Although **Gladys Puglla-Jimenez came to this country from Ecuador 30 years ago, her
kitchen on Putnam Avenue in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn is still
intimately connected to her homeland, from her stocks of spices like achiote
pepper powder to the tropical green of the walls.
craves guatita, a dish of cow tripe in a sauce thickened by peanut butter that
she serves over plantains. And for Sundays, after a night spent entertaining
friends at home, she prepares a briny, squid-infused version of encebollado, a
soup popular in
coastal regions. It is good for a hangover, she promises. It will really
When Ms. Jimenez
was a child, her grandmother spent all day making the familys meals. But such
a leisurely pace isnt really practical for daily life in
for the citys Administration for Childrens Services, commutes from the lower
tip of Manhattan and has to finish eating by 7 doctors orders for losing a
little extra weight.
has learned to adjust, saving more elaborate meals for weekends, while on
weeknights she makes the simplest of
and three children. This could be as basic as meat cutlets pounded thin,
quickly fried and served with white rice, lentils and salad. Or it could be as
quick as a potato and cheese soup made with slivers of omelet, a 20-minute meal
that her children ask for during the winter.
It is a
common story in
harried kitchens. Immigrants in
up 37 percent of the citys population, according to the New York City
Department of City Planning have brought with them their daily dishes,
delicious meals that are comforting and convenient, and could easily make their
way into the citys larger repertory of dinners for busy nights.
of immigrants, representing a range of countries from almost every continent,
kindly agreed to my request that I come to their homes for dinner, and as the
most demanding of guests: I didnt want the familys fanciest; I wanted their
Tibetans I met were generous in sharing their food, but had a very different
sense of what in a hurry meant. Some continue to make momo a steamed
dumpling traditionally stuffed with yak meat and served in a hot meat broth
from scratch, although the process can take as long as two hours.
It is not
something that one whips up after work.
families had been forced by necessity to come up with short versions of their
cuisine. Many had settled on bastardizations of American classics. A popular
dish, for example, is spaghetti and meatballs, but Koreans served it with
kimchi on the side, while some Kenyans cut hot red peppers into theirs.
intriguing are the national staples that have been subtly adapted to American
groceries. A Korean family offered a steaming rice bowl with sliced nori (the
seaweed paper used in sushi), bologna and a raw egg. Ji Yoon Yoo, who lives in
Jersey City and often works late selling real estate, makes an Americanized
version of pa jun, the Korean scallion pancake, several nights a week.
was growing up, Ms. Yoos mother would cook oyster pa jun in the traditional
manner: heating the pan until smoking so the batter would crisp quickly, but
leaving the oysters damp and plump. Now Ms. Yoo prepares pa jun with whatever
is left over in the refrigerator: roast chicken, uncooked vegetables, steak,
etc. Her trick is to dice the vegetables finely so they can cook with the
pancake. To add variety, she serves the pancakes with a different dipping sauce
every night (soy sauce, vinegar, sesame oil and peanut butter are common
Hers is a
modern, highly adaptable version of the immigrant kitchen, easily incorporating
American and other influences. Other cooks who move to the city from abroad are
Gray-Brumskine, who immigrated from
as a 19-year-old in the 1980s and now lives on
Sunday, her family eats Western foods like corn bread and collard greens, she
said, because that was the custom in Liberia, a country founded by freed
the week she hews to African cuisine because, she said, it is healthier than
American food. My whole family is skinny, she explained. Its also because
African cuisine is all her husband will eat.
Gray-Brumskine often makes fufu, a rib-sticking mash of potato starch and
mashed potatoes from a box, a common American substitution for roots or yams
that are used in
cassava greens; she washes and grinds the leaves, then boils them in a pot with
water and baking soda until they turn olive green a process that can take two
hours and often isnt done until 11 at night. Her husband will wait and eat
she comes home late she works as a community organizer in Stapleton, the
food for herself and her daughter, she often makes fish like red snapper or
kingfish. She slices right through the whole fish, bones and all, to make fish
steaks. She sprinkles them with garlic powder and black pepper and fries them
in oil. When they are browned, she adds sliced hot peppers, tomatoes and water
and boils until the sauce thickens, about 20 minutes. Fried red plantains are
served on the side.
Renata Olah, who came from
in 2000 at age 23, cooks only Hungarian food for her husband in their tiny
outgoing, she is a natural hostess. To start a meal, she insists that guests
take a snort of homemade plum brandy, to whet your appetite.
Hungarian kitchen is about careful planning and simmering everything, Ms. Olah
said. So she is partial to some of her grandmothers recipes that can take
hours to make, like stuffed cabbage and smoky bean soup.
tough to do because she is juggling three different jobs: housecleaning,
decorative housepainting and working as a personal chef to four families (she
usually makes Hungarian food). That doesnt leave a lot of time to make dinner
for her husband, a carpenter. (In
must cook to keep a man.)
rush, Ms. Olah turns to staples like cucumber salad and goulash, but not the
creamy version known here. In her hometown, she says, the goulash is more like
a soupy stew, and sour cream is served on the side only.
makes a tangy lentil dish spiced with mustard and sweetened with brown sugar
that she serves with fried eggs. Another staple is lecso, a savory stew of
onions, peppers and paprika that she serves over hot dogs or rice.
immigrants, she has secret suppliers. Her paprika is not store-bought, but
hand-ground from peppers by her mother-in-laws aunt in
a rich rust color and smells enticingly smoky.
things you just cant get in
Ms. Olah said.
has some advantages, and one is that immigrants do not necessarily have to
specialize in their native cuisines. Jabeen Ahmed, who was born in
married a Palestinian man whose family immigrated from the Gaza Strip in 1988.
The cooking in her Totowa, N.J., kitchen straddles the two cultures.
up for the tragedy of him not having married someone from his own country, she
said half-jokingly, Ive learned to cook Arabic. Her mother-in-law taught her
dishes like cabbage stuffed with rice and lamb and a layered eggplant dish
called makluba. But after 12 years of cooking for him, Ms. Ahmed has developed
confidence in her own recipes.
proudest of her grape leaves, which she stuffs with lamb, rice and parsley and
cooks with concentrate of pomegranate juice to add flavor. The dish simmers on
her stove for hours.
a long day of work (she is a pharmacist), she often makes something that is
much quicker: an all-white dish of chicken with yogurt served over rice. It
takes 30 minutes from start to table. In fact, she feels so at home in the
cuisine of her husbands ancestors that she now thinks of it nostalgically as
her own comfort food.
**Gladys Puglla-Jimenez is a MRNY board member.