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Looking for Indian Spices, Christopher Columbus stumbled into America
We all know that Christopher Columbus was looking for India and its tangy spices when he took a wrong turn and stumbled into America instead. Now some enterprising Indians have brought India and its cache of cardamom, cloves and peppers right into America. These immigrants have brought not only spices but entire kitchens, cooking pots and chefs along, opening hundreds of restaurants, takeaway joints, mithai shops and Indian supermarkets. Americans are now eating spicier food, ‘samosa’ is an English word now and right in the middle of Manhattan there are ‘dosa’ carts!
Yes, the Big Apple is fast becoming the Big Mango! So how has this big change come about in American food habits? A big reason is the burgeoning Indian population which now touches 3.2 million people in the US. All of them have been weaned on curries and spices and so they have brought their Indian foods, masalas and condiments with them. Indians, no matter how far they live from India, still want their heat and spice, and their American-born children are definitely ‘kitchen-Indians’, addicted to mom’s chicken curry and alu parathas
New York – Curry Capital of America
Over the years hundreds of Indian grocery stores have opened up in the US which provide everything from daal to spices to frozen foods from the Indian sub-continent as well as Canada and the UK. Patel Brothers and Apna Bazaar are some of the Indian supermarket chains opened by enterprising Indian entrepreneurs.
There are so many Little Indias in the US, and Indian restaurants and take away joints have popped up in strip malls. In the Little India on 79th Street in Queens, New York, this area of Jackson Heights is fondly known as Jaikishin Heights, playing upon a popular Indian name. Here, it’s like being back in India, walking amongst native sons, tasting sugar cane juice or stopping to buy a delicious fresh paan. The only difference here is that Jaikishin Heights has no dividing lines or borders and people from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh all live together peacefully here, doing business in a bustling neighborhood, eating each other’s sweets and patronizing each other’s stores.
Chicken Tikka Masala, Palak Paneer – and More!
Americans, due to their great wanderlust and curiosity, have also discovered the joys of Chicken Tikka Masala and Palak Paneer. So many of them have traveled to India while others have Indian friends (or doctors!) who have introduced them to the joys of Indian cuisine. A lot of east-west marriages have also taken place with the result that more and more Americans are getting a taste for Indian food. Robert, a very high-end restaurant of the Museum of Art and Design in Manhattan actually has samosas on its menu, along with all-American fare!
So Indian restaurants are thriving, right from the expensive Michelin-rated ones to small holes in the wall establishments where the drivers of the yellow cabs eat their lunch. So where should one eat in New York? Here is a guide to some of the best restaurants, the most offbeat ones, the cheapest and the most buzzed about ones.
Indian Chefs Reign as Curry Kings
In the old days, Indian cooks got no respect and were hardly seen out of the kitchen – now of course to be a chef is to be a rock star! A dozen years back the trend was started by Bombay boy Floyd Cardoz who was chef at the much-talked about Tabla, which served American fare with Indian flavors, and he is now chef at North End Grill. He and other noted names like Suvir Saran, Hemant Mathur, Vikas Khanna, Jehangir Mehta, and Maneet Chauhan have headed restaurants, authored cookbooks and appeared on hot food shows like Top Chef Masters and Iron Chef.
New York, being big on entertainment and drama, is buzzing with a gaggle of sparkling high-end restaurants – Tamarind, Junoon, Tulsi, Vermilion, Pranna, and Benares – and many more on the drawing board. Jehangir Mehta heads two popular spots Graffiti and Mehtaphor. There are also the long time favorites like Amma, Bombay Palace, Bukhara, Chola, Dawat and Mint which have always received great reviews.
One of the hottest new restaurants to liven up the Indian food scene is Junoon by Rajesh Bharadwaj, which has at its helm celebrity chef Vikas Khanna who is one of the judges on the hit TV cooking show MasterChef India. Junoon was received Michelin Stars for two year running. Using the tawa, sigri, tandoor and pathar, Junoon offers signature dishes like Piri Piri Shrimp, Murg Labadar and Patiala Shahi Goat.
Michelin Stars for Indian Restaurants
The restaurateur Avtar Walia and his nephew Gary Walia have the acclaimed Tamarind Tribeca and the original Tamarind on 22nd street, with the cozy attached Tamarind Tearoom. Eating at these elegant spaces is full of drama and a festive air. While Tamarind has some of the original dishes of the late great chef Raji Jallepalli, Tamarind Tribeca has its own flavors with dishes like Chimbori Jalwa, Sufiani Machli and Pastooni Murgh.
Devi has been regarded as a top Indian restaurant in New York for several years – and earlier noted celebrity chefs Suvir Saran and Hemant Mathur were involved with it. Indeed, it was the first ever Indian restaurant to have had a Michelin Star for 2 consecutive years. Some of the signature dishes are the Manchurian Cauliflower, The Tandoor grilled Lamb Chops with Pear Chutney, Tandoori Halibut with Sweet and Sour Butternut Squash and Lemon Rasam, and the Crispy Okra Salad.
Indian Food – Chef’s Tasting Menus
Chef Hemant Mathur along with tandoor chef Dandu Ram are the names behind Tulsi, a Michelin rated restaurant. The 7 course Chef’s Tasting Menu includes such dishes as Shrimp Murtabak, Lamb Piralan and Trio of Chickens – Pistachio, Homestyle and Achari – and there is one for vegetarians too. Surbhi Sahni is the inventive pastry chef who gives you treats like Pistachio Cake with Passion Fruit Butter Cream and Kulfi Ice cream.
One of the newest restaurants in Manhattan is right in glittering Times Square: Benares, a cool contemporary space which brings in regional specialties from different parts of India. Indeed the restaurant itself is a mix of old and new India with sleek interiors in a vivid mustard hue, with old Benarsi saris framed on the walls, and multicolored lamps. Heading the kitchen is Peter Beck who was selected as a top chef by the James Beard Foundation some years back.
Benares has a diverse menu with everything from seafood to vegetarian to Cornish hens. Benares might be the holiest city but it is Uttar Pradesh, a state which is famous for its Mughal cuisine from the city of Lucknow, and also has many excellent meat and seafood dishes. It is these that Beck has emphasized, along with other regional specialties from coastal Kerala and Tamil Nadu. A popular signature dish is Sevai Tomato Kurma.
Indian Cuisine – Variety is the Spice
Vermilion, created by restaurateur Rohini Dey, is an unusual restaurant which offers Indo-Latin fusion dishes. Says Dey, “Vermilion came out of my desire to do something bold – I had traveled extensively in Brazil, Peru, Mexico and Porto Rico, and felt Latin food had a close cultural and historical affinity to Indian food which had not been explored.” Unexpected pairings are the thrill of the meal, and the new dosa-taco bar offers dosas with fillings such as chorizo olive, portabella and anchovy avocado arugula, and Michoacán beef.
Pranna, which is over 20,000 sq feet is probably the largest Indian restaurant in Manhattan, and is a mix between a restaurant, lounge and party-space. The food embraces all of Asia so you need your chopsticks and your cutlery too! Chef Toshi Nukui offers everything from Plantain Kofta Curry to Samosas on a stick, and it redefines what a global Indian eats.
One entrepreneur who’s opened not one, not two but eight restaurants is the enterprising Shiva Nataraja. While his critically acclaimed Chola is one of New York’s well-known dining spots, his other restaurants answer to your eclectic food cravings: Thelawala is the place to go for kati roll urges while biryanis and kababs can be found at Chote Nawab. Bhojan gets you the pure veggie thali while Mangolorean and Goan specialties like Konju Pappas, Shrimp Caldeen, Kori Gassi, Shrimp Ajadina, Fish Ambotik, Fish Moilee, and Smoky Gobi can be found at his newest restaurant Malai Marke.
Big Apple Turns into the Big Mango!
From high end to low end – Indian food is gaining fans. For many years New York University students have enjoyed Thiru’s dosa cart parked on Washington Square. Lexington Avenue, also known as Curry Hill, has been the place for delightful dhaba eats like chaat and samosas and authentic dosas from a gaggle of South Indian eateries from Sarvanas Bhavan to Madras Mahal. Dosas are even making their way into mainstream where a dosateria with chef Hari Nayak provides hot dosas, uttampams and sambar right in the middle of an American supermarket like Whole Foods!
Readers familiar with Delhi and the delights of Mughlai food will be happy to know that now there’s even a Moti Mahal in Manhattan which is connected with the famous old Delhi eatery, with tandoori chicken and kababs.
So what’s next for the Big Apple? Planeloads of Indians from the home country coming in to taste the Indian feasts in New York? Well, that too may come to pass!
(C) Lavina Melwani
(This article first appeared in Friday Magazine, Gulf News in 2013.)