An Intimate Food Adventure with Madhur Jaffrey: India in Jackson Heights & Floral Park

Early this Spring I attended the annual conference for the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) in New York City.  There was one tour that I wanted to partake in but my flight schedule did not allow for me to join it. However, my friend, Kathy Blake who writes The Experimental Gourmand, a fantastic website about getting out and experiencing New York’s local foodscape, kindly offered to share her tasting tour of regional Indian dishes led by Madhur Jaffrey.  I am honoured and touched by Kathy’s generosity and know that you will be ready to partake in your own Indian feast at the end of this informative post.

One of the highlights of the recent International Association of Culinary Professionals (www.iacp.com) conference in New York City was having the opportunity to explore the rich and diverse immigrant food history of the five boroughs through the eyes of experts in various cuisines.  When I saw that there was a Tour of the Indian neighborhoods of Jackson Heights and Floral Park in Queens guided by none other than renowed actress and Indian cookery writer Madhur Jaffrey (http://www.madhur-jaffrey.com/), whose work I’ve followed for years, I made sure to snap up one of the few available places on it.

Our first stop of the day was to Rajbhog Sweets (http://rajbhog.com/) in Jackson Heights.  We were greeted by Nirav Shah and his wife at
their flagship store.  To start off our day, they treated us to squares of a cooked-milk sweet called Barfi and super-syrupy squiggles of Jalebi along with steaming, fragrant cups of Masala Chai.

 

We were also given plates of Dhokla, a soft, fluffy savory cake made with chick pea flour which was dressed with cilantro and black mustard
seed.  Light and delicate just on its own, when paired with a tangy-hot Cilantro Sauce and a citrusy Tamarind Sauce, my mouth perked up with all the taste points on my tongue shouting for more.

 

Ms. Jaffrey advised us that she was “going to make [us] have too many pancakes and breads” during our excursion as she
“wanted [us] to see the breadth and depth of what we eat.”  So, we headed into the kitchen to watch the making of Chapati (also known as Roti), from the north of India, which comes from the word “chap” meaning to slap, based upon the motions used to make the bread.
The version that we had was formed into circles using a small rolling pin, cooked briefly on a griddle, and then finished by being laid directly on an open flame to puff up before being served to us piled high with a swipe of Ghee (clarified butter) on top.

To serve the Chapati, we were each given an opportunity to select a side dish from the gorgeous array of vegetables that
the shop prepares each day, several times a day.  The steaming Chapati, pulled apart to reveal its layers, was the perfect utensil to scoop up the dollops of creamy Dhal, spiced cauliflower, seasoned mushrooms, and hearty potatoes that I’d put on my plate.  I was so enamored of the flaky, layered, crêpe-like texture of the bread that I ignored the fact that this was just the first of our many stops on our tour, and eagerly snatched up another piece when it was offered by our hosts.


After devouring the chapati, Ms. Jaffrey introduced us to “one of best Lassi you will ever have” prepared by the shop’s kitchen.  I’ve never tasted a Mango Lassi quite so gorgeous with its floral body and notes of saffron and cardamom perfume. It was a perfectly refreshing beverage and made me wish this place was closer to where I lived so that I could pick one up whenever I wanted it.


On our way over from Manhattan, Ms. Jaffrey had explained to us that making Khandvi is “a very special art” and that the dish that we would be sampling at Rajbhog Sweets is some of the best in the United States. Chickpea flour, water, buttermilk, and yogurt are combined and then heated over a low flame until it becomes thick and pasty, almost like the dough for choux pastry.  Then, it is spread out in a thin layer on a
table to cool.  That step is the trickiest to achieve, as Ms. Jaffrey related to us.


Once cooled slightly, the mixture is cut into rectangles.  The dough is then rolled up into long pasta-like curls and served warm.  In this case, it was tossed in spicy oil and given to us with a sprinkle of cilantro on top. It was like eating the silkiest egg pasta but with a kick coming at the
end from the oil and a clean, cool finish from the herbs.  This was an amazing start to a very full day.





For our next stop, we headed over to Raja Sweets nearby.  There, we started off by having two different kinds of Paratha or
stuffed griddle breads, one filled with potato and one filled with cauliflower.  These are part of a traditional Indian breakfast but are also eaten at other times of the day, too.  The crisp, hot dough crammed with a savory, smooth filling and cooled down with a drizzle of cool yogurt was the ideal snack.

Next, a plate full of golden-brown, puffed deep-fried breads known as Poori were brought out for us to try.  These were served with two different kinds of chickpeas or Chana: the beige-colored ones that are more familiar and a small, chocolate-hued version.  The latter had a nutty taste and were more bean-like in flavor than their fairer cousins.  Alongside that we also had a bit of Halwa, a nut paste that was more savory than sweet.  We all ate everything scooping it all up with hunks of the Poori.


We then stopped by a pocket-sized Paan Shop to sample Betel Leaf, which I had never tried before.  Watching the vendor carefully prepare each leaf with a slather of rosewater jam and then adding dashes of other flavorings, I had no idea how this would taste in the end and
didn’t know quite what to expect.  After I took a bite, the woodsiness of the leaf combined with the various things layered inside filled my mouth and my senses with a cooling and invigorating sensation.  I could pick up eucalyptus, anise, and mint among the ingredients.
Not too many other folks in the group seemed to enjoy it, but I found it to be refreshing and rather palate-cleansing.

To learn a bit more about what goes into making some of the dishes that we had already tried and those we would be
tasting next, Ms. Jaffrey took our group on a tour of Patel Brothers Supermarket (http://patelbrothersusa.com/newsite/).  Walking through the aisles, we were able to see the wide variety of beans and flours as well as the fresh herbs and unique produce that play a part in creating Indian cuisine.  With our personal guide, we were able to get an insight as to how the foods of India have been translated to fit on the
tables of the United States and how many immigrants seek to preserve their culinary traditions even though they are far from their homelands.


On our way to our next dining destination, we stopped off at a butcher shop in the area, to get a feel for the kinds of meats that also play a role in some Indian dishes.  The counter at the New Al-Salim Halal Meat Shop had products that are definitely not typcially seen in the supermarkets in my neighborhood.  Goat meat and beef shank were on display along with other cuts that are staples in recipes of the
region.

For a taste of Halal food, our next stop was at Kabab King (http://kababking.com/index_2.html).  When we were seated at the table, Ms. Jaffrey explained to us that the “food we know most in the West is Punjabi,” as the people from that region traveled more extensively and set up restaurants where they settled.  We tend to think of India as just one country with a unified cuisine, however, the way that a Hindu family
cooks can vary widely from what a Muslim family prepares.  Even if a dish is called by the same name and the ingredients are exactly identical going into the recipe, it is the little twists in timing or preparation that can mean that the final result has a different flavor profile.  In the end, we were reminded, it is all The Food of India.


Even though we had eaten quite a bit at our first few stops, I was determined to sample at least something from all the wonderful plates and bowls put before us. Naan is one of my all-time favorite types of breads, but I knew I had to restrain myself and took only a small
piece of it to soak up all the other delicious foods.  I took a spoonful of Haleem, the meat and split pea porridge, which was served with
sliced onions, ginger, peppers, and cilantro. The Tandoori Chicken was perfectly charred and tender at the same time, so I added a small piece of that to my plate as well.


The saffron-flecked Chicken Biryani always seems to me to be a great celebration dish.  I still remember the first time that I ordered this colorful combination: white, yellow, and orange rice, sultanas, pistachios, and chunks of savory chicken spiced with cumin and cardamom.  Ms. Jaffrey mentioned that cream, nuts, oil, and saffron were considered expensive items in Indian cooking, which is why bringing them together in a dish like this feels so special.   The version that we ate a Kabab King was fragrant and delicious.  I think that the highlight of our visit for many of those around the table, however, was the Goat Curry, which was succulent and rich with a slight spice to it as well as a backnote of herbaciousness.


We then boarded our mini-bus to head to another area of Queens: Floral Park.  There, we would be sampling some specialties of southern India at Kerala Kitchen (http://www.keralakitchen.com/).  When the donut-shaped Vada were presented to us, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  These savory, suprisingly light-textured pastries, made by soaking and then beating dhal, are not at all heavy or greasy,
even though they have been fried.  After dipping a piece into the spicy sauce and reveling in the contrast between the soft interior and crisp-crunchy exterior, I think I found a new favorite treat.  This would be terrific mid-afternoon snack to chase away the blahs away.


This starter was followed by a plate of large Dosa, or fermented pancakes made with a batter of lentils and rice, and another of Velleyappam.  Ms. Jaffrey told us that the Dosa in restaurants tend to be shaped much larger than those found in served in people’s homes.  Along with the breads, we had a selection of curries, including a smoky Fish Curry, that was probably my favorite of them all, and another dish I really enjoyed called Thoran, which was a blend of coconut, beans, and vegetables.


Our final stop of the day was at Usha Foods (http://www.ushasweets.com/), also in Floral Park.  We were greeted by trays of Bhel Poori, a layered dish of puffed rice and vegetables with a sweet-sour dressing of tamarind chutney.  Having had the dish at a few street fairs, I
sampled only a small bite of this crunchy snack, as I was waiting to see what other delights we would be trying on at this shop.

Despite all the other terrific things that we had eaten that afternoon, when the Papri Chaat, one of my absolute, hands-down favorite snacks, was brought out to the table, I could not resist diving in for one.  As Ms. Jaffrey described it to those who had never eaten it, it is one of those “hot, sweet, sour titlating snack/streetfoods.”  With layers of crispy, smooth, cool, creamy, spicy, and tangy, this dish hits all the flavor notes that your mouth could desire perfectly in one small plate.


We were also treated to a table-side demonstration of how Bedvi, a speciality of Delhi are made.  These puffed breads are filled with spices and seasonings and then rolled into a ball before being fried.  As with the Poori that we had eaten on our second stop, they are served with side dishes, in this case with Churri, a sharp, white radish chutney, and with potatoes in a savory sauce.



We could have lingered there for much longer, enjoying our hosts’ warm hospitality, but our tour had already taken longer than the time we’d originally been told to plan for it.  Still, they would not hear of our leaving before we’d had another cup of Chai and one their delightful desserts: Gulab Jamun, balls of fried ricotta-based dough coated in a sweet, rosewater syrup, to see us on our way back to Manhattan.


At the start of our tour, Madhur Jaffrey had prefaced our culinary exploration by saying that what we refer to as ‘Indian
food’ “varies as much as, say, Danish food does from Greek.”  It was amazing to spend the day with her touring Queens and discovering through our senses and our tastebuds the wide range of rice dishes, vegetables, meats, curries, and breads that encompass the
cuisine of India.  I feel as though we still only managed to dip into a small sample of what this incredibly diverse country has to offer to our palates, which means that another trip to Jackson Heights and Floral Park, if not to India itself, might something I need to plan
for in the near future.

Buon
appetito!

Kathy Blake writes The Experimental Gourmand, a fantastic website about getting out and experiencing New York’s local foodscape and interacting with those who are a part of it at farmers markets, food events and artisan markets.

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