Spice Bites: Authentic Indian Food, Fun Atmosphere, Cheap Eats
Bombay Duck? Chote Nawab? Thelewala? No, you are not lost on a Mumbai street nor are you watching a Bollywood movie – these happen to be the names of new casual restaurants which have sprung up in New York City. Not fancy like the Michelin Star rated Indian restaurants like Tamarind, Junoon and Tulsi, nor no-frills like the many small eateries in Curry Hill, there’s a new breed of Indian restaurants, offering authentic Indian eats in a fun atmosphere with low prices. Many of them have come up in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village and West Village, a gathering spot for students and tourists.
Indeed New York is the Takeout Capital of the world, with hundreds of restaurants offering to bring every taste to your door. New Yorkers are known to keep takeout menus stacked in the kitchen!
As the Indian population in the tri-state area has multiplied, so have the Indian eateries, serving everything from Indian-Chinese to dosas. As more and more Americans travel to India or intermingle with Indian-Americans, Indian food and spices are garnering new fans. Chicken Tikka Masala and Palak Paneer and the ubiquitous samosa are known to just about everyone.
Bombay Duck: Spicing Up the Big Apple
Bombay Duck is the newest restaurant to open in West Village, the popular haunt of students from New York University. This tiny space has a minimum of seats, as difficult to land as free parking in Manhattan, and its specialty is home-cooking, dishes inspired by the family meals the Vaidya family eat at home.
“We had the idea for this restaurant for 15 years,” says Rujuta Vaidya, a New York choreographer who has joined in the venture with her parents, brothers and husband Ravi Pillai. Bombay Duck serves the dishes which are her mother’s specialty from Vada Pav Smash to Bombay Fish Curry to Burji Rice. Also popular on the menu is Mom’s Toasties, inspired by the Chilli Cheese toasts made by both her mother and mother-in-law. Says Vaidya, “People have been loving them, especially the students.”
Since her father Nitin Vaidya is a supplier of meat and seafood to Indian restaurants, many of the specialties like Goan Shrimp Curry and Lipti shrimp were regulars at home and now in the restaurant. The restaurant has a fun, casual style, almost like a dining room at home; on one side of the narrow room is a long wall unit filled with personal odds and ends.
Says Vaidya: “We kept the menu to simple home cooking – we’ve taken the commercialization of Indian cooking out of it. I don’t know anyone who eats Chicken Tikka Masala at home – so our dishes are what you’d eat at home.” The prices are below $10, paper plates are used and some people come in even twice a day for meals or takeout. On weekends there are dosas and the fillings include Amul Chilli Cheese, chicken and lamb.
The Kati Roll Company – The Heavenly Street Food
The first casual dining spot in the Village was introduced by Payal Saha in 2002 when she whipped up Calcutta’s favorite street food – kati rolls – in a tiny space on MacDougal Street. The kati roll captured the heart of foodies and Time Out New York named The Kati Roll Company as one of the city’s best restaurants in both 2004 and 2005, calling its rolls, “the loveliest wrap since the pashmina.”
Within that tiny spot there was room only for a few seats, Bollywood posters and sizzling kati rolls of chicken, potato and paneer. Since then the Kati Roll Company, which started as a hobby for Saha, is big business with three locations in New York and one in London. The attraction is it’s a very hands-on food that can be eaten just anywhere and on the road.
The concept of the kati roll has been embraced by both Indians and Americans, and now in a nod to the trend toward healthy foods, Saha has also introduced organic salads, with three Indian-inspired dressings – mint yogurt, lime cilantro and cumin mustard. Besides paratha wraps she now offers the fillings on a whole wheat roll too.
When she started, her customers were 80 percent Indian and just 20 percent American – now it’s 50-50. Next on the agenda is partnerships and franchises. She says, “I think there’s a place for kati rolls all over the country. Indian food is becoming more popular – I think New Yorkers need different food choices every day and they are very attuned to spices now.”
A Mouthful: Thelawala, Chote Nawab, Bhojan, Malai Marke
One entrepreneur who’s opened eight restaurants with varied cuisines is the innovative Shiva Natarajan who credits his passion to his 94-year-old grandmother, whose cooking introduced him to varied foods in Calcutta. Natarajan seems to be on a winning streak with critically acclaimed restaurants with authentic foods, fun decor and reasonable prices.
While Chola is one of New York’s well-known dining spots, his other informal eateries answer to eclectic food cravings, focusing on regional cuisine. Thelawala is the place to go for kati rolls and other street foods 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. All these small eateries are pleasing to the eye and easy on the pocketbook.
Thelewala serves nizami rolls, chaats and other popular street foods. The Indian cart food includes a new innovation, okra roll, and all the delights such as phuchkas, bhel puri and jaal moori. For Indians it’s a taste of home and for Americans a whole new adventure away from stereotypical North Indian dishes. Calcutta Basti Khana which is served with parathas includes Ghughni, a chick pea preparation, and Chili Anda, scrambled eggs with green chillies and onion.
Dosateria – Create Your Own Dosas
Dosas have become hugely popular in New York and Thiru, a Sri-Lankan cook and his famous dosa cart are well-known in the Washington Park area near New York University. Besides all the dosa places in Little India, this Southern treat is now available at Whole Foods in Tribeca, New York’s hip supermarket. Dosateria is a cafe created by chef Hari Nayak within Whole Foods and now a fiery sambhar and dosa is possible while shopping for groceries.
Besides the traditional fillings, Nayak offers creative options. “We offer a whole grain batter too. We have signature fillings like pulled butter chicken, Tofu Masala, Chili Chicken Koftas, also unique chutneys like Wasabi Avocado, Mango Fennel.” The concept is to build your own dosa, picking the batter, filling and chutney.
In serving their mainstream consumers, Dosateria offers fusion breakfasts which probably would not be available at a regular desi dosa place but are an interesting addition for those mixing east and west. These fusion breakfast dosas include filling of fried egg, sauteed spinach and spiced hash brown potatoes and cheese, and a breakfast uttapam topped with fried egg, roasted onions, tomatoes, fire roasted red peppers and mushrooms.
In short, India served with a side order of America!
(C) Lavina Melwani
(This article was first published in The Hindu newspaper)