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South Asian eateries in U.S. distinguishing cuisine from 'Indian food' umbrella

Bangladeshi, Nepalese, Sri Lankan and other South Asian restaurants say it's time to be recognized for their own flavors and cultures.
Image: Fish Curry
Bangladesh is a predominantly Muslim country where pork is a rarity. Fish is thus a mainstay for meals in the low-lying, mainly riverine territory.Alisha Rana

Chicken tikka masala is one of the quintessentially Indian dishes — "Indian" in the way much of America understands the cuisine — that the Bangladeshi founders of Korai Kitchen vowed not to serve when it opened in Jersey City, New Jersey, in 2018.

In fact, the owners have taken pains to distinguish their fare from Indian cuisine typically encountered in restaurants here, resolutely branding themselves with the #NoChickenTikkaMasala tag. And Korai Kitchen is among a small but growing number of South Asian eateries in the West seeking to peel away from the broad umbrella that is "Indian food," looking to be distinguished and savored in their own, distinct flavors.

The "Indian" label has overshadowed the uniqueness of different South Asian cuisines, said Nur-E Farhana Rahman, 32, who co-founded Korai Kitchen with her mother.

Labeling their menus "Indian" was "a gross generalization that early immigrants had to adopt for survival," she said, noting that a lot of people, to this day, "still don't know where the heck Bangladesh is."

Image: Nur-E Gulshan Rahman and Nur-E Farhana Rahman
Korai Kitchen in Jersey City serves home-style Bangladeshi food. It is the brainchild of mother-daughter duo of Nur-E Gulshan Rahman, left, and Nur-E Farhana Rahman.Chirs Andre

Over half of Indian restaurants in New York City are really run by Bangladeshis, food studies professor Krishnendu Ray wrote in his 2017 book, "The Ethnic Restaurateur." In Britain, over 80 percent of chefs helming "curry houses" hail from the Sylhet region of Bangladesh, estimated a report from The Guardian in 2017.

These early immigrants had arrived with the burden of feeding their households rather than brandishing their cultural aspirations, said Ray, who is from India and now lectures at New York University.

But since the 2010s, some restaurants in the South Asian diaspora have started to assert more distinct identities. And this movement has been gaining momentum in recent years, driven primarily by young entrepreneurs who are using food ventures to give voice to their unique heritages. Many hail from countries adjacent to India, such as Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

In Manhattan's East Village, the Sri Lankan eatery Sigiri stands as a no-frills outpost of the subcontinent's southernmost country, quite literally in the shadows of its neighboring eateries, Milon and Panna II Garden, both boasting luminous interiors filled with Christmas lights. Branding themselves "Indian Bangladeshi restaurants," the latter two have equally dazzling menus offering laundry lists of entrees, while Sigiri has stood by its offering of 20-odd entree options since 2011.

"Some people believe in having big menus with 100 items so that more people will try it, but we just want to keep to a small menu and let our customers come back for good-quality food," said Sigiri's restaurant manager, Chavindu Samaraweera.

Samaraweera also took pains to distinguish Sri Lankan cuisine from "Indian food."

"Most people think Sri Lankan is the same as Indian, but it's not. Indian meals often involve yogurt, whereas in Sri Lanka we rarely use that. Indian curries also tend to be tomato-based, whereas ours smell and taste more of coconut milk."

Image: Sigiri
Sigiri is a Sri Lankan restaurant offering a lean, no-frills menu. The central feature of Sri Lankan cuisine is steamed rice with a coconut milk-based curry of fish, chicken or mutton. Dishes are accompanied by pickled fruits or vegetables, chutneys and sambols.Kelly Ng

As another example, in 2015, cousins Mahfuzul Islam and Alvi Zaman started Jhal NYC, a pop-up stand serving Bengali street food, based in Queens, in an effort to "shine light on the distinct Bengali-New York culture." In an interview with Brown Girl Magazine in 2018, Mahfuzul said, "Jhal is not about repackaging traditional street-food culture for a white American audience."

It serves two traditional snacks: jhal muri, a mix of puffed rice, chili peppers and fried gram flour served in a newspaper cone, and fuchka, a hollow puri stuffed with yellow peas, herbs, chili peppers and tamarind sauce.

Other newer kids riding this "movement" including Fuskahouse, a food cart which set up shop in January last year at Jackson Heights, serving fuchka, a Bengali snack that is kin to pani puri in India's west and south. Fuchka typically includes mashed potato and bengal gram, while pani puri's main ingredient is chickpeas.

Kolkata Chai Co. was launched in the East Village in September by a pair of Indian American brothers to embrace masala chai as a "working person's drink," rather than the Americanized symbol of the "exotic, unknown, East."

"It doesn't reflect our first-generation experience and seems like a shortcut to getting cheap Instagram love," Ayan and Ani Sanyal write on the teahouse's website.

Unlike in India — where a majority of the people are Hindu and hence abstain from beef — Bangladesh is a predominantly Muslim country where pork is a rarity. Fish is thus a mainstay for meals in the low-lying, mainly riverine territory. Bengalis also tend to use less dairy in their cooking.

Some say South Asian food entrepreneurs who migrated to cities in the U.S. and the U.K. may have insisted on the use of "Indian" in describing their businesses in part because of the relatively recent histories of Bangladesh and Pakistan as sovereign states. In August 1947, the British decided to end their 200-year-long rule in the Indian subcontinent and to divide it into two separate nations, Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan — which was later separated again to form Pakistan and Bangladesh.

For the most part, though, most have deferred to offering extensive menus and branding themselves as generalists — offering Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi food, among other cuisines in the South Asian smorgasbord — for commercial reasons.

"My experience dealing with older immigrant entrepreneurs is that they lack confidence in their country's distinct cultures, and they believe having an extensive menu that lumps different cuisines together will draw more consumers," said Joe DiStefano, a Queens-based food writer. He cited Sagar Chinese, a Bangladeshi-owned restaurant in Jackson Heights that serves a wide range of Asian dishes, from paneer to momos to tom yum soup. On its website, the restaurant, which opened in 2008, is billed as a "halal Indian-style Chinese and Asian fusion restaurant."

Another South Asian institution in Jackson Heights that adopts this catch-all approach to its marketing is Dera Restaurant, just a five-minute walk from Sagar Chinese, which started two decades ago. Its menus explicitly read "Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, Nepali," but its owner, Saif Nagra, insists that Dera's flavors are derived predominantly from Punjab, Pakistan's most populous province.

Image: Dera Restaurant
Dera Restaurant, a South Asian institution in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of New York, serves predominantly Punjabi food, but its menus read "Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, Nepali."Kelly Ng

Asked why its offerings were worded this way, Saif deferred to the commerce reasoning. "It's like that so people will come, but whenever people ask me, I'd say it's traditional Punjabi, Pakistani food."

Even within India, cuisine varies among the regions, said Pooja Bavishi, who started Malai, an ice cream business, in 2016. "There is so much regionality in Indian food. It's different wherever you go, but here it often gets watered down to the usual chicken tikka masala," she said.

Her vision in setting up Malai is to share unique flavors from her childhood — including rose, ginger, sweet roti and ghee, just to name a few — in the form of ice cream, a ubiquitous dessert. Bavishi grew up in North Carolina, but her family hails from Gujarat, Indian's westernmost state. "Malai" is adapted from a term meaning "cream" in Gujarati.

"We're seeing more South Asian restaurants popping up that want to be authentic, with young entrepreneurs wanting to serve food they know, that they grew up with," she said.