It was only meant to be a story on lassi, India’s refreshing yogurt drink, for our Drinks issue. But when my colleague and friend, Jainy John Thomas, took me and my son to her go-to, one-stop, I-need-my-Indian-food-fix-NOW favorite place, it turned quickly into something much more.
USHA Foods may seem to be simply an Indian quick meal/bakery joint, but it became quickly apparent to me that it is actually a major organ in the life of the community it serves: the rapidly growing South Asian (and increasingly Southeast Asian) neighborhoods around Floral Park, which straddles the Nassau-Queens border.
When we arrived, we were welcomed by Abhi Mathur whose parents, Anil and Indira Mathur, came from New Delhi in 1986. “My dad had this deep inspiration to be the first in his family to go abroad,” says Abhi. “New York captured his imagination.” After working in the corporate world and in retail for a number of years, they decided it was time for change.
“In the late 90s they began observing our community demographic shifting, that there was an emerging community in this area and that represented an emerging market,” he continues. “They started USHA in 1997. And now in the past decade especially, the population is exploding. It is really a remarkable phenomenon, this sudden shift.” In addition to Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshi, now Afghanis, Iranians, Vietnamese and Cambodians are becoming part of the mix.
The Mathurs—on the day we visited Indira was behind the counter and Anil was at approximately 11,000 feet on a spiritual journey in the Himalayas—started with a single storefront on Hillside Avenue, offering 75 types of Indian sweets and savory snacks (namkeens). And still there are colorful bin upon bin of colorful freshly made sweets and crunchy treats to buy by the pound. But, they have since expanded into the adjoining two storefronts and may end up taking over the whole block one day with steam tables full of South Asian hot dishes to stay or to go, stacks of naan, paronthas (sic) and roti breads, and tin travel trays of ready-made meals.
Yes, you can get regional Gujarati dishes or Panjabi/South Indian dishes, but the true not-so-secret secret to USHA’s success has been to embrace the religious culinary needs of a community in which Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, Muslims and other religious groups live side-by-side and pray in temples and other houses of worship all over the neighborhood.
If it weren’t for USHA, the many religious sects that provide spiritual nourishment for their flocks in the area would have nowhere to go to fulfill their needs for special religiously sensitive ingredients and preparation. Not only is their food completely vegetarian (though not necessarily vegan; USHA does not use eggs, but dairy products are part of many dishes) as is common for Hindus, they also have a special Jain menu, for those who belong to that ancient sect which strives to harm no living creature in any way. Certain sacred feasts require that all food be prepared before dawn; the USHA staff bustles in at 4 a.m. to get it done. Certain groups have strict fasting requirements; there is a special catering menu for them. Since everything is vegetarian, Muslims don’t have to worry about halal meat restrictions.
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While we were there, tasting not only their four types of lassis, but a dizzying parade of samosas, chaats and dosas that kept coming to our table under the guidance of Abhi and Jainy, the crowd ebbed and flowed—tiny tots with wide eyes on the sweets, young people in jeans, older women in saris and everyone in between. Our visit was during Ramadan; at dusk bearded men and women in hajib crowded in to break the day’s fast.
“We have their favorite foods prepared especially at this time because we know they are hungry,” says a smiling Abhi. “We are ready for them. We try to be open and welcoming to everyone from the region.”
He adds, “We are the default caterers for so many of the local temples and the mosques, for example for Eid and other festivals.”
There are other ways USHA is embedded in the community, Jainy, who live in nearby New Hyde Park, tells me, since everyone behind the counter can speak at least three languages.
“When people have just arrived to this new country, they can come here and speak their language and eat their food,” she says. “It’s a comfort.” Sometimes they find their first job in America here. USHA employs around 50 people in the shop and kitchen.
From birth to death, USHA accompanies the family. “It’s not just for food; it is life moments,” says Jainy. “When someone has a baby, the sweets are very important; they have to have certain ingredients. And when someone passes away, among some Hindus the custom is that you are not allowed to be in the kitchen for a certain amount of time.”
Abhi adds, “When someone passes, the family informs us and we make what they need on the spot.” And increasingly, USHA ships to communities around the country.
But you don’t have to have any dietary restrictions or religious requirements to love USHA Foods. I am a convert to the extravagant charms of the masala dosa, stuffed with potato and fenugreek, topped with a coconut sauce with mustard seed, onion and ginger. My son goes for what Abhi calls USHA’s “ambassadors” to people unfamiliar with Indian food: the samosas. We call them Indian empanadas; you could also call them fried ravioli or wontons, depending on your perspective. Whatever you call them, a stuffed dough like that would taste as delicious. Every time we are anywhere near the neighborhood, he calls out from the back seat, “Are we going to USHA? Pleeeeeeeease?”
USHA is more than just a bakery or restaurant. It is an umbrella that shelters all.