The last couple of decades have flooded NYC with colorful cuisines many of us never knew existed, and stocked ethnic markets with exotic ingredients that have strange names and fascinating properties. This influx of new products should have riveted the city’s chefs, and filled menus from cafés to bistros to full-blown restaurants with interesting new dishes — or so I imagined.
But cooking schools have lagged far behind in their course work, continuing to emphasize French techniques and ingredients to the exclusion of the rest of the world. Downtown’s own French Culinary Institute acted like it was a big deal when they added “Italian” to their name not too long ago, and more recently on Top Chef, when asked to make something as simple as a dumpling, nearly every contestant betrayed total ignorance of the most rudimentary aspects of Chinese cooking. “I’ve never used a wok before,” one boasted, as if it were something to be proud of.
Well, that’s real shame, because all sorts of amazing ingredients await the adventuresome chef on the prowl. Here are 10 that ought to be explored.
1. Jellyfish — This silken undersea animal is one the few sea creatures guaranteed sustainable for the long foreseeable future. About a dozen species have been exploited for food, most notably the cannonball jellyfish, which is now being harvested on America’s Eastern Seaboard. Though often considered a pest, the jellyfish’s culinary properties are prodigious: After a 20-day curing process by someone known as the Jellyfish Master (his apparition might haunt your nightmares), the resultant flesh can be shredded into translucent noodles containing 6 percent protein. These have an agreeably crunchy texture, and are usuaully transparent, like mung bean threads. Jellyfish can be eaten raw or cooked, and readily picks up any flavors you want to bombard it with. Availability: Chinese supermarkets in Flushing, Elmhurst, Sunset Park, and Manhattan’s Chinatown.
2. Epazote — Also known as wormseed and Jesuit’s tea, this herb beloved of southern Mexicans has a dry, almost creosote-y taste, something like a cross between licorice and mint. Beans flavored with it develop a pleasing, elusive odor, but the herb’s astringent qualities would also function well in a marinade. As an added bonus, epazote has carminative properties — which means it prevents farting. Your gaseous guests will thank you later. Availability: Mexican bodegas in dried form, or fresh if you’re lucky. (I’ve seen it fresh most recently at bodegas around Maria Hernandez Park in Bushwick.)
3. Palm Oil — Long defamed by crazy nutritionists as containing too much saturated fat, bright orange palm oil not only gives food a rich, smooth mouthfeel, it also adds wonderful earthy flavors to the West African and Brazilian recipes to which it is essential. While cafés hailing from Senegal, Guinea, Ghana, and Bahia, Brazil, have been using it here for years, this luscious ingredient has yet to make it into the mainstream — except in commercially produced Canadian and English cookies, where the fat’s distinctive color has been neutralized. Availability: You can get it a Kalustyan’s in Curry Hill, or in most West African groceries in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens.
4. Asafetida — As a drug in Indian medicine, this resinous gum of a perennial shrub (known in Hindi as “hing”) has long been said to cure hysteria and impotence, but it’s real value for cooks lies in its oniony fragrance and rich allium flavor. Used in addition to garlic, chives, and shallots, it adds an extra dimension to dishes. By itself, the effects are otherworldly, and a little pinch goes a long, long way. Availability: Patel South Asian supermarkets in Jackson Heights, Jersey City, Flushing, and other locations. In Manhattan, try Kalustyan’s or any Indian grocery in Curry Hill.
5. Yuba — This rubbery substance is what rises to the top as bean curd is born. It’s usually purchased in dried form and is extremely easy to handle once rehydrated — it remains intact and can be used to wrap fillings, float in soups, and bind bales of ingredients into tender rolls. Yuba has a pleasing mild taste, but can be infused with stronger flavors, and accepts color well. A versatile ingredient almost never seen outside regional Chinese restaurants. And it’s cheap as hell, since yuba is a byproduct of tofu manufacture. Availability: Chinese supermarkets.
6. Grains of Paradise — Some of the most adventuresome chefs have been diddling with Sichuan peppercorns lately (I had them recently sprinkled on ricotta crostini at Porsena), but all sorts of other vectors of hotness are available, making old-fashioned cayenne and black peppercorns look boring by comparison. Why not tickle the mouths of your patrons with this West African peppery spice, botanically related to ginger? Heck, think how good the name will look on a menu. Availability: West African groceries and Kalustyan’s.
7. Sea Cucumbers — These exceedingly weird echinoderms (also known as sea mice or sea slugs) travel the floor of oceans in packs, can change their shape at will, are thought to have aphrodisiacal properties, and constitute another of those infinitely sustainable sea creatures — on some parts of the ocean floor, they make up 90 percent of the biomass. Not cheap, but once rehydrated, cut up in chunks, and used in a soup or salad, they can be quite cost-effective. The texture is wobbly, the flavor slightly briny. Sea cucumbers are now being harvested in Alaska, then mainly exported to China. Availability: Chinese supermarkets.
8. Giant Land Snails — I first encountered this terrifying denizen of the West African bush more than a decade ago in a lake of bright red palm oil sauce (see above). The size of the thing was astonishing, but even more interesting was its bounciness, which was somewhere in SuperBall territory. Cut up in tiny slivers and used in fried rice or soups, it would be fascinating, but certainly someone could figure out how to tenderize it, and present the creature in its shell. And don’t worry about sustainability: This once-endangered zoological oddity is now being farm-raised in Ghana. Availability: ?
9. Vietnamese Mint — Zak Pelaccio almost owns this perennial herb, which has a taste anything but minty. Rather, it has a savor that is somewhere between bitter and spicy. You can find it in a half-dozen dishes at Fatty Crab (including the legendary pork belly and watermelon salad), but it’s almost unknown in most area restaurants. Vietnamese mint is essential to many Malaysian and Cambodian cuisines, and can be found in Southeast Asian markets, but rarely fresh. Availability: Seen recently in fresh form in Cambodian markets in the Bronx, but a careful scouring of Chinatown markets may turn up samples.
10. Grasshoppers — Usually thought of as pests, these hip-hop insects are farmed in Mexico, where — known as chapulins — they’re most commonly sprinkled on tacos. Of course, insects in general constitute yet another sustainable foodstuff that hasn’t been exploited in New York restaurants (though the occasional cricket appetizer works its way onto Japanese menus). In China they’re skewered and grilled, in Guatemala used in soups, in Uganda boiled or eaten raw for their high protein content. Availability: Could be gathered fresh in gardens (though they must be cooked, since grasshoppers can transmit parasites) or bought in Mexican bodegas in dried form.