Like many Bangladeshis, Saif Abdullah and Rafi Islam were raised on two street food snacks called "fuchka" — a crunchy shell filled with yellow peas and spices — and "jhal muri" — puffed rice mixed with oils and spices served in cones fashioned out of newspaper.
Little did they know that those flavor-packed, crunchy treats would help them learn English when they immigrated to United States in 2015.
That same year, Mahfuzul Islam and first cousin Alvi Zaman had an idea to introduce Americans to Bangladeshi food. Although they were born and raised in Queens, New York, they too had a fondness for fuchka and jhal muri as Bangladeshi Americans.
So the pair started Jhal NYC and enlisted Abdullah and Rafi Islam, their teenaged cousins, as help.
Abdullah and Rafi Islam’s big test came when they were asked to work a venue during the day in Long Island City, Queens. No one else was around, so they had to man the stand themselves.
They had been in New York for only a few months.
“It was really awkward,” Abdullah told NBC News. “People were leaning toward us to understand what we were trying to say.”
The pair made it through and Jhal NYC turned a profit that day. The money was nice, but Mahfuzul Islam and Zaman saw something even better.
“We were like, alright, we’re doing this for our cousins, so why not scale this up and do this for everyone else that needs the same exact services in the community,” Mahfuzul Islam, 25, told NBC News.
What began as a venture to sell street food in New York soon budded into a grassroots effort to help Bangladeshis get a foothold on life in America. Though still in its infancy, Jhal NYC already has a half-dozen stay-at-home moms and aunts who meet regularly to make fuchka and jhal muri, Mahfuzul Islam and Zaman said. (Jhal means “spices” in Bengali. Variations of fuchka are also popular in India and Nepal, among other places.)
But it’s not just about the cooking, which the women love. Mahfuzul Islam and Zaman also teach them skills like buying a a subway ticket, riding the train, applying for a learner's permit to drive, and writing a resume.
The goal, Mahfuzul Islam and Zaman say, is to imbue the women with a sense of independence, so they can live their own lives on their own terms.
“A lot of the time they are stay-at-home mothers, they aren’t able to develop their language skills, and they don’t feel comfortable in the workforce,” Mahfuzul Islam said. “We’re like the in-between for them, the transition.”
The same holds true for their new immigrant cousins. Abdullah, 17, and Rafi Islam, 19, are New York City high school students studying English as a second language. Before getting involved with Jhal NYC, Abdullah said they were both very shy.
“After a couple of months, I am okay with English,” Rafi Islam told NBC News. “I could [now] survive with English.”
While Jhal NYC has served as a conduit connecting Bangladeshis with American culture, it has also done the same for Americans curious about Bangladesh, a country of 156 million that shares a border with India and Myanmar.
Zaman, a 21-year-old undergraduate at Baruch College studying finance, said Jhal NYC aims for an ethos that blends the cultures of Bangladesh, New York City, and the United States.
One example involved superimposing the face of Mujibur Rahman, the founding leader of Bangladesh who was later assassinated, with that of Patrick Ewing, the famed former center of the New York Knicks. The cousins posted the photoshopped result on Jhal NYC’s Facebook page last January.
A stencil of Rahman’s face also appears on one of Jhal NYC’s handmade signs, fastened out of weathered Bangladeshi newspapers. The banners are hung at gigs they work, sometimes prompting questions from customers.
“Every transaction is a conversation, rather than us just giving them food,” explained Mahfuzul Islam, who is also an adjunct professor of international relations at New Jersey City University.
Winter is slow season for Jhal NYC, but Mahfuzul Islam and Zaman expect to work the outdoor venues again once the weather turns warmer. So far, in the less than two years since Jhal NYC’s creation, the pair has introduced Fuchka and Jhal Muri to the uninitiated at the Queens International Night Market, the Astoria Flea & Food, and the LIC Flea & Food.
They’ve also catered a four-month exhibition at the Bronx Museum of Arts that ended last February. Presented by the Bangladeshi American Creative Collective, the exhibit showcased the works of Bangladeshi photographers and also gave attendees an outlet to discuss taboo topics in the Bangladeshi community, including depression, domestic violence, and arranged marriage, said Mahfuzul Islam, a member of the collective.
Mahfuzul Islam and Zaman say they hope someday to expand their operation, perhaps with a food truck or brick-and-mortar location. But when they first conceived their plan to start Jhal NYC, their parents were skeptical, Mahfuzul Islam said. Only later did they somewhat warm up to the idea.
“Why are you guys wasting your time?” Zaman, who has an older sister, recalled their parents saying. “Focus on school.”
“I think it’s more doubt,” Mahfuzul Islam added. “They want us to be secure, they want us to be safe.”
One person who never got to see the fruits of their labor was Zaman’s mother, who died of brain cancer at the age of 51. She passed away in March 2015; the cousins began Jhal NYC three months later.
Zaman, who visited Bangladesh for the first time in January, said his mother would be proud.
“We are a very close family,” he said. “My mom was the one who brought everyone together, all the time.”