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Aug 08

A Taste of the Immigrant Experience of New York

At the end of two weeks of eating in New York City we still felt like we’d missed something. We’d had the gamut of food experiences, at all quality and price levels, from gastro-pubs to gastronomic fine-diners, hot dogs to hamburgers, from ‘ethnic’ to American, but we still didn’t quite ‘get’ New York food.

And don’t get us wrong. We had a great time. We’d been to New York a couple of times before and this time we became very fond of the city, especially the East Village, our home for two weeks. And we can confidently say that we ‘get’ the East Village, we understand its complex history, we’re aware of current tensions, we love the radical spirit of the place, and we’d highly recommend visitors stay there over anywhere else in New York. But as for the food…

Ask us about eating in BarcelonaParis, Buenos AiresDubai, and Bangkok, or countless other cities around the world, and we can sum up the scene, its strengths and weaknesses, and advise you what you to eat and where to eat it, depending on your interests and your budget. Because as seasoned travel writers, we’re used to parachuting into places, processing a tonne of research, eating our way through dozens of restaurants, and finally feeling by the end of the stay we have a handle on things.

But after two weeks in New York, regardless of how much we’d eaten, how many people we’d talked to, how much we’d read, how many times we’d visited, and how much we’d already ‘known’ prior to our stay, we still felt like we didn’t quite get it.

But what does that mean for our project? Well, our mission has been to get beneath the skin of the places we visit through the people, culture, history, music, art, and so on – and through the food – and then inspire you as travellers to do the same.

If we found that task a challenge in New York, then how does the average traveller manage we wonder – especially the traveller who wants a ‘local’ experience – and what advice can we give them?

Over coffee at Doma, a delightful West Village cafe, we shared our predicament with Paul Bennett, owner of Context. He rattled off a list of restaurants (a couple of which we tried) and signed us up for Context’s ‘Tasting the Immigrant Experience’ walk with culinary historian and chef Cathy Kaufman on our last day in New York.

I meet Cathy in Nolita and we talk as we walk to Little Italy. Cathy has written books on food history, including the cuisines of ancient civilizations, and she briefs me on the history of immigration to New York, which I’ve now come to grips with after our Greenwich Village walk, our visit to the Tenement Museum, and our chat to Rob Hollander, but she explains how the successive waves of immigrants have shaped New York’s cuisine.

We walk through the northern part of Little Italy, stopping at Lombardi’s, New York’s first pizzeria, founded in 1905, where Cathy points out that while the pizzas are good, they’re not Italian, but are Italian-American, and says we’ll find more authentic Italian pizzas down the road at L’Asso. Along the way Cathy helpfully points out other restaurants, kitchen shops, and grocery stores. If only we’d done her walk when we first arrived!

Our next stop is Di Palo’s, one of Little Italy’s finest delicatessens, specialising in imported Italian products, including (among other things) sublime meats, cheeses, balsamic vinegars, and olive oils, all of which we try, including memorable creamy burrata, goats cheese from Treviso, sweet prosciutto from Parma, and olive oils from Sicily. Everything is delicious, the staff are brilliant, and the quality is superb. When I close my eyes I am in Italy. And it’s great to be back. But what does it tell me about New York…

We stroll onto bustling Chinatown next, home to Italian and Chinese immigrants since the 1870s, Cathy tells me. Although it’s predominantly Asian now, with bilingual street signs, open markets with food stalls overflowing with exotic fruit and veg, dried fish, herbs and noodles, and a cacophony of sounds from the Orient, from hawkers shouting out their specials to the Chinese Opera we hear in Columbus Park.

We visit Yunhong chopstick shop (which I love), we drop into a fresh seafood store with tanks full of live fish (as well as other exotic creatures, from frogs to tortoises; occasionally they even have alligators, Cathy says), we drink a refreshing iced tea at Ten Ren, and we try tasty Pork Buns at Yee Li. As we’re huge fans of Asia and have visited China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand (which we’ve written books on), it’s all immense fun.

But while the pork buns are delish, they’re like no pork buns I’ve tasted before in China or Hong Kong, which are generally richer, more pungent and more complex in flavour. They’re a watered-down version in a way…

And then it hits me… our most disappointing food experiences in New York have been the ones where the food has been adapted and has evolved to please local palates, where the food no longer resembles the food of the mother country. Our most enjoyable experiences, such as the Thai food at modest Zabb City, have been where the food is authentic and remained true to its origins.

Had we not have travelled to China or Italy, New York’s pork buns and pizza would probably have been just fine. Just like people, not everything always travels well, food in particular. But that’s the subject of another project for Terence and I. But where does that leave us with New York? I’m not sure to be honest. But it’s a good excuse to return, don’t you think?

That’s it for New York City (read all of our stories here), next up Austin, Texas

11 comments

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  1. Anna

    My family came here from Italy and we’ve lived here ever since. The best (best best best best!) Little Italy’s are in Brooklyn and the Bronx and Staten Island.

    Next time you are in town, please come to the boroughs, and I’d be happy to personally give you a tour!

    1. Lara Dunston

      Hi Anna – I know, everyone kept saying we had to get out to the buroughs, but for Grantourismo we’re trying to focus on digging deeper into one place rather than running around everywhere. Perhaps next time we visit we’ll have to stay in the Bronx or Brooklyn instead? We’ll definitely look you up when we do. Thanks for dropping by!

    2. Leverne

      Hey Anna Thank you for the tip! Will be in Staten Island next week> Little Italy here we come.

  2. Efrutik

    It is always a good reason to return to NYC. The city breathes in and out immigrant air. A treasure of U.S.A are the people who make up the city of NY :)

    1. Lara Dunston

      Hi Efrutik – couldn’t agree with you more, but that’s the wonderful thing about the world in general now, isn’t it? There are few cities more multicultural than Paris, London is another city that is so incredibly diverse, Sydney and Melbourne also. Rio and Buenos Aires are also a lot more mixed than most people expect.

      But what I like to see are ethnic groups that assimilate while keeping their own cultures intact and not allow their food, music, etc to be diluted… sadly, we didn’t experience that in New York. I think we’re going to have to take Anna’s advice and get out to the buroughs to experience more authentic cultures next time. Thanks so much for visiting us!

  3. Erica

    I found myself nodding in agreement when I read about how your most disappointing culinary experiences were those when the food didn’t resemble the food of the mother country. Reminds me of a post I read yesterday at Angela Corrias’ travelcalling.blogspot.com She wrote that she avoids Italian restaurants abroad as they don’t live up to the quality of the food you can eat in Italy.

    1. Terence Carter

      Hi Erica,
      Angela knows her stuff! Look, it’s a lottery, really, eating ethnic cuisine in countries other than the mother country unless there is a population from that country still sticking by their roots.
      I find it fascinating how cuisine changes in this manner – don’t always enjoy eating the results – particularly if it’s a cuisine that I know well and make often such as Italian.
      Cheers,
      T

  4. Robyn

    Given your location, the scope of your project, and your packed schedule this would have been not possible, I suppose. But last year we visited Flushing, where many recent Chinese immigrants (predominantly Mandarin-speaking, and from more northern provinces) have settled, and ate in the basement ‘food court’ in Golden Mall. It was an entirely Chinese experience, from the setting to the food, not a bit watered down, as good as anything we’ve eaten in China. It’s become known to adventurous foodies and attracts more and more Westerners, but I suppose that’s what it takes — the stall owners and servers are all immigrants, not descendents of immigrants, and they are cooking for other immigrants. Before we went I had my doubts. What a (pleasant) surprise to find a slice of “real” China transplanted lock stock and barrel to the USA.

    1. lara dunston

      Hi Robyn – one of the aims of Grantourismo was to focus on a small area and to dig deeper rather than racing around ticking off sights and that applied to restaurants, shops, galleries, etc, too. We’re trying to find out if that’s as satisfying as sight-ticking, and we think it is. So that’s why we decided to focus on the Lower East Side where we’re staying. The furthest we’ve ventured has been the West Village and Greenwich VIllage, and apart from the food we haven’t been lacking in any other way.
      Flushing sounds fantastic. You make a great point in that they’re immigrants, and therefore there isn’t too much distance (yet) between them and their food culture, and I think that’s part of the problem in the USA. Although interestingly, as Terry writes in response to Lisa’s comment, Australia’s immigrants haven’t strayed too far from their original food culture, and we’ve found food in Thailand, Malaysia, China, Hong Kong, India, Italy, etc, to be not different at all to food cooked by those people in Australia, even when they’re second generation. But then Australia doesn’t place too many requirements on people to integrate and therefore there is less homogenization of cultures… you can go to places like Liverpool, a suburb of Sydney, and feel like you’re in Vietnam culturally. It’s an interesting subject and one we’ve been researching for many years – we’re actually developing a book on how food travels which we’re working on next year.
      Thanks so much for dropping by!

  5. Lisa Bergren

    Hmm…your post makes me think that NYC food’s “taste” IS that slightly modified, watered-down version of the original, something to embraced on it’s own level, in tandem with the major immigrant influences of other countries. A smorgasbordy, potlucky, neighborhoody, come on over to my place kind of taste. Isn’t that what you get when you invite in the world’s poor and hungry? Curious how you define Oz’s taste. Prob has similar issues, yes?

    1. Terence Carter

      Lisa, NYC certainly embraces this, but I think it is because most people have not had the fortune to travel to the country of origin or tasted the ‘real thing’. ‘Come on over to my place’ to me would probably mean more authentic, home-style dishes rather than a bland out of a typical dish. Inviting the world’s poor and hungry is one thing – having them assimilate and Americanize their tastes is quite another.
      I’m no expert on Australian food because I have not lived there in a dozen years, but when I lived there I could eat a dozen authentic cuisines – and cheaply – within walking distance of my apartment. Exploring further afield (like going to Flushing or Queens etc) in Sydney would just bring more variety, like tiny Pho stands and Asian sweet shops. Sydney does some of the best Peking Duck outside of Peking (Beijing), fantastic Thai and Indian that’s made no concessions to Anglo tastes.
      That said, it’s not all good news there, old small-town Chinese restaurants in Australia are simply horrible bland Cantonese and cafes across OZ all appear to all have the same menu.
      Authentic ‘ethic’ cuisine and high end ‘fusion’ style dishes is what Oz chefs do well – all influenced in a positive way by waves of immigration. That’s where Oz is very much different from the US.

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