Jeannie Ongkeo, a 65-year-old chef who moved from Laos to Queens in 1976, has preserved the recipes of her youth--despite the fact that New York's Laotian community is practically invisible. Although she's retired from cooking professionally, Ongkeo still brings Lao cuisine to life when she partakes in tak bat, a simple ritual of feeding Buddhist monks who are forbidden from feeding themselves.
Every few weeks, Ongkeo and her family visit her local temple with a home-cooked Lao specialty in hand. There, she joins the Thai majority in a communal ceremony that's still practiced today in many towns across Laos and Thailand. Feeding each other and keeping their shared tradition alive in this corner of Queens, they reconnect to the one reason that anybody should become a cook in the first place.
Since 2002, Bronx-based Buddhist monk Thich Thien Chi has been a spiritual guide to Vietnamese Buddhists from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. He's also turned his temple into one of the city's most interesting dining halls, working for hours every weekend to serve free vegetarian meals along with his Sunday service.
Thien Chi's use of vegetarian cooking to reduce the number of meat-based meals his followers eat is a novel way to put Buddhist principles into practice. In conversation, however, the monk downplays the significance of the food itself. As this year's Lunar New Year's celebration at the temple showed, a hot meal is but one of many sources of sustenance for a community facing the future.
Visit Chieu Kien Buddhist Center at 2011 Clinton Ave in the Bronx.
Masjid Al-Hikmah, an Indonesian mosque in Queens, has been hosting one of the city's most vibrant food events since 2005. Taking place several times throughout the warm-weather seasons, the mosque's Food Bazaar brings Queens' Indonesian home cooks out of the woodwork to introduce the rest of New York to their cuisine.
On a nondescript block of the South Bronx, a building superintendent known to the neighborhood as "Piraña" runs a Puerto Rican restaurant from a re-purposed trailer. Lechonera la Piraña specializes in lechon, pastellilos, and alcapurias, but the man with the machete specializes in heart.
CC-BY-NC-SA Soundtrack credit: "Let My People Bugalú" arranged and performed by Spanglish Fly. Recording copyrighted and courtesy of Spanglish Fly.
When Vijayakumari Devadas founded Staten Island's first Sri Lankan restaurant in 2000, she had no idea that her neighborhood of Tompkinsville would become the biggest Sri Lankan community in the United States. Fifteen years later, her business is surrounded by compatriot eateries, and its homestyle menu still attracts diners from throughout the tri-state area.
The change has been gradual but profound. As Devadas serves a panoply of Sri Lankan specialties to a broad range of customers, she still finds it amazing that a cuisine that was once unheard of in this part of the world is now an everyday meal for the entire city to enjoy.
Visit New Asha at 322 Victory Blvd. on Staten Island.
© Soundtrack by Jason Kelley (cowboymusic.bandcamp.com). All rights reserved.
Good soup is a hallmark of Polish cuisine, and when it comes to good soups there are few competitors to zurek. Sometimes called "white borsch" (a related soup with slightly different ingredients), the blend of fermented rye stock, spices, kielbasa and egg makes for hearty start to a good Polish meal. And at Lomzynianka, perhaps the coziest Polish restaurant in New York, zurek can do perfectly fine on its own.
© Soundtrack credit: "Polish Soup Is Good Food" by Gray Whale and James Boo.
Note: Lomzynianka is currently closed, though it's uncertain whether it's undergoing renovations or is being replaced by a different restaurant. Investigate in person at 646 Manhattan Ave in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.