En Español Know Your Rights
Source: The New York Times
Subject: Health Justice & Access
Type: Media Coverage

For Dinner (and Fast), the Taste of Home

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.

She
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 Ecuador’s
coastal regions. “It is good for a hangover,” she promises. “It will really
revive you.”

When Ms. Jimenez
was a child, her grandmother spent all day making the family’s meals. But such
a leisurely pace isn’t really practical for daily life in New York.
Ms. Jimenez works until 5 p.m. doing billing
for the city’s Administration for Children’s Services, commutes from the lower
tip of Manhattan and has to finish eating by 7 — doctor’s orders for losing a
little extra weight.

So she
has learned to adjust, saving more elaborate meals for weekends, while on
weeknights she makes the simplest of Ecuador’s dishes for her husband
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 New York’s
harried kitchens. Immigrants in New
York
— who come from more than 200 countries and make
up 37 percent of the city’s 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 city’s larger repertory of dinners for busy nights.

A number
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 didn’t want the family’s fanciest; I wanted their
go-to staples.

The
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.

Most
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.

Just as
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.

When she
was growing up, Ms. Yoo’s 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
ingredients).

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
purists.

Jennifer
Gray-Brumskine, who immigrated from Liberia
as a 19-year-old in the 1980s and now lives on Staten
Island
, does not stray too far from her native cuisine. Every
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
American slaves.

During
the week she hews to African cuisine because, she said, it is healthier than
American food. “My whole family is skinny,” she explained. It’s also because
African cuisine is all her husband will eat.

Ms.
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 Africa. She also makes
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 isn’t done until 11 at night. Her husband will wait and eat
them then.

But when
she comes home late — she works as a community organizer in Stapleton, the Staten Island neighborhood — and wants fast, satisfying
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.

Likewise
Renata Olah, who came from Hungary
in 2000 at age 23, cooks only Hungarian food for her husband in their tiny
Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, kitchen. Bubbly and
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.”

“The
Hungarian kitchen is about careful planning and simmering everything,” Ms. Olah
said. So she is partial to some of her grandmother’s recipes that can take
hours to make, like stuffed cabbage and smoky bean soup.

That’s
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 doesn’t leave a lot of time to make dinner
for her husband, a carpenter. (In Hungary, she explains, “a woman
must cook to keep a man.”)

In a
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.

She also
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.

Like many
immigrants, she has secret suppliers. Her paprika is not store-bought, but
hand-ground from peppers by her mother-in-law’s aunt in Hungary. It is
a rich rust color and smells enticingly smoky.

“Some
things you just can’t get in America
Ms. Olah said.

But being
in the United States
has some advantages, and one is that immigrants do not necessarily have to
specialize in their native cuisines. Jabeen Ahmed, who was born in Pakistan,
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.

“To make
up for the tragedy of him not having married someone from his own country,” she
said half-jokingly, “I’ve 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.

She is
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.

But after
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 husband’s ancestors that she now thinks of it nostalgically as
her own comfort food.

**Gladys Puglla-Jimenez is a MRNY board member.