On New York food

What does it mean to know and learn a city through food?

Flatbush for Salvadoran. Astoria for Bangladeshi. Chinatown for Cantonese. Over the past week, I’ve traveled to each of these neighborhoods for specific cuisines.

I’ve always loved to do this, and I’ve been able to easily because of my car. I’ve had my Volvo station wagon since college and I park it on the street in Brooklyn. It’s a privilege and a blessing, especially throughout the pandemic, since it’s enabled me to travel safely from borough to borough, seeking out whatever I’m craving or wanting to try—even if only for take-out. I haven’t been riding the subway since March but even if I were, my trip from home to Woodside would be 50 minutes. It’d be at least an hour to get to Sheepshead Bay. Driving takes 25 and 35 minutes, respectively.

The dim sum sampler and sesame veg-chicken from Buddha Bodai


People love to say that New York is a walking city, the ultimate walking city, and it is. But it takes quite some time to traverse to certain areas, depending on your starting point. Eating cross-borough, or even deep-borough, is not something many seek out on a regular basis. It’s a schlep! And a lot of people probably don’t care enough to pursue it, because there are great restaurants everywhere, and convenience is king. It’s their loss.

To me, New York food isn’t what’s served at its acclaimed restaurants, whether they be fine dining destinations or cool, cheffy haunts. It isn’t what you can find in Flatiron and Williamsburg, or the like. It’s not a product of the “if you can make it here you can make it anywhere” mentality. Nor is it bagels and pizza slices and hot dogs. All of that is only a small part of New York food. It’s also bright-green scallion fried rice and Sichuan peppercorn tossed fries in College Point, broiled pastrami atop hummus dressed with melty butter in Gravesend, chile relleno covered in mole blanco in Mott Haven.

Taci’s Beyti’s unusual and wonderful pastrami & hummus


I liked this piece that London writer Jonathan Nunn wrote about eating on the outskirts of his city for MR PORTER, which I linked to in my newsletter last week. He coins the term “gastrogeography” to refer to “the mapping out of a city via its food and restaurants,” and in a follow-up essay for his newsletter, Vittles, draws a parallel between food writers like Jonathan Gold and Robert Sietsema and city writers such as Iain Sinclair.

I think he’s onto something about what it means to be a writer that’s hungry not only for excellent food, but also for cultural experiences—to learn, to digest, and to broaden your understanding of and footing within the city you live in. Food is such a major cultural pillar and social force. It’s a building block of life. To travel further and dive deeper within a metropolis’ limits for the sake of food is so much more than wanting to eat well.

These are officially called “fried potato in hot sauce” on Little Pepper’s menu


When I think about leaving New York (which I’m planning to do within the next year, to live someplace new for a while), the thing that scares me most is losing touch with my 27-year-old grip on New York food. There is a case to be made for living in one city forever so as to keep studying it, keep strengthening your cognizance, because there will always be new material and places you’ve yet to hit. (Recently, I’ve become better at raw discovery, relying less on published insights and social media and more on what I notice in the streets or which places pique my interest while scrolling through neighborhoods on Google maps.)

But then there’s the overwhelming excitement of a new city, of being able to approach life through food with more youthful curiosity. I might be leaving an entire education behind, but I’ll also be beginning a new expedition. That’s something to look forward to.

TRY THIS

  1. Four & Twenty Blackbird’s lemon chess pie

  2. The Thursday-only TFT (tofu fried tofu) sandwich from Superiority Burger (Top right, bottom left)

  3. Trumpet mushrooms with mashed potatoes and béarnaise a la Le Crocodile

  4. Zoe Kanan’s Chocolate Chip Cookies With Black Sesame and Seaweed, recipe on NYTimes Cooking (Top left, bottom right)

READ THAT

PUBLISHED (new sub-section for my own work!):

A SHOUT OUT

Hot Bread Kitchen, an incredible nonprofit that creates economic opportunity through careers in food (and that I’ve volunteered with in the past), is putting on a virtual Food Entrepreneurship Forum this week, from Tuesday, 10/20 through Thursday the 22nd. If you have a small food business (restaurateurs, caterers, chefs) or support them, you can attend as many sessions via Zoom within the three-day span as you’d like. See the full schedule and sliding scale ticket page for more deets.

SMC, MAPPED

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