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Friday, 2 August 2013

New York a la Cart by Alexandra Penfold and Shiobhan Wallace

... so, to cut a long story short, my friends told me that anything they eat back home is GMO, and it's actually really hard to find non-GMO food where they live, and even when they do find it, it costs a lot of money. (They recall eating a nice peach once, I was told, for US$2. A piece. They shared it.) So it's a misnomer to talk about the 'best' food back there, because most food is kind of not-so-good, in the sense that we talk about good food here in Crete (they said to me), where you eat a tomato that you can actually taste, or squeeze a lemon that you can smell, or cut open a watermelon that is as red as wine and not as pink as chewing gum, and the herbs used to flavour your meat come from the same locality where the meat was raised. (They haven't taken a bath since they've been here, so as not to lose the aromas of wild thyme, oregano and sea salt from their body.)
New York street food in my kitchen.
Good food over there is not the same as good food over here, they insisted, while their children were asking why there weren't any Doritos on the table, or why there was no cilantro available in the stores, and why they couldn't get a super duper triple-size glass of soda instead of all those little bottles that the waitress was bringing them every fifteen minutes. (Size matters over there.)
Confined work spaces are the norm in a street food cart - my kitchen does not feel much different at times.
But there is good food there too, they insisted, and the people who sell it on the street from their carts compete to make it the best. These same people who live quite far removed from the tomatoes that taste like tomatoes and the lemons that smell like lemons share the same passion for preparing good food as those who live near the tasty tomatoes and aromatic lemons, and that's why street food is revered there, not just for its superlative taste, but for the passionate souls who prepare it for the other hungry souls in the city.

And just like any good food makers, those people on the streets of New York all have a story to tell. My friends know how much I love a good food story, so they bought me one that combines travel with food in their own home town: New York a la Cart by Alexandra Penfold and Shiobhan Wallace. Food stories in new York are not difficult to find since most food cart vendors there have immigrant origins, as they "have found the promise of a better life in street vending, bringing a bit fo the old country to the New World... A city of old and new immigrants, New York offers unparalleled dining diversity... behind every cart and every truck were the hoped and dreams of a fellow New Yorker by birth of by choice."

The stories of the cart vendors reminded me of my own parents' dreams of a better life as immigrants to New Zealand - they too were involved in the food industry: they were part of a tradition that many immigrants anywhere still follow to this day: "using food vending as a means to make a living and a stepping stone to success." Greek immigrants of the past were some of the champs in this trade, and even New York knows this well: "New York and its palate saw another rapid change when the 1965 - the same period my parents emigrated - Immigration Act opened borders.. Greeks opened carts selling guros and souvlaki, grilled chicken and lamb pita sandwiches; with time, they came to own the majority of the working food carts. Their success allowed them to employ other immigrants to actually man the carts." This illustrates a very significant element of the Greek psyche - Greeks generally want to be their own boss. This partly explains why Greece has always had a disproportionately high rate of self-employment, and this will probably continue, despite the economic problems of the country.
If Crete doesn't stock it, then I have to make it - wonton wrappers.
I would love to be a street food vendor because it would bring my food directly in close contact to the people who would be eating it. But street vending is associated with a great many problems which are similar all over the world: competition for the best spot, over-regulation by the state, vendor crackdowns, parking problems, legal trappings, and the biggest problem of all: harassment of all kinds, especially old timers and thugs. Being a female street food vendor can't be easy either, as noted by one of the NY ice-cream vendors. If I could open a food cart in Hania, I would also face another problem: selling unusual food to not-so-enticed eaters. I wouldn't be selling Greek food: I'd be selling things I want to see being sold, like Asian spring rolls. Street food here is not an art form: apart from koulouri, chestnut and corn stands, we don't have much more. Recently I noticed a drinks seller - that's a direct effect of the economic crisis.
Rolling up the Taiwanese dumplings - they looked more like spring rolls to me: this is explained by the fact that the person making them in the NT cart also makes Japanese dumplings which are similar - and that is all explained by the influence of Japanese culture in Taiwan.

New York a la Cart is a must-read for those who love to hear the stories behind the food. It also contains so many enticing photos, and the recipes given are quick, easy and cheap to make, otherwise such wouldn't be a sell out on the street, no matter which place they were being sold. We had some pieces of leftover boiled lamb meat from a village feast; using some bits and pieces of our own vegetable harvests, I was able to make a really good version of Taiwanese dumplings. I used boiled lamb instead of pork mince, and grated zucchini instead of cabbage (cabbage in Hania in the summer is imported from the mainland - it's still too hot to grow it in Crete which explains why it has disappeared from the street market at the moment).
Food cart workers work in very confined spaces - my kitchen does not feel much bigger most of the time. But I still managed to find some space to roll out some wonton wrappers, as the recipe states. We don't have wonton wrappers ready to buy in Crete - we do have filo pastry squares, but since I never buy them (and I do often think of the expense in doing so), I always roll out my own pastry. The instructions in the recipe provided me with a good tip for future dumpling/spring roll making: don't seal the roll/dumpling too tightly. The given recipe also stated to place some water in the pan after frying the dumplings (well, they looked more like spring rolls to me) to let them steam in it for 5 minutes. But this is very not-Greek (boiling pastry after it has fried), so I just served them pan-fried. They were a complete hit; we have also become big fans of hot sauce with our international cuisine, after so many travel experiences.
It's a great feeling to know that I can copy any recipe from around the world in my own home. 

Thank you very much, Deby. 

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