Can you define New York City through its food?

Jun 19, 2015

In New York in a Dozen Dishes, author and food critic Robert Sietsema profiles 12 dishes. "It's supposed to be a portrait of New York in food," he says. "If you can imagine the entire skyline sculpted out of pizza and black-and-white cookies." Egg foo young and cheb are two of the dishes he wrote about.

Melissa Clark: You've made your career out of running around New York City eating some of the most unusual dishes that the five boroughs can offer up. You've picked 12 dishes to profile. How did you pick those 12?

Robert Sietsema (Photo: Liz Barclay)

Robert Sietsema: I just sat down, I started writing and I wrote about dishes that I like. There are actually a couple of them that I don't really like that much.

But the whole idea is that the mix of dishes reflects New York as it is today, from some old-time things to some new things, and from some things recently brought by immigrants to things that were brought here by immigrants or even brought here by Native Americans centuries ago. It's supposed to be a portrait of New York in food, if you can imagine the entire skyline sculpted out of pizza and black-and-white cookies.

Egg foo young

: You write about egg foo young, which is one of those dishes that I remember from my childhood. You don't see it a lot these days.

RS: I first got interested in egg foo young when I was growing up in Minnesota. It was a rare thing that my parents would send out for carryout. I was not a big egg fan. But even people who don't like eggs love egg foo young because it's filled with vegetables, it's crisp and it has absorbed all sorts of grease from the wok. It's served with rice and brown gravy that comes out of a can. Who wouldn't like that?

MC: There is something compelling about that combination of the crisp egg and the soft rice. What are the origins of the dish? You write a lot about the Chinese immigrants who first brought egg foo young prototypes to San Francisco.

RS: There is little actual history that has been recorded; it's mainly folk history. I do know from my experience in contemporary Asian restaurants that places like Korea and China have various forms of omelets that they serve, but egg foo young is unique.

I believe that it originated about the time of the Gold Rush or perhaps the Transcontinental Railroad in California. It had to do with Chinese cooks coming here and finding that they didn't have a lot of the ingredients that they were accustomed to cooking with back home. When they became restaurateurs, which was sometime in the 19th century, they started grooming these dishes for an American population.

MC: When they first came over, they were here for the Gold Rush. They were miners?

RS: That's right. When the Gold Rush started occurring in 1848, a lot of people came from what is now called Guangdong in China to try to get in on the stampede. Unfortunately, they got here a year or two too late, and found themselves having to work really hard.

The first people who found gold just found it in nuggets on the ground. But Chinese people came to San Francisco, established a base camp there, and then went to the gold lands east of Sacramento. Soon there were cooks among them. Later, when they couldn't find any gold, they opened the first Chinese restaurants that were not in San Francisco.

MC: To find a good egg foo young, where do we go? Where do we look? Do we look in authentic Chinese restaurants? Do we look in Chinese-American restaurants? Does it still even exist?

Sietsema's recipe: Egg Foo Yong

RS: Unfortunately, it's one of the reviled collection of dishes that you might call Chinese-American food that were developed by Chinese cooks for American tastes. Americans fell like a ton of bricks for it starting in the '30s and increasing in the '40s. But especially in the post-war era when men started coming back from World War II and the women who had been doing their jobs said, "We're not going to stop working. We're going to keep working." With many two-parent families working, carryout food became a big deal. Chinese carryout food was the fastest, the cheapest and the most interesting.

Barbra Streisand was a waiter in a Chinese restaurant in the 1950s in Flatbush, Brooklyn.

It caught on, this canon of dishes you could call it, that had chow mein, chop suey -- chop suey was the first. Chop suey has a direct antecedent in Guangdong, but the rest of them are invented out of whole cloth. They're part of the dishes that were once known as hashes in English, where you throw little tidbits of things together.

MC: You fry it up, put a delicious sauce on it and everybody loves it.

RS: Absolutely. And we still do today. Unfortunately, Chinese-American food has fallen out of favor, so it's hard to find standards like egg foo young.


: In the 1980s, there was an influx of Senegalese people into New York City; you wrote about this in your book. They brought a particular dish with them.

New York in a Dozen Dishes

RS: There's no standard transliteration from Wolof, which is the dominant tribal language of Senegal. The Wolof tribesmen, their national dish is called thiebou djenn -- cheb for short. It's an absolutely glorious dish of a mountain of red rice covered with stuffed fish and vegetables. It's fantastic.

MC: You write that it possibly has roots related to paella.

RS: Yes, indeed. As a matter of fact, the Portuguese and the Spanish were all over the coastline of West Africa in the 16th century.

But the best thing about Senegal, food-wise, was this thiebou djenn, which you couldn't really get very often in restaurants. You had to find some woman making it out of her kitchen. When you'd see a long line of Senegalese heartsick men who were either traveling salesmen or just bachelors, they would be waiting to get this cheb.

MC: Where can we eat cheb?

RS: I would make a beeline for West 116th Street, which is still the center of a Francophone West African community that's still thriving despite the gentrification in Harlem. You can easily find Ivory Coast dishes and Senegalese dishes.

MC: You said in the book that a lot of these places look very forbidding. The shades are drawn and you wouldn't really know there was a restaurant. Once you come in, everybody is very welcoming and they're so happy to have you there.

RS: They go absolutely crazy that someone who is not part of their tribe is exploring their food. They're so glad. If you can speak a few words of French, that will help as well. Many of them speak English; a lot more than did 20 years ago when they first arrived.

Venezuelan food: The next thing coming?

: You've given us 12 dishes in your book. Give me a baker's dozen; give me 13. What's the next thing coming?

RS: The next thing coming may be Venezuelan food or it may be Hawaiian food. Let's say Venezuelan food.

The Venezuelans are creeping into the country as a result of the strife in their own country. They're bringing with them crazy hot dogs with guacamole and pineapple and potato chips on them. They're bringing arepa sandwiches, where they cut this corn cake called an arepa, and they fill it up with all sorts of mayonnaise-bearing salads. They're bringing amazing empanadas. They're bringing dressed hamburgers like the Brazilians eat.

We're going to start seeing a lot more South American food in town and all across the country.