Photo: David De Armas
New York City is home to the largest South Asian population of any metropolitan area in the US. Those who trace their roots to India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and other countries of the Indian subcontinent have made an outsize impact on the City’s food, art, music and fashion, and neighborhoods such as Jackson Heights in Queens, Kensington in Brooklyn and Tompkinsville in Staten Island are practically defined by their South Asian influence. Read on for a guide to experience a culture that helps give NYC its heartbeat.Jackson Heights. Photo: Elizabeth Bick
Jackson Heights. Photo: Elizabeth Bick
No South Asian experience in New York City would be complete without a trip to , home to one of the City’s oldest Little Indias as well as large communities from Bangladesh, Nepal and Tibet. It’s been the go-to for clothing, jewelry and food from South Asia for decades. In its anchor, , you’ll find (Pakistani), Ittadi (Bangladeshi), (Nepalese) and (Indian and Indo-Chinese). India Sari Palace is also in the neighborhood and has served New Yorkers’ fabric needs for decades.
, known as Ganesh Temple, after its central deity, is open to all visitors. You’ll find prayer materials for purchase, plus a restaurant on the lower level, , that’s a popular draw—one that drew a nod from Anthony Bourdain, who featured it on his TV show No Reservations. People come for dosas, idlis (rice-and-lentil cakes) and other South Indian favorites. If one dosa’s not enough, pick up another down the block at , another well-known destination for regional snacks.
The mile-plus stretch of Brooklyn’s Coney Island Avenue between Church Avenue and Avenue H is home to many Pakistani immigrants, who have arrived in waves since the 1990s. Stop by for Pakistani and Indian staples like tandoori chicken and kebabs, but make sure to try the beef nihari, an almost birria-like stew, with hunks of beef in a rich gravy thickened by whole-wheat flour. Walk over to , which claims to be an outlet of Lahore’s famous Gourmet Resturant; whether or not that’s the case, it’s a fine place for tandoori, biryani and fresh sweets. Advertisement
West of Ocean Parkway, Church Avenue—and, more officially, McDonald Avenue—has a stretch known as Little Bangladesh, which includes a handful of community institutions. ’s samosas and piyaju are worthwhile, but most people make the trip to the café for its fuchka (crisp semolina cups with a spiced potato filling). has the best selection out of the neighborhood supermarkets. And for those with a sweet tooth, has you covered. It’s also the best place in the neighborhood for Bangladeshi seafood dishes and killer beef tehari.
Courtesy, Art of Tabla
Brooklyn’s is a music school dedicated to teaching and performing tabla (hand drums) and karnal (a long, straight trumpet). Hosted by Surya Sound Temple, a meditation center in Bushwick, the school features classes, events, workshops and performances. The organization draws inspiration from Shabd and Naga yoga. Founder Siddhartha Mehta says, “The yogic part of it has to do with learning and understanding how to sit down or stand up while playing and understanding the body mechanics.”
While many are familiar with Indian food, most curry shops reflect North Indian tastes. Outside of dosas, not many South Indian specialties have found a big audience in the US. That changed to a degree with , which was recently awarded a Michelin star for highlighting regional fare.True to its restaurant group’s name (Unapologetic Foods), Semma does not cater to American palettes, instead putting out dishes the way chef Vijay Kumar experienced them back in Tamil Nadu. Try the Goanese oxtail seasoned with cardamom, cumin, cilantro and cinnamon, or, more daring, Kudal Varuval, aka goat intestines spiced with garam masala. For something more traditional, opt for the gunpowder dosa or an uttapam (pancake made from rice and lentils) with fresh vegetables.
Kulwinder Singh founded in 1993 as a place for overworked cab drivers to feed their chai habit, get sustenance on long nights, chat with each other and be able to use a restroom in a city with few public ones easily available. Thirty years later it remains a neighborhood institution.After a late-night show across the street at Mercury Lounge, nothing hits like the affordable food here. Favorites include channa masala, chickpeas with onions covered with tamarind chutney and yogurt, served over a piping-hot samosa. Singh’s son, Jashon, and other young South Asian Americans successfully petitioned the City for a cab stand to maintain his father’s legacy of providing a welcoming place for taxi drivers.
Rubin Museum. Photo: Filip Wolak
The is dedicated to the collection, display and preservation of the art and cultures of the Himalayas. Located in Chelsea, the museum originated from the private collection that Donald and Shelley Rubin started assembling in the 1970s. Spanning 1,500 years and some 3,500 pieces, the collection includes sculptures, paintings, installations and reproductions of murals from Tibet’s Lukhang Temple. The original six-story spiral staircase was left intact from the Barneys department store space the museum took over in 2004. Stop by the shop for books, robes, prayer flags and other goods made in South Asia.
A specialty grocer-café known for Indian and Middle Eastern spices, teas and other global food items, was founded by an Armenian immigrant back in 1944. As immigration from South Asia increased in the 1960s and 1970s, Kalustyan’s started catering to that growing community, and other establishments in the area followed, helping give the blocks along Lexington Avenue in the high 20s the name Curry Hill. The spice blends, herbs, hot sauces and such are sourced from suppliers in 80 countries—and what they don’t have, they can track down. Spending time in the vast store can make it easy to forget you’re in New York City, though where else would you find such a place?
Courtesy, Chai Spot
Half tea lounge and half social enterprise, makes for a relaxing break from navigating the city streets. The vibrant space has colorful cushions on the floor, on which guests work or wind down. A portion of the café’s total profits go to empowering women and children in Pakistan. Head over with a laptop to enjoy their chai and welcoming ambience, but don’t be surprised if you doze off in the comfortable digs.
takes classic Indian dishes, like chicken tikka masala, and turns them into tacos, putting the fillings in tortilla-like naan or roti. A family affair, Danikkah Josan’s Indian taqueria occupies the West Village newsstand space her father worked out of for 30 years. Thanks to her Indian father and Puerto Rican mom, Josan grew up around Indian and Latin spices. The years she studied in Texas getting by on tacos inspired her to start Taco Mahal. Like the food fusion, the decor features Indian and Latin American influences.
Though not a household name in the States, represents the pinnacle of Indian luxury fashion. Sure, there are the goods—handbags, jewelry, caftans, saris, evening gowns, gender-fluid coats—but the setting is equally worthy: high ceilings, complex woodwork, intricate wallpaper, chandeliers said to have cost almost a million dollars. Housed in the Archive Building on Christopher Street, the store elegantly fuses East and West.
Lakruwana Restaurant. Photo: Kyle Deitz
Less than a 10-minute bus ride from the St. George ferry terminal lies Sri Lankan restaurant . The interior is decorated with carved wood and ornate furniture shipped from Sri Lanka, along with quinceañera-like photos of the family establishment’s host, (the daughter of the owners). Try one of the lamprais, which pairs a curry (choose from the likes of lamb, fish and vegetable) with basmati rice, seeni sambol (spicy onion), eggplant moju (pickled eggplant) and more, cooked in a banana leaf. On the weekends, enjoy one of the City’s best lunch buffets and visit the nearby , founded by Julia.