The Regional Cuisine of South Asia in NYC, Part 2: Bangladesh and West Bengal
South Asian food in New York City is finally moving beyond tikka masala territory, and this mini-series will help you make the most of these heady times. Not sure of the difference between dosa and roti or how to distinguish good chaat from the rest? We've got you covered in this week-long series on the regional cooking of south Asia that you can find in New York's restaurants. Yesterday we started with Punjab and Pakistan; today we head over to the other side of the subcontinent to West Bengal and neighboring Bangladesh.
West Bengal (in India) and Bangladesh were once a single state before the British partition in 1947. Food on both sides of their border relies heavily on fish, rice, mustard oil (with its spicy, wasabi-like edge), and the distinct flavor of paanch phoran, a mix of whole spices dominated by licorice-y fennel seeds, bitter fenugreek seeds, and savory cumin seeds.
At Neerob in the Bronx, perhaps the city's best Bangladeshi restaurant, home-style dishes are prepared for a mostly Bangladeshi clientele, so the flavors are vivid and the spicing unrestrained. Don't be deterred by the steam table set-up; high turnover here keeps the food extremely fresh.
Neerob's Rhui Mas (Indian carp), a mild fish simmered in a flavorful gravy, and Mishti Kumra, tender cubes of pumpkin sautéed with savory onions, are among the best options at the steam table when available. Pair them with rice and any of the excellent daals for a full meal.
Be sure to get some bharta on the side. These "condiments" made from mashed vegetables, lentils, or fermented fish are seasoned with garlic, green chilies, cilantro, and piquant mustard oil, adding a spicy, pungent kick to Bangladeshi meals. Neerob's bhartas are always especially bold and flavorful.
Kolkata (West Bengal's capital city, formerly known as Calcutta) and Dhaka (in Bangladesh) are famous for tasty street food, but you won't find it at Neerob. Instead, head to Jackson Heights for Baul Dada's Jhal Muri: puffed rice, roasted soybeans, black chickpeas, and assorted fried bits tossed with diced onion, green chilies, cilantro, a dash of mustard oil, and several tangy and sweet chutneys.
This salty, spicy, crunchy snack is prepared fresh to order at Baul Dada's curbside table (open for business from 3:00 p.m to 10:00 p.m., weather permitting). It's about as close as you can get to the experience of buying chaat on the street in south Asia without courting the risk of "Delhi Belly"—or worse.
Additional reporting by Max Falkowitz, Malini Sood Horiuchi, Rabia Ahmed, Carolyn Lengel, Sunita Apte, Chichi Wang, Reena Geevarghese, Naomi Baumol, Ken Start, Jared Cohee, Padmashree Tadepalli, Sarah Khan, and Sara Markel-Gonzalez.
About the author: Anne Noyes Saini edits economics books and covers food culture and immigration in NYC. She has contributed to Narratively, The New York Times, and WNYC-FM, and is features editor of Real Cheap Eats. Follow her on Twitter @CitySpoonful.