Food

My Favorite Little Piece of Italy in NYC

Third SpaceI can be unreasonably sentimental about certain things. The Lower East Side and El Barrio, for instance (i.e. the real New York). The NYC subway (even when its latest track record doesn’t warrant it). Hole-in-the walls.

Gaia is another prized possession in this category, a small Italian cafe in the Lower East Side named after the force behind it, the matriarch, the WOMAN. In Greek mythology, Gaia is the mother goddess who presides over the earth. Similarly, Gaia Bagnasco presides over this near-hidden cafe nestled on the corner of Norfolk and East Houston Street.

As equal parts owner, head chef, and Italian maestress, she demonstrates meticulous control over every detail of the cafe. Prices are affordable, in part because she only has two kitchen staff members, but mostly because it’s written into the cafe’s mores: food should not be expensive. A sumptuous panini ranges from $5-$10; a small illy coffee is just $1.00. All this, despite being in a neighborhood where pencil towers are rising faster than new graffiti to cover it.

I discovered Gaia 5 years ago when I lived in Alphabet City. The place is easy to miss in its basement-level location. But one winter day on my morning commute, I happened to turn my head and see the OPEN sign flip. I descended down the stairs, eager to gain entrance into what seemed like a secret underground club. Immediately, the warm, welcoming waft of illy Italian coffee greeted my senses. Alas, there was a credit card minimum and I had no cash! As I began to leave, Gaia insisted I take my coffee & croissant completely gratis; I refused, but she persisted. Without knowing who I was or if I would ever patronize her business again, she trusted that I would be back.

And indeed – the croissant was the best I ever had. Over the weeks, months, and years, Gaia has become my go-to for simple, no-frills cooking. What it lacks in propriety and small talk, it surpasses in value and authenticity. Fresh is the theme: from the perfectly flaky Nutella croissants, to the bread baked each morning (oh that bread!), to the panini that she executes using the finest Italian-imported cured meat and cheeses.

Gaia’s perspective is fresh in abundance too. One day, I worked from home and ordered lunch to-go. She remarked,

“You Americans. No wonder you are all fat and unhappy. Always on the go, never stopping to just eat and enjoy.”

The menu states that “service is not a priority”, and that is sometimes the case  –  but thisundersells its authenticity. You may be promptly rushed out at 7 pm on weekday evenings and chided for ingredient substitutions. But so long as you come with a basic respect for the space & food that Mother Earth provides, you’ll receive more unsolicited acts of kindness than you probably deserve. Kind of like eating in your mother’s kitchen.

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Gaia’s best hits include her fresh salads, spinach & ricotta tegamini, gnocchi, ravioli, black pepper linguini, and paninis; my absolute favorite is the fresh-baked focaccia bread that comes with every dish, often on crumpled foil, along with plastic serving spoons. Wine is served BYOB-style in cheap plastic red water tumblers. A bit reminiscent of a hostel cafe, but I’d be hard-pressed to find a better backdrop in NYC.

I love Gaia for its fresh ingredients and heart-nourishing food. It is the remnant of a NYC that is quickly becoming a relic of the past: affordable, raw, you-get-what-you-ask-for candor.  Dine here as you would like any respectful guest invited to a home-cooked meal; drop the ego, be hungry for community. You won’t get special treatment. But you will absolutely get what you pay for: a meal with real food.

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Day 26: Health and Well-Being

I’m facing the hard truth that my metabolism is slowing down and I can no longer eat ice cream or pizza whenever I want without facing some consequence.

I am using the remaining days of November to elucidate goals, and write about how I plan to make positive change in myself.  I’m starting with health because it is the most important aspect of life. Without it, we would be dead. Plain and simple.

But it’s more than a matter of life of death. There are rungs on the health ladder; rock bottom being a lump of  lethargic uselessness, the top being “Ironman/woman status” which is borderline intimidating. I aspire to be slightly above the middle rung, fit enough to run a marathon (in good time), weak enough to have a man still feel obligated to carry heavy things for me.

I used to be there. Nearly two years ago, I ran a half-marathon in  1 hr 48 mins, ranking 13th in my age group among women. It wasn’t the New York Marathon but I don’t necessarily have an athletic predisposition either, so I was happy. Soon after this personal victory, I entered my last semester of college with a full and ready heart to live it up. Senioritis was like glutton-itis. I drank and ate really well. Too well. Some friends and I even started a tradition of eating incredibly terrible (and by terrible, I mean DELICIOUS) foods heavy with the words fried, sweet, and caloric. We called ourselves FAFLs (I’ll let you guess what it stands for).  A summer in Italy and a year in New York later, I’m about 8 pounds heavier than when I ran my half-marathon. That’s almost 20 pounds heavier from where I was at the start of college. At that rate, I’ve gained about 5 pounds a year for the past 4 years. Something’s gotta give…soon.

I’ve received several reality checks over the past few months, which I’m gradually awakening to. The first was several months ago when I came home, stepped on the scale for the first time in a while, and gasp! (There’s a reason I don’t own a scale in New York.) After that, I was able to lose 5 pounds in the 3 weeks I was home with the help of my Mom who I now see as a commando dietician. In theory, the weight loss was simple: move more than you take in. My Mom cooked only healthy food and made sure I wasn’t snacking in between meals, even when I was “hungry”. Back in New York, I gained those lost pounds back, simply because the allure of eating out and my love for baked goods lured the pounds back in. It made me realize that you truly are what you eat and do. On this most recent visit home, I got another reality check when I was so sure I could fit into Size Small that in the midst of doing so, I broke a button. Needless to say, I got a Size Medium.

This all may sound incredibly trivial and dramatized. Medium is by no means big and I’m certainly not fat, but to a girl who’s been Size 0 and been able to fit into Abercrombie Kids until recently, the added weight is a big deal. Trust me, I don’t necessarily want to return to skinny minnie days. My body is more womanly and beautiful than it was then. So this isn’t about weight. It’s about being healthy and knowing that I own my body, which I truthfully can’t say I do now. I barely run 2 miles without having to stop and catch my breath. My face is pudgier than I would like. (Allow a girl a little superficiality.) I often feel like an oompa loompa after meals.

‘Once to the lips, forever to the hips’ is becoming ever more true. I drafted the following manifesto to combat this.

Lynne’s Manifesto on Healthier Living

Preamble: It does not involve 5-pound lobster.

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Exercise, moderation, and balance.

Exercise, defined as “moving the body as much as possible”. Do something active at least 5 times a week. If gym is not possible, walk while talking on the phone, do 10 pushups, jump up and down sporadically, throw a spontaneous solo dance party. Don’t sit as much. Move.

Moderation, defined as “appreciating food but knowing when to stop”. When the appreciation stops, stop. When stomach feels like it’s about to burst, stop. If eating out of a bag of processed food, stop after reaching in twice.

Balance, defined as “eating 3 meals with fresh, whole foods”. 80/20 rule: Eat healthy and watch diet 80%of the time, 20% of the time indulge, and don’t feel bad about it.

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Ultimately, it’s hard to resist a cute French bakery. But a girl’s gotta have some hips. So, allow her that. Just a little.


Food is Good.

“Jia bung!”  This magic Taiwanese phrase had me running with dogged devotion to the kitchen table. Translating literally to ‘eat food’, ‘Jia Bung’ was a signal for family and guests to gather for a meal or social occasion. At five years old, I would gleefully respond to this open invitation with the only other Taiwanese phrase I knew, “Ho le!” (translation: “Okay!”)

Over time, my responses to food have traveled the continuum of ‘Ho Les’. As a child, I screeched enthusiasm for all types of food, everything from duck tongue to Kraft Mac-and-Cheese. At school, I envied my classmates for their classic Arctic Zone and metal American Girl lunch boxes; my flimsy handy sack was devoid of name brand. Better yet, it had my Chinese name scribbled on the front. When it came time to reveal the contents of our lunches, I would marvel at the other children’s DIY pizza kits (Lunchables), ingeniously packaged Go-Gurt, and the ultimate 5th-grade treat: Dunkaroos. I desperately yearned for a kangaroo-shaped cookie but 5th-grade social protocol required that I provide something in exchange. I bartered with my fried rice and shrimp chips, even offering my dried fish snack. Meeting no success, I was effectively shut out of the elite Dunkaroos club. Food was no longer a welcoming entity.

Enter puberty. I was hungry (all the time) and craved nothing more than my mother’s tofu and deliciously greasy noodles. Yet at the age when I thought looking good mattered more than eating good, my  ‘Ho Le’ gave way to teenage angst. “Ho le, ho le- enough!” I’d exclaim, as my Mom would scoop mounds of rice, fresh veggies, barbecue pork, dumplings, and egg tart onto my plate. Western standards of beauty trampled on my once-passionate desire for food. ‘Jia Bung’- the statement that once had me running to the table- no longer held sway. With an increasingly lackluster ‘Ho le’, my ties to family and culture, rooted in food, began to fade as well.

In college, I studied abroad in the country where eating is practically a national sport, Singapore. My friends would invite me on nightlong food escapades. At first, I respectfully declined, thinking that the sight of so many tantalizing food options would lead to gluttonous behavior. But after seeing pictures of friends looking abnormally happy with Malaysian curry and Chili Crab, curiosity got the best of me. I decided to heed the call of ‘Jia Bung’.  I went with a friend to a nearby food market, boasting more than 50 flavors of moon cake.  Against my better body’s warning, I said “Ho Le” to every single sample. In the midst of digesting moon cake number I-don’t-want-to-know, I began to worry about the weight I would gain, then realized…I didn’t care. I swallowed my weight inhibitions because I realized that life just wasn’t as tasty if I was constantly worried about my intake at the free buffet of life. Though I returned to the United States 8 pounds heavier, I would never trade those extra pounds for the vital life skills I acquired through food that year: exploration, openness to flavor, and acceptance of self.

Since then, food has become less about eating and more an outlet for learning the constructs behind it. After returning from Singapore, I reviewed restaurants in my college town, Gainesville, Florida, to taste the food and interview the minds behind it. I wanted to understand business owners and their motivation for starting restaurants. This obsession with food and its alluring power persisted. Since graduating from college, I have traveled for pleasure to several other countries – Italy, Greece, Austria, Poland, China – and sampled even more food. The dishes have been vastly different, but the lesson across continents has remained the same: food is good.

What I’ve learned about food is truthfully not much different from what I instinctively knew as a child. Simply, food brings people together. You don’t need a translator to detect when someone is pleased (or disgusted) with a dish. But more importantly, food can be a gateway to conversation, which means the direct value of food only goes as far as the first few bites.  ‘Jia Bung’ will get people to a common table, but it is just a starting point. The real value is in how you accept the food thereafter, whether with nonchalance, gratitude, or a hearty ‘Ho Le’.

 

 

Now in New York, I am surrounded by a myriad of food options. Last month I tried a cookie ice cream sandwich, aptly called “The American Dream”, at Brooklyn’s food festival Smorgasburg. It was an indulgent creation: vanilla ice cream and cocoa nibs, squashed between 2 cookies made of brownie, house-made sea salt and honey-sweetened peanut butter. Cocoa and peanut butter crumbs burst from the crevices of my mouth as the sweet and salty combination melted perfectly on my tongue. Sitting beside me was a friend from Belgium. As we earnestly bit into the American Dream, we talked about the city, our lives, and what lay ahead. We each held one half of the American Dream in our hands, relishing the taste yet knowing that our conversation and company were far more valuable than anything our stomachs could hold.

To me, this is the way food should be.  Food sustains our bodily needs, but it also fulfills a rich emotional connection with others. By dining together, we facilitate conversation, thus bridging the gap between cultures, languages, and people. While America is known as the land of opportunity for its many paths to upward mobility, let us also recognize the far deeper gateways to connection.  For all the advancements our society has made, there is still no better opportunity than the chance to connect with a fellow human being over a good meal.  I’ll say “Ho le!” to that any day.


No FOMO

I turned 23 yesterday. In the days leading up, I was asked what I wanted, to which I altruistically responded, “Oh, nothing at all!” Hm. A friend hinted that I write a wish list. Sp I jotted just a few things:

  • personal trainer
  • juicer
  • the new Mac OS
  • iTunes gift card
  • leather wallet
  • skinny jeans (coral color)
  • replacement pair of Gucci sunglasses
  • bonus: a handsome smart young man

What a saint.

It’s not difficult to come up with things we could have that could make our lives better. There is always room for improvement. However, the second I start thinking about all the things I need, I start viewing life through a scarcity lens. An entity lacking this, needing improvement in that, and at its core, not good enough. Before I could finish my wish list, I had descended into a spiral of anxiety about everything I did not have and had not become.

I’m 23. There are many things I have yet to see or experience. Thinking about all the possibilities makes my mind whirl!  The pressure to “make a difference” seems engrained in our generation. There is even an acronym for this affliction, outlined in this article by Priya Parker, “Millennials paralyzed by choice“. FOMO, or fear of missing out, stems from our hungry ambitions and desire for optimality. It happens when the media shows us cool images of what others are doing and where we could be, which almost always seems better than our own state.  This is more than just an evil marketing ploy; FOMO trickles into our social media updates – “look, I”m doing this – how fun!!!” – tapping into our envious desire to one-up each other in life interestingness. Arranging our adult lives in optimal fashion is becoming a generational obsession. How do you get the best job in the best city, while keeping all options open?

There’s nothing wrong with wanting the best. It’s one of the reasons I’ve always wanted to live in New York. But every once in a while – usually while I am stressing about running late or how my dress is squeezing tight in the gut, – I remember an old man in Vietnam. He sat on the side of the road, dirtier than dirt, beaming dimple to dimple, crooked missing teeth and all. While complaining about the heat and voraciously fanning myself, I barely paid him any attention. He smiled at me, which struck me as supremely odd, for what had he to smile about? It was hot and disgusting. He had nothing and I wasn’t giving him anything. Yet in a single moment, ever so fleeting, I realized how wrong I was. Indeed, the man had nothing but he, in fact, had everything simply because he was happy with what he had. My life, ever abundant in tourist pleasures, was intrinsically starved. I continued fanning myself.

That was three years ago. Yesterday, I spent my birthday with my parents. We went grape-picking, ate dinner at a local Italian restaurant, and attended a classical piano concert. I got calls, messages, and cards from a handful of friends. The day was a hodgepodge of simple moments with the people who mean the most to me. There were times when I wondered what I’d be doing if I were in New York. A night out in the city would have surely been a birthday production…and what a shame if it weren’t, with all the options available! The operation would have been documented, yielding picture-perfect moments against a beautiful New York City backdrop (perhaps with a touch of Instagram editing) – – surely worthy of double-digit likes.

Yet back in Tennessee, I was wading through thorny bushes, spider webs, and buzzing bees (only to find rotten grapes). For a few minutes, I yearned for some city grandeur.  Then I heard my Mom’s Chinese shrieks. She had found a perfectly ripe batch of grapes. Her cute little visor bobbed in the trees ahead. Lest the vineyard owners call the cops on her for disturbing the peace, I had no other choice but to see what she was referring to. So I stormed through more spider webs, tripped, and got caught in laughter, wondering why I would ever in my right mind trade this comical experience for uncomfortable heels, birthday shots, and exorbitant tax fares.

I was in bed before midnight, which was glorious. As I went to sleep, I came to the conclusion that when faced with choices, I want everything. It’s selfish and causes unnecessary stress, not to mention incredibly self-deprecating.  So, what do I really want? To be content with my one life, the way it is, the way I am- simple, true, and loving.

So, that is what I am giving myself: freedom. Freedom from FOMO. Freedom from the should-haves, could-haves, would-haves. Freedom to know I am not missing out and that, in fact, I have everything I already need.

Thank you to all my friends, family, and well-wishers who are shining reminders of life’s abundance.


Lesson #3: Beyond the transaction, connecting is key.

How did we ever find good restaurants and services before the Internet?  I remember the days when observations like “Mrs. Smith told me that her friend’s son’s girlfriend’s mother’s ex-husband recently opened an Italian restaurant that’s pretty decent” were considered highly useful.  Based on these sole recommendations, off we’d go to the pizzeria- such adventurers- usually only to be…disappointed.  Ah, back to the same old Chinese takeout then.

These days, not a whole lot has actually changed.  We still discover places through word of mouth but the web of connections is definitely not single-sourced, and certainly not expressed so confusingly.  Instead, the tangled web of connections is known simply as “Yelp”, “Foursquare”, or “Foodspotting”.

I’ve always been a fan of trying new places. When I reviewed food in my little college town of Gainesville, I was like Mowgli exploring the Amazon.  So you can imagine what fun I’m having exploring a metropolis like New York.

Yelp and Foursquare have been my travel partners in crime. They’re like those trendy friends who know the ins and outs of the city. They are the go-to experts on everything ranging from the best peppermint cocoa in Brooklyn (Gimme Coffee!- thanks Yelp) to the cheapest salon in the area for an urgent eyebrow waxing need (thanks Foursquare).

However, amid all the plethora of choices, I’ve begun to yearn for a regular go-to place. You know, like that favorite neighborhood diner you frequent far too much?  In Gainesville, that was my dear Maude’s (coffeeshop with the best cheescake).  Today, I think I found the first locale to start my New York list.  The Masala Wala is located on the Lower East Side just a block away from the famous Katz’s Deli. It greeted me with rich brown decor, reminiscent of the aromatic spices of India.  The place is small, but that adds to the appeal.  I felt comfortable whipping out my laptop and working like I was at Starbucks, even while people around me formally dined.  Certainly helped that there was free wi-fi.

My first night here, the waiter gave me a free sample of mango lassi.  I ordered the Masala Chai (their staple drink), which paired well with the vegetarian kofta (a pan-fried dish with carrots and beets, pictured above).  I returned for the second time today not so much because the food was delicious (though it certainly was), but because of the impeccable service. My waiter last time was so attentive and I couldn’t forget the owner’s welcoming smile, a friendly Indian man who encouraged me to stay as long as I wanted for good food or even just the free wi-fi.

While sipping on Masala Chai today, I met the vision behind the restaurant, Roni Mazumdar, who emerged from the kitchen to tell me the story behind its opening just a month ago. A joint venture between him and his now-retired father, The MasalaWala is the product of years of experimenting and loving authentic Indian food.  With a flair for India’s street food, it brings you fast-casual with the usual naan but also some lesser known dishes found under Chat-Pat (Street-Side Favorites).  The menu is a mere two pages, not too overwhelming, which thankfully means it might actually be possible to try every dish here at least once.  Deliciousness cannot go to waste.

As if I didn’t already like the place enough on taste and decor alone, after hearing Roni’s passionate recount of why he opened the business, I felt more compelled to write and share the goodness of it to all.  Roni is a man of many trades- engineer by day, an actor on the side, owner of a production company, and now entrepreneur- but that’s not much of a surprise because you can see all of this incorporated into the restaurant with its sustainability (100% biodegradable tableware) and technological know-how (e-receipts and iPad point of sale!) Super impressed. This is how local business should be done.

I should mention that I stumbled upon this place through a TastingTable newsletter titled “Triply Good Chai in New York” (which by the way was forwarded to me from a friend in Florida).  After reading the article, I perused Yelp for reviews (perfect 5-star rating!), Foursquare for tips, and the restaurant’s website for general information and presentation.  When a place gets high marks from nearly all parties, you’ve found a gem that cannot be missed.

With the unveiling of some exciting new additions in the near future (Happy Hour with South Asia-influenced drinks, plus Indian-Chinese fusion dishes?!?!) , I am certain that The MasalaWala will be at the forefront of some up-and-coming fast yet sophisticated Indian street food movement.

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In a city like New York where transactions are done in 1-2-3, connection is still key.  Most customers will come back to a place for its great taste and value, but the most loyal ones are baited for far greater reasons: strong purpose translated into action, a vested interest in customers, and serving them well.  Beyond the transaction, connection is key.

My experience today would not have been possible without modern social digital tools. Thanks to TastingTable for notifying, Foursquare and Yelp for verifying its legitimacy, and the thousands of people for writing, rating, and recommending, allowing places of real value to surface.

By the way, The MasalaWala hasn’t had to spend a dime on advertising.  When the product is good and you have an engaging online presence, there’s no need. May the word continue to spread.