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As last week's foray into the south Asian food available in New York made clear, there are excellent options in town for authentic regional cooking from the subcontinent. So what more could a New Yorker ask for?
For a start: credible cooking from Lucknow and Kashmir, two legendary North Indian cuisines.
For centuries, Lucknow (the capital city of Uttar Pradesh) was home to Mughal rulers* whose chefs were charged with creating exciting new dishes for lavish court feasts. That innovative food culture eventually spread beyond the elite confines of the Mughal court, giving rise to a famously sophisticated and flavorful food scene in Lucknow. Even today the city is known for its food, especially its meat and vegetable kababs.
* Recall that the Mughals—Muslims from Central Asia—ruled Pakistan and much of India in the 16th and 17th-centuries.
There are a few options for Lucknowi cuisine in New York, but they barely do justice to this complex cuisine. Easiest to come by are the Seekh Kebabs (spiced mixtures of ground chicken or lamb grilled on skewers) sold at Pakistani kabab shops like Haandi in Murray Hill and Kabab King in Jackson Heights.
Another option is Chote Nawab in Murray Hill, which advertises its Mughal specialties from Lucknow and Hyderabad (in Andhra Pradesh). The Tunde Ka Kebab (skillet-cooked ground lamb "patties" named for Lucknow's famous kebab house), Kakori Kebab (spiced minced lamb grilled over charcoal), and Roomali Roti (flatbread that's handkerchief-thin) all have legit Lucknow origins. But it's hard to pick out these Lucknowi specialties on the menu, amid the dizzying array of dishes from several other regions of India.
Finding real Kashmiri food in New York City is nearly impossible. (Don't be fooled by all the restaurants with Kashmir in their names—they usually serve Pakistani and Punjabi food.) Rogan Josh (mutton simmered with tomatoes, yogurt, and fragrant spices), Kashmir's most famous dish, is on the menu at many Indian restaurants here. Unfortunately, Gushtaba (lamb "meatballs" seasoned with fenugreek, fennel seeds, cumin, and a dozen other spices, served in a mild yogurt gravy), a Kashmiri delicacy reserved for special occasions, is nearly impossible to come by, though Junoon serves an unconventional version made with duck.
Kashmiri food incorporates plenty of meat (usually lamb/mutton or trout from mountain streams), as well as greens (haaq saag) and hearty vegetables, like potato, kohlrabi, and lotus root. The key to Kashmiri cooking is its bold flavors: pungent mustard oil, licorice-y ground fennel seeds, ginger powder, smoky black cardamom, wild shallots (praan, similar to ramps), and mild Kashmiri chilies. Harisa, a hearty breakfast dish, combines many of these in a heavy meal that sustains Kashmiris during the cold winter months.
Kashmir is also known for its unique tea traditions, which reflect the influences of neighboring Afghanistan and China. Kahwah, brewed with green tea, saffron, spices, sugar, and almonds, is popular after meals and on festive occasions. Pink-hued Noon Chai (aka sheer chai or salt tea), brewed with green tea, milk, spices, salt, and sodium bicarbonate, is associated with afternoon relaxation. The latter is on the menu at Haandi but rarely seems to be available.
Food from Karnataka (home to Bangalore) is often overlooked, even in India. But its piquant flavors and fresh, light dishes (e.g., kosambri, shown above) are wonderful. For now, New Yorkers can enjoy a great version of Karnatakan Besi Bele Bath (spicy-tangy rice seasoned with tamarind and spices) at Saravanaa Bhavan in Murray Hill and on the Upper West Side.
Goan cooking is known for its Portuguese colonial influences melded with fresh seafood and South Indian flavors. Fiery hot, vinegar-spiked vindaloo, fragrant xacuti, and tangy-sweet ambotik are signature Goan dishes. Luckily, you can try a few of them at Malai Marke in the East Village.
If You Cook It, They Will Come
South Asian cuisine is clearly incredibly diverse—from the north (where winter coats come out in December and January) to the tropical south (where beaches and banana trees proliferate), and the far east (where the flavors of neighboring Tibet and Myanmar intermix).
On the subcontinent these days, regional cuisines are enjoying new popularity and spreading well beyond their traditional boundaries. A more affluent and cosmopolitan younger generation of Indians, in particular, is embracing new flavors and ingredients drawn from throughout south Asia.
Here in New York City, similar change is afoot. New Yorkers are no longer content to make do with endless variations on the tikka masala theme. Which brave restaurant entrepreneurs will bring us more and better regional cuisines from south Asia? If you cook it, we will come.
Additional reporting by Max Falkowitz, Pavan Sahgal, Chitra Agrawal, Malini Sood Horiuchi, Rabia Ahmed, Carolyn Lengel, Sunita Apte, Chichi Wang, Reena Geevarghese, Naomi Baumol, Ken Start, Jared Cohee, Purnima Sahgal, Padmashree Tadepalli, and Sarah Khan.
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.