Curry Hill – A Little Indian Gem

As most of you who have read this blog before know, I am pretty one dimensional about my passion for India and all things Indian. Although I do not live in India, I am lucky enough to call NYC – a town where there are several different Indian neighborhoods all around the boroughs – home. This week, I want to take you on my own personal journey through Curry Hill, an Indian area around Lexington Avenue and the high 20s which is traditionally known for reliable, inexpensive restaurants. I’ll have you discover that it is truly about so much more… And, if you live in music, as I do, then go to ITunes, click on IMix and search for “Curry Hill’s Soundtrack for HUEA” for my own personal musical guide. N-joy!

The best way to travel around NYC is always the subway. Fast, cheap, though not always that clean and ALWAYS too crowded, especially during the holidays. Take the number 6 train to 28th and Park and walk over, hitting all the stores on 28th Street in the process. But I usually hit those shops on the way back to the train, so you might want to resist the temptation and use that virtue – Patience – which is so often ignored these days. The N/R trains also stop on 28th, though a bit further up, on Broadway. It’s still a pleasant walk if that line happens to be more convenient for you.

Before we start going crazy with shopping in this neighborhood, lets hit it for what it has been its claim to fame: FOOD. Not only does one find here several excellent restaurants, for every taste and palate, but two of the best ethnic groceries in the city are also located within a block of each other. I suggest hitting Kalustyan’s – on Lexington between 28th and 29th – before your meal. This way, you can familiarize yourself with the spices, colors and smells of India. Kalustyan’s makes the very best “Homemade Mixed Pickle” outside of India, which includes carrots, lotus stem, mango and lime, all chopped to chunky perfection and marinated in the special spices that make Indian pickle taste sweet, sour and spicy all at once. Pick up a small jar from their refrigerator for $4.99 and don’t be tempted to go for the cheaper brands sitting out on the shelves, as those will not taste as they cost, generic. While you are still in the fridge area, may I also suggest some Kefir, which is a thicker, more flavorful version of Greek Yogurt, something I have only recently discovered but have already become addicted to. While inside Kalustyan’s, take your time and look around, walking up to the second floor to have a snack, and moving slowly through all the tiny aisles filled with fragrant seasonings, colorful pulses and jars filled with everything you never knew you wanted but suddenly feel you must have. Only by lingering will you truly get the experience of shopping in an Indian “DUKAAN” or shop. While on the second floor, try their prepared foods or pick up some loose Kashmiri tea blend. This green tea with almond slices is delicious with a bit of half and half and lots of sugar. Upstairs you’ll also find special cooking vessels, but try to avoid the temptation to buy here. There is a perfect place for that sort of thing coming up later. Downstairs, you will be tempted by the fresh Parathas (Indian filled bread, with Methi – fenugreek leaves – being my favorite) and even the handkerchief thin Roomali Roti. By all means, get some, though it might be better to wait until after lunch and pick it up on your way home. OK, Kalustyan’s will certainly have awakened all your hunger, so now it’s time to choose a restaurant. Are you a vegetarian? Then I’ve got just the place for you! South Indian wonder Saravanaas, on 26th and Lexington. It is truly authentic Madras style cooking and purely vegetarian. Click on the link above, to begin a lovely journey with their colorful website. Do not be confused by the imitations, such as Saravana Bhavan which is just up the street and not nearly as good. At Saravanaas, try their Masala Dosa (flat lentil/rice flour pancake which is then rolled around spiced potatoes) or their South Indian Thali, which is a selection of a few different curries, some pickle, yogurt, rice, a piece of bread and even a little tasting of dessert, all served on a traditional steel plate, a “thali”. A full, variety-filled meal! But there are also Pooris (fried bread which is served with two curries of the day) Parathas – though different in texture preparation from the Punjabi ones you just saw in Kalustyan’s – and different types of Dosas to satisfy even the most demanding Indian palates. That is why Saravanaas is always filled to the rim with Indian families, young couples on a date, entire groups of retirees on an outing and once I even ran into my Hindi teacher, who is a Thursday night regular there and a South Indian native! If you want to try something completely different in the neighborhood, another favorite is RICE, owned by the same people who own Kalustyan’s grocery. It is a quaint, tranquil spot, with little, low tables, dim lights and a very special menu. Nearly everything comes served on a bed of rice, hence the name, but the varieties of the stuff are bound to make your mouth water. Green Rice is with a special cilantro pesto sauce, while Rice & Beans is a funky take on the traditional Caribbean fare and there is even a Lebanese Rice with garlic and little vermicelli noodles mixed in. Then you can choose anything, from vegetarian meatballs, to tofu, to even chicken satay as a topping for your rice. Yum! Across the street, catty corner, is Chinese Mirch, another unusual restaurant, for Western palates. Don’t expect traditional Chinese food, as here they cook it Bombay style. Once you have tried Indo/Chinese food, there is no going back to simple Sechuan, seriously… But it does contain the dreaded MSG of regular Chinese restaurants, so it’s not a place I hit often. Only when I feel like spending the night in front of my TV, with way too much energy than I know what to do with! Other eating spots in the area include Copper Chimney, Tiffin Walla – which does offer fun lunches with loads of little side dishes – and the crowd favorite Curry in a Hurry, upstairs from their take out spot for Samosas, on 28th and Lexington. So, now that we have taken care of lunch, you must have some of the traditional after eating delicacies of the Indian culture. One way to go is to try the traditional Kashmiri tea at Naimat Kada, between 28th and 29th, on the west side of the street. It is $2.50 a cup, but worth the buttery, dense, tangy experience. Or, right upstairs is Sangeet House, a fantastic video and music shop, which I will tell you more about below, in the SHOPPING segment, but which also offers the traditional Paan – a betel leaf, filled with all kinds of digestive and flavorful spices – for $1.50. Paan is not for every palate and my suggestion is, approach with caution. It is tempting to pop one into your mouth, but small nibbles is how I do it. Alright, so now with our bellies full, we can get down to business.

Following are a few suggestions, but do explore on your own, by all means. You can start at Sangeet House, if you are already there for Paan, and browse through their extensive collection of DVDs, CDs and Bollywood magazines. While there, pick up the music for “Saawariya” by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, as it will put you in a romantic mood, and the CD for “Om Shanti Om” which has some great running tracks. If you are getting a first taste for Hindi movies, then ” Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham…” is a great one to start with, but do keep the tissues handy. You can also ask Siva, the lovely gentleman who runs the shop, to advise you on some good titles to start with. Another favorite of mine, for a completely different take on Bollywood, is “Dhoom 2″, an action packed adventure, with masterful dancing and effects. For Indian fashions, try Neera Sari Palace, across from Sangeet House and Om Sari palace, on 27th Street, between Lex and Third. The later has it all, pashminas, for all prices and tastes, traditional three piece suits, with either pants or skirts, and lots of saris, of course. The owner is a personable woman with a warm smile. Once you are done with the fashions, then begin walking back towards the train station. On 28th between Lex and Park are a couple of great shops such as Little India Grocery, which sells an amazing Jasmine soap for $1.99 and has loads of Gujarati specialties. In the refrigerator section, towards the back, make sure to pick up some Khaman, a spongy, sweet, yellow treat, which in eaten in Gujarat with a very spicy chilly pickle. If you like tea, the Tea Masala spice is great for turning any variety of good ol’ tea into a chai. Or pick up a box of Chaat Masala, to sprinkle on anything from popcorn to yogurt, slicing a few cucumber into it for texture. I find this shop has better prices than Kalustyan’s but isn’t as inspiring. And lacks the variety of world foods of the later. Alright, now “Dulcis in Fundo” as my mom always says “leaving the sweet stuff for last”. Butala Emporium on 28th Street is a fantastic experience and I guarantee you will not leave there empty handed. Between the boxed bangles, the beauty products and the colorful decorations, you will find something to take home. Remember when I wrote earlier that a good place for pots and pans was coming up later? This is it! Walk to the back of the store and let your imagination go while, among copper Bhiryani pots – for traditional rice dishes – and stainless steel cups and tiffins – traditionally used for carrying food to working men. In the front, go wild picking a face mask from Ayur – Rose for Revitalizing, Methi for Refreshing or Almond for Moisturizing, or some great Hair Oil from Amla, Coconut Oil from Vatika, or even some Almond Creams, all for under $10. So, now that I’ve taken you on this tour, you can see how this little tiny neighborhoods holds my fascination, as it’s just so chock-full of fun shops and eating establishments. I hope I have helped you see the world through marigold colored glasses, if only for a day!

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