When Lillian Lo moved to Bangor from Hong Kong 25 years ago, she learned how to cook in a hurry. In Hong Kong, she worked in real estate, lived in the city, and simply went to the market or a restaurant when she wanted a meal. In Bangor, even though she and her husband, Victor, owned the Oriental Jade, things weren’t so simple.
In those days, American Chinese food bore little resemblance to authentic Chinese cuisine.
“Inside a pu-pu platter, there were a lot of things I had never seen in Hong Kong as I grew up,” Lo said, sipping tea and nibbling fresh vegetable dumplings in Szechuan peanut sauce at her restaurant. “We eat a lot of whole fish, a lot of steamed fish. We eat a lot of vegetables, and our vegetables are very different.”
Tofu and bok choy, bean sprouts and starfruit, noodles and dumpling wrappers weren’t easy to come by in the ’70s. As a favor, Lillian and Victor would buy a little extra when they placed their weekly restaurant order so their friends would have the ingredients they needed to cook at home.
“They don’t need that anymore,” Lo said with a smile. “You can find it at Shaw’s now. You can find it at Hannaford. … These days, globally, everything’s so close together.”
Ah, how things have changed in the Bangor region. Today, you can buy tofu – more than one variety, at more than one grocery store. In addition to egg rolls and chow mein, there’s now demand for spring rolls and salt and pepper calamari at the Oriental Jade.
Each Saturday, vendors at the European Farmers Market at Sunnyside Greenhouse offer Argentinian empanadas and Brazilian chicken croquettes, Greek spanakopita and creamy brie from France. You can pick up a pack of gum – or a Pakistani biriyani – at Stillwater Convenience near the mall.
In recent years, immigrants from around the world have spiced up Maine’s food scene with samosas and spring rolls, goat meat and broiled eel, tzatziki and fish sauce, paprika and curry.
Lo, along with Delia Michaud, a native of Argentina; Brazilian-born Maria Rave; Mohammad Dar, a Pakistani who moved to Bangor in 1997; and Aniko Fulep, a native of Hungary who lives in Hampden, will share their recipes, traditions and cultures at the American Folk Festival on the Bangor Waterfront. This year’s foodways presentations will celebrate the changing face of ethnic cuisine in the state.
And there’s reason to celebrate. Just ask Michaud, who arrived in her husband’s home state of Maine in 1972. The couple met in Houston, where Dennis Michaud studied languages at the University of Texas and the Argentina-born Delia worked for an oil company. A teaching job for Dennis brought them to the Down East town of Pembroke – a long way from Texas and an even longer way from Buenos Aires.
“I think for me it was a culture shock,” Delia said in the living room of her Bangor home. “I was still adjusting my taste to the American food in Houston.”
“You were introduced to the blueberry cuisine and culture in Down East Maine,” Dennis added.
It’s not that she didn’t like it; rather, she craved a taste of home. She didn’t find it until the couple moved to northern Aroostook County, with its heavy Franco-American population and proximity to Canada, where French food was readily available.
“I could taste my mother’s cuisine through his family,” Delia said. “I felt very comfortable with that food because it was very familiar to me.”
Argentina is the melting pot of South America, and its cuisine is heavily influenced by the German, Italian, Spanish, French and Russian immigrants who call the country home.
“Everybody has contributed to our cuisine, so it’s very, very European,” Delia said.
Argentina has long been known for its ranching tradition, and its beef industry still thrives. At the festival, Michaud will prepare matambre (pronounced mah-TAHM-bray), a dish the gauchos, or cowboys, traditionally took with them on cattle drives. It consists of flank steak stuffed with hard-boiled eggs, spinach or chard, carrots, and onions, rolled up and simmered for four to five hours, then pressed to remove excess moisture so the meat won’t spoil.
“That way, you have protein and vegetables within the meal,” Delia Michaud said. “The gauchos would put it in a little pouch and stop once in a while and have a little bite of this delicious meal with bread.”
Because it takes so long to make, matambre is considered a special-occasion dish today. Michaud also plans to serve empanadas, a staple of Argentinian cuisine traditionally made with spiced ground beef, chopped eggs and green olives stuffed into a turnover. In addition, she plans to demonstrate the mate (pronounced MAH-tay) tea ceremony, which is central to everyday life in Argentina.
“It’s a ritual,” Dennis Michaud said.
Delia serves up international dishes at the European Farmers Market with her Brazilian friend Maria-Jose Rave, who lives in Ellsworth with her husband and son, both named Hernan. Young Hernan will translate for Rave, who speaks mainly in Portuguese. She plans to prepare a guiso, or stew, traditionally made with dried beef, but now made with pork, beef, linguica or chorizo, along with onions, scallions and parsley. The dish gave carreteros, or road builders, sustenance as they built highways through Brazil’s heavily forested terrain.
“It’s a nourishing meal, very sustaining,” Delia Michaud said.
Sustenance and celebration are equally important in Fulep’s hometown of Budapest, Hungary, where families and friends come together on weekends for a big meal. It typically includes a brothy soup with potatoes, carrots and parsnips, breaded and fried chicken with rice or potatoes, and a salad of sliced cucumber, Boston lettuce or coleslaw spiced with caraway seeds.
“Paprika is the most typical and well-known Hungarian spice, but we use a lot of caraway seed, too,” Fulep said in the Hampden home she shares with her husband, Miklos Simon, an oncologist at Eastern Maine Medical Center, and their two sons.
Paprika, along with sauteed onions and a bit of water (to keep the spice from turning bitter), serve as the base for many classic Hungarian dishes, including the dish she’ll demonstrate, gulyas, or goulash, which is a bit misunderstood in America.
“It’s a soupy kind of thing,” she said. “It used to be a dish that shepherds would make for themselves in a big black cast-iron cauldron over a fire. It was much thicker then.”
Noodles are a popular ingredient and accompaniment – Fulep’s mother recently sent her a new pasta maker, a perforated metal tray placed over a pot of boiling water over which the cook rubs noodle dough (think of a cheese grater). This is used to make galuska or nokedli. Goulash is served with firm, round noodles called csipetke (chee-pet-kah), which translates as “the little pinched ones,” because most people save time by pinching the dough and dropping it into the stew rather than rolling it into balls.
As she shows a visitor a Hungarian cookbook, she pauses at the savory sandwich spreads, points out pictures of stuffed cabbage topped with sour cream and a pork roast stuffed with a sausage. But what really makes her hungry for Hungary are the pastries – especially cocoa snails. In the 10 years since the couple moved to the United States, first to Buffalo, N.Y., and later New Haven, Conn., she has yet to find a bakery and pastry shop similar to those in Budapest, with their porcelain plates, small coffee cups and delicate pastries.
“That shows a lot about everything,” Fulep said. “Everything here is big and practical, but not beautiful.”
That said, she loves the people of Maine, and finds Hampden an ideal place to raise children.
“I always had the feeling of Americans being kind of fake – not genuine, they don’t show feelings,” Fulep said. “Here in Maine I find that to be different. People are so helpful.”
Since they moved to Bangor in 1997, Mohammad and Lubna Dar have had a similar experience. Though there are plenty of larger convenience stores in the area, their neighbors make a special point of stopping into Stillwater Convenience for a Coke – or a curry.
“We have loyal customers and they’re very helpful,” said Mohammad Dar, a native of Pakistan. “I’m real thankful to them.”
The Dars moved to Bangor from Yonkers, N.Y., so their sons would have better educational opportunities. They immediately set up shop on Stillwater Avenue, and in no time they were serving takeout dishes similar to the food they eat at home, with one exception: no goat meat.
“I decided to do something different so people would have something different,” Mohammad Dar said.
They’ve attracted a small but loyal following with their cardamon-scented spinach and chicken, spicy biriyanis and cumin-dusted samosas.
“It’s something you’ve never seen before,” he said, smiling, as he sits in the “dining room” of the market that serves as his home away from home. “We have all kinds of unique things.”
In Bangor, it’s clear that variety truly is the spice of life.
Correction: This article was also published on 08/24/2005 on page C1.