Morgan S. asks: I’ve been told you can get every cuisine in the world in New York City. Is that true?
Dear Morgan: Well, almost. We’ve got at least 80 distinct cuisines by my estimate, but that’s counting certain regional cuisines of China and elsewhere. It really depends on how you count, but I’m painfully aware of the ones we’re missing. Here’s a partial list:
Oaxacan — We have a couple of places that claim to be Oaxacan, but their commitment to the cuisine is strictly minimal. Anyone who’s admired the food scene in L.A. knows that it has a number of excellent Oaxcan restaurants, which serve clayuda (pizza-like flatbreads) and the legendary seven moles (“moe-lays”) of Oaxaca: mole negro, mole rojo or colorado, mole amarillo, mole verde, mole chichilo, mole coloradito, and manchmantel (“tablecloth-stainer”). Sure, you can get versions of mole verde (thickened with ground pumpkin seeds) and mole negro (a darker cousin of mole poblano) in New York’s south-Pueblan taquerias, but we’re missing the brilliance and earthy intensity of the Oaxacan originals.
Laotian — We’ve got lots of Thai and Vietnamese cooking here, but no Laotian. If you go to Nice or Paris, you’ll find Laotian restaurants in profusion. The cuisine is heavily flavored with lemongrass, fish sauce, and diverse forms of ginger, and features room-temperature meat salads, raw fish preparations “cooked” in citrus, fish and meats steamed in banana leaves, and rib-sticking dips for crudite, with curries playing a decidedly backseat role. If some of these dishes sound familiar, it’s because you can get similar things in New York’s Isaan restaurants, but Laotian cuisine is a distinct thing unto itself.
Cambodian — We had a nominally Cambodian restaurant in Fort Greene, which moved to the Upper East Side amid much hoopla and then closed, and a Lower East Side sandwich shop that provided an authentic dish or two, now sadly closed. Rice, coconut milk, preserved lemons, turmeric, kaffir lime leaves, and a fermented shrimp paste called prahok are staples. Employing a profusion of fruits and vegetables, Khmer cuisine is less spicy than Thai, and as French-influenced as Vietnamese, and steaming fish in banana leaves and stir-frying meats are popular preparation methods.
Nicaraguan and Costa Rican — The cuisine of Nicaragua is partly the pan-Latin mixture of rice, grilled meats, root vegetables, and plantains that you might expect. Corn-based tamales called nactamal are bulbous, overstuffed combinations of meat, chicken, potatoes, raisins, and chiles, often further flavored with mint. A corn-based porridge incorporating leftover meat is called indio viejo. Not sure why we don’t have any Nicaraguan restaurants, since we have Honduran and Guatemalan. And despite the fact that Costa Rica is a popular tourist destination for Americans, none of its restaurants seem to have made it over here.
Algerian and Libyan — Collectively, we’re missing a great swatch of North African cuisine, though we do have a small number of Moroccan and Tunisian restaurants. The cooking of Libya and Algeria shows French, Berber, Ottoman, and Egyptian influences, and has a similar flavor palate to Moroccan. But having restaurants from these two would probably reveal the many regional cooking styles that each displays. Algerian food is generally much spicier than Moroccan and is flatbread-based, while Libyan cuisine shows all sorts of Italian influences.
Kenyan, Angolan, and Mozambiquan — We’ve got West African restaurants up the wazoo, and enough Ethiopian restaurants to know we want more with more diverse regional menus, but we’re generally at a loss when it comes to restaurants based on the cuisine of southern and eastern African countries. The cuisines of Angola and Mozambique are heavily Portuguese-influenced, and certain Angola dishes (including piri-piri chicken) are available in area Iberian restaurants. We once had a couple of Somalian restaurants, but those are long gone — nevertheless, Somalian cuisine is in some ways similar to Yemeni cuisine. We have at least two South African restaurants, but why no Kenyan? A hard maize mash called ugali is the starch staple, kale is ubiquitous, and small dried fish called omena are popular. The dish called pillau shows Middle Eastern influences, and Indian chapattis and samosas are eaten by nearly everyone.
There are many others, of course, but these are the ones I dream about.
If anyone knows of restaurants in the five boroughs serving any of the cuisines, please let me know at email@example.com.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 2, 2010