Across the Board Culture Food NYU Stories

The Much Appreciated Elevation of Indian Cuisine in NYC

For the longest time, Indian food in New York has resided within what many call “hole-in-the-wall” restaurants. Small shops permeated by the aroma of garam masala and the sweet fragrance of chai, are often ignored in the bustling madness of city streets. Typically, only frequented by South-Asian immigrants themselves, searching for some reminder of home in the harsh adjustment to New York. A great deal of this can perhaps be attributed to the migration of South Asians which remained stagnant from the 1920s until the 60s, giving Indian restauranteurs far less footing amidst cult steakhouses and Julia Child’s French influence.

In the early 2000s, as Indian restaurants staked their ground, the cuisine gained popularity with the warm flavors of dishes like butter chicken and biryani. However, this success remained limited, providing as options for takeout, eaten by those looking for a hearty meal after a long day of work. Thus failing to stand on par with the Italian restaurants that remained the destination for extravagant dinners or celebratory events.

In the late 2010s, the tables began to turn. Indian cooks took the leap beyond the bounds of home cooking and past restrictive career expectations, transforming the act of cooking that was once considered a necessary ability into a complex skill unique to each chef. Trading Columbia Law and Harvard Medicine for the Culinary Institute of America and Le Cordon Bleu, Indian restauranteurs were lucky enough to be working with a culinary background and formal education, offering far more traction within the industry. Following in the steps of the UK, which had already accumulated its fair share of South-Asian restaurants ranging from cult ‘curry houses’ to elegant 5-course dining, there began a revolution throughout New York.

The city was soon speckled with posh spots that offered a jazzed up, but still delicious, version of your auntie’s chana dal. Indian Accent, Tamarind, Baar Baar and countless more offer a melting pot of flavors from throughout the Indian subcontinent held to the panache standards of fine dining. My personal favorite is Semma, an elevated take on local South Indian dishes without skimping on spice to cater to the American palate, recently awarded a Michelin star.

Elaine Zou, Depiction of Traditional South Indian Dishes at Semma

However, I’m not here to simply applaud the placement of an expensive price tag on a classic dish from home. But rather, the fact that this city, in all its judgment, has finally realized that recipes of our past are well worth a Michelin star. Classical Indian spots are now the destination for date nights, graduation dinners, and engagement ceremonies, and a pleasant recompense to the chefs who chose to follow their own dreams rather than their parents. Restauranteurs who likely had to have the bittersweet conversation, one where they professed their love for an unexpected path, and saw the disappointment age their parents’ faces. So, to me, this elevation is far more than well-cooked food, after all, we’ve been making good food for ages.

But rest assured, you don’t always have to spend a pretty penny to get a taste of this elevation, there’s not always the time (or money) for a Michelin star dining experience. So I’ll let you in on a few of the simpler, but classic options that cannot be beaten.

A classic in my eyes is Thelewala, a compact joint tucked into MacDougal Street. Well known for their fresh and spicy chaat, but most importantly their Nizami rolls, which will transport you to the streets of Calcutta even if you’ve never been. If you have enough faith in yourself, I highly suggest trying the phaal, a chili-based sauce, but don’t come crying to me if your tastebuds face permanent damage.

If you’re an avid goer of Washington Square Park, keep an eye peeled for NY Dosas, a well oiled machine (literally) run by Thiru Kumar, the Dosa Man. This food cart offers perfectly crispy Tamilian dosas paired with fresh coconut chutney and warm sambar.

Finally, well worth the hike, is Raja Sweets in Queens. Teeming with Punjabi-style dishes, Delhi-style chaat, and classic Indian sweets you’ll walk out of Raja smelling like true flavor.

Even without the Michelin stars and gaudy venues, options like these exist as the backbone of Indian fine dining, ensuring that our food exists as an option to the whole of New York. India has staked its place in the ethnic jumble of the New York food scene, now let’s keep it that way.

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