Kabab King Diner
7301 37th Rd.
Jackson Heights NY 11372
Alauddin Sweet Meat USA
3714 73rd Street
Jackson Heights, NY 11372
Rajbhog Sweets and Snacks
72-27 37th Avenue Jackson Heights,NY,
I visited Jackson Heights, Queens, after 16 years. And I went back there in a few weeks, and then again in a couple of days. The two blocks around are a little slice of Bengal: the sights, the sounds, the voices, the feel of the place. West Bengal and East Bengal are—like East and West Germany, or North and South Korea—the same people: differing in accents, but shaped by the same literature, music, and food.
Kabab King is at the crossing of 37th. and 73rd, next to a desi movie theater, and it excels at muslim cuisine from the sub-continent. It never closes, it is two storeys high--the lower level with a take-out section where the clientele varies from taxi drivers to visiting suburbanites. Upstairs is the sit-in area and when you walk in there you are greeted by the hustle and bustle of a subcontinental restaurant: the clanging of metal pots and pans, honks and engine noises from the streets, sntaches of Bengali, extended families—mothers, aunts,sisters,uncles, kids sitting at long tables, or two teenaged cousins munching out on a sunny afternoon. The available dishes are different than what you will find at a standard Indian restaurant and you ought to avail yourself of this opportunity. So here goes a meal—distributed across three establishments—all within minutes of each other by foot.
If you are a Bengali like myself, you have parked your car and are strolling down catching bits and pieces of conversation in colloquial Bengali dialects that bring you back to your youth and your visits to the houses of aunts and uncles. Shops selling familiar goods pass by, but the trip from Westchester has ratcheted your appetite and you head straight for Kabab King. If you are not from the sub-continent, you are taken a bit aback, amazed at this little eigenstate of Bengal tucked away a few miles from La Guardia; where your suburban Indian restaurants with names evoking the Raj, Taj and royalty seem worlds away, sanitized mockeries of the real thing.
So start off with the goat biryani at Kabab King, and order along with it some haleem, lamb seekh kebabs, and some goat chops. Go for the stuff that you don’t usually get. Biryanis are ubiquitous, but the one with goat is unusual in a standard Indian restaurant. It is a meat that you ought to try if you haven’t already, it has far less fat than lamb and lacks the slightly odorous aftertaste that lamb can sometimes impart. Haleem I have never seen at the standard suburban or urban Indian eatery—it is a dish popular from Bangladesh to Iran, and is a paste of lentils, minced beef, and wheat cooked for hours. A dish with high protein content, have it with a naan, or mix it in a bit with the biryani. Goat chops are rib chops, cooked with the dark charred meat mixed in with the spices that give it a special bite. What is different about muslim food from the sub-continent is the slightly different tone of the spices (similar to the packaged mixes sold under the “Shaan” brand name at Indian grocery stores), and the singular sense of all encompassing tenderness of the meat that comes from marinating with pulverized papaya. Papaya contains the enzyme papain, that will catalyze reactions which cleave the protein chains in the meat, tenderizing it.
Engorge on the meat at Kabab King, but forgo the dessert menu and instead skip down the stairs and talk a walk down the street to Alauddin Sweets for Bengali dessert. Alauddin Sweets is a Bengali sweet and tea-house. Walk in on an evening and you will find, aside from the take-out customers and sweet-meat purchasers, groups of young men relaxed after a days work, sitting around tables with cups of tea and snacks, engaged in what is called in Bengali—an adda—a “chat session”. Alauddin Sweets offers non-descript samosas—I was not impressed the one time that I ate them, decent Indian roadside stall tea, and an assortment of Indian sweetmeats. The one item—the one that should bring you to this place, are the “kachagollas” made with khejurer gur. Peer into the glass display cases filled with sweets. Look for the one where each sweet is individually wrapped in a tissue paper. This is the kachagolla, called thus since it is soft and malleable. Made using unrefined sugar from the sap of date-palm trees in winter, it is a delicacy in Bengal. Unwrap the tissue paper as if it were a little jewel and behold the light brown soft texture of the confection, imparted by the date palm sugar. Consume a few of these, wash it down with a cup of tea, pack a bunch to go (will keep their texture in the fridge for a few days), and then—if your sweet tooth is not satiated, saunter over to Rajbhog Sweets to sample the king of Indian ice-creams—the kulfi, denser than ice-cream, milk based, with ground nuts and hints of saffron. Rajbhog sweets are among the largest producers of kulfi in the tri-state area and you can find their pre-packaged products across many stores in the city. They have been pre-made in large scale, they are certainly not the best kulfis that I have tasted, but they are pretty good and will do the job.
Once you are done with the food, walk into one of the many DVD/CD stores selling Bengali movies and music. In addition to the large number of Bollywood inspired Bengali emotion flicks, you will find entire collections of the movies of the well known director, Satyajit Ray. Along with these, if you are looking for a great, relatively unknown (to the west) film-maker, you will find DVDs of the angst filled movies of Ritwik Ghatak, one of the most original, stylistic Indian directors of all time. "For him Hollywood may not have existed", commented Ray once, indeed Ghatak was an uncommon film-maker who interest in film lay only in its ability to get him an audience to convey his message. Displaced from East Bengal (now Bangladesh) and settling in West Bengal, he never got over the trauma of the partition that accompanied Indian independence, and his films on the racks of a movie store in 21st century America frequented by Bengalis from both Bangladesh and India are a small tribute to this great man.