Originally published in The New York Times, January 13, 2007
A Passage to India
"The ethnic restaurant is one of the few places where the native and the immigrant interact substantively in our society."
STANDING at the beginning of the buffet line at Jackson Diner in Queens, Krishnendu Ray took a plate from the heated stack of dishes, plopped on spoonfuls of several offerings and headed to table No. 22. There, a waiter tucked the bill into a wire stand and set down a pink plastic jug of water.
As Indian pop music played in the background and images of an India-Pakistan cricket match flickered on a television screen, Mr. Ray dug in.
“Tandoori chicken always tends to be too dry,” he said, chewing a reddish strip of meat from a chicken leg. But the goat bones in the spicy stew known as makhani earned his approval. “Bones,” he declared, “give a completely different taste to the meat.”
Mr. Ray, who emigrated from the Bengal state of Orissa in 1989 and lives in Peter Cooper Village, is not a restaurant critic. He is a professor of food studies at New York University and the author of “The Migrant’s Table: Meals and Memories in Bengali-American Households,” and one of his professorial missions is to analyze the city’s Indian restaurants from a sociological perspective.
A gracious, voluble 45-year-old, Mr. Ray found himself drawn to food studies because of what the subject revealed about his own migration. He and other food scholars find New York fertile ground in which to examine ethnic restaurants, especially the ways they negotiate the many forces that bear on immigrant cultures, from the yearning for home to the pressures of finding a place in a new society.
“There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence,” Mr. Ray said, “but no systematic study of restaurants at all. We want to study the ethnic entrepreneurs. Who are they appealing to? How do they raise capital? How do they decide on their décor? And then we want to get into the kitchen.”
Within his specialty, which includes Indian, Pakistani and other South Asian cuisines, Mr. Ray also has plenty of questions. Although nearly 30,000 New Yorkers identify themselves as Bangladeshi, why does it seem impossible to find a restaurant exclusively offering Bangladeshi cuisine? How can bhel poori, a crispy snack that has become the popcorn of Bollywood film fans, be so expensive at some places and so cheap at others? How do moderately priced chains like Cafe Spice and Baluchi’s turn ethnicity into a commodity?
A growing number of New Yorkers, Indian and non-Indian, are mulling these questions. The city is home to at least 200 Indian restaurants, according to The Yellow Pages, and with the number of Indian New Yorkers expected to have doubled by 2010 from 206,000 in 2000, many more are doubtless on the way.
In addition, these are especially convivial days for Indians. The Tamil harvest festival, celebrated by Tamils worldwide, will be observed on Jan. 17; Republic Day, a major Indian holiday, is Jan. 26; and through August, India is celebrating its 60th year of independence.
At the request of The New York Times, Mr. Ray visited the Jackson Diner and several other Indian restaurants over the past few months to scrutinize their menus and motifs, their staffs and their clientele, and their relationship to India and to New York. For him, this journey reveals much about the immigrant world, and about society at large.
“The immigrant body is a displaced body — it reveals its habits much more than a body at home, because you can see the social friction,” Mr. Ray said. “The ethnic restaurant is one of the few places where the native and the immigrant interact substantively in our society.”
ANGON ON THE SIXTH
From a corner table of Angon on the Sixth, Mr. Ray scooped up gobs of daal, or lentil stew, with a piece of roti bread and pointed to the slender lamps hanging from the beams of the low ceiling. “These lamps are Ikea,” he said between mouthfuls, “but meant to resemble terra cotta horse figurines.” In India, he explained, horse sculptures are traditional offerings to the deities.
In Little India, a strip of about a dozen Indian restaurants on East Sixth Street between First and Second Avenues, Angon stands out for its lack of trinkets, flashing lights and live music. The low-key décor is meant to appeal to the non-Indian, somewhat upscale clientele that Begum Mina Azad, the owner and chef, has courted since the restaurant opened in 2004. So are the decorative robes that the waiters wear, traditional garb of Indian’s upper middle class, even though, Mr. Ray pointed out, such robes would be inappropriate for service in India.
When the fried fish and kichuri rice arrived, the plate was adorned with tomato slices. Tomatoes, which wouldn’t be found on a dish served in India, represent another bid for crossover appeal, a concession to Americans’ desire for color and vitamins. “Otherwise, it’s brown, yellow, brown, brown,” Mr. Ray said. “Peasant food doesn’t stand up.”
If he were to open a restaurant he said, “to upscale it, I would downgrade it — give them the authentic experience true cosmopolitan New Yorkers are ready for: seating on mats, no silverware.”
After all, he explained, “restaurants are complex plays on expectations.”
“You know it’s haute cuisine when the plate is big and the food is small,” Mr. Ray said at this elegant, warmly lighted restaurant. A modest, pyramid-shaped mound of bhel poori had just arrived on the table.
But is there such a thing as ethnic haute? “If my dad came here or to Tabla,” Mr. Ray said, “he’d say, ‘How much did they charge for that bhel poori? Six dollars? Two hundred forty rupees? I can get this for five rupees! It’s good food, but it’s not made out of gold.’
“We like this very clever insider joke,” Mr. Ray continued. “We are taking something cheap and from the street, and reducing the quantity, turning it into a pyramid, putting it on a big plate, and all these white guys are paying 20 bucks for it.”
Ordering the daal, Mr. Ray pronounced it “perfect.” The “masala” schnitzel, however, failed to please. With that dish, Mr. Ray said, the chef is saying: “‘I’m not just an ethnic cook. I can do schnitzel. I’m a chef.’”
Devi pays a price in authenticity for such range. A large cut of meat such as the schnitzel is “unimaginable in the Indian idiom,” Mr. Ray said, adding: “The daal is 500 years old. The Indian schnitzel is two weeks old.”
He also found the presence of veal dishes especially startling “in a place named after the goddess Devi, and decorated with temple doors.” Not only are Hindus vegetarian, he pointed out, but cows are deeply sacred to them. “Who is supposed to eat here?” Mr. Ray asked.
“There are two approaches to ethnic food,” Mr. Ray said as he sat to lunch at Saravanaas, a spartan space with a row of wooden tables and minimalist pink silk hangings on the walls. “One is the pleasure of familiarity: memory, associations. The other is newness.”
Saravanaas, on the stretch of Lexington Avenue known as Curry Hill, takes the first approach. On this weekday in the fall, the place was filled with Indian patrons, most of them men, and only a smattering of non-Indians.
Mr. Ray ordered a pan-Indian sampler listed on the menu as a “ ‘Business meal’ Thali” (a thali is a food tray used in Indian homes). Perhaps not surprising for a place geared to an Indian clientele, the food struck Mr. Ray as very authentic, perhaps the most authentic Bengali-Indian food in the city. The poori was properly puffed, he said, and when it comes to details about various dishes, “waiters won’t go out of their way to explain.”
But authenticity has its limits. The unspoken rules governing New York immigrants encourage them to avoid exposing too many “native qualities in the foreign space of non-Indian presence,” Mr. Ray said. And so even in a place like Saravanaas, the presence of just a few outsiders means that dishes are served with spoons so customers don’t have to eat with their fingers, as is traditional in India.
“When I look for familiarity,” Mr. Ray said, “I want to replicate the memory of my past. But here I won’t eat with my hands.”
Like other immigrants, many Indian restaurateurs do not offer only their own cuisines. Some offer their interpretations of other ethnic food, as is the case with Indowok, a Curry Hill restaurant that serves what it calls Indian-style Chinese cuisine.
“In the Indian imagination, Chinese food is not Chinese,” said Mr. Ray, who first ate Indian Chinese food as a child in Bengal. “It’s cosmopolitan. It’s the only place you went to use the fork, never chopsticks. You can have a Chinese restaurant in India with no stereotypical Chinese food at all — just Indian food with four Chinese ingredients on top of it.”
So it is at Indowok, a dark, wood-paneled space trimmed in Chinese red. “If you look at the clientele, you’ll see mostly young professional South Asian men,” Mr. Ray said. “Why don’t they just go to Chinatown? For one, it’s not sure to be vegetarian. For another, it’s just too Chinese.”
How did Jackson Diner, an unpretentious, cavernous restaurant that opened in 1980 in the heart of Indian New York, become the city’s most celebrated destination for Indian food? What kept Sheereen Mahal, a restaurant just across the street that offers essentially the same buffet of dosas (crepes), daals and meats, from attracting a steady stream of non-Indian and Indian customers, and regular praise from Zagat?
“It could be coincidence,” Mr. Ray said as he settled in after his trip to the buffet and placed a half-eaten samosa that he dismissed as “generic” back onto his plate. “Somebody important ate here one time, wrote about it, and it became famous.”
But Jackson Diner’s fame could also have something to do with the marketing of the restaurant. On its menu, Mr. Ray pointed out the image of a cooking pot used in Hindu weddings and the restaurant’s motto, “A Culinary Passage to India,” and he asked, “Does that matter?”
Even the owner of an ethnic restaurant might be unable to pinpoint why a place becomes popular, or even why certain items are on the menu. “He may just be serving what he knows,” Mr. Ray said.
Restaurant critics may struggle to analyze the quality of ethnic cuisine, because these cuisines do not exist in isolation but are part of a larger culture. But if such evaluations are hard for professional critics, they are relatively easy for the average diner. “With ethnic food, like with clothes, we are much more willing to say, ‘I like it, I don’t like it, this is me,’” Mr. Ray said. “It’s more democratic.”
GANESH TEMPLE CANTEEN
The Ganesh Temple Canteen sits in the basement of a Hindu temple, a sprawling concrete complex decorated with elephant friezes and a stepped dome. As the location suggests, the canteen is intended to offer more than sustenance.
“Here you can imagine and watch other people doing what you think Indians should be doing,” Mr. Ray said. “This canteen caters to Indians the memory of a food, of a place.”
He found the vada, or spicy doughnuts, a little greasy, and the dosas nicely crunchy and only $3.50. But whether or not these items were well prepared, they offered strong echoes of home, because they were served within a temple that functions as a community center.
“Food is the memory of a community,” Mr. Ray said as he watched templegoers settle down at a table with their orange trays. “Immigrants often lose the rest of their cultural apparatus — language, the way the body moves — especially with the second generation.”
The canteen, a no-frills spot reminiscent of a school cafeteria, also links its diners with their faith by its location within a temple, where worshipers literally feed the icons upstairs, pressing apples and other items in their mouths. “In this case,” Mr. Ray said, “food is the mortar of the ritual sites of community.”
“The man who eats here is missing home-cooked meals, which were generally cooked by his mother, his aunt, his sister,” Mr. Ray said of Pakiza, an unprepossessing restaurant and nearby banquet hall. The restaurant has 10 tables, no menu and no décor, and its clientele is largely working-class Muslim men, many of whom live in the neighborhood.
Nasar Khan, the owner, knows that his business involves the basics. “We serve chicken and good curry to construction people and students,” he told Mr. Ray.
But customers’ needs are often more complicated.
“This is the site of a double craving,” Mr. Ray said of Pakiza. “The craving of back home, and the craving of home, which is a craving for women in the home, cooking.”
Items like roast chicken and the deep-fried appetizers known as pakoras can satisfy the desire for the home country, but the second, domestic need “is never fulfilled in a place like this,” he said. “And that’s its peculiar magic. It draws you, and it fails to satisfy you.”