A Culinary Odyssey: From the Lower East Side to Contemporary Cuisine



When I read in a recent copy of the Forward about "Pickle-ness" being prevalent again on Manhattan's Lower East Side, I was intrigued. I thought that the immigrant cuisine in an area that had been home to millions of Jewish and other immigrants had totally disappeared.

Not so. A new food-tasting tour organized by the Lower East Side Tenement Museum follows the evolution of a cuisine that dates to the late 1800s. I had to see this for myself.

Boarding a Bolt bus that leaves from downtown Philadelphia, I arrived two hours later in New York. The total fare — $22 round trip — is a bargain when compared to driving or the train.

We went directly to the Tenement Museum on 91 Orchard St. Along with a dozen or so others, hailing from Australia to Wisconsin, we gathered on the sidewalk outside to start the two-hour tour led by Jess Varma, an attractive, young guide who kept up a running commentary filled with fascinating information.

New York's Lower East Side was "the gateway" to America. It was a place where immigrants could practice their religion and educate their children in freedom and safety.

Today, the Lower East Side is still home to an immigrant population. But instead of Eastern Europeans, Italians and Irish, it's now home to Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Asians. Rivington, Essex and Orchard streets are packed with shops and little restaurants that reflect the cuisine and culture of these new immigrant communities.

As with Jewish foods like bagels and smoked salmon which have become staples on American tables, plantains and seasonings like anise and ginger root are influencing American tastes — creeping into home cooking and restaurants alike.

For the 19th-century immigrant housewife, though, cooking was a challenge. Water had to be carried up to the apartment and meals were cooked on a coal stove. Imagine cooking in 90° heat with no air conditioning.

So, foods were often bought from the pushcart vendors. Old photos show Orchard street teeming with people of all ages and all sorts of vendors.

There, Verna told us, John and Caroline Schneider from Bavaria and Prussia opened a beer hall in 1860.

At that time, there were so many German immigrants living in the area that it was called "Little Germany." John served lager and Caroline cooked the "free lunches." Soft salty pretzels, sauerkraut and hamburgers, all guaranteed to work up a thirst, ensured brisk beer sales. American patrons, attracted by the lager — quite different from their light ale — flocked to eat and drink at Schneider's.

Move forward to the decade of the 1880s. Germans prospered, moved out, and Eastern Europeans moved in. Vendors with pushcarts catered to the overcrowded population.

While there were 200 or so pickle stores in the 19th century here, now only one, the Pickle Guys on Essex street, has survived. Their pickles are shipped nationwide: sour pickles, halfsour pickles, hot sour pickles — all prepared according to old Eastern European recipes and stored in barrels, cured from 1 day to up to 6 months.

Although the store is closed on Shabbat, Verna had arranged for us to sample some half-sour pickles. Breathing in the salt-vinegar smell, I could easily imagine another time.

Then our group moved on to Grand street to Kossar's Bialys, in business since 1934 and started by Mirsky and Morris Kossar. Bialys are flatter than bagels, have no hole but rather a depression in the center that is filled with onions or a garlic-and-poppy-seed mixture. A fresh-baked bialy with a "schmear" of cream cheese was a snack eaten on the run by many an immigrant.

At the Economy Candy Store, we sampled pretzels coated with light and dark chocolate. The candy store was opened in 1937 by the Greek Jewish immigrant brothers named Cohen. Today, the store is run by Jerry Cohen, who has worked there since he was 5.

It started out as a shoe shop. But the brothers soon learned that selling candy was more profitable than selling shoe leather.

As for the native cuisines of new immigrants — Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Asians — they are now influencing American tastes, a development apparent on the Lower East Side.

At the Essex Street Market, you'll find queso blanco, a white cheese similar to mozzarella, from Dominica; plantains from the Caribbean; nutmeg from Grenada.

The recipes below illustrate the simple foods of our Eastern European ancestors as well as the newer influence of Asian and Caribbean ingredients.


One Bowl Sweet Kugel


All the ingredients here were cheap and available year-round. Kitchen utensils were few so ingredients were often mixed in one bowl. With a few raisins tossed in, this made a delicious sweet snack to eat out of hand.

1/2 lb. medium noodles, cooked, drained, liquid reserved 
1/2 cup liquid from drained noodles 
3/4 cup milk 
3 eggs, lightly beaten 
1/3 cup sugar or to taste 
6 Tbsps. margarine, melted 
1 Tbsp. fresh squeezed lemon juice 
1/2 cup dark raisins

Preheat oven to 350°. Spray an 8- or 9-inch square baking dish with nonstick baking spray.

In a large bowl, mix the noodles with all the remaining ingredients. Transfer to the prepared baking dish.

Bake in preheated oven 55 to 60 minutes or until golden brown, crusty and barely firm in the center. Serve hot or cold.

Serves 8 to 10.


Potato Kugel


Potatoes and pasta were cheap and a piece of kugel, sweet or savory, could be eaten cold or at room temperature.

2 and 1/2 lbs. potatoes, peeled and cut in 1-inch chunks 
2 large onions, cut up in chunks 
3/4 cup vegetable oil, divided 
1/2 cup fresh dill, snipped 
3 eggs, lightly beaten 
1 tsp. baking powder 
1 cup matzah meal 
1/2 cup all-purpose flour 
2-3 tsps. salt or to taste 
1/2 tsp. white pepper or to taste

Preheat oven to 375°. Spray an 8- or 9-inch square baking dish with nonstick cooking spray.

In a food processor, using the grater blade, grate the potatoes. Turn into a large bowl. Squeeze out as much liquid as possible, discarding the liquid. Grate the onions in the food processor and add to the potatoes. Add 1/2 cup oil and all the remaining ingredients. Stir to mix.

Transfer the mixture to the prepared baking dish. Drizzle the remaining 1/4 cup oil over. Bake in preheated oven for 1 hour or until golden brown and firm in the center. Serve hot or cold.

Serves 8 to 10.


Chopped Herring


Spread on rye bread with seeds, this was a filling and tasty treat. Hard-cooked eggs could be bought from a pushcart so this needed no cooking on a hot stove.

1 jar (12 oz.) pickled herring fillets with onions 
1 slice rye bread 
1 small sweet onion (such as Vidalia), cut in chunks 
pinch of allspice 
1 apple, cored, peeled and cut in chunks 
2 hard-cooked eggs, quartered

Drain the herring with onions, saving the drained liquid. Remove any peppercorns and bay leaves and discard. Set the herring and onions aside.

In a small bowl, pour the reserved herring liquid over the rye bread. Soak 2 to 3 minutes or until soft. Squeeze dry.

Coarsely chop the herring and onions, soaked rye bread and sweet onion in the food processor. Add the allspice, apple and eggs, and process until chopped and mixture is combined. Serve chilled or at room temperature.

Serves 6 to 8.


Chicken Tagine With Lime and Olives


Inspired by a "chicken stew," a tagine is served in a domed earthenware dish at Boulud's Sud on West 64th Street. It's scented with Caribbean flavors.

2 Tbsps. olive oil 
1 and 1/2 lbs. chicken thighs 
2 medium onions 
1 tsp. chopped garlic from a jar 
1 large lime, thinly sliced 
1 Tbsp. grated ginger root 
1/2 tsp. nutmeg 
1 tsp. salt or to taste 
1/2 tsp. freshly ground pepper 
1/4 cup chicken broth 
12 to 14 oil-cured pitted olives

Heat the oil in a large, deep skillet over medium heat. Prick the chicken thighs a few times with a fork and add to the hot oil.

Add all the remaining ingredients except the olives. Turn the chicken over to toss with the mixture. Cover and cook over medium heat for 45 minutes or until juices run clear when a knife is inserted.

If mixture becomes too dry, add a little more broth. Add the olives and heat through. Serve hot spooned over fluffy rice.

Serves 6 to 8.


Asian Chicken Salad


Dressing Ingredients: 
2 Tbsps. brown sugar 
1 Tbsp. low-sodium soy sauce 
1 Tbsp. sesame oil 
3 Tbsps. vegetable oil 
3 Tbsps. seasoned rice vinegar 
1 Tbsp. minced ginger root

6 cups shredded iceberg lettuce 
4 cups diced cooked chicken breast 
3 green onions, thinly sliced 
1/2 cup diced red bell pepper 
1 cup diced jicama 
2 Tbsps. toasted sesame seeds

    In a bowl, whisk together the brown sugar, soy sauce, sesame oil, vegetable oil, vinegar and ginger. Set aside.

    In a large bowl, place the lettuce, chicken breast, onions, bell pepper, jicama and sesame seeds. Pour the dressing over and toss. Serve chilled. Serves 6.

    Ethel G. Hofman is a past president of the International Association of Culinary Professionals. Email her at: [email protected].


    Please enter your comment!
    Please enter your name here