Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Bombay, American-Style

Today I had Bombay flashbacks, perhaps induced by the heat. The temperature in NYC hit 97 ° F (36° C to the rest of the world), and my own unscientific calculations put the humidity at 98%. As I walked down 74th Street in Jackson Heights, women in salvar kameez hurried by me. I passed shops selling bangles (expensive gold ones and cheap flashy ones) and wedding saris, while speakers from a Bollywood music store blared into the street, providing my own filmi soundtrack. Stacks of mango boxes towered near the entrance to Patel Brothers' supermarket, and a row of sidewalk vendors sat behind tables piled with copies of the Qur’an, belts, vegetables, and flashing, whirring toys.

Since Adeet and I were feeling kitchen-shy from the heat, we decided to stop for chaat (snacks) at Rajbhog, my favorite place for Bombay-style food in New York.

I walked in expecting a 20-degree drop in temperature, but the a/c must have been overtaxed. Several fans were set up around the restaurant, and the women behind the counter looked deflated. They normally have at least a slight smile for us (especially when Adeet orders in Hindi), but now their faces showed nothing but suffering.

We ordered quickly: sev puri and khandvi.

Sev puri is the perfect combination of hot and cool, crunchy and creamy. I’m sure there are as many variations of this snack as there are chaat vendors in Bombay. This particular recipe included crispy puris the size of small, round tortilla chips, boiled potatoes, raw onion, tamarind chutney, and masala mixed with yogurt and sprinkled with sev, crispy vermicelli noodles. It is the culinary equivalent of jumping into cold water on a scorching day—heat and relief; you can't truly appreciate one without the other.

Khandvi resembles pasta. The noodles are made with chickpea flour, then rolled and garnished with mustard seeds and parsley. It is mild and soothing, but after finishing the sev puri, the khandvi was almost neglected. Almost.

We sat by a fan and as we ate, the room began to feel more comfortable. Perhaps the a/c had started to cooperate, or maybe it was a chaat-induced miracle. Soon Adeet even considered ordering chai, forgetting that hot liquids might not be the best thirst quencher. Instead he drank Limca, the Indian soft drink with which it is fair to say he is obsessed. I had a mango lassi (similar to a yogurt smoothie) that possessed Goldilock proportions: not too thick or too thin, too small or too big. Just right.

One of the guilty pleasures of eating at Rajbhog is the chance to watch a continuous loop of Bollywood music videos on a flat-screen television. We were slightly dazed by the sight of Sanjay Dutt dressed like a hip hop gangster but felt compelled to watch. It provided our empty calories for the evening.

When we left the restaurant, I heard people speaking Spanish and English, not only Hindi and Bengali. An Eastern European family strolled down the sidewalk, followed by a young Hispanic girl cruising in her "Power Wheel" mini SUV. On the walk home, we passed a Colombian restaurant, a Polish deli, and a Korean stationery shop. This may have burst my Bombay bubble, but it's why I love this particular New York City neighborhood. And Bombay is still in the picture. It soon started thundering and pouring rain, and I remembered—it's monsoon season.

72-27 37th Ave. • Jackson Heights, NY

photos by Adeet Deshmukh

1 comment:

A cartographer said...

Did you get caught in that rain, that 9:00 p.m. rain? I was soaked through in about ninety seconds. I shook my skinny fists at the heavens & cursed the gods.

You've got good snackage up there. I've been disappointed with the snackage in NYC. There should be more and better and cheaper snacks, trending toward ubiquity. If there were an antipope, I'd ask him/her to decree it.

Which are more your style, expensive gold bangles or cheap flashy ones? Oh nevermind; I think I know the answer.