Sunday, October 12, 2008

La Curva: Pupusotas to make you Triste o Atarantada

Yesterday I found myself with my mom in a Pupuseria near Flushing Meadow Park. I didn't really want to go to the park, but she bribed me. If I hung out with her she said she would buy me pupusas. The offer was irresistible; I've had pupusas on the mind since the other day at Whole Foods and I don't get to eat them very often either. 

Unfortunately, my mom wanted to stop there before going to the park and I was not so hungry. She said, let's just have two each and then if we're hungry later we'll pick some up on the way back. That was an appealing proposition because then I'd have the opportunity to sample the greatest variety. 

When we sat down they were not on the menu and we had to ask, in Spanish, what kinds they had that day. They had: cheese, beans and cheese, revueltas (pork and cheese), and cheese and loroco (the exotic national flower of El Salvador). My mom and I, without discussing it first, ordered exactly the same. For a newbie, I think you would want to order just cheese, but the best are revueltas and de loroco, the flower has a unique taste that is difficult to compare. We also ordered orchata, a drink made of rice water and morro (roll the 'r' when you pronounce it. My mom yelled at me for saying 'moro'). 

After ordering, I had plenty of time to reflect on our surroundings. It took some time for them to bring us our food, although the drinks came quickly. The place was warm, but we skipped on water because they only sell bottled water, which I think is sort of lame. Outside of the restaurant were some older Chinese men hanging out. They were from the car repair shop next door. Yet, inside there were only men, all hispanic, probably all Salvadorean. I wanted to stare at them and look for some sort of family resemblance, but that seemed rude, so I refrained. They were all hanging out in groups or alone drinking Heinekens and Negro Modelo. I bet pupusas are good with beer, but I prefer orchata. If you're going all the way to a pupuseria you might as well get what you can only get there.

The decor was really basic and it had been decorated for Halloween. My mom was a big fan of the gaudy Salvadorean themed clock on the wall. They had two televisions hooked up showing an American movie dubbed in Spanish, which I almost thought my mom found more interesting than my witty banter. 

They ended up giving us cutlery, which is as undesirable for me as getting it in a Chinese restaurant. An authentic meal of pupusas requires clean hands only. The waitress also put down two bottles that looked like ketchup and mustard. I knew that the red bottle, however, was the mild, yet tasty tomato sauce served with pupusas and made out of stewed tomatoes. I was, though, wary of the yellow stuff in the other bottle. I'd never been served that before. I asked my mom what it was and she said it was mustard. I was like, 'really?' Given my reaction she investigated by opening it up and smelling it. It turned out that it was a chilli puree that ended up being so awesome on the pupusas. It had a vinegar flavor to it and a medium level of heat and was well rounded in flavor. When the pupusas came the waitress also brought the curtido, a cabbage relish somewhat similar to sauerkraut. It serves the same purpose as sauerkraut, but ought to be firmer and crisper in texture than the other cabbage relish. It is made of cabbage, onion, carrot, chillies, oregano, salt and pepper cured in white wine vinegar. Please note: put this on your pupusa. Not only is it essential for flavor but there's a gastronomic purpose. The relish aides in digestion. In a pupusa meal you're face to face with a good amount of cheese and spices, be mindful of how this will affect you later.

The pupusas that we ate were, oh, oh, oh, so good. The loroco and the pork came through in the overall flavor of the pupusas. There was the magical burnt cheese that had oozed out from the sides and the sauces and curtido were the perfect match. If you have never eaten a pupusa before, you should know that when you get it, you open it up to reveal both sides. A well made pupusa will have filling come apart on both sides. A poorly made one will have all the filling stick to one side. You then dress the fuller bottom part and start eating the top part that cools faster. Remember these are right off the grill and pipping hot, so be careful. The accompaniments help to cool the pupusa more quickly so you don't burn the roof of your mouth. 

My only complaint about them really is that the pupusas were too big. By the time that I was done with the first one I had no room for the second, but kept eating anyway. When I finished my mom asked, "Estas atarantada?," are you stupid-full? I was like, "yeah, how'd you know?" and she said "because I am too." Apparently that's more full than being triste, literally 'sad with fullness.' It took me the better part of the day to get over the bloating that decision cost me. I'm not just complaining for that reason though; I think that if they were smaller you could try more variations--and I love variety.

I did, however, like the bill: $12.00 for everything; that's nothing to sneeze at in our tough financial times. Anywho, I do recommend this place and I think that the perfect way to work off the heavy meal is to go to the park and play mini golf ($7 for adults). 

La Curva Restaurant
On College Point Boulevard between Stanford Avenue and Maple Avenue

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Little Garden in the City

In the past month I have found out that two of my friends have vegetable gardens and neither lives out on a farm. This doesn't just seem novel right now, but almost necessary. I recently picked up Thomas F. Pawlick's The End of Food. If you want to know what the book is about, well, let's just say Pawlick's title is right on point. I actually picked it up, though, because of the sub-title: How the food industry is destroying our food supply--and what you can do about it. 

Personally, I have never been a hardcore environmentalist. I mean, I try to recycle and to reuse and other things of that nature, but it's not a cause I've ever been passionate about. I am trying to be better about it, especially after reading an article in the New York Times about the slow food movement, which Deborah Madison (aka culinary saint) is associated with. In the article a proponent of the movement said that you can't be a foodie and not an environmentalist because if you want the best product to work with you have to make sure the environment gets the best possible chance. I can't argue with that!

Aside from being environmentally responsible, it seems that we need to take matters into our own hands in other respects. For example, you make think that jarred tomatoes and peppers have always been a part of the italian diet, but this is not true. Since Italy has a temperate and hospitable climate for staple crops, such as the tomato, Italians in the Old World did not need to preserve their vegetables, yet once Italian immigrants came to the United States, the different temperature did not allow them to enjoy great produce year round. Consequently, Italian-Americans, distrustful of supermarket canned goods, began to jar their own. Perhaps it is time we kicked it old school--Italian style.

Incidentally, I have tomato on the brain because Pawlick begins his book with said subject. As my dedicated readers will note, I have always had a love affair with the tomato and Pawlick's railings against supper market tomatoes made a lot of sense to me. I've always been shocked by the vast difference between an ordinary super market tomato and what you get from a home garden or a farmer's market. 

Pawlick explains that it's not just a matter of the super market tomato losing taste, but also nutritional value. Basically, living in the capitalist driven market, taste and nutrition don't end up factoring into the bottom line for tomato producers in the United States. The disappointment of super market tomatoes, in fact, is what inspires Pawlick to write the book. After living in Italy, he cannot stand for the rubbery red balls hacked off as tomatoes in the United States. We have a responsibility to save the tomato, especially since it's our native berry--yeah that's right--the Italian's took it from us, well before we were us, sort of like retroactive globalism. Anyway, this is clearly larger than tomatoes. It's about access to good food that will keep us nourished, satisfied, and--dare I say it? Delighted.

I think the best way to start to reclaim our food is one step at time, like actually planting a patch of cucumbers or a tomato plant. When my friend, Sue Ferranti, told me she was growing cucumbers, I asked her how she ate them and she said, "Just like that, just the cucumber." It makes sense to me; when something's awesome it doesn't need much else, which is why that's exactly how I enjoyed Sue's gift.