I have been to both Russia and Ukraine and the atmosphere and vibe of the restaurant felt very authentic. Also, the majority of patrons on a Saturday afternoon were native Russian speakers. This is a good sign considering only a native person can determine if the food is as good as the real thing.

After dinner, I suggest a stroll through the boardwalk. Here you can admire the sea and the clusters of Russian speaking seniors sitting in benches along the boardwalk engaged in lively discussions about who knows what. You might notice how these particular seniors are unusually stylish with full on make up, flashy accessories and colorful hairstyles. Apparently in this neighborhood, like in Russia and Ukraine, getting old is no excuse for letting oneself go. Before you leave don’t forget to visit St. Petersburg bookstore, the impressive selection of items at this store will entertain you. If for some strange reason you are planning a fake trip to Russia this is the perfect place to get your “souvenirs”. You can always justify the absence of pictures in front of the Kremlin with loosing your camera or some other elaborate story depending on how dramatic you are feeling.

Flavorful, Nocturnal Fun: Koreatown, Manhattan.

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Koreatown is an easily accessible and small but lively ethnic Korean enclave close to one of New York City’s most popular touristic attractions, the empire state. Actually, because of its particular location nestled in an area with high levels of tourist traffic, 32nd street between fifth and sixth avenue, people strolling around midtown can suddenly end up visiting this neighborhood without planning to. Despite of its small size, only one avenue in length, Koreatown has plenty of activities for someone looking to experience a bit of Korea in New York City, especially Korean cuisine. This ethnic neighborhood is constantly active because many of its businesses, mostly restaurants, offer 24/7 service. Nighttime in Koreatown is much livelier and offers a great opportunity for some pictures of the bright and colorful Korean signs that set the area apart from its neighboring streets.

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Korean cuisine is intended for the adventurous looking to surprise their palates with new ingredients like pickled radish, fermented spicy cabbage and red pepper paste. Meat is a staple of Korean cuisine and traditional Korean BBQ could pose a challenge for vegetarians however, variety in menus is extensive and with a bit of patience everyone can find something suitable. Most restaurants have high quality pictures of dishes, which are very helpful for first timers. But be prepared to accidentally order a dish after seeing the pictures and thinking it is something else. According to servers at the restaurant visited for this blog post, http://www.kunjip.com,  this is a common mistake. But as mentioned before, for adventurous eaters this mistake generally turns into a delicious and gratifying surprise.

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Koreatown has more than restaurants. Karaoke bars are very popular and offer group sessions for the extroverted and private rooms for the shy. Songs are available in both Korean and English. Soju, a popular and powerful Korean spirit in a variety of flavors, can help inspire the shyer visitors to participate. Large grocery stores, that look much smaller from the outside, have every necessary ingredient to reproduce Korean culinary delicacies at home or buy a couple of interesting looking items to try on the spot. Although there are a couple of Korean bookstores as well, Koreatown mostly focuses around food and nightly entertainment. Souvenirs and traditional garments are difficult to come by and there are relatively no travel agencies promoting tourism to Korea. Regardless, this ethnic neighborhood definitely deserves a late night visit for some exquisite food and fun, perhaps inebriated, karaoke performances.