America, Food and Lifestyle, Happiness, new york city, The things that happen only to ME..., Thoughts, Travel

5 Months in New York City: The Food (Part 2 of 3)

I spent close to 5 months in New York City this year for my work. This post is part of a series of posts about my stay there, what I saw and what I observed. More to come. See my previous post on my 5 months in NYC (The People) (The Food Part 1) for more. 

Food trucks are omnipresent in New York City. There are a wide variety of them serving all kinds of cuisine and at all times of the day and night. Being a vegetarian, most of the food trucks (or most of the items on the food trucks) were things I wish I could eat, but wouldn’t. Of the things I could eat, my enjoyment came not just from the quality of the food itself, but from the sheer experience of being able to access the food in such a manner. Perhaps it reminded me of the informal nature of the food industry back home in India, or maybe it was the pleasure of having found some great food in a setting that did not conform to the general expectation of a ‘restaurant’. But there was essentially a raw kind of satisfaction that I derived from eating at food trucks – paying in cash, having limited menu options, cooking in an open air and/or confined space setting, getting my hands dirty with all the food, limited/no silverware, a full stomach, and leaving with a feeling of having somehow found a new ‘joint’ that served great (and cheap) food.

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The NYC Dosa Man

 

Any post on New York City food trucks serving vegetarian food would be incomplete without a shout out to the NYC Dosa man. Easily the best Dosa in town, his food truck is located inside Washington Square park, and he serves a limited number of Dosa options along with some Idli, samosa items. On my third visit to the place in about 2 months, the Dosa man, aka Thiru Kumar, actually recognized me and made a remark on the lesser quantity of food I was purchasing as compared to previous visits! I explained to him that my wife was not with me and hence only 1 serving. He is a very affable character and all the regulars seem to like and appreciate his food and personality. So, yeah, definitely go there if you are in NYC.

Which brings me to the idea of Vegan and vegetarian food in New York City. Devanshi and I found out (the hard way) what Vegan food has mostly come to signify in NYC. Being vegetarians, we were both on the look out for vegan places to explore. One of the ‘highly rated’ places was this restaurant called Wild Ginger in Brooklyn in the Williamsburg area. It was supposed to have some great Vegan food, so we went there. When we received our food, we were in for a rude shock. There was no meat alright. But that was all there was to the ‘Vegan’ part of the food. The food looked like meat, smelt like meat, tasted like meat, and even made us feel like we had eaten meat. In hindsight, the menu should have made it quite clear as to what to expect. Think of a regular Asian restaurant serving all the meat dishes. Now replace all the meat with ‘Soy protein’, ‘tofu’ and ‘seitan’. And you have the Vegan menu at Wild Ginger – and really most of the self-proclaimed Vegan restaurants in NYC.

Replacing meat with meat substitutes and taking a lot of pains to ensure that the final dish resembles the original meat dish in every conceivable way is the general idea of ‘Vegan’ restaurants in New York City. And I personally cannot and will not approve of this idea. However, the bigger realization my wife and I had was that, apart from Indian cuisine, there was really just no other cuisine out there that offered such a massive wide range of original vegetarian food. Yes, you will find vegetarian ‘options’ in many cuisines – notably Greek, Ethiopian and Middle Eastern – but they are just that – options. The primary dishes from these cuisine will always be meat based. And once you come up with the idea of ‘substituting the meat’, you are already out of the conversation on original vegetarian cuisine. Overall, it was a rather disappointing realization for both of us – that mankind through millennia of civilizations somehow never managed to come up with original vegetarian cuisine apart from this one country called India.

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Hangawi Restaurant in Koreatown

But it would be completely remiss of me if I did not make a specific and grateful mention to the very few exceptions we found in NYC. First and foremost, a big big shout out to Hangawi in Koreatown. It is an upscale restaurant that serves – believe it or not – only vegetarian food. And no, these are not meat substitute dishes. These are vegetarian dishes that look like vegetarian food, smell of vegetables and spices, taste like vegetarian food free of any meat influences, and most importantly, made me feel like having eaten a hearty vegetarian meal. Yes, some of the dishes do use Tofu, but I will personally attest to these dishes still not bringing any meat influences to their taste. The place is admittedly on the expensive side. But you also feel like you are dining at an expensive place once you start eating. So, yes, if you are looking for a nice date night that makes and serves vegetarian food the way it should be, this would definitely be the first place to check out.

I will mention two other places. One of them is Beyond Sushi – a vegan place that serves plant based food in the sushi form. Having been a regular consumer of sushi till not too long ago, I was particularly impressed with how plant products prepared to taste like a vegetarian dish while retaining the general feel of eating a sushi. Relatively inexpensive and strongly recommended.

Another reasonable exception would be By Chloe. We visited that place many times. Particularly like all their Veggie burgers.

And speaking of Vegetarian food, I am going to end this post with another rather comical interchange I had while ordering some food.

I was walking through Chinatown early in the morning on a weekday and passed by a bakery that appeared to have some nice pastry buns. I saw this one pastry that I wanted to try which had some sweetened coconut stuffed in a bun. Unfortunately, it also had a piece of ham in it. So I asked the lady there if they had a pastry without the ham. This is how the (short) conversation went:

Me: Do you have this pastry without meat?

Server: No meat?

Me: Yes, I want this without meat.

Server: No meat?

Me: Yes, no meat.

Server: No meat? OK! Meat take out!

Me: ???

Server: Meat take out! Meat take out!

Me: Oh! You will just take out the ham from that bun?

Server: Yes! Meat take out! Meat take out!

Me: OK. I will have one.

She then promptly removed the piece of ham from the pastry and gave the pastry to me! It cost about $1 and tasted great!

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PS: I initially intended this to be a 2 post series on the food. But I guess I am going to have to make this 3 posts now. The last post will be on the Indian food in NYC.

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America, Des Moines, Food and Lifestyle, My sense of Humour, new york city, Serious Writing, society, The things that happen only to ME..., Thoughts, Travel

5 Months in New York City: The Food (Part 1 of 3)

I spent close to 5 months in New York City this year for my work. This post is part of a series of posts about my stay there, what I saw and what I observed. More to come. Find my previous post on my 5 months in NYC (The People) here

Easily the one thing that both my wife and I were looking forward to the most during our stay in Manhattan earlier this year was all the food that New York City had to offer. After spending 5 months eating all that we possibly could, I realized that there was so much to write about the food in New York – apart from the food itself! And so this post is not going to be about what dish was best at which place, but more about the whole food industry in general, along with some rather interesting experiences that we encountered on the way.

First up, before anything, I would like to clarify that both my wife and I are vegetarians. So, yes, we were unable to eat probably more than 90% of the food on offer in the city. If you are a meat eater, then you would have a (admittedly valid) case to say that we never actually got to sample the best food there. I won’t argue that. But I will say that my general observations of the food industry and systems in place will still stand. And if anything, my extra attempts to find vegetarian food led me to discover places and things I otherwise would never have found.

Midtown East Restaurants
Restaurants in Midtown East in Manhattan

I will start with the general accessibility and distribution of restaurants and food in general. I lived in the Midtown East (E 50th and 1st Ave) neighborhood in Manhattan, right by the United Nations building. There were quite a few restaurants within a one block radius – including Thai, French, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, and American. And if you traveled about 2-3 blocks, you would find pretty much every cuisine. The nearest ‘proper’ Indian restaurant (that I liked visiting) was Adiyar Bhavan on 1st Ave and E 60th St – which was still a reasonable walking distance (or one short bus ride) from where I lived. (There were others within 2-3 blocks but I didn’t like them). And, from my general exploration of all of Manhattan, this was pretty much the case everywhere. That is to say, you could find a restaurant from any cuisine within about 3-4 blocks of where you lived. Just let that sink in. Pretty much any cuisine you want within 3-4 blocks of where you live – yes this is what you get in Manhattan! Of course there are small geographical pockets of specific cuisines that you will see all over – from Little Italy to China Town to Lexington Ave/24th St where a lot of the Indian restaurants are.

As far as Queens goes, I generally found that the food establishments were focused in some specific areas with a slight suburban feel in the rest of the area. So if you wanted something specific, you would still get it, but you would have to travel to that specific place. And Queens being the large geographical size that it is, it could take you a while to travel to, say, Flushing to eat some Asian food, or to Jackson Heights to get the best Indian food.

Brooklyn was about the same, except I cannot say I got to explore it as much as I would have liked to. And I never visited much in The Bronx and Staten Island.

So far I have written about the ‘distribution’ of the restaurants. But one thing I quickly learnt was that distribution meant nothing. What was more important was the accessibility to the food, regardless of where the restaurant was. That is to say that if you wanted food from a certain restaurant, which was more than just a 3-4 block walking distance, you should still be able to get it without making the journey there. Yes, I am talking here about the food delivery industry here.

The food delivery ecosystem in Manhattan fascinated me to no end during my stay there. It was the first time I saw people delivering food on bicycles – which, if you think about, really is the only obvious choice in a city like NYC. It probably employs hundreds of part time (and maybe some full time) food delivery bikers to bridge the gap in access between the customer and the restaurant. Services such as Grubhub, Yelp, Uber Eats, etc further help customers gain access to these restaurants through a one-stop app/website. It is not that there are no food delivery places where I live in Des Moines, IA (though it is largely restricted to Pizza, Chinese and Thai restaurants). But it was in NYC that I first saw how this whole ecosystem of food delivery worked like a well oiled machine round the clock – 24 hours a day!

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Barring any inclement weather, these bikers work all the time – rain, heat, snow, etc. Typically, there is about a 30 minute to 1 hour wait from the time you order to the food being delivered, which is really reasonable if you think about it. The delivery ‘radius’ is usually about 1 to 2 miles – which considering the density of the restaurants, is mostly not going to matter much. Most of the restaurants did not charge any delivery fee (but did specify a minimum order) and no “separate” tip was expected from the biker. Most of these bikers that I personally met were immigrants who did not speak much English, just knocked on your door and delivered the food before heading to their next destination. Many were also students at NYU or CUNY. (Read this piece for a full picture of the delivery folk in Manhattan).

Which brings me to probably the most comical conversation I had in NYC.

I had developed a sort of a routine where, after finishing my field work at around 3 pm, I would order my lunch for delivery from an Indian restaurant on my Yelp app – just as I left my work site (at Ave C and E 14th St). It typically took me about 20 to 30 minutes to reach my apartment. The food would generally arrive a few minutes after I arrived, so I would already be there to take the delivery.

But inevitably, there would be times when my bus would get delayed and the delivery guy (DG) would reach my apartment before I did. When the Concierge told him that I was out, the delivery guy would call me on my cell. The first time this happened, the following was how the conversation panned out. Remember, this guy doesn’t know much English.

Me: Hello

DG: Delivery!!

Me: Oh hi! Sorry I am not at my apartment yet. Are you already there?

DG: Delivery!! Delivery!!

Me: OK looks like you are at my apartment building. Please leave it at the Concierge and I will pick it up later.

DG: Delivery!! Delivery!!

Me: Yes, please leave it at the lobby or front desk. I will pick it up.

DG: Delivery!! Delivery!!

Me: Yes, leave it at the lobby!

DG: Delivery! Delivery!

Me: Yes, Lobby! Lobby!

DG: Delivery! Lobby???

Me: Yes. Lobby! Lobby!

DG: OK!

(Hangs up).

When I reached my apartment, the Concierge promptly handed me the delivery package!

I am not exaggerating or changing anything here. That is exactly how the first conversation panned out. You have to also realize that I was in the bus surrounded by a whole bunch of people in close proximity while I was yelling “Lobby! Lobby!” into my phone, not sure if the guy at the other end could hear and/or understand what I was saying! Since I ordered from the same restaurant around the same time on most days, I always bumped into the same guy either in person or on the phone regularly. So on all future occasions, when I got a call from this guy while I was still in the bus, the conversation went like this:

Me: Hello?

DG: Delivery! Delivery!

Me: Yes, Lobby! Lobby!

DG: Delivery! Lobby?

Me: Yes, Lobby! Lobby!

It was a beautiful thing! An immigrant guy who spoke no English was able to make a satisfactorily work in NYC by talking in English to a customer in a conversation that had successfully condensed itself into two words: “Delivery!” and “Lobby!”. It made me smile every single time! It was these small experiences that gave me brief, but insightful glimpses into the subtle beauty that lies hidden within New York City!

I do have more to share on the topic of food – including the ‘vegetarian/vegan’ options in NYC, thoughts on all the Indian food I could find, and of course more interesting interactions. All this in the next post. Stay tuned!

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On Being Married

It has been a little more than a year and a half since I met my wife, and a little more than a year since we got married. All this time, I have been constantly reminded by the wife of the fact that I have not made any mention of her in my blog – direct or implied. And more importantly, how that needs to change. When I asked myself why I hadn’t written anything about her, I realized that I was really waiting for some kind of a narrative to take form in our relationship – a narrative that I could then put in words and provide a context for. And I believe that I do have such a narrative right now, and so here is what I have to say on finding the right person, my decision to get married, and what I found on the other side of the decision.

I met Devanshi in March/April of 2016 when my general state of being was largely captured in this post I wrote back then. We met on a dating app and started chatting first. It was in those first days of chatting that we found out that we were both at the same Steven Wilson concert in Chicago just a few days before. To me, there could not have been a better way we could have been introduced to each other. Steven Wilson is one of the people I admire a lot – not just his music, but also his general thoughts on life and society. Realizing that this girl I had just met shares some (if not all) of my passion for his work and message meant a lot to me.

I wish I could say that our time together from that point onwards till we got married – about 4-5 months later – was just a great honeymoon period (as in any relationship). We did have our fun, make no mistake. There were more music festivals/concerts that we went to, got to know each other’s friends and even happily revealed to our parents that we were dating. But through all of that, her efforts to finish her graduate studies loomed large over most of the time we spent. There was a lot of uncertainty and many sleepless nights – for both of us – during the 2-3 months she was trying to finish her graduate studies.

And THAT pretty much sealed our relationship. For her, I proved to be a reliable and supportive friend who happily helped her with everything I had through some of her toughest times; and for me she proved to be the smart, tough and mentally strong person I had always sought out in a partner. There were times when I thought I would have just given up if I was in her position, only to find her continue to work and find a way to the finish line. Strength of character is a quality I have always admired and after she successfully defended her project, I realized that I had already made the decision in my head about where this relationship was going.

Within a few weeks, we were getting married at the neighborhood coffee shop Smokey Row with a few friends (and family through Skype) and a wedding officiant administering our vows. We then had a small party at the Art gallery of the Social Club to celebrate the wedding.

I am trying to come up with an analogy for this particular point in my life. The only thing that I am reminded of is the time in my life when I had just gained an admission to NITK for my undergraduate studies. This was right after me spending considerable time and effort preparing for the entrance examination, following which I gained admission to the college. In both situations – my wedding and gaining admission to the college – I experienced a feeling of having arrived somewhere. But, more importantly, I also had this stronger realization that the real deal lay just ahead of me. Yes I could always take satisfaction in having arrived at a place I valued, but what I did with my life and situation after that was what mattered from that point on.

We continued to go to as many concerts and music festivals as possible, with some miscellaneous travel sprinkled in between as well. We explored our mutual passion for cooking and board games along with some friends who moved in to our neighborhood. We spent 2 months in Manhattan, taking in a lot of what it had to offer and exploring the city and nearby places. But in trying to find the narrative for my married life, I realized that there just wasn’t a long running aspect that I could point out and say this has what defined my marriage life.

And the primary reason for that was us never getting the chance to stay together for an extended period of time. She visiting India and me having to go out of town for work every now and then has led us to never being able to spend extended periods of time with each other. Over the past 1 year, we have been together for just about half the time, and only for 1-2 months at a stretch. Though we have tried to make the most of our time together, what this has meant is that we have just not been able to setup a routine that could have otherwise defined our married lives. It is hard to quantify what we have missed out due to these constant interruptions to our continued understanding of and bonding with each other. And it may well be that we may never know until we actually begin to spend extended periods of time together.

But if I were to be pressed for one underlying narrative for our time together since our wedding, I would have to point to my wife’s effort to find a job following her graduation. It has been a very arduous process for both of us at so many different levels and over an extended period of time. The consequences of her not having a job manifested itself in many different aspects of our married lives that neither of us could have foreseen. We were putting our efforts to the best of our abilities to find a job, while also dealing with constraints that were beyond our control. Frustration, uncertainty, and a sense of despair took hold of our relationship at times in the process. But in the end, she did find a job – and found one in one of the unlikeliest places we had expected.

My wife started working last week at Garden City in Kansas. I helped her move there a week before, and she has now started her career there. It is a small town of about 30,000 people in SW Kansas and a good 9 hour drive from Des Moines. Interestingly, it is the most diverse city in all of Kansas – with a large Hispanic, Asian and African population!

So what does this mean for our path forward? Yes, for one, it definitely means that we will have to live apart while she pursues her career and I pursue mine. It also means that we have to wait a tad bit longer to discover what it is that we are potentially missing out on by not living together for extended periods of time. But to me, there are a few things that I am looking forward to with us living apart.

I have always believed in the value of people living by themselves for a few years after they start a job. The idea is that this would be the only time in their lives when they would have time, money and freedom to do whatever it is that they wanted (within reasonable constraints of course). I know I happily went through it for several years prior to meeting my wife. But I was always worried that my wife would never be able to get that opportunity – especially if she got a job and we lived together.

So as a silver lining, I am happy that Devanshi will get a chance to live by herself, forge her own routines, explore her own interests, and develop her own hobbies. As someone who did all that myself, I value that same experience in others – and especially in someone who is my wife. And so, in a way, I am looking forward to some things that living apart will bring us.

When I graduated from my Masters program and secured a job here in the US, I wrote an email to one of my Professors from undergrad letting him know about my progress. In that I had told him about how I went through some really tough and uncertain times and was able to get through all of that and secure a good paying job. He congratulated me on my degree and job, and he told me something that somehow put everything I had been through at that time into the right perspective. He said, “Life conducts the examination first, and then teaches a lesson.”

I have been thinking about what he said of late. My situation may not be perfectly analogous to what he said. But it does fit neatly into some form of a corollary. My wife and I went through the hard and uncertain times upfront in our marriage, and instead of it potentially weakening our bond, it has in fact strengthened our resolve to see these times through. So when we eventually do get to the point of living the married lifestyle that we have always wanted, our experience is going to be that much more rewarding. And so I firmly believe that if this is our examination, then we are going to reap some hefty rewards once it is done.

But all said and done, I do realize that this is just the beginning of our married lives, and that there will be many more chapters to look forward to. And rest assured, there will be many more posts here to capture it all.

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I had promised my wife that I would write about her soon. And after she reads this post, I would be fairly certain that she will admonish me for revealing so much! I suppose this is also part of the examination!