South Asian food in New York City is finally moving beyond tikka masala territory, and this week-long 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. Up today: Maharashtra, Mumbai, and Gujarat on India's western coast.
Maharashtra & Mumbai
Cooking from the state of Maharashtra (home to the city Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay) is virtually unknown in New York City—and that's entirely our loss. This sophisticated cuisine intermingles spicy-piquant, tangy-sweet, and nutty seasonings drawn from both north and south Indian cuisines. Goda masala, a Maharashtrian ground spice mixture that makes heavy use of coriander seeds, cumin, and toasted coconut, exemplifies that complex blend of distinct, yet complementary, flavors.
Those flavors are evident in the fish curry at Bombay Duck in the West Village. Hunks of mild tilapia float in tangy-savory gravy seasoned with sweet coconut milk, tangy tamarind, and fragrant ginger.
Mumbai's famous street snack, Vada Pav, is also on the menu at Bombay Duck. This version omits the customary garlic-chili chutney (milder mint and tomato-garlic chutneys are offered instead) and substitutes a hamburger bun for the traditional pav (bread rolls that are an enduring legacy of Portugal's colonial presence in Mumbai). But don't dismiss this vada out of hand. It's soft inside, with a crisp chickpea flour-battered outer edge, and virtually greaseless. In true Maharashtrian style, it's aggressively seasoned with peppery curry leaf and ample ginger.
Purists may be happier at Mumbai Xpress all the way out in Glen Oaks, Queens, where vada pav, bhel puri (Mumbai's beloved beach snack), and pav bhaji (another popular street meal) are all on the extensive menu of chaat (South Asian snacks) and fast food. Everything at Mumbai Xpress is made to order with fresh ingredients and flavorful chutneys, and their chaat is (arguably) the best in the city.
The tokri chaat, one of the stars on the menu, is a "basket" ("tokri" means "basket" in Hindi) constructed from grated and fried potato that holds a wonderfully sloppy mixture of chickpeas, sprouted lentils, and crunchy fried bits tossed with raw onion, salty-sulfurous spices, tangy-sweet chutneys, and cooling yogurt. (If you're not inclined to travel so far to get your snack fix, Desi Galli in "Curry Hill" and Thelewala in the West Village also make very good chaat.)
On the weekends, Mumbai Xpress serves Misal Pav, a hearty Maharashtrian street dish of chickpeas and sprouted lentils stewed with fragrant spices. It's topped with crunchy fried bits, raw onion, and eaten with toasted pav.
Mumbai's eclectic street food scene has also spawned several iconic sandwiches. The Original Bombay Sandwich at Bombay Sandwich Co. (newly relocated from Smorgasburg to Manhattan) gives Mumbai's famous toasted sandwich (layered with boiled potato, crunchy raw vegetables, piquant spices, and spicy-tangy and sweet chutneys) a Brooklyn-style, locavore makeover. All of their ingredients are local, and their innovative, incredibly flavorful chutneys are made from scratch.
Another sandwich native to Mumbai—available at Masala Times in the West Village—is Unda Bhurji Pav: eggs scrambled with onion, tomato, and spices; topped with tangy-sweet pickled onions; and loaded on a buttery griddled pav. It could revolutionize breakfast sandwiches here in New York, if only Masala Times opened before noon.
Indians from the state of Gujarat (bordering Maharashtra) have deep roots in the New York City area. Two prominent sweets and fast food shops specializing in Gujarati fare, Rajbhog Foods in Jackson Heights and Sukhadia's in Midtown, are headquartered in New Jersey and have retail shops in the city---and throughout the U.S. Yet Gujarati dishes are rarely found in more formal, sit-down restaurants here.
Vatan, a "Curry Hill" veteran known for its kitschy décor and vegetarian thalis, is one well-known option for Gujarati cuisine. A newer and better bet is Bhojan, which serves a mix of vegetarian Gujarati and Punjabi home-style dishes. Their Gujarati Thali* is an excellent introduction to the region's cuisine, which is known for its distinct sweetness and use of fresh beans.
* Thalis are trays that hold small servings of several main dishes, sides, and sweets. The dishes are selected by the chef and sometimes come with unlimited refills—like an all-you-can-eat buffet that comes to you.
Like most of the dishes in Bhojan's thali, the daal dhokli straddles the sweet-savory flavor divide. But this mild lentil soup, a favorite Gujarati comfort food, is special—pleasantly chewy shards of raw roti dough are boiled in the broth while it cooks (not unlike Chinese knife-shaved noodles). Also on the thali: shrikhand. strained and sweetened yogurt seasoned liberally with cardamom, a dessert that's popular in Gujarat and neighboring Maharashtra.
A rarer find is Undhyu, an effort-intensive Gujarati specialty, which Bhojan serves with deep-fried flatbread called puri. The dish combines eggplant, several root vegetables, and fresh beans (green peas, firm field peas, and fresh lima beans still in the pod) cooked with a flavorful seasoning (garlic, ginger, chilies, cilantro, and grated coconut ground together). Bhojan's notably spicy version features soft root vegetables and juicy beans. Scoop up mouthfuls with that oil-rich puri and enjoy a hearty winter meal.
Unfortunately, Gujarati snacks are not Bhojan's forte. For these, it's well worth trekking to the eastern fringes of Queens to visit Real Usha Sweets & Snacks in Floral Park. Dhokla, a signature Gujarati snack, is made in fresh batches each day at Real Usha. First, chana daal (the lentils inside black chickpeas) are ground and fermented overnight; then they're mildly seasoned with salt, sugar, lemon juice, and a pinch of turmeric and steamed. The result is a fluffy, soft, savory-sweet cake that could pass for homemade.
Another nore about Real Usha: their sweets are excellent, but be sure to ask what's fresh that day and order accordingly. On the weekend, the shop also sells take-away containers of Gujarati and Punjabi cooked vegetable dishes.
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.