Until last week, I lived in New York City for eleven years. That’s long enough, according to many people, to have called myself a New Yorker. As any New Yorker knows, the city is one of stark dichotomies. It’s exhilarating but maddening; convenient but difficult; overwhelmingly wealthy but shockingly poor. Ever since having my daughter a few years ago, New York has felt harder and harsher and not just because of the school situation.
So when my husband and I realized we no longer needed to be in the city every day for our jobs, we started to look around for an easier place to dwell. We eventually settled on a small, walking-friendly town in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, that’s near family and friends but close enough to NYC to commute as needed. (And get an occasional Russ & Daughters fix.)
I will miss so many aspects of living in New York, including the incredible public transportation, the wild diversity, and the buzz I felt every time I stepped into the street. (Not to mention, the food!) But the thing I will pine for most, my friends, is the 24-hour bodega.
For those who don’t know, one meaning for the Spanish word la bodega is grocery store and it’s the term of choice in NYC for the corner store. (Here is more about the history.) It is not like a Wawa—a beloved Philadelphia area convenience store—and don’t even think of comparing them to 7-Elevens. Would a 7-Eleven deliver coffee and an egg sandwich to you when you’re hungover on Saturday morning? Or chicken soup when you’re sick? Not a chance.
Like the city itself, bodegas are masters at the use of vertical space. You can often find batteries, duct tape, and packets of Advil hanging so high that they’re only reachable with one of those handy arm-extending grippers. Groceries and cleaning products line the shelves and refrigerated cases, and the inventory often goes way beyond the basics. The yogurt selection, for example, rivals that at any suburban grocery store. Because bodegas are independently owned, they’re perfect launching pads for new products—in fact, coconut water started its massive rise in popularity in New York City bodegas.
At most bodegas, you’ll find dry goods, fresh produce and flowers (that last no longer than three days, mind you), as well as deli sandwiches and other prepared foods. Most fun, however, is that each shop reflects its microcosm and owner’s background. For example, when I lived in Washington Heights, a largely Dominican and Puerto Rican neighborhood, I could find limes sold 10 for $1 as well as dried chiles, Caribbean vegetables, and various kinds of pig parts.
I most recently moved from a pocket of Bed Stuy that is home to Caribbean immigrants; African and Middle Eastern immigrants; African-American families who have been there for generations; and yuppies and hipsters from everywhere. The local bodega stocked yucca and plantains, halvah candy, and a wide variety of Bob’s Red Mill grains, nut milks and alt sugars. Because the owners are Muslim, they do not sell pork products or beer.
While I never did all of my grocery shopping at the bodega, I loved that, in a pinch, I could make a full meal from ingredients sold there. And I’m not talking a Roy Choi-style gas station taco but a dish that’s actually healthy.
In honor of bodegas, I created this bibimbap (a Korean-style rice bowl) using only ingredients I could buy across the street. I wrote the recipe to be flexible (so flexible, in fact, that I used quinoa instead of rice as a base). You can use whatever grain you fancy, whatever vegetables look fresh, and whatever proteins are available to you.
And before you think I’m a weirdo for my bodega obsession, know I’m not the only one: Elizabeth Moss confessed she couldn’t wait to return to New York after months in Australia because why? The bodegas.
- For the grains
- 1 cup brown rice, quinoa, or farro, cooked
- For the pickles
- 1 tablespoon rice vinegar
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 cup sliced or shredded crisp vegetables, such as cucumbers, carrots or radishes
- Kosher salt
- For the cooked vegetables
- 2 tablespoons grapeseed or other neutral oil
- 8 ounces mushrooms of choice, thinly sliced
- 1 very large garlic clove, minced (about 1 tablespoon)
- Kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon soy sauce
- ½ teaspoon sugar
- One 5-ounce box greens, such as baby spinach or arugula
- For the protein (Choose one or more of these; I highly recommend an egg in addition to anything else!)
- 4 eggs, cooked using this method
- One tin of fish, such as sardines or mackerel
- 8 ounces tofu, sautéed in oil
- For the garnishes (Choose one or more)
- Thinly sliced scallions, sesame seeds, kimchi, Asian chile sauce (such as gochujang or chili garlic sauce)
- In a small pot, cover your grain of choice with 2 cups water (or more, if necessary) and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer until the grain is tender. (The time will vary depending on the grain.) Drain any excess water.
- Meanwhile, in a bowl, mix the vinegar with the sugar until dissolved. Add the crisp vegetables, season with salt and toss.
- In a skillet, preferably nonstick, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil over moderately high heat. Add the mushrooms, season lightly with salt and cook, stirring, until softened and browned, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the soy sauce and sugar and cook until most of the liquid has evaporated.
- Scrape the mushrooms into a bowl and wipe out the skillet. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil and the garlic and cook until softened, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the greens and flick a few drops of water on them. Cook, stirring, until wilted, about 2 minutes. Transfer the greens to a bowl with the mushrooms.
- Divide the grains among the bowls and arrange the pickled vegetables, cooked vegetables, and proteins of choice on top. Sprinkle or dollop with any garnishes and serve, telling your friends to break up the egg mix everything together. Enjoy!