At certain times of the day, the stretch of Lexington Avenue from 26th to 30th streets is fragrant with the aroma of cardamom, cloves, cumin, ginger and the other spices that fire up Indian cuisine. Taxis park all along the side streets, as their drivers take their breaks in the Indian restaurants, fast-food places, sari and spice shops that dominate the neighborhood known alternatively as Curry Hill and Little India. Diners include couples, colleagues and families, with men in turbans as well as kippot, as several of the restaurants are under rabbinic supervision.
Jewish interest in Indian cuisine is on the rise these days, as evidenced by the growing number of kosher Indian restaurants in New York City — including, for the first time, two new meat restaurants along with traditional vegetarian establishments — and the availability of kosher chutneys, pickles and packaged curries in local grocers.
Whether idli, steamed savory cakes made of lentils and rice, are the new sushi is yet to be seen, but many Jews are craving and eating Indian delicacies, perhaps for some of the same reasons they enjoy Japanese raw fish. For those Jews who are culinary adventurers, eating something unfamiliar that’s still kosher, like masala dosa, a thin crepe stuffed with spiced potatoes, is a taste of the exotic, a bit of kitchen chair travel. And many prefer to taste the kind of dishes in restaurants that they wouldn’t ordinarily experience at home.
For some, the practice of yoga has led to interest in expanding their understanding of Indian culture and ideas about healthful living. A friend who attends weekly yoga classes suggests that yoga is the mah jongg of her generation, an activity based in a foreign land — and that it inspires a desire to try Indian food in the same way her mother’s generation was drawn to experiment with Chinese food.
For journalist Rahel Musleah, who was born in Calcutta, interest among Jews in Indian cuisine “goes along with an interest in diversity and global culture. Food is an easy and tasty entrée into another culture.” An author, storyteller and singer who often speaks about the Jews of India, she says that her audiences are particularly interested in hearing about the Jews of India, as they are “intrigued by Jews in countries they never would have imagined them to be.” Musleah, who lives in New York, is the seventh generation of a Calcutta Jewish family that traces its roots to 17th-century Baghdad.
In “The Book of Jewish Food,” Claudia Roden describes Indian cooking as “a delicate marriage of sweet, savory, hot and sour.” Indian cooking has many variations, based on geographical and religious differences in the vast nation, where great numbers of the population have been vegetarians for thousands of years. Indian Jewish cooking is also full of variety, with traditions drawn from the surrounding cultures as well as the Jews’ origins. For Baghdadi Jewish families like Musleah’s, their cooking is “a mixture of the local and regional foods, the recipes the Jews brought from Baghdad, even British influence.”
Most of New York’s kosher vegetarian Indian restaurants are based on the food of a particular region, but differences are often blurred. Meylekh (PV) Viswanath, a professor of finance at Pace University who grew up in Mumbai, India and moved to the U.S. in 1975 and frequently travels to India, says that the kosher vegetarian restaurants in New York don’t have as much variety as vegetarian restaurants in India, with mostly the standard North Indian and South Indian dishes.
For a meat restaurant, the special challenge is to figure out how to transform a cuisine that is heavy on the use of yogurt and clarified butter to one that is dairy-free. Last year, the first glatt kosher Indian meat restaurant in the United States, Shalom Bombay, opened up in Teaneck, N.J., serving a variety of chicken, lamb, fish and beef dishes, along with vegetarian offerings. A Manhattan branch is set to open (344 Lexington Ave., between 39th and 40th streets), just north of Curry Hill. That will be Manhattan’s second glatt kosher meat Indian restaurant, as Dakshin Indian Bistro opened a few months ago (1154 First Ave., 63rd-64th). Paris has its own glatt kosher Indian restaurant, Darjeeling, near the Arc de Triomphe.
“Indian food is the most flavorful food. Many kosher diners are not used to the array of spices and complementary tastes. It’s a magical mixture in your mouth that can become addicting,” says David Gruber, an investor in Shalom Bombay’s new Manhattan location. While the owners include Jews and Indians, the chefs and waiters are all of Indian background. Alan Cohnen, who established the Teaneck location, says that he was urged by customers to open a Manhattan branch. They sometimes get requests from Indian families who are making weddings and want to serve kosher food to their Jewish guests.
Sanjay Bhatnagar, who owns Dakshin, was also encouraged by the Jewish customers of his vegetarian kosher restaurant, Chennai, on the Upper East Side, to open a glatt kosher meat restaurant. He spent months developing recipes and features dishes from all over the country. His chefs use more than 200 spices in their cooking, all of which had to be checked by the kashrut authorities. Among the most popular dishes are those cooked in their clay oven, which was brought over from India. Bhatnagar, who is from Jaipur, and has been in the restaurant business for more than 30 years, laughs and says that he never imagined that he’d have a restaurant that had to close for nine days (for Passover).
Several new kosher vegetarian Indian restaurants have also opened in the last few months, and each new establishment has an angle. Several of them serve thalis, meals made of small servings of an assortment of foods, bread, rice and condiments, all served at once, in small metal bowls on a special round shiny tray. A thali is a food lover’s dream, an individual smorgasbord — an opportunity to experience many flavors.
At Yogi’s Kitchen (182 Lexington Ave., 31st-32nd), the emphasis is on health-conscious cooking. The kosher vegetarian restaurant, opened earlier this month, serves, in the words of owner Dinu Milloli, “the food of the yogis,” with family recipes featuring fresh vegetables and herbs — and nothing fried. “The food is in balance, in the thousands-of-year-old tradition, and it has to be tasty too.” They serve both northern and southern variations, and at dinner, their thalis are bottomless — diners can request additional servings of everything. Their specially blended tea — made up of basil, rosemary and mint, herbs from Kerala in the south of India — is said to be especially good for digestion.
Milloli, whose family has a vegetarian restaurant in Calicut, in the south of India, where he grew up, explains that making the restaurant kosher makes it appealing to those who keep the Jewish dietary laws, and also to others who might not keep kosher, but think that kosher certification connotes a high level of cleanliness and healthfulness.
The specialty at Bhojan (102 Lexington Ave., 27th-28th), is food from Gujarat and Punjab, in the north and west of India, while most of the other kosher restaurants on the block focus on the food of the south. Owner Shiva Natarajan says, “We want to expose Jewish people to a different aspect of Indian food.” The setting is very modern and stylish, with kadi pots, used in Indian cooking, adorning the ceiling. Natarajan says that an Indian vegetarian restaurant “gets a bigger market by making it kosher.”
Main Event, a kosher caterer based in Englewood, N.J., occasionally features an Indian station part of its buffet, with lamb curry; chicken tikka masala, (roasted chicken in a curry sauce) mattar aloo, (Indian spiced potatoes and peas) – all served with basmati rice with lentils and Indian bread.
Levana Kirshenbaum, cookbook author, chef and teacher who runs LevanaCooks, recently gave a sold-out class on Indian cooking in her series at Lincoln Square Synagogue. In her own cookbooks, she was one of the first to create a non-dairy tandoori chicken, using soy milk and lemon in place of the traditional yogurt or buttermilk.
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