Thursday, December 14, 2017

Jim At Long Last Goes Home

"So what's your home cuisine, Jim?" no one's ever asked me.

Good question! I suppose Cantonese. I spent my formative years in a restaurant called Shing Kee in Manhattan Chinatown, where I memorized the menu, and where the waiters came to treat me like a complete paisano. To this day, Cantonese feels like my culinary ground zero.

"No," insists nonexistent person, "I mean your family's food!"

That'd be burnt brisket and Green Giant canned French-cut string beans - over-boiled and cooled to room temperature before serving. And, on (very) good days, slice pizza, normally consumed while driving.

"But what are you, exactly? Your people must come from somewhere!"

Well, my grandparents had accents, so I figured they were immigrants. But they didn't like to talk about the old country. My paternal grandparents were from "Russia", but that seemed like an amorphous blob. I knew my grandmother was from Minsk, and my grandfather was from Pinsk, though I had no concept of these places, and it freaked the bejesus out of me when Corporal Agarn on F-Troop recounted the exact same origin story. Anyway, you are now thoroughly up to speed with every data point I have concerning my heritage.

Ace chowhound Barry Strugatz (new movie out next spring; read his lightly anonymized story here) recently told me about a brand new Belarusian restaurant in Brooklyn that's crazy-popular. I perused the food shots on Yelp, and felt a strange stirring in my chest.

A few days later, having made the trek to Sheepshead Bay, I awaited the waiter at Belarussian Xata. Playing out a hunch, I checked the Wikipedia entry for Minsk, discovering that, geez, yeah, I'm actually Belarusian. Honey, I'm home!

Felt like it, too. The place is outfitted like a Russian village. See plenty of interior photos on the Yelp page, but I shot a couple minor touches:

I've never eaten Belarusian before. I had my grandmother's cooking a few times, but, being a "picky eater" as a kid, I pretty much confined myself to her fried potato pancakes. Nobody has ever made them the way she taught me. I figured it was a family thing.

Starting off in food critic mode, I ordered a couple of high-difficulty items, to troll my tablemate and prove myself worthy to the establishment: garlic toast with salo (unrendered pork fat), and hog's ears.

The "garlic toast" consists of fingers of pumpernickel that are fried crunchy. They're super garlicky, and, combined with the lard, offered a glimpse of a magic land I'll never fully enter without a couple new stents in my chest. I contented myself with a few small dips, but they were life-changing.

Them hog's ears was about three times normal size (see dollar bill for scale). Do they sew them together, ala Silence of the Lambs? Or crush them in some fearsome lobe press? They were chewy, of course, but a bit dull. I like how the Portuguese prepare them way better. But the visual was astonishing. I was thinking more "Dumbo" than "Babe":

The Belarussian borscht tasted like somebody at long last got borscht exactly right. It was neither a clobber of beety sweetness, nor watery/dull. So soulful, with a few chunks of floating over-cooked meat - the ingestion of which stirred some muttering deep in my deep brain that could only represent innumerable generations of ancestors approving, finally, of an action of mine (or maybe they were just screaming bloody murder re: the hog and the pig fat). My tablemate and I were so mesmerized by this soup that we forgot to add sour cream - leaving me embarrassed to the point that I seriously considered hiding the untouched cream in a nearby potted plant. Amateur error (tsk, don't buy my app after all). 

Then things got all primordial as the potatoes began arriving.

First up: Potato koduni with meat. These are the gordita form of potato pancakes - a couple inches high, glistening with grease, and full of very black-peppery ground mystery meat. I've never had anything like this, yet it was like giving an elephant its first peanuts. I didn't so much enjoy it - it didn't have much flavor to speak of, aside from groaning tonnages of spuddy starch and fat - as meld with it. I suspect this may be what I'm meant to have been eating all along. It was so heavy and greasy and unlively and burdensome...and something in me liked that.

Then came the potato pancakes "with meat", which consisted of bovine chunks and sausage in a creamy, black peppery sauce (the "old country" always tastes like black pepper), all served atop a murderer's row of oversized potato pancakes that are my grandma's latkes...for the first time ever (including Hanukah latke parties at the Jewy functions my parents would occasionally drag me to, where like 40 families all brought their versions, none resembling ours in the least).

These are not "fun" potato pancakes. They are not a special "treat". Non-delightful. These are staple, akin to rice...or, more precisely, Ethiopian injera, given that they serve primarily as a spongey mop for the creamy sauce and residual grease. I've been potato obsessed my whole life - apparently, it's in my blood - but now I've finally spotted them in their natural habitat.

Neither the latkes nor the koduni are crispy, but my grandma's weren't, either, and neither are mine. I can achieve crispy edges, but the middles are always soggy. I've seen latkes as crispy as Mississippi fried chicken, but I've never managed it, myself. I figured it was a character flaw. Little did I realize, this is The Way of My People.

These limp, homely, very familiar potato pancakes also contained no onion (rendering them even more staple-ish and non-delightful, yet still highly satisfying). I happen to use onion, but I suddenly recall, out of my distant memory, a note of controversy on the matter. I believe we didn't normally use onion, either. I am Remembering.

At this point, I'm in pain. Not badly over-full, just over-full of the sort of thing I never ever eat. But I craved a bite of vareniki (dumplings) stuffed with sour cherries, another ancient youthful memory, and the waiter talked us into also getting "cottage cheese cakes 'orshanskie'" - cheesey dough balls in pot cheese and cream with loads of vanilla.

The vareniki are not exactly light in the dough. In fact, I nearly requested a steak knife. And this, too, seems deeply right to me. The cherry filling is resolutely tart (very little sugar), and, oddly, you can taste grease, which seems to come from out of nowhere. You know how Game of Thrones has gratuitous nudity? This place is like that with grease.

The cheesey thing was devastating - figuratively and (in my condition) literally.

As I rued the wrecked state of my digestive system, I found myself plotting ways to raise funds for passage to a new land, a modern place where people eat green foods and everything isn't so goddamned heavy and burdensome. America! I must make my way to America!


vhliv said...

Always enjoy your reviews, but this must rank in the top 10 as far as enjoyment value, and it probably helps that I have a fairly good grasp of the food in question

Jim Leff said...

That makes one of us! My grasp was eluded...

Jim Leff said...

I forgot to note one interesting thing. When I first bit into the potato pancake, I thought to myself "Good...but I could do better." And I instantly recognized that this is always what's heard when you bring someone to a restaurant serving their family's cuisine

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