Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
Food critic Robert Sietsema's new book New York in a Dozen Dishes chronicles the city's diverse classics, from pho to masala dosa. (And, ok, pizza.)
The new essay collection from longtime Village Voice food critic Robert Sietsema, New York in a Dozen Dishes, documents the way that the constant influx of immigrants continues to shape the NYC food scene and the foods that are considered quintessential.
Yes, pizza and black-and-white cookies made the cut, but there's nary a bagel in sight. Instead, there are chapters devoted to masala dosa and pho, the hearty Vietnamese rice noodle dish starring cuts of meat in a savory broth.
Vietnamese immigration to the U.S. began en masse in the mid-1970s, following the Vietnam War. Initially, the population consisted largely of evacuated refugees; by 2012, Vietnamese immigrants to the U.S. numbered nearly 1.3 million.
In the book's introduction, Sietsema recounts own his story of arriving to New York in the 70s as a broke Midwestern transplant. International cuisine was the key to affordable thrills. He writes:
I didn’t have much money, and I soon discovered that tasty and interesting food was one of the cheapest delights the city had to offer. Zeroing in on the fare of recent immigrants, I purchased a bagful of subway tokens and was soon traveling the five boroughs in search of unreconstructed ethnic eats.
Decades later, he's still chowing down on these meals. For each dish, Sietsema serves up plenty of lore, including one version of pho's history (supposedly introduced as a breakfast food by street vendors in Hanoi). Plus, he offers pro tips on how to eat it—be sure to crush those basil leaves to release the maximum "essence."
Part love letter to the city that's nourished him, part cultural history of a baker's dozen foods—yes, technically, there are 13—Sietsema's book is charming, mouthwatering, and more than a little quirky. (It's peppered with endearingly odd similes, such as "sliced [pastrami] takes to rye bread like a dolphin to clear blue water.") Each essay ends with a try-this-at-home recipe and a roundup of Sietsema's favorite joints that serve that dish. Consider it a culinary to-do list.