Manhattan Island or NYC is divided into 12 areas, each one with its own look and feel, history, food and real estate prices. The Lower East Side was an area I really wanted to see for its rich Jewish history and cultural diversity . An influx of Jewish, Ukrainian, Russian, German and even Puerto Rican immigrants at the turn-of-the-century, who brought with them recipes from the old world, created a melting pot of international cuisine. We decided the best way to experience all the area had to offer was through our stomachs.
We kicked of our food tour with some knishes from Yonah Schimmel’s (located at 137 East Houston Street New York, NY 10002). The bakery has been around since 1910, enough time to perfect the art of the knish. If you’ve never had one it’s a large roll of light, fluffy pastry with either a sweet (ricotta and cherry, chocolate) or savoury (meat, sweet potato or spinach and feta) filling and at $3.50 they are the perfect comfort food for cold weather.
Just down the road from YS’s is the famous Katz Deli (205 East Houston Street
New York, NY 10002). Around since 1880 this eatery is another veteran in classic American dining. They serve everything from soups and salads to sandwiches and steaks but having just eaten two knishes we didn’t buy anything from Katz. Also we try to eat on the healthier side and deli food is notoriously heavy and processed, Katz being no exception. However, if you decide to eat there bring cash because they don’t take card payments and be prepared to wait a while as the place is always packed whether you choose to be served by a waiter or order yourself at the counter.
In between all the food we did also learn a thing or two about the area, in particular the tenement style buildings. Tenements were the typical living accommodations of most immigrants in the early 20th century. Often three or four families would live together in one room and the building’s toilets or out-houses were outside at the back of the building. Later a toilet was added to every floor for residents to share. Our tour guide highly recommended the Tenement Museum to learn more about the era but we ran out of time.
One of my favourite places to visit back home in Cape Town is a deli called New York Bagel. It is the place for a good brunch and of course, a good bagel. On our food tour we got to experience the real New York bagel at Russ and Daughters (179 E Houston St, New York, NY 10002).
Starting out as nothing more than a pushcart in 1914, Russ and Daughters survived four generations to become one of the best places to eat in the Lower East Side. This eatery is incredible and was listed by Anthony Bourdain as one of 13 places to eat before you die. The variety of salmon and cream cheeses on offer will boggle the mind. They also sell sweets and pastries, caviar, smoked fish, fruits and nuts. We ordered two bagels (which cost the same as a fillet steak in South Africa) and they were honestly the best I’ve ever had so I guess I have to say it was money well spent.
En route to the next stop we passed a number of landmarks like the Orensanz Foundation for the Arts which used to be a synagogue but now serves as a venue for events. On the day we visited they were setting up for some or other event and we got to take a look inside, it was beautiful.
We also stopped at Streit’s Matzoh Factory. Normally I wouldn’t find anything fascinating about a matzoh factory or matzoh itself. In fact I hate the stuff. Forced to eat it for 8 days a year, the cardboard-tasting, fiberless cracker is only palatable smothered in chocolate spread, so by the time Pesach is over you’re at least a kilo heavier and constipated. However, at Streit’s the matzohs we tasted (sans chocolate spread) were quite delish. Each golden piece was nicely toasted and nutty tasting. Even the colour was better than the mass-produced stuff we get at home. What’s more, the factory produces over 7000kg of matzoh per day. That’s enough matzoh to feed around 100 000 people.
The next stop on the tour was a tiny little place called Prosperity Dumplings (46 Eldridge St #1, New York, NY 10002). Their specialty? Pork fried dumplings, four for a dollar! I don’t eat pork so I can’t personally vouch for these but the rest of the members of our tour seemed to enjoy them.
Next up was Sugar Sweet Sunshine (126 Rivington St, New York, NY 10002), so much more than a bakery. Not only can you find an incredible assortment of cakes, coffees and cupcakes, you can also indulge in pudding. That’s right, little shots of pudding in flavours like banana and chocolate, choc-chip and apple pie for just $2.50 a cup. We tried them all and an oozy-gooey chocolate almond buttercream cupcake. Guess who was not counting calories? I think the idea of serving pudding shots is so clever and unique, I mean who doesn’t love a spot of pud, especially after an afternoon of savoury treats?
Our food tour ended unceremoniously with pickles. And why not? If, like me, you love a good sandwich, nothing beats pickles as the perfect accompaniment for almost any type of sandwich. Even on their own I find pickles have a way of hitting a very particular spot when a craving strikes. The Pickle Guys (49 Essex St, New York, NY 10002) sell a range that varies in strength from sweet to hot and includes other pickled and fermented delights like sauerkraut, pickled olives and sliced hot peppers. I loved the half sour pickle although it did give me a massive attack of heartburn. Good thing I had left over pudding shots to ease the burn 🙂