New York Sour: Tart, Tangy Flavors Rule the Foodscape

Souring agents: clockwise from top, tamarind, lime, pomegranate molasses, lemon, sumac, vinegar; center, pomegranate.
Souring agents: clockwise from top, tamarind, lime, pomegranate molasses, lemon, sumac, vinegar; center, pomegranate. Photo: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine

For a species that naturally gravitates to sugar and fat, we seem to be going through a decidedly sour phase: Our grocery shelves and restaurant tables are laden with artisanal pickles and lacto-fermented kimchee, and the snack du jour is tangy Greek yogurt. Our rustic loaves of wheat and rye are leavened with sourdough starters, and our most exacting beer geeks, like Jimmy Carbone of Jimmy’s No. 43, have moved on from IPAs to sing the praises of sour beers aged in oak barrels and inoculated with wild yeast. “Just a few years ago, sours were a novelty among connoisseurs,” says Carbone. “Their popularity definitely ties in with changing palates.” As for cocktails, the shrub—a fruit-infused drinking vinegar mixed with booze—hasn’t been as fashionable with the locals since the days when Ben Franklin flew kites. (In our neighborhood, in fact, it’s possible to go on a reasonably thorough shrub crawl without traveling far at all. Start out at Andrew Carmellini’s the Library at the Public with a pickle plate washed down with a choice of sixteen shrubs, then totter a few blocks south to the bar at Saxon + Parole, whose invigorating handiwork you can compare to the bracing thirst-quenchers at Peels, which stands kitty-corner across the street.)

Does this trend herald the maturation of baby palates into something more grown-up, or is it simply a reaction to years of pork belly and cupcakes? It might be a little of both. Chefs have long known, of course, that nothing livens up a dish like a hit of acidity, the brightening foil to fatty, rich flavors. Other cuisines take that wisdom to seeming extremes. Iranians are so hooked on tart flavors, says Louisa Shafia, author of The New Persian Kitchen, “they drink vinegar, squeeze lemon juice on grilled meat, and eat raw green plums right off the tree.” As New Yorkers develop a taste for not only Persian cooking but Isaan Thai and Filipino, for example, our tolerance for tart and sour has turned into a craving.

Besides exposure to mouthwatering new flavors, there’s the science of sour. Live cultures like Lactobacillus, which create tanginess in foods, have become big news on the health-food front, and thanks to plant pushers like Michael Pollan and René Redzepi’s band of merry foragers, we’ve come to realize that wild, astringent greens—once known as weeds—are some of the healthiest. Our outgoing mayor might even be partly responsible, having demonized salty and sweet but let sour off scot-free. But let’s not jinx it. There’s ample time left for Mayor Bloomberg to stage an anti-kombucha campaign.

Pucker Up
A few of our favorite sour drinks and dishes.

1. Peels’ New York Shrub
Rye, lemon, simple syrup, and reduced balsamic vinegar on the rocks—as intricately balanced as a yogi master in the forearm-stand scorpion pose. $13; 325 Bowery, at E. 2nd St.; 646-602-7015.

2. Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ale’s Calabaza Blanca
This barrel-aged, bottle-conditioned white ale is pleasantly tart and refreshingly dry; in short, it’s a perfect gateway sour. $12.99 for 25 oz. at Good Beer, 422 E. 9th St., nr. Ave. A; 212-677-4836.

3. Yun Nan Flavour Garden’s Hot and Sour Soup With Dumplings
Curing colds and clearing sinuses since 2006. $5.35, 5121 Eighth Ave., nr. 52nd St., Sunset Park; 718-633-3090.

4. Calliope’s Hot and Sour Braised Lamb Neck With Mascarpone Agnolotti
Co-chef Ginevra Iverson says this mouth-waterer was inspired by the Yun Nan Flavour Garden dish above. $28; 84 E. 4th St., at Second Ave.; 212-260-8484.

5. Mission Chinese Food’s Beijing Vinegar Peanuts
Those boiled southern specimens have nothing on these nuts, flavored with smoked garlic, anise, fennel, and rock sugar and soaking in a pool of black vinegar. $5; 154 Orchard St., nr. Rivington St.; 212-529-8800.

6. Taste of Persia NYC’s Fesenjan
Sweet-tart pomegranate molasses makes this Persian chicken-and-walnut stew sing. $12; 12 W. 18th St., nr. Fifth Ave.; 917-592-3467.

7. Han Dynasty’s Pickled Chili Style Fish
Intensely hot and sour, this dish rates a six on the menu’s (ten-point) heat index, but that’s selling itself short. $17.95; 90 Third Ave., nr. 12th St.; 212-390-8685.

*This article originally appeared in the October 14, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.

New York Sour: Tart, Tangy Flavors Rule the Foodscape