New York's south Asian restaurants have long lingered in tikka masala territory, serving up watered-down versions of recognizable North Indian dishes. Aside from a few excellent exceptions to this rule, cream-laden sauces and muted spices have defined Desi cooking here—until now.
In the last few years, a handful of new restaurants specializing in regional south Asian cuisines have arrived in Manhattan, and both homesick Desis and adventurous Americans are taking notice. Is food from the subcontinent finally coming into its own in our fair city?
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. Our week-long exploration of south Asia's regional cuisines covers the basics of how cooking varies from region to region and where to find specific regional specialties in local shops and restaurants.
It's a brave new world of south Asian cuisine, so get hungry. First up: Punjab and neighboring Pakistan in the northwestern corner of South Asia.
Cooking from the north Indian state of Punjab has long dominated menus in the city's South Asian restaurants. Indeed, many of the south Asian dishes most familiar to New Yorkers—aloo gobi (potato and cauliflower cooked with spices), paneer (mild, fresh cheese), and chana masala (spicy, stewed chickpeas)—are mainstays of Punjabi cuisine.
Unfortunately, quantity doesn't guarantee quality. Many Punjabi restaurants cater to American palates, adjusting their spice levels accordingly. Some even take shortcuts, relying on ready-made tomato sauce and commercial condiments rather than coaxing deeper, more nuanced flavors from fresh ingredients.
But if you know where to look, you can find some very decent Punjabi cooking in New York. At Raja Sweets & Fast Food in Jackson Heights, the steam table always stocks Kadhi, a tangy yogurt stew thickened with chickpea flour and simmered with onion and cumin seeds, and Rajma, a piquant, tomato-based kidney bean stew.
Both dishes are effort-intensive to prepare and, thus, rarely made well in restaurants. Raja succeeds where others fail simply by sticking to traditional recipes which draw flavor from key ingredients that typify north Indian cooking: onion and tomato, cumin seeds, ground turmeric, fragrant spices (clove and cinnamon), and plenty of green chilies. Spoon either dish over basmati rice and enjoy some genuine Punjabi comfort food.
Punjab is India's "bread basket," and flatbreads accompany most meals there. Unless you're making your own at home, it's hard to beat the roti and stuffed parantha (whole wheat flatbreads) at Tawa Foods in Jackson Heights, where you can watch women rolling out fresh batches of dough in the open kitchen.
For something sweet, head to neighboring Maharajah Sweets for some mithai (south Asian sweets). Try the Milk Cake (milk, sugar, and cardamom slowly cooked down until solidified and browned) or the Gaajar Burfi (made with grated carrot cooked with sweetened condensed milk and creamy, ricotta-like khoya).
(A tip: Raja's sweets generally are less impressive than Maharajah's, but their gaajar halwa—sweetened carrots and creamy crumbles of khoya cooked with ample cardamom, slivered almonds, and raisins—is impeccable.)
On occasion, Mysttik Masaala, a newish food cart usually parked in Midtown East, also offers some Punjabi dishes not usually found outside of home kitchens. If you see Lobia Masala (black-eyed peas stew), Thurrywala Aloo (potato with a tomato-based gravy), or Lauki Chane Ki Daal (lentils simmered with bottle gourd) on the menu, you're in for a treat.
Wash all of this down with a cup of doodh patti, chai brewed in whole milk (no water) from Punjabi Deli in the East Village. This rich hot beverage hits the spot during the chilly winter months in north India—and New York City, too.
Despite their well-known rivalry, Pakistan and north India (especially Punjab) share very similar cooking traditions. (Pakistan and India formed a single country until the British abruptly partitioned them into separate nations in 1947.) In the 16th and 17th Centuries, the Mughals—Muslims from Central Asia—ruled Pakistan and much of India. The rich, sophisticated cuisine served in these Mughal courts set the standard for haute South Asian cuisine. One key difference: Pakistani cooking is more strongly influenced by the meaty cuisine of south Asia's Mughal courts, while Indian dishes (rooted in Hindu culture) are more likely to be vegetarian.
Dishes like aloo keema (potato and ground beef cooked with spices) and chicken karahi (seasoned with tomato, ample green chilies, and piquant spices) are mainstays of Pakistani home cooking. You can find both of those dishes, and a huge selection of home-style Pakistani and North Indian fare, at Shadman Restaurant in Jersey City, a hub of south Asian immigrants in the tristate area.
Murray Hill's Haandi is beloved for its spicy-garlicky meat kababs and fluffy naan, the fast food of choice in Pakistan, as well as Afghanistan and north India. Haandi's steam table also offers several Pakistani specialties. The Haleem, as Haandi's counterman rightly noted on a recent visit, is "a complete meal." Shreds of tender chicken are blended with oats and yellow lentils in this thick, savory dish, which looks and tastes like a heartier version of north Indian lentil soup.
More impressive is the Beef Nihari, a rich Mughal breakfast dish traditionally made with cow trotters and bone marrow slowly cooked over low heat (often overnight) with a complex blend of spices. Haandi's version hits the spot on a cold day. The tender beef and gravy are spicy enough to leave an after-burn on the tongue, but the dish isn't so hot that you can't pick up hints of licorice-y fennel seeds, sweet cinnamon, and fragrant nutmeg.
These days, breakfast in Pakistan (and north India) is usually a simpler affair. Anda parantha (egg omelette rolled inside a thick griddled parantha) and halwa puri chana (deep-fried flatbread eaten with spicy stewed chickpeas and sweet semolina "pudding") are two popular options. Both are on the breakfast menu at Madina Restaurant and Sweets in Kensington, though halwa is available only on weekends.
For something sweet try the kulfi falooda at Al-Naimat in Jackson Heights, made with short vermicelli noodles, cardamom-scented kulfi (like a denser, richer ice cream), basil seeds, and a dash of fragrant rose water. This dessert has strong Persian roots, but as with many other Mughal dishes of the subcontinent, South Asians have made it their own.
Additional reporting by Max Falkowitz, Malini Sood Horiuchi, Rabia Ahmed, Carolyn Lengel, Sunita Apte, Chichi Wang, Reena Geevarghese, Naomi Baumol, Ken Start, Jared Cohee, Purnima Sahgal, 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.