Searching for the "grey market" foods of New York City
While NYC is filled with hidden treasures, some of these treasures are a bit vague in their legality. Our writer scours the streets and shops in search of these allegedly illicit food items, tastes them, and investigates why they've landed in the grey area.
Malcolm T Nicholson
For most people — myself included, until recently — the FDA, USDA, and DEA are simply acronyms that represent a faceless triad of opaque bureaucratic enforcers of what you can or can’t legally put in your mouth. They are what we blame when that heirloom citrus or rare Georgian cured sausage is confiscated at customs, but also who we should thank for not dying of food poisoning and having products clearly labeled.
Manhattan's Chinatown offers a wide variety of foods and goods specific to Eastern Asia although some of the stores are more camera shy than others.
Yet, the laws are less than intuitive. (Is raw milk legal? What about cheese made from raw milk? Is it legal if a friend gives it to you?) There are a large number of foods, drinks, and other products which, while not strictly illegal, are definitely sold in such a way as to avoid attention. These grey market goods mimic the codes and secrecy of the genuine black market — unlabeled packages, out of site storage, quietly advertised — but without the same frantic paranoia that surrounds actual contraband. These are the fruits of my strange and meandering journey to find the trickiest products out there without getting arrested.
ORIGIN: Nothern regions of France
SOURCE OF MILK: Cow
AGING TIME: 2 months – 2 years
Mimolette made headlines two years ago when the FDA confiscated and impounded shipments of the cheese from Isigny-sur-Mer, France. The cheese mites were the culprits. Since the 18th century, cheese mites have found the Mimolette rind hospitable and have been nurtured by the cheese-stewards for the unique way they alter the aging process. While the presence of mites wasn’t new, the FDA singled this cheese out as a potential public health hazard. Mimolette had been banned and made illegal for sale in the US and indignant consumers staged protests.
Now, however, Mimolette has returned quietly to some shelves in New York. You may not find it at the Key Foods down the block, but Murray’s Cheese in Greenwich Village proudly stocks it. It holds a privileged place above a crowded display case on a shelf along the wall in the back. On a busy Friday afternoon, one cheesemonger admitted it was difficult to find Mimolette. “We’ve had this for a little while,” she said, before asking how much I wanted. Was it hard for them to buy? What were the rules for importing it? “I guess the FDA inspects them every now and then, and if they are too buggy then they impound them.” I bought a third of a pound of the bright orange cheese and carried it away wondering if my less-buggy wedge was inferior to the more active French versions.
The flavor of Mimolette reminded me of Parmesan, but with a sweeter almost nutty aftertaste. It had the same level of saltiness as popcorn or potato chips, and I found myself compulsively eating it.
I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it definitely didn’t have the sort of abrasive flavor I thought previously contraband cheese would have. Epoisse smells, and tastes, more illegal.
Megan McSeveney, a press officer for the FDA, explained in an email that, “There has never been a 'ban' on Mimolette cheese. During 2013, we examined this cheese variety for mites and avoidable filth.” After finding that the cheeses didn't present any real danger to the public, “the FDA ceased sampling and testing Mimolette for mites.” That being said, cheese importers remain suspicious and often make sure to wash U.S. bound boules. It is also fair to say that Casu Marzu won’t be showing up at Murray’s anytime soon: eating live maggots that feed on decomposed pecorino from unpasteurized milk still violates laws of state and conscience.
ORIGIN: While its origin is unclear, by the 1930s, the candy had appeared in stores in Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands
INGREDIENTS: Licorice, ammonium chloride
OTHER NAMES: Salty licorice, salmiak, zoute drop
OTHER USES: To flavor vodka, chocolate, distilled rye brandy, ice cream, cola drinks, and recently, meat.
One of the stranger rumors which came to light in my research was that of a certain kind of Scandinavian licorice that was allegedly illegal in the US. Specifically it was salty licorice, or Salmiakki, which has a high concentration of ammonium chloride, an ingredient that adds the characteristic tang of the confection. Until recently, any Salmiakki with a high content of ammonium chloride was labeled for “adults only” in Denmark.
After looking around, it did indeed seem difficult to find. Sockerbit, a Scandinavian candy store, sells a version with “just a pinch of saltiness,” but that didn’t sound menacing enough to be the genuine article. Eventually, I found a generous PhD student who had bought some at a Scandinavian Christmas festival. “It doesn’t really exist here outside of that time of year,” he told me. The package was red and black with bold white lettering, which seemed foreboding enough.
The taste of Salmiakki, to my virgin tongue, resembled what I imagined it tastes like to eat your shoe. It was a tough little kernel of unfathomable density and stickiness, utterly devoid of sweetness. It tasted like licorice, which I enjoy, but I’m so accustomed to tasting it with sugar I strained to make sense of what I was eating.
While it tasted like it should come with a warning label, it came as a surprise that the FDA had no prohibitions on salt licorice. “There is no import alert for this candy,” said Megan McSeveney, “and there has been no violative level established for ammonium chloride.”
ORIGIN: Tropical Pacific, Southeast Asia, and parts of east Africa
OTHER NAMES: Areca nut, paan
EFFECTS CLASSIFICATION: Stimulant
FOOD CLASSIFICATION: Drupe
ADDITIONAL INFO: The betel leaves are folded in different ways according to the country and most have a little calcium hydroxide daubed inside.
I’ve never tried chewing tobacco before, largely out of a strict aversion to spitting. I avoid it at all costs. I’ve swallowed bugs to avoid spitting in public. With that in mind, I was cautiously excited to find paan (also known as betel nut or areca nut) which is a spiced nut paste wrapped in a leaf which, when chewed, is supposed to feel like drinking six cups of coffee. It also turns your spit bright red and tastes like an Indian spice cabinet version of an after dinner mint. Despite being known to cause mouth cancer, it is popular in much of Southeast Asia, especially among the lower class who often use it to compensate for a lack of food or sleep.
Unlike chewing tobacco, another known carcinogen, it can’t be found at gas stations or supermarkets and doesn’t have an official age of consumption. It doesn’t have a barcode or list of ingredients. When I finally tracked some down at an unassuming bodega in Kips Bay, it came wrapped nearly in triangles of tin foil. The store itself was about the size of a large bathroom, and the man behind the counter was watching a small TV. As I had no real idea what Paan would look like, I fruitlessly searched among the bags of potato chip and the rows of tobacco products behind the counter. “What are you looking for?” he asked me as I narrowed my eyes towards the herbal supplements. I started to ask for betel nut but halfway decided to stick with paan. “How many?” he asked. I asked for three, which cost me six dollars.
The FDA’s comment on betel nuts, considering some of the other items in consideration, was surprisingly cavalier: “At present there is no import alert for betel nuts. The FDA is aware of the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer’s determination that betel nuts and betel nut quid chewing, with or without tobacco, are carcinogenic to humans and is currently evaluating the legal status of betel nuts.”
Fujianese rice wine
Fujianese rice wine (also called Ang Chow), is a reddish drink made from fermenting sweet rice using Koji (rice yeast). It’s a popular drink in the Fujian province in China, as well as with the Fuzhou speaking community across Southeast Asia. Having first heard of it four years ago, I’d been peeking into Chinese grocers every now and then looking for some. While it’s entirely legal to brew alcohol for home consumption, it’s illegal on several levels to then sell it, unlabeled, at a grocery store, which is the only way it can seemingly be found. Manufacturers, distributors, and vendors of alcohol all must pay substantial licensing fees and comply with strict safety precautions.
I spent three hours in Chinatown looking for the rice wine on a muggy August afternoon. I started along Canal Street, meandered down through the specialty stores and restaurants towards Doyards, then back up to across the alleyways of live crab and dessicated mushrooms to Grand, and then, finally, to the relative peace of East Broadway. Every few blocks I’d peek into coolers at corner stores looking for something reddish. Occasionally someone would ask what I was looking for, and when I said “rice wine” they said they didn’t have any. A few would guide me to their Shaoxing selection.
The store where I ultimately found what looked like rice wine was indistinguishable from the dozens of others, except perhaps for having a meat counter where one might expect a deli counter. It was relegated to a far corner of the refrigerator and looked a bit like a soup container filled with what looked like B-movie horror movie gore. The woman at the cash register looked up from reading a paper, smiled, and eyed me curiously. “You like to cook?” she asked. I told her I did and then asked if this was used for cooking. “It’s wine,” she said. Could you drink it? She nodded. Could you cook with it? She nodded, but less quickly. “Hard to explain,” she said. Walking into the heat, I nervously carried the container which seemed under pressure and threatened to burst at any moment.
I brought the container to Rebecca Cheong, a friend nearby who, in addition to being Singaporean and conversant in Mandarin, is also a seasoned and enterprising drinker. It didn’t resemble any rice wine she had ever witnessed. “Are you sure this is wine?” she asked. After consulting several food blogs, I decided it must be the unfiltered stage of the wine. All I needed to do was use some cheesecloth to extract the liquid. Rebecca offered to consult her grandmother and probe the woman back at the shop a bit more for information.
After experimenting with varying layers of coffee filters, I was able to squeeze a glass worth of the liquid from the container. While the container emitted a sour yeast smell, the liquid itself was remarkably sweet and full. It smelled closer to plum wine or Franzia than saké. The taste, however, was closer to vinegar. It was definitely alcoholic, but it was hard to decide how much through the varying levels of acid. After several more sips, I concluded that I had probably chosen a spoiled container.
ORIGIN: Fujian province, Singapore
PROOF: Between 10 and 18%
Season: Widely regarded as a winter beverage, and vendors flourish in Fujianese neighborhoods during the colder months.
PRICE: Usually between $3 and $5 a quart
When Rebecca returned to the shop to ask about the wine, she was able to discern that what I had imbibed earlier was not strictly the wine. The woman explained that the container was already what was leftover from straining out the liquid, and it was used to make several dishes. When asked who made the wine, the woman said, without embellishment, “some old people make it.” Where these people made the wine was also a mystery. The woman seemed genuinely interested in the topic and continuously asked Rebecca if she wanted to try some wine. When Rebecca’s grandmother, who speaks Foochow and lives in Sibu, Malaysia, responded, she asked “is this for a friend? does she like to cook?” After explaining that I was white and a man, her grandmother seemed more puzzled than anything. “Unusual for white to find this stuff.”
ORIGIN: Eastern North America and eastern Asia
FEATURES: Four different types of leaves (3 lobed, 1 simple)
POISON: Oil from plant contains safrole which can be poisonous if too much is ingested
USES: Used in making soap and in flavoring drinks such as sassafras tea, sarsaparilla and root beer.
Sassafras root bark is said to have been used medicinally by several Native American tribes long before Europeans colonized the continent. It was later absorbed into colonials own folk-remedies and cooking. It’s what originally flavored root beer, though it is nowhere to be found on the ingredients list for MUD, A&W, or Barq's. Safrole oil, which is found in sassafras bark, was found to cause cancer in mice in the 70’s and, therefore, was banned. According to Wikipedia, a source of general guidance but specific confusion for this article, this ban was repealed, though vendors didn’t seem to pick up this message.
After a long search in various new age herb stores, witchy general stores, and specialty herb shops, I found it in a small tea store in Chinatown. Hidden among hundreds of other jars, the owner of the store asked if I was making root beer. I said I was, and then told her that sassafras was extraordinarily difficult to find. “I know!” she agreed, “when I run out it takes six months sometimes for me to find more.” When I asked if it was a popular item, she shook her head. “Mostly young people like you who want to make root beer,” she commented, before offering advice on brewing techniques and where to find information.
Without the resources, time, or patience to make actual root beer, I settled on making myself a cup of Sassafras tea. New-age and herbal websites with soothing earth tone and pastel backgrounds praised sassafras tea as being an age-old blood and liver purifier though to my knowledge no doctor has ever used those phrases. Nevertheless, I still wanted to try the tea because I like root beer and wanted to isolate that mysterious quality that differentiated it from sugar, vanilla, and carbonation. The taste was remarkable: as if you were able to peel away the layers of alcohol, grape, and fermentation from an aged wine and take just the oak the barrel was aged in. Except this was for root beer. It had a calming effect after the betel nut, and I finished my cup without adding sugar.
Despite its perfectly innocuous taste, sassafras tea turns out to have been the most illicit of all the items I was able to procure. “The FDA prohibits the use of safrole as a direct food additive. This includes the use of sassafras bark where the intent is solely or primarily to impart safrole or related compounds into another food, e.g., sassafras tea,” Megan McSeveney told me, before adding definitively, “The Drug Enforcement Administration defines safrole as a list I chemical under federal law.”
While some known and pretty severe carcinogens (like betel nut) are entirely legal for small children to consume, other less certain carcinogens (like sassafras) are banned wholesale. In my research, I was also able to dispell the long-held rumor that opium poppy was legal to grow and purchase if only intended for “ornamental purposes.” “Opium poppy, [poppy pods] and poppy straw are classified as Schedule II controlled substances under the Controlled Substance Act” was the final word on the matter from the DEA.
People generally over-interpret federal laws governing food consumption and distribution. A lot of what is rumored to be illegal or banned probably isn’t, but that still won’t make it easier to find. A lot of people are, rightly, keen to keep their profile as low as possible. Given the Mimolette experience, most importers are unsure of when to expect a crackdown on their product as a potential health hazard. Until then, there's so much more to try.
Photographer: Camilo Fuentealba
Additional reporting by Rebecca Cheong, Ben Macaulay, Peter Yeh,