A new Little India in New York4 min read . Updated: 20 May 2016, 07:02 PM IST
A clutch of restaurants in the Big Apple is aiming to recast what New Yorkers know about Indian cuisines
Indian food in New York is most often consumed when a diner finds himself in specific circumstances. Post bar-crawl kathi rolls at 4am. Cheap takeout curry on a weeknight when impulse-control synapses are not firing and a post-prandial coma seems an attractive outcome. Basically: a guilty indulgence. The restrained, judiciously spiced and well-balanced food Indians eat at home is alien to restaurant-goers in New York. For decades, diners have been served oesophagus-incinerating curries and heavy-handed biryanis and identify this “Punjabi-Mughlai concoction from the Hindu Hindi belt" as Indian cuisine.
Credit for that moniker goes to Krishnendu Ray, chair of the department of nutrition and food studies at New York University and author of The Ethnic Restaurateur (Bloomsbury, 2016). Of the 350 Indian restaurants in New York City, 95% are cheap curry houses run by Bangladeshis, Pakistanis or Indians without culinary credentials, he estimates.
Ray has found that diners are not prepared to pay top dollar for “ethnic" cuisines such as Indian and Chinese, for these don’t have the prestige of French or Italian cooking.
“When there is a price ceiling, you cannot hire chefs trained in the idioms of haute cuisine," he says. So Indian restaurants remain in a chicken tikka masala and saag paneer rut.
In the last couple of years, however, a bunch of young Indian-origin restaurateurs have been digging deep into their backstories to guide and inform their professional ventures. Their establishments range from casual to high-end contemporary, but what connects them is their creative and non-traditional approach to Indian cuisine, a weaving in of their personal narratives, and a highlighting of regional foods. Chef Manish Mehrotra’s recent entry into New York has further revitalized the landscape, with flavours like Gujarati chunda, Kerala moilee and crab Koliwada.
To Ray, this bend towards regional food will help Indian cooking escape the curry-house trap. “I hope people do it much more aggressively. Get more food from the mountains, the peninsula, the edges of the continent. It opens up the world of various Indian foods and will provide an opening for others to mimic."
This is your guide to the newest, hottest players on NYC’s desi cooking scene. And no, there is not a curry house in sight.
For modern high-end dining
When the award-winning New Delhi restaurant opened in New York this February, chef Mehrotra unveiled a menu that celebrated his newly adopted city and replicated some of his greatest hits. His soy keema with quail egg and kaffir lime leaf paos, is a series of homages on a plate: soy—a year-round staple for Indian farmers—is a tribute to his Bihari roots; with pao he wanted to proudly signal that India’s bread-making culture goes beyond naan; while the mince and egg combination mimics keema ghotala, part of his regular diet as a culinary school student in Mumbai.
His menu features dishes created with a Kolhapuri masala sourced directly from a family in that region, as well as paneer with locally grown ramps, a springtime favourite at farmers’ markets in New York.
For a quick and healthful bite
Inday is a space by millennials for millennials. Basu Ratnam and his partners (including Mumbai restaurateur Abhishek Honawar of Woodside Inn) are all members of this demographic and wanted a space that resonated with them.
At Inday, Ratnam presents a side of Indian food his American friends had never seen—subtle layers of flavours with spices used sparingly, almost medicinally, yet so that each sings out. The fast-casual concept restaurant in the Flatiron District allows diners to build their own bowls, choosing from a selection of ethically raised meats and organic, local and seasonal grains, vegetables and lentils.
Refreshingly, Ratnam doesn’t fear the authenticity box. “What’s authentic to me is what I grew up eating. Which is what my mom cooked, which is what she grew up eating. Authenticity can be a million things to a million people in India and they can all be right. And you’ll still have 900 million people left over." And he’s right. The point isn’t if Inday’s dosa waffle is authentic but whether eating it transports you home, wherever that might be.
THE ROYAL MUNKEY
For a night at a quirky bistro
If Wes Anderson needs a shoot location for a French bistro set in the British Raj, he can contact Arun Mirchandani. After two decades in the New York food and beverage industry, Mirchandani opened his first cocktail bar and restaurant, The Drunken Munkey, in 2013, followed by The Royal Munkey last year. Colonial India—its culture, cuisine and tipple—connects the two spaces specializing in Anglo-Indian delicacies and cocktails, with his family’s personal history woven in. His grandma’s Sindhi fish curry is a hit with resident and visiting Sindhis; his mother’s bagara baingan is on the menu as well.
Anita Trehan is the momma bear all New Yorkers need. Her Harlem café ensures they get their ‘khichdi’, ‘idlis’ and ‘haldi-elaichi doodh’, all under one roof. Except that the almond milk here is home-made, the burgers are stuffed with healthful kale ‘pakodas’ and you can opt to get your ‘kadak, desi chai’ with ‘ghee’.
Babu ji, a hyper-trendy spot with a style best described as Indian hipster, has taken the kitschy signifiers of vernacular Indian and street cuisine and made them cool; with $16 (1,070) ‘batata vadas’, clangy steel ‘thalis’ and décor punctuated by food-related Indian sayings like ‘Tere mooh mein ghee shakkar’.
One of the summer’s most anticipated restaurant openings is Indian-American chef Floyd Cardoz’s Paowalla, in SoHo. Cardoz’ CV includes the super-successful Tabla, as well as The Bombay Canteen in Mumbai. In previous interviews, Cardoz has hinted that he intends to focus on small plates, Indian spices and local produce. There will be a wood-burning oven as well as one meal that New Yorkers do very well—brunch.