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 Barcelona, Paris, Buenos Aires, Dubai, 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?