Some like it hotter
Immigrant restaurateurs spice up Rochester’s dining scene with tastes of home
Let’s face it: Rochester cuisine is not exactly known for being the spiciest. Sure, we’ve got superhot wings and hot sauce on garbage plates, but truly sweat-inducing, tear-forming, lip-searing cuisine is not really an American thing. Luckily for us, some people who have made their homes in Rochester bring the heat from other cultures to a few spots in town. Here they share a few recipes guaranteed to make you break a sweat no matter how much snow is on the ground.
Gorkha’s Grocery Store
Husband and wife duo Karna Rai, 31, and Aitee Sherpa, 28, took over their State Street storefront from its previous Nepali owners in 2015. The pair was born in Bhutan, where Rai says the cold climate demanded meals with lots of heat—like Bhutan’s national dish, ema datshi, a searing stew of chili peppers and cow or yak cheese. Though they dream of opening a full restaurant, the tiny kitchen at the back of the store is too small to cook such elaborate dishes, so Sherpa sticks to slinging snacks popular on the streets of Kathmandu like chowmein and juicy Tibetan dumplings called momos. A whole shelf of the shop is filled with spicy pickled delights like mango, bamboo, and lime. Achaar, a spicy chutney of sorts, is a must-have accompaniment for any Nepali meal and can range from these pickled concoctions to fresh sauces. Sherpa mixes up a large batch of spicy tomato and sesame achaar to top the plates of momos she sells every day. The nuttiness of the sesame just barely mellows the burn of the cayenne peppers she throws in by the handful. Try mixing up a batch to spice up a mild meal at home.
(Spicy tomato chutney)
• 3–4 large tomatoes
• Large handful of red or green cayenne peppers (red peppers give the sauce a nicer color)
• Small nub of ginger
• Bunch of cilantro
• 2–3 handfuls of sesame seeds
• Tablespoon of salt
• Water to thin sauce as desired
Chop the tomatoes, peppers (don’t discard the seeds), ginger, and cilantro and set aside. Toast the sesame seeds in a dry hot pan. Blend all the ingredients in a food processer until completely mixed. Add water as needed for blending and until a desired consistency is achieved.
Gorkha’s Grocery Store
539 State St.
Han Noodle Bar
Partners Tony Ko, Sean Sun, and J. T. Wu opened Han Noodle Bar together in 2011. Forty-eight-year old Ko, who grew up in Shanghai and came to Rochester to study computer science at the Rochester Institute of Technology, runs the restaurant solo now but says Wu was the mastermind behind the traditional-style Chinese dishes the restaurant excels at. Known for some of the spiciest food in Rochester, the noodle bar prepares a dish for one regular customer Ko says is so hot they need to cover it as it passes through the dining room so other patrons don’t break out coughing. Ko shies away from calling the food “authentic” Chinese cuisine because of how hard it is to source the ingredients needed to truly do it right. But the Chinese founders figured out how to get as close as possible from Rochester. “It has the spirit of the food I grew up with,” Ko says. One thing that’s helped is the rise in popularity of Szechuan cuisine since the mid-1990s and the spread of its ingredients. Szechuan cooking has “one hundred ways of doing spicy,” Ko says, “not just burning-your-tongue kind of spicy.” Szechuan peppercorns, with their numbing heat, are one of the region’s stars, but Ko says getting fresh peppercorns used to be a challenge, and dried ones didn’t do the dishes justice. Now the red and green peppercorns (the black ones are stale, Ko warns) they use at the restaurant are easily available—Cantonese House in Henrietta sells them—and add the perfect tingle to dishes likes the noodle bar’s Szechuan fish. Ko says the dish traditionally has a half-pound of hot peppers in its soup base and a quarter-pound of peppercorns, but it’s too intense even for most Chinese people. He makes a slightly modified but still sizzling version that adventurous readers can try at home.
• One whole fish (any kind works—Han Noodle Bar uses cod, but Ko says even tilapia works)
• Hot pot soup base (look for Chongqing-type)
• Vegetable oil
• White pepper
• Soy sauce
• Any vegetable (bean sprouts and celery work well)
• Jar of Pixian-style spicy bean sauce
• Red pepper
• Red oil
Clean and gut the fish, keeping the bones to make stock. Sear the bones in a pan with a little oil, add chopped ginger and water and boil, and then set aside. Cut the fish into big chunks. Mix egg whites, a tiny pinch of sugar, a pinch of salt, and a dash of white pepper. Beat this mixture well, but don’t let it get foamy. Use just enough of it to coat the fish, then add a thin layer of potato or corn starch and let the chunks sit for a couple hours. Boil the fish chunks—the coating will instantly foam on the outside. Boil the vegetables and set aside in a large bowl. Heat half a cup of vegetable oil and add the Pixian spicy bean sauce. Don’t stir the sauce—it needs to slowly heat in the oil. Add chopped scallion, garlic, and ginger and let it cook. Add a dash of soy sauce, some sugar, and a little MSG. (Ko says not to worry about the bad rap MSG gets and that it’s in all Chinese cooking, no matter what the menu says.) Heat the hot pot base with a cup of water, a little salt and sugar (more sugar than salt), and a little more MSG. Boil the fish in this soup base for three to four minutes. Pour the fish and the soup in the bowl with the vegetables. Add the raw minced garlic, chopped red pepper, and a little cilantro. Heat a ladleful of red oil and pour it on top of the whole dish (though it’s made from red peppers, Ko says the oil isn’t spicy but makes the dish sizzle). Crush fresh peppercorns to sprinkle on top and serve.
Han Noodle Bar
687 Monroe Ave.
Zemeta Ethiopian Restaurant
Four years ago, on her thirtieth birthday, Natanael Beshah, thirty-nine, opened a restaurant for his wife, Zemeta Nulugeta. The couple met in Rochester, but both came from Ethiopia through the state department’s diversity visa program, a lottery-type system that gives visas to people from countries underrepresented in the States. At their restaurant, Beshah and Nulugeta cook up the tastes of Addis Ababa—like flavorful meat stews and sour injera bread. The restaurant serves a vegan buffet on Fridays and Saturdays featuring yemiser wet, the spicy lentil stew cooked on days when meat is eschewed for Lent. Key to any Ethioian stew is berbere. The Ethiopian spice blend typically includes chili peppers, garlic, ginger, basil, and plants less likely to be in your garden like rue, fenugreek, ajwain, radhuni, nigella, and korarima, a plant from the ginger family that grows wild in Ethiopia. Beshah says the key to cooking with such intense spice is to go slowly: “If you cook it quickly, the spiciness you can’t even eat. It will give you heartburn.” You can get the berbere spice mix needed to try Zemeta’s spicy lentil stew, and other goodies like Ethiopian coffee, at the shop inside the restaurant.
Yemiser Wet (spicy lentil stew)
• Cooking oil
• 1 chopped onion
• 2 cloves garlic
• 2 slices of ginger
• 3 large chopped tomatoes
• A coffee-mug’s worth of red lentils
• 4 tablespoons berbere
Wash the lentils three to four times to make sure they are fully cleaned and set aside. Heat the oil and cook the onion on low heat. While it’s cooking, grind the garlic and ginger together, then add to the onion. After a few minutes, add the berbere and cook for a few minutes. Add the chopped tomatoes and mix everything together well. Sauté for twenty to twenty-five minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent burning. Add the lentils and an equivalent amount of water. Cook for an hour on low heat, adding water as necessary for a stew-like consistency.
Zemeta Ethiopian Restaurant
1015 Clinton Ave.