L.I. is Little India

Exploring the intriguing and seductive cuisine of our growing South Asian community.

Exploring the intriguing and seductive cuisine of our growing South Asian community.

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Not so long ago the flavors, colors and fragrances of India seemed as exotic and far away from Long Island as, well, India. “When I first arrived and I was in the mall with my turban, American children used to call me a genie,” says Satnam Parhar, a Sikh who is vice president of India Association of Long Island (IALI) and a local businessman. That was back in the late ’70s. Today, the Indian population on Long Island has more than doubled since 1990 and, according to Parhar, “That doesn’t happen anymore. Now people are aware.”

The South Asian community is on the rise on Long Island, and part of that success is the food. With fiery chilies, creamy richness, complex layered spices, heady fruits, puckery pickles and innumerable vegetarian dishes, the cuisine of India intrigues and seduces. As Long Islanders travel more widely, become more diverse and get more adventurous in their eating, South Asia offers something very different and very exciting. And as more immigrants arrive from the Asian subcontinent and from the more established South Asian enclaves in Queens, opening businesses, attending schools and becoming respected professionals, Indian culture is making its mark on the island. From 1990 to 2010, the South Asian population of Nassau County jumped 62 percent to 102,266 and in Suffolk 47 percent to 50,972. Indians are entering politics; several South Asians were on the ballot for the November 5 elections, including Sid Nathan of New Hyde Park, whose cousin, Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi, stumped for him at numerous events.

Dr. Kishore (Kish) Kuncham is another example. President of the IALI, a venerated cultural and educational organization with 2,000 voting members that unites the community to celebrate important holidays and cultural events, he is also one of the pillars of his mainstream Long Island community — he has been superintendent of Freeport Public Schools since 2009 and was assistant superintendent for 10 years before that.

“Long Island has reached critical mass for the Indian community,” he says. “We are going mainstream, and that means that our cuisine is also becoming part of the mainstream.” Today, a quick Yelp search for local Indian restaurants yields 26 in Hicksville alone.

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But just as the community itself is not homogeneous, neither is the food. There is a lot more diversity than meets the eye. A country of one billion people speaking more than 700 languages, with a landmass one-third the size of the United States (but almost five times the size of Texas), India’s topography is incredibly varied. Think Himalaya mountains and the sweeping plains of Punjab to the north, tropical rainforests in the south and coastal plains all around. And with every climate, every elevation, every floodplain, there is a different cuisine built from thousands of years of agriculture and history.

I thought I knew something about Indian food since I am a big fan of Indian Sunday buffet, spicy food and curries. And I was born in Queens. But it turns out I’ve been eating in ignorance. Luckily, I have the perfect guide to clear things up deliciously.

Jainy Thomas is my colleague at Nassau Community College. An English-as-a-second-language lecturer and businesswoman (she recently opened the English Skills Center offering tutoring services in up-and-coming Indian neighborhood New Hyde Park), she also happens to have been born in northern India, near New Delhi, to parents from Kerala in the south. They moved to Brooklyn in 1985 when Jainy was 10, but they brought their dual culinary traditions with them and, like so many in the South Asian diaspora, have never let them go.

“I really had the best of both worlds,” she recalls as we meet where two of her three children had their christening parties, at the grande dame of Long Island Indian restaurants, Akbar, in Garden City. “I kind of prefer North Indian, maybe because that’s where I grew up. It’s a bit milder, and they use a lot of dairy products, so it’s a little richer, and I like that. I also like roti, the bread you use to scoop up the food with. South Indian food is spicier. But they also always use rice, and I can’t give up my rice. I need it! So I like that, too.”

The North-South difference is perhaps the most important to know when you are eating Indian on Long Island because they are the most widely represented. Jainy keeps it simple for a beginner like me.

“Remember, North Indian is creamier and richer and more vegetarian and features lots of bread,” she says. “South Indian is hotter and spicier, uses coconut in many, many dishes, and rice has to be at every meal.” She also notes that while many Indians are vegetarian, folks in her parents’ native region of Kerala tend to eat more meat; many are Christian and do not observe the Hindu custom of considering the cow sacred.

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I learn more about Indian food’s arrival here from Akbar’s owner, Meena Malhotra. Her father was an international restaurateur who opened the first stateside Akbar in Manhattan in 1976, after opening restaurants for renowned company Gaylord’s (he eventually became a partner) in Bombay (now Mumbai), New Delhi, Trinidad, London and Chicago. The first Garden City Akbar opened in 1983; they moved to the current location in the ’90s to expand the flourishing banquet business.

It wasn’t easy to open an Indian restaurant back then.

“No one knew how to cook Indian in New York,” recalls Malhotra. “When I came to the United States to join my father in 1978, I brought three chefs with me. I had to travel with them because they didn’t speak English. We had to get the tandoors (clay ovens) from India by container ship, and it took two or three months. They must weigh a ton; it takes four men to lift one! Things have changed. Now everything is available here.”

The tandoors she refers to are the clay ovens made famous by Punjabi cuisine (northern), which includes the traditions of its capital, New Delhi. They produce fluffy, crunchy, floppy discs of naan bread so good for grabbing food and dipping. Their beautifully roasted tandoori chicken marinated in yogurt and highly seasoned but not spicy-hot is often an entry-level dish for those trying Indian for the first time.

Akbar, which hosts around 1,800 guests a week for events and another 900 in its dining room, is where the community goes to throw a proper Indian party (grooms sometimes arrive on horseback for weddings). It’s a place where women in saris and men in turbans explore the buffet side-by-side with their daughters and granddaughters in jeans and sneakers but also with folks who don’t appear to be Indian at all. In fact, according to catering director Sandeep Soni, 70 percent of the dining room clientele is non-Indian. Malhotra, who herself is a thoroughly modern woman who began running the restaurant on her own as the single parent of three children under 10 in 1992, says moving with the times and embracing the mainstream culture is critical to her business. She has worked with the Girl Scouts for many years, introducing streams of girls to her culture and cuisine, and helps to give Sweet 16s an Indian sensibility (complete with friends performing Bollywood-style dance numbers for the Sweet 16 girl), and for banquets will readily have her staff prepare Chinese and Italian dishes right alongside the chicken malai kabab and the aloo gobi and other South and North Indian specialties. It is good business but also reflects her personal warmth and desire to open the door to share the culture with others.

If Akbar is a top destination for special occasions, Patel Brothers is the biggest supplier for DIY cooking at home. Established in Chicago in 1974, this family business — now with stores all over the eastern United States and California — has a symbiotic relationship with the Indian community. As a community grows, Patel Brothers grows with it. As Patel Brothers grows, its magnetism for customers attracts more Indian businesses that piggyback on their success. In Hicksville on South Broadway, the 17,000-square-foot Patel Brothers now anchors a small shopping center that includes a South Asian restaurant, salon and music and video store that has become a destination for Indian families coming in from as far away as Queens. They have their own Patel Brothers there, but parking at the Hicksville store is so much better that they make the trek. And the fact that there are dozens of other South Asian businesses in the neighborhood makes it even more of a draw.

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Jainy gives me a tour of the produce in the airy store; some I recognize, like eggplant and okra, but some I have never seen before. She points out snake gourd, which looks a lot like zucchini and is sautéed with coconut, onion and spice; she compares tindora (North India) and parval (South India), two small squashes that look alike to me, but to the discerning eye are completely different.

“Oh my God, you don’t know about these?” says Jainy, truly shocked that I have never heard of karela, Indian bitter gourd that looks like summer squash with warts. Apparently it is flourishing in New Hyde Park vegetable gardens these days as it has medicinal as well as culinary properties. Lotus root, yellow pumpkin, white pumpkin, chilies, jackfruit, yuca, broccoli rabe — even familiar vegetables and fruits have a different identity here.

We travel the spice racks where whole cumin and coriander and mustard seeds are packed in industrial-size bags, and there are more types of lentils and mung beans than I knew existed. Jainy gets some green beans for her family’s evening meal, and I stay on to speak to Sanjay Patel, one of the cousins of the founding family and the store manager. Originally from Gujarat, where they like their food a little sweeter than everywhere else in India, he is proud of the store and the community that has grown around it.

“We have one-stop shopping,” Patel says. “That’s why you see paper towels and detergent and many American products. The customers wanted to get everything here. All the customers know my name. I always stay on the floor. That makes a difference.”

He points out the stacks of premixed boxed food like kadhi pakudi (dumplings in yogurt sauce), dal makhani (lentils) and mutter paneer (peas and cottage cheese) that another family-owned company, SWAD, produces. “SWAD is the largest-selling brand of Indian food in the country,” he says. “American people like to buy it to try Indian food, but also so many Indian college students come in and buy 20 to 30 boxes at a time. They don’t have refrigerators in the dorm room, only a microwave. So they buy these so they can eat.”

It occurs to me, as I survey the aisles of not only food but incense, rose water, religious items, rice cookers and special griddles, seasonal items for the November Diwali holidays, Indian magazines and newspapers and clay paratha (another bread) makers for the stovetop, and end up buying some pumpkin and okra that I can use in my Latin dishes, that these food ways making their way to Long Island are a real strength. I came for the food and ended up with a bellyful of knowledge. And a great need for Jainy’s recipe for stuffed okra…I mean, bhindi.

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Natalia de Cuba Romero writes from her home in Massapequa Park, and chronicles simple seasonal recipes for the produce she gets as a Restoration Farm member at hotcheapeasy.wordpress.com. She is a full-time lecturer at Nassau Commmunity College.