New York masala

Food trail

New York masala

Ajoy Alexander and his friends are ravenous to sample authentic South Indian food
in the Big Apple. Here are their (mis)adventures...

Leaving lofty ambitions like nirvana attainment or pollution containment to the erudite elite, a few friends and I decided to pursue a baser, gut-level goal — to find the most authentic South Indian cuisine in New York City. It was not as easy as it sounded, since the Big Apple proudly presents plenty of “Indian” eateries that will shock your senses with their nonsense.

You should get a little suspicious when a restaurant named ‘Gandhi’ features bloody beef steaks, or when you accidentally discover that the kitchen of an Andhra restaurant has thick-mustachioed Mexican cooks running around in confusion. And when your sambhar is little more than carelessly boiled lentils, or your rasam turns out to be watered-down, spiced-up tamarind sauce, you should realise that the ‘Pure Vegetarian Indian Restaurant’ you are sitting in is yet another ‘Bangla-Deshi’ establishment in disguise.

There are dozens of generic non-vegetarian restaurants like Windows On India, Curry In A Hurry and Mirchi in the city, and for your pleasure they will serve you improvised cross-cultural Indian cuisine. But our quest was for a more typically home-styled southern taste.
By accident rather than a rigorous search process, we found Pongal, where the dosas were crispy and the idlis soft, instead of the other way around. The chef turned out to be a young man who had come from Tamil Nadu to paint religious icons on the walls of the Hindu temple at Flushing, an Indian-prone area of New York City. But this gig was over quickly, and he had been left with two choices — either return home with a few dollars in his pocket or find another job immediately. Luckily, his resume said that not only was he adept at creating divine wall art, but he could also cook anything but books. And so he had dropped his paint brushes and taken up kitchen utensils.

But all good things come to an end, and Pongal changed drastically within months. The food had gone from palate-worthy to unpalatable; the prices had also progressed from thin-budget to fat-wallet levels. For one thing, the cook had left due to ‘problems’ with the management. But the shenanigans of the management did not just stop with firing the cook and raising prices. They had introduced new policies like charging a fee for providing ‘doggie-bag’ containers. When we explained that this must be the only restaurant in the entire civilised world that charged a fee for take-home containers, our waiter became quite excited. He called a few of his colleagues to our table, and they all eagerly requested us to lodge a complaint against the management; the head waiter even produced a complaint book.

Apparently, the employees were unhappy with the new management policies and were collecting complaints from irate customers. But newer and better restaurants beckoned, so we never did find out the outcome of the Pongal management-employee battle.

Changing scents

Madras Palace was another great encounter of the vegetarian kind. Its owner had made a ton of money in the perfume business. Apparently, all you have to do is import cheap perfumes from India or Pakistan, slap on fancy labels, set up shop in New York City, and you end up making a ton of money. But acting on a friend’s advice, this gentleman unquestioningly gave up his good scents and his good sense to invest in the food business.
But whether he had good sense or not, he at least had energetic twin sons, who were capable of running around — taking orders, serving dishes, cleaning up after sloppy customers, purchasing supplies and even taking over the kitchen when the chef was nursing a hangover. Since the twins were identical and even dressed alike in white shirt and black trousers, they would thoroughly confuse customers. One of them was quite gregarious while the other was sullen, so, only after a customer was greeted with either a broad smile or a glaring stare could he or she differentiate between the wrong or right brother. And the manager, obviously hired for his passable English-speaking skills, appeared to be someone who had come to the US with high hopes.

But the problem with Madras Palace was that the dishes were unpredictable from day to day. The reason, as we later learnt, was because the cook was absent often, either protesting his low pay or freelancing at other restaurants. So we had no choice but to look beyond for better eateries.

And conveniently nearby was Dosa Hut, where the thali meals were enjoyable from appetiser to zarda paan. The place also featured delicacies like rasa vadai. Unfortunately, we experienced a few unnerving incidents here as well. After a hearty meal, we were about to enjoy rava kesari, the dessert of the day. But without warning, an elderly Sri Lankan waiter ran to our table and swooped up the dishes, muttering something about having given us the ‘wrong sweet’.

Cooking theories

Soon after that, he brought us cups of payasam as the alternate dessert. Puzzled, our imaginations ran amok. Did some poor furry animal fall into the kesari pot? Did poisonous paint or asbestos ceiling pieces fall into the dish? Was it a case of malicious mislabelling which caused a lazy helper to throw in chili powder instead of kesari powder? A better theory was postulated by my friend Anu, who was sure that an angry cook had gotten inebriated and poisoned the kesari to take revenge on the management for mistreatment and other crimes. In my mind, this triggered an idea for a Christie-like murder mystery where the South Indian detective, Hercule Packianathan, dramatically states in the last chapter, “The poison was not in the payasam, and hence the murderer must be...”

But all these ‘foodventures’ happened several years ago, when I still lived in New York City. Today, there are pure ‘n’ sure, authentic vegetarian restaurants in the Big Apple, like Saravana Bhavan and Adyar Anand Bhavan. But in spite of the recent spate of establishments, next time I’m there, I plan to prowl around Jackson Heights or Lexington Avenue, in search of that undiscovered South Indian vegetarian restaurant exuding welcoming wafts of fragrances that represent irrepressible immigrant dreams.

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