Late last fall, the New Skool Journalistas left our beat in Brooklyn to trammel through Queens to investigate and taste the nuances of home and assimilation in the cuisine of two of the borough's vibrant immigrant communities. Moving past the kind of clichéd ideas that attach themselves to “ethnic food” writing, the young journalists uncovered the deep connection between real food, real people, and their very real lives. Special thanks to Home Food on Main Street, Flushing, and the Kebab King, located on Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, for their hospitality.
A Taste of Home by Nicole Rosado
I see vibrant colors everywhere. I get on the number 7 train at Queensboro Plaza and the racial breakdown on the seats is: Latino, Latino, Black, and Asian. A Latina mother and her daughter immediately catch my attention: the light-skinned, blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl has the exact same features as her mother but in lighter shades. The dark-skinned, black-haired, brown-eyed woman jokes with her daughter, but their laughter is drowned out. Spanish words flow into the air and blend into a Chinese language, which becomes overshadowed by cell phones ringing and babies crying. A muffled voice says, “Junction Boulevard next. Stand clear of the closing doors.”
Colors fade. The seats are now occupied in this order: Asian, Asian, White, and Asian. Baby carriages are replaced with shopping bags. Jeans, sneakers, and JanSport book bags become suits, leather shoes, and briefcases. I hear the same muffled voice again, this time noticing the Asian accent of the train conductor. “Main Street–Flushing. Last stop.”
I step out of the subway station and land on the other side of the world. I feel lost in my own city—lost among unfamiliar written symbols and spoken words. I finally reach my destination, a Taiwanese restaurant on 38th Avenue, and I’m relieved to see a term I recognize: “Home Food.”
I open the door and hear beautiful sounds I’ve never heard before. Still at a loss for what the words mean, I try to use my imagination. I am a bit disappointed to discover that the music I am enjoying is actually the Taiwanese equivalent of Britney Spears. My stomach speaks to me as I watch those around me feasting on pork lo mein, beef with celery, sesame chicken with tomatoes, and fish covered in juices and vegetables. I wonder if I will be able to satisfy my vegetarian cravings in this new setting. My worries slip away as I am presented with scallion pancakes, vegetable dumplings, and finally, the best sesame tofu and broccoli I’ve ever tasted.
Tony Tung, the man responsible for the mouthwatering Asian delicacies that so quickly vanished from my plate, describes how he came to Queens from Taiwan 22 years ago “to make a future.” He says the only difference between what he cooked in Taiwan and what he prepares in this Queens restaurant is that now he Americanizes his food by intensifying the flavor. It is impossible to ignore the irony of this situation. While most curious Americans want to explore foreign cultures without venturing too far into the unknown, many people who emigrate to America try to assimilate while still holding on to a piece of home. For Tony, and many of the immigrants making a better life for themselves in Queens, that link to home is their native cuisine. Before I leave, I ask Tony whether Queens is his “home” or if his heart is still in Taiwan. Without hesitating, he replies, “Both are home.”
Tasting Foreign Lifestyles in America by Nicoletta Bumbac
It’s no surprise that Queens is famous for its diversity—with 47 percent of Queens’ population born outside the U.S., you can easily find traditional food in Indian, Spanish, and East Asian meccas throughout the borough.
An Indian man working in a little hut all day on the corner of 73rd Street and 37th Avenue in Jackson Heights, for instance, sells paan—an intense combination of spices, sauces, and flavors rolled into a beetle leaf you place in your cheek, sucking the juices out. It originated in Bombay, according to the paanwallah—the guy who sells paan. The beetle leaf treat isn’t easy to produce; it consists of several ingredients deriving from places around the globe. For a dollar, the beetle leaf is supposed to give you a caffeine buzz, but after tasting it, it seemed more of a minty-mouth-refreshment-rejuvenating-liquid-type-substance with a hodgepodge of milky sweet spices. The unfamiliar taste released newly discovered salivary juices, flooding adrenaline rushes, throughout the roof of my mouth, and left me with a Colgate-meets-Listerine invigoration— paan successfully was the traditional American version of Indian tradition. Sort of.
Others in Queens may alter their original recipes to suit the cravings of fast-food American stomachs. “Homefood,” a Taiwanese restaurant found on Main Street in Flushing, intensifies flavors to adjust to American taste buds. The chef there claims that Taiwanese food is lighter, but certain factors (such as limited availability of ingredients) prevent the replication of Taiwanese dishes. Eel and turtle aren’t used in the U.S. version of the chef’s home food, perhaps making “Homefood” a place for those residing outside Taiwan.
Rene Ortiz, a gourmet chef residing in NYC, would appreciate the paanwallah because he’s keeping traditional foods alive despite American criticism. “It’s sad when people have to sell out to fit into a genre of American cooking,” says Rene, who suggests Americans should indulge in tradition. Rene favors Hawaiian, French, Spanish, and Latin cuisine, particularly Latin foods because of the “heat” they produce. He says that the aesthetic values of traditional food are not only measured in the taste, but the beauty found in culture and music as well.
excerpted from Third World Eatery by Kari-Ty Michele
In an oppressed society there is no one else to turn to
Except those who eat the way that you eat
Those who have the same cravings as you
The same ones who need that buttery naan
And need to pass around the mirror image of matching chromosomes of pain and suffering
The same ones who swam from your hood to the promised land of another hood…
The same ones whose overworked tender bosoms feed your need to connect
That spice pepperin’ your bland tongue,
It satisfies you…
Even if only for a few seconds—
Bottom line is,
It helps you to cope ’gainst those who fed you lies
’Bout havin’ no point in hopin’ for a better life,
instead… Handin’ you mo’ ghetto strife.
It makes those rice & beans con picante sauce taste more serene
Gives you a utensil on which to cling,
And many forlorn songs to sing…
Bangladeshi Girl by Kristen Wallace
As I walk through the streets of Jackson Heights on a cool Saturday afternoon I feel slightly out of place. Not only because I feel like one of the only non-South Asians in the community, but also because I seem to be the youngest person walking the streets. The streets are filled with adults out shopping or rushing by on their way to work, but there are no children in sight. I was beginning to feel that maybe that I would not see any young people anywhere until I walked inside of one of the many jewelry stores on 74th Street.
Behind one of the counters on the left side of the store I see a young teenage girl.
She looks like she could be around my age and has a huge smile plastered on her face—probably because she’s either nervous, scared, or excited to finally see some people her age. My first instinct would to describe her as an Indian girl, but I quickly learn that she is in fact not Indian, but Bangladeshi. In my ignorance I didn’t know the difference, but I listen as her mother explains about geography and the history of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. I also watch as the girl’s face turns to a polite, irritated smile. Does she have to explain these facts often, or is she just disgusted that we, people who seem to be interested in learning more about her culture, neglected to know such an important fact in the first place?
The girl and her mom watch us as we walked around the shop, but the girl doesn’t watch us as intently as her mother. I guess she’s probably daydreaming about what she could be doing besides working—about doing something fun. This makes me wonder if she likes her life or not—if she hates having to go to work here, if she just wants to go home and sit on the couch and loaf around doing nothing but watch TV, listen to music, and eat junk food till she’s so full that not even the delicious curry her mother made for dinner looks tempting enough to eat.
I notice that the only people in the store are her, her mother, and two other ladies that I guess to be her sisters. I instantly begin to wonder where her father is. Was he just not here today, or did she not have a father? I remember something I read a few months after September 11th about Bangladeshi taxi drivers who were deported because of the fear that they might be terrorists. Was her father one of those men?
Sadly, I don’t have the money to buy even one speck of gold on any of the jewelry in the store. Our group of journalists left and retreated to a grocery to look around and ask more questions. Everyone else seemed to be ready to speak to more people, but my mind was still on the girl in the jewelry store.
Culture Blooms on a Gloomy Afternoon by Mark Santiago
The mid-afternoon was gray and soggy as I stepped onto the N train in Manhattan. I grew tired, until transferring to the 7 train at Queensboro Plaza—I was captivated by the rich shades of fuchsia and sea-green graffiti that coated the four-story buildings. The houses were beautiful as well, boasting canary yellows and sun-kissed orange colors. I said to myself, “Never in Manhattan.”
At the 74th St–Roosevelt Avenue station I plunged into streets bustling with activity and culture even on a dreary Saturday afternoon; shopping carts dodged the traffic. I could almost taste the sweet Indian curry smells flying from storefronts to enshroud 74th Street in a tasty glaze on the way to the Patel Brothers Supermarket. Patel Brothers is a neighborhood necessity for the many residents who frequent the market. “This supermarket is a home away from home because many items here aren’t found anywhere else except back in India,” one elderly Indian man explained. “Many people also shop here for traditional items for religious holidays.”
The supermarket smelled like a tropical forest, and I was shocked at the different fruits and vegetables that were sitting atop the bright green shelves. One interesting fruit that intrigued me was the jackfruit. Its shell was uninviting: the exterior flesh was tough and spiky, and I wondered if the flesh would be pink or red, maybe yellow. It seemed to be a citrus-twisted cactus with dark green spikes ready to poke unfamiliar hands. Meanwhile a few feet away from me, an elderly woman grabbed one of the fruits and tossed it in the air as if the spikes didn’t exist.
I stopped next at the green bunches of poi leaves, which are used in traditional Indian soups and salads and smell a little like cilantro. Patra leaves are used for the same purpose, only these were a tad more expensive and smelled like cabbage. Feeling culturally intelligent I left the store and caught up with my fellow journalists busily indulging in the flavors of Jackson Heights. I realized that culture is everywhere, from the smells of peril and arroz con gandules in my Latino neighborhood to Jackson Heights, its rich Indian and Pakistani cultures brightening a gloomy Saturday afternoon.
Beetle Juice by Elizabeth Mandelbaum
Bhaskar migrated to Queens from India. He has a little shop on a corner in Jackson Heights, and he perpetuates his Indian identity by marketing a product from his homeland: beetle leaf. He prepares and sells it to his customers on the street.
He explained to me that the young and the old eat the leaves in all parts of India, where it is considered a mouth freshener and an aid to digestion after the main course of a meal. Each leaf is actually a bundle made up of many ingredients: over fifteen different roots, spices, and nuts used everyday in different types of meals are wrapped up in a fresh green leaf to make a mouth freshener no bigger than the palm of your hand. One main ingredient in the beetle leaf is gulkand—rose petal. The rose petal is what makes the leaf taste sweet instead of bitter. The leaves also include shredded tobacco.
You cannot eat the entire leaf, though. You place it on the side of your mouth and suck the juice and tobacco until you are satisfied, then throw it away. (When the beetle leaf does not contain tobacco, you can eat the entire thing.) Some men eat up to twenty beetle leaves in one day, mainly because of the addictive nature of tobacco.
To be in the culinary business these days you have to have dedication and patience. Bhaskar says he tries to the best of his ability to make the beetle leaf without altering the ingredients. If local markets in Queens do not have an ingredient, then it is imported from India. If he were to alter the ingredients for Americans then it would be considered “American” and not Indian. Open minds and curiosity are a good way to discover other cultures and one way is by eating food from different backgrounds.
Wondering Words by The Z
I look at the colorful pan-fried noodles and veggies on my plate. I wonder if the chef would be insulted if I started munching on these chow mein noodles as I wait for the main course. I wonder if, after this meal, were I to pop a few fortune cookie halves into my mouth like Tic Tacs to relieve my taste buds from the spice of his beef dish, would I offend the chef’s authenticity? I wonder if it would it be wrong of me to believe in the fortune these little cookies are said to bring to my future, and I wonder if international relations will have anything to do with my future marriage.
I wonder if my children will carry the same Spanglish Italian accent as their mocha-skinned mother with her dulce de leche toes, and if I tell them “Hajima, don’t eat that,” will they understand, or if I say to them kocham ciebie on their first day of kindergarten will they know that I love them? My parents grew up in the Bronx next to kids named Tito and ate arroz con pollo y mole, and what puzzles me most is that their daughter doesn’t have a better Spanish accent when trying to tell the clerk at the corner store that she needs batteries for her radio porque no puedo escuchar este CD de musica en Hindi.
And so if the children ask, “Mama, why does everyone look the same, but different?” I will tell them they have all looked the same to me; every American looks the same to me, so “hija let no one tell you that you are the one who looks different,” as I roast corn and marshmallows over a stove that is baking sweet potato pie—like my mother taught me to make in the cluttered kitchen of my home of fridge and full pantries, like the fruit stands on Main and Kissena, blending their colors of fruits from different countries, like the county of Queens with its jars of ethnicity on the shelves of hills that were once farms.
An ongoing collaboration between the Brooklyn Rail and Urban Word NYC, the New Skool Journalism workshop series is generously made possible in part by Poets & Writers with funds from the New York State Council on the Arts.
MEGHAN MCDERMOTT is a Local Editor and contributing writer for the Brooklyn Rail.