Every couple of years, I take a trip home. Though I have lived in Baltimore most of my life, I was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., one of the world’s truly great food cities.
For generations, immigrants from scores of nations settled in New York City’s southernmost borough, clinging to their native languages, traditions, and foods and forming into cloistered neighborhoods even as they adapted to American culture. Today’s Brooklyn retains those ethnic flavors, but some neighborhoods also have been gentrified by young professionals, many working in Manhattan and looking to escape the Big Apple’s towering housing costs. That combination of polyglot newcomers and brownstone renovators has sparked a culinary renaissance of amazing breadth.
It’s a long daytrip to make for the food, but I can visit dozens of ethnic markets, specialty shops, and food producers, returning to Baltimore with a van full of gustatory delights. My first stop is Sunset Park, Brooklyn’s “Chinatown.” Don’t expect an Americanized Asian experience; this place is for real. From the crowded New York Mart — a sprawling pan-Asian supermarket — to the storefront herbalists and produce vendors lining 8th Avenue, English is the foreign tongue.
From Sunset Park, head uptown to Atlantic Avenue and Sahadi’s, where they “cater to the fine tastes and discriminating needs of those seeking unique products from the Far and Middle East.” But, Sahadi’s is more than just hummus, baba ghannouj, and tabbouleh. Bulk containers of olives, nuts, and dried fruits mix their fragrance with cumin and coffee beans, 150 varieties of cheeses, and an astounding selection of prepared foods.
“I am partial to Brooklyn,” explained owner Charlie Sahadi. “It’s a mix of cultural and ethnic flavors where you can get a wide variety. Everybody is making something here.”
Sahadi’s anchors a Middle Eastern commercial district along Atlantic Avenue, complete with restaurants, food and music stores, and the Damascus Bread & Pastry Shop, an absolute haven for lovers of exotic baked goods such as herb-crusted zaatar bread.
Turn south on Court Street into Cobble Hill for an array of neighborhood cafes, restaurants, and markets. Stop at Shelsky’s for a bagel with Nova lox, or smoked white fish, or pickled herring, or fatty smoked sturgeon, all traditional Ashkenazi Jewish tastes.
“This is quintessential Brooklyn cuisine,” said owner Peter Shelsky. “Smoked fish has become a luxury item.”
Continue down Court Street to Caputo’s Fine Foods, where you’ll find a range of Italian delicacies including pastas, smoked mozzarella, and delicious mini-canolis, rich with silky ricotta.
From Court Street, head east into the trendy Park Slope neighborhood and Fleisher’s Pasture-Raised Meats. Fleisher’s carries only meats raised on small, local, sustainable farms. The animals have never received antibiotics or hormones and have had strictly vegetarian diets. The finest cuts of beef, pork, and lamb vie for attention with poultry, specialty bacon, smoked meats, and ground beef. The dry-aged, bone-in New York strip steak is not to be missed.
If you’ve worked up a thirst, cross the street to Bierkraft for beer, cheese, chocolate, and charcuterie. Bierkraft keeps 16 brews on tap available for pours and growlers, plus literally hundreds of bottled varieties. True beer lovers may want to simply move in.
From Park Slope, go east until you hit the Grand Army Plaza and Flatbush Avenue. Turn south, and, after passing Prospect Park and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, continue on the archetypal Brooklyn shopping street. For much of its length, Flatbush Avenue is literally wall-to-wall with vintage apartment buildings, each offering a street-level storefront: Caribbean next to sushi, next to pizza, next to bagels, next to falafel, next to barbecue, in a colorful, redolent welter.
Brighton Beach was once an oceanfront retreat for Jewish retirees, but was transformed in the 1970s and 80s into “Little Odessa” when thousands of Russian and Eastern European immigrants settled, almost overnight, in the apartment blocks and sagging rowhouses.
Like the New York Mart or Sahadi’s, the Brighton Bazaar on Brighton Beach Avenue, is gastronomically overwhelming, a vast selection of Eastern European imports and fresh Slavic delicacies. Piles of sausages, smoked fish, pickled vegetables, and Russian packaged goods share display space with pastries, chocolates, borscht, pirogis, stuffed cabbage, and other prepared foods. Most of the signs and labels are in Cyrillic only, and the waitstaff assumes that everyone speaks Russian.
Brooklyn is a dining experience of unparalleled dimension. (I haven’t even mentioned the benchmark, thin-crust pizza at any corner pizzeria, or the Mill Basin Kosher Deli’s kishka, or the double-dipped roast beef at Brennen & Carr, or the original Nathan’s frankfurters.) Visiting the city reminded me of how acutely we can remember tastes, even after so many years. This month’s recipe — the classic Brooklyn egg cream — is a perfect example. By the way, egg creams contain neither eggs nor cream.
Classic Egg Cream
In a tall glass, pour 1/2 inch of Fox’s U-Bet Chocolate Flavor Syrup (or equivalent brand, though there really is no equal). Add 3/4 inches of whole milk (never skim milk), followed by seltzer to fill 3/4 of the glass.
Mix briskly until the head rises. The drink will separate with white foam on top of the darker chocolate. Drink immediately and enjoy.
Reed Hellman is a professional writer living in Alberton, Md. Visit his website at reedhellmanwordsmith.com or email questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.