On Gujarati Food: Discovering a New Cuisine

This is the First post On Gujarati Food. Find the rest of the posts here.

A very welcome consequence of being married to a non-Karnataka person is the constant exposure to a completely different cuisine – one that I only had a passing knowledge of prior to meeting my wife. To be honest, growing up, I did not have a high opinion of north Indian cuisine in general. Punjabi cuisine – which is what is generally found in restaurants (chole, saags, paneer based dishes, etc.) – was fine when the spice levels were good, but my very limited exposure to Gujarati, Rajasthani, and Bengali cuisines did not get me excited back in the day. In fact, the inevitable sweet taste of literally everything I ate led me to develop a bad preconception of the entire cuisine. That was until Devanshi started making Gujarati food the way she ate it growing up, and today I feel so fortunate to have discovered and fallen in love with an entire cuisine.

Navigating the Gujarati vegetarian cuisine can be quite complex – especially as (much like in Karnataka) there are several regional specialties within the state, or the same dish can have several regional variations. And I certainly cannot claim to have tasted them all. But having a Gujarati wife and a bunch of friends from different parts of Gujarat has definitely helped in that regard. My biggest preconception that all Gujarati food is sweet and bland was thankfully disproved early on when my wife vehemently voiced her disagreement with those Gujjus who do make it unnecessarily sweet. The simple truth is that the sweetness index varies from region to region and household to household due to a number of factors. Sometimes your opinion on the cuisine can be based on just dumb luck – like where one ends up eating their first meal of that cuisine. And I was clearly a victim of that. Thankfully, I got a second look. 

Gujarati Thali from Vatan in New York City

In spite of being a Kannadiga who is very proud of all the various cuisines of Karnataka, it has never even crossed my mind to somehow ‘compare’ Karnataka cuisine to Gujarati cuisine – or worse, to try and ‘grade’ the different dishes across the different cuisines. As far as I am concerned, discovering a new cuisine is really just like discovering a new band – it is always a positive thing. Yes it can be subjective, but if you like it, it only adds to the things you already like and never comes at their cost. I personally do not subscribe to the idea that “X cuisine is the best!”, much the same way I do not believe there is any ‘best music band’ in the world. There is some music that I know of, and more that I don’t. Same with food.

In the next few posts, I will briefly cover the different common Gujarati dishes that I have discovered and why I like them. Some maybe familiar, and maybe some are new to those non-Gujjus reading this. 

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

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) (The Food Part 2) for more.

Indian Food in NYC

I suppose in the end, it all came down to the Indian food for me. Very early on, it became painfully obvious that I was going to be spoilt for choice in every conceivable aspect. So, at this point, I am just going to go ahead and list the places I frequented the most and/or the ones I just want to give a special shout out to:

  • Spice Grill: God knows how many times I ordered from this restaurant for delivery. Yes, the mega-awesome ‘Delivery!’ guy from my previous post was delivering food from Spice Grill. I just could not get enough of their vegetable/paneer base and the very satisfying amount of food they packed into their ‘Lunch Box’ order. I pretty much had the same exact order every day for several weeks. Very prompt delivery (duh!) and great tasting food. The irony here, of course, is that I never actually visited their restaurant in person during all my time there! And I suppose I still owe them a good review on Yelp.
  • Vatan: If you have about $35 to spend on the best vegetarian meal, then really consider your decision already made. This is not just food. This place is a divine experience in itself. Devanshi and I went there multiple times with increasingly satisfying meals (and took our friends along with us). This is an all-you-can-eat place where the waitresses serve you at your table. The menu is primarily Gujarati food, but really, it doesn’t matter what label you give it. This is vegetarian food in all its glory and appeal!
  • Desi Deli: A Punjabi dhaba in the middle of Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan that is open – get this – 24/7! With a limited menu serving both vegetarian and non-veg dishes, it pretty much gives you enough finger-licking food to more than fill your stomach. (Think Quality of food > Quantity of options). This place was a 15 minute M50 Crosstown bus ride away from my apartment. And anytime we found ourselves on the west side of Manhattan, there was really only one place in our minds for food. I will always remember that one time when I randomly woke up hungry at 3 AM, took the crosstown M50 to 10th Ave, ate a hearty meal, took the same bus back to my apartment, and went back to a blissful sleep! There should definitely be a Desi Deli in every city. No exceptions.
  • Adiyar Bhavan: This place probably served the widest options of South Indian food, and is best enjoyed in the restaurant. I learnt the hard way that having these food items delivered really brought down their taste and texture, making for an underwhelming experience. But eating the same food there, it was obvious that it was the best South Indian food place in Manhattan. I particularly have high praise for their Rava dosas and the sambhar that is served with it.

Shout Outs:

  • All the Jackson Heights restaurants in Queens: I only visited Jackson heights about 4-5 times and tried a new place every single time. I recollect having some memorable chats at Raja Sweets and Fast Food. Perhaps if I had spent a lot more time in that neighborhood, I would have found a place that I would have frequented often, but my visits there were limited.
  • Mumbai Express and Usha Foods: Great chat places in Floral Park in Queens. Usha Foods also had a whole array of snack items to take home. It was a long ride there, but totally worth doing it on a Saturday or Sunday late morning.
  • Darbar Grill: Ordered a lot of ‘Lunch Boxes’ from here as well (similar to Spice Grill).
  • IndiKitch: The only Indian ‘fast food’ place that had perfected the ‘Chipotle Model’ for Indian cuisine. There are so many ‘fast food’ places that were trying to ape the Chipotle style of menu – rolls, rice bowls, etc – but IndiKitch was the only one that got it spot on. Their menu might be a little difficult to navigate if you are not actually there, but once you get it, you will quickly realize why it works so smoothly.

So there you have it. Everything I found out and explored in NYC that was Indian food. I am sure there are many more there that I didn’t get to, but I guess that is for next time.

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And with that, I have concluded the ‘Food in NYC’ part of my ‘5 Months in NYC’ series. More posts still to come on other aspects of NYC.

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.

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!