A slice of the big onion

Walk down the Lower East Side for what is literally a smorgasbord of delicacies, from the Polish bialys to the deeply beloved Italian cannoli.

Updated - December 02, 2016 10:46 am IST

Published - October 22, 2016 04:05 pm IST

Bagels I knew. Of Polish-Jewish origin, but adopted by New York City as its own; that roll of dense bread that makes grown men and women spend endless hours of debate (and wax eloquent in column after newspaper column) on the best in town.

But bialys? A neglected cousin of the bagel, bialys (even described as bagels without the holes) have a smaller cult following and thrive only in certain pockets of New York City. My first taste of a bialy, originally from Bialystok in Poland, was on a recent walking tour I took in the Lower East Side, that haven for immigrant communities. Our guide Christine Kelly, from Big Onion Tours, walked into Kossar’s, the legendary Jewish bakery that revived this chewy bread’s popularity, and walked out with a dozen onion bialys.

We stood outside the crowded shop, absorbing the flavours of our bialy and the nuances of her neighbourhood stories. Kelly, a PhD. student in American history, spoke with passion and empathy about the district’s chequered history.

She noted, correctly, that any mention of immigrant areas immediately brings to mind Chinatown and Little Italy, but in the case of the Lower East Side, it is the Germans and Irish (and rarely mentioned in public discourse, African slaves) who first moved here, circa 1870. In fact, in the late 19th century, this now trendy area was known as Kleindeutschland or Little Germany.

Towards the turn of the century, thousands upon thousands of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe poured in, along with Italians from the southern parts of the country, effectively replacing the earlier ethnic communities. Around that time, the Lower East Side was the single largest Jewish community in the world. And then came the Chinese (via the Gold Rush of California), bringing with them their unique food and festivities.

Kelly referred to this as a process of ethnic transition and succession. As we walked around these streets, what I found fascinating was the way the communities are still woven together in a complex tapestry. I thought it rather apt to think of the neighbourhood itself as a big onion, with layer upon layer of distinct cultures forming an amalgam.

Tour company Big Onion’s founder Seth Kamil himself has a deep connection with this neighbourhood (where he also met his future wife Traci), beginning from when he was studying for his doctorate on urban and immigrant history. His father’s side of the family came to America — into the neighbourhood — from Romania and Russia in the early 1900s.

Talking of transitions, the biggest community here today is not any of these, but the Latinos, especially Mexicans, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans. Before the bialys and the commentary about an abandoned synagogue, we had started the walk with a bite from these lands. Kelly had handed out — along with paper napkins and toothpicks — fried plantains, dripping with sweet syrup, from El Castillo de Jagua restaurant down the street. Plantains, or bananas, were brought to America by Spanish and Portuguese explorers in the 16th century. But apparently it took a Dominican restaurant of recent origin to make the fruit fashionable in the city.

Following the bialys came what turned out to be one of my favourite stops on the tour, The Pickle Guys. As we stepped inside, we were treated to the visual drama of open, red drums containing pickled fruit and vegetables floating in vinegar and brine. Apart from the usual suspects like gherkin (which we tasted), there were tiny red and yellow tomatoes, green and black olives, shiny carrots, and pretty cauliflower florets, and, most surprisingly, slices of mango and pineapple (samples of which were are also handed out much to my delight).

Pickling — not new to India, although methods may vary — has been a way of preserving food, especially seasonal produce, for a long time. Initially sold through pushcarts on these very streets, perhaps a century ago, the enticing flavour used to be the quintessential fragrance of the Lower East Side.

Nearly two centuries ago, gastronome Brillat-Savarin wrote, “Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you who you are.” And nowhere is this truer. Walking through this locality, it is abundantly clear that food is the first — and perhaps the strongest — factor that connects people with the homes they have left behind. And at the same time, creates bonds between different cultures and communities in their new homes. As Kamil says of the guys from The Pickle Guys, “They are Chinese, selling pickles that are Jewish. And they see themselves as keeping a part of the Lower East Side’s history alive.”

After a few more stories about the Jews and the Irish, we made our way to Chinatown, stopping for a bit of trivia in front of a heritage building that was originally a Yiddish language newspaper, later converted into a Chinese church, only to be divided and sold off as private condominiums now. To me, it seemed like yet another example — a sad one — of transition and succession.

There on, food sampling included vignettes of South East Asia, from succulent Malaysian jerked meats to soft Vietnamese rice paper rolls. Walking along those streets, which suddenly become more crowded and colourful, there was no doubt that we were now in Chinatown, with makeshift tables on the pavements selling durian and dried mushroom, designer watches and feng shui artefacts.

Then we were in Little Italy, which used to be populated by particular regional groups, like the Neapolitan and Sicilian, in the mid-20th century. Di Palo’s here (for prosciutto and parmesan) was, for me, the almost sacred site on this food pilgrimage, a gourmet shop managed by the fifth generation of the family.

But it was really the final stop and the final dish that overshadowed everything else: cannoli from Ferrara Bakery (also family-run, since 1892). I finally understood that classic line from The Godfather : “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.”

Charukesi Ramadurai is a travel writer and photographer from Bengaluru.

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