Thursday, April 12, 2012

Stilwell Road, Assam

I have been travelling a bit via Google Maps lately and following the old Stilwell Road, a legendary road built by the Americans in WWII.  The road starts near the improbably named town of Margherita in Assam and passes through Burma and onwards to Kunming in China.  Starting in India, you can drive up to the Burma border on that road today, and—in passing through one of the most rugged and remote outposts of the world--it touches upon three distinct worlds.

Near Margherita is the town of Dibrugarh.   Zoom into the town on a Satellite view, and it still looks like the randomly nucleated small town that it was.  A haphazard jumble of streets, and names of places like Little Flower School, Hotel Mona Lisa, Little Mermaid Swimming Pool, and John Gym.  I can imagine that there are musclemen there, in John’s Gym, with posters of Schwarzenegger on their walls, and would be guitarists wailing out their amps in make shift rock bands practicing under tin roofs (Assam is full of them).  This is the first of the three worlds.

About 60 miles west of Dibrugarh is the town of Ledo and from there Highway 153, aka Stillwell Road, aka Ledo Road, heads eastward passing through the fields and the tea gardens of the Brahmaputra valley.   Looking from above, on Google, it seems a peaceful place with farms, and small huts and namghars (prayer halls).  The Burma border is about 38 miles from Ledo, and the road climbs into the Patkai mountains, and makes a series of switchbacks into rugged, remote land that leads to the romantically named Pangsau Pass at the India-Burma border.  This is a road where the Burmese Kachin guerillas travel.  It can get waterlogged in the monsoons and is criss-crossed often by elephants and the logging business.  Stillwell road then leaves the mountains and drops into the plains of Burma, and into the second world.

Seen from Google, this road looks like a thing of the past.  It appears to be a dirt road.  There is very little habitation.  Whatever settlement there is, has built up around the economy of the road.  Burma—this second world--looks like the Assam of 60 years ago.   Within a few miles the road re-enters the mountains, and into what now looks like godforsaken territory.  After a few hundred miles in Burma, Stillwell road climbs up a second mountain range and passes through into China.

This is the third of the distinct worlds and it is a new world.  Highways are clearly marked.  There are many more cities and towns.  I zoom into the border town of Baoshan.  It looks like a modern city.  Baoshan airport is a few miles away.  The downtown is arrayed within a grid pattern of streets.   Zoom in higher, and there are wide streets with cars and pedestrian cross walks.  It is a world that would be familiar to someone in Delhi, or London, or Beijing.  Yet it is 70 miles from nowhere and the border with Burma. 

Stilwell Road is named after the four star American General George W. Stilwell, an Allied hero of the war in Assam-Burma, and the ex-quarterback of Yonkers High School who led his school to the Westchester County championship in 1899 (  The 1000-mile road was built in about 3 years by a crew of largely African American soldiers and local labor, at great cost and risk to human life.  My mother, as a child, remembers American soldiers in their small town in Assam--they would be viewed partly with curiosity and partly with awe.  It is a curious, personal aside, that this man, who grew up a few miles from where we live, has a road named after him in a remote, almost unknown corner of Northeast India, where I come from. 

Once completed, Stilwell Road transported goods from Assam to Kunming in China  for logistical support during the war.  Following the war, the road fell into disrepair.  Recently I understand that the Chinese and Indian legs have been revived, though the Burmese portion remains undeveloped.  Pangsau Pass, the entry into Burma from Assam is open on specific days for local traffic both ways.  My trip has been of the armchair variety—for a poignant account of a real trip up to Pangsau pass take a look at

Margherita gets its name from the reigning queen of Italy in the late 19th. century, so named in honor of an Italian engineer involved in civil construction here around that time.   These are the delicious anomalies scattered about the North East, like the foxgloves and wainscoting of old Shillong buildings that have now become part of the genome of this place.

Dibrugarh to Baoshan is less than 300 miles as the crow flies, about the distance between NYC and DC.   I can get to DC and back on the same day for a business meeting.  But China has remained ever so far in our minds, beyond the great-unknown forests and rebels of Burma.  This same distance, transposed to the mountains of that land, is magnified by geopolitical differences.  I would love to go to Burma.  Someday before they turn Stillwell into a 4-lane highway.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Jewel of Himalaya Restaurant, Yorktown Heights

The first Nepali (Nepalese) restaurant in Upper Westchester

Tikka Masala, Biryani, and Vindaloo.  Introduced by some unwitting immigrant restaurateur in Britain, who knew not what he was doing, these are the three pillars of commercial Indian food in the West.  They enable enough business and provide for a roof over the restaurant.  And in a clever move, this is exactly what Jewel of Himalaya, the new Nepali restaurant in Yorktown has done—one that might ensure its survival while offering fare that is off beat and exciting.  Encrusted inside their jewel of a menu are these reassuring favorites—that a diner with “Indian” on his mind can order up, like some old song from a juke box.

But if you have any taste for good food, then I would ask you to look in-between these three pillars for this is where the Himalayan Jewel sparkles.  This is, as far as I know, the first Nepali restaurant in all of upper Westchester and they deserve a warm welcome.  Jettison the conventional dishes that you see. That would be a good start.

Nepal sits(rather uncomfortably) in between China and India and while the influence on its cuisine is decidedly Indian, the Tibetan and Chinese touch is unmistakable.  Start your order with the Thukpa—a hearty vegetable (and meat if you desire) noodle soup.  Move on to the Momos—steamed meat dumplings similar to what is called Shumai in Chinese restaurants.  Then end with a Nepali Thali as your main course. The first two dishes come from Tibet, while the thali is almost conventional Indian.   A thali is a full meal that comes with a bowl of rice, some meat, a  daal, a couple of curries, some pickle and a dessert.  Each item is placed in a small stainless steel bowl, and the constellation of bowls is placed on a stainless steel plate.  You can get Indian thalis in New York City.  Consuming them can at times be the equivalent of gargling with petroleum and then inserting a lit match into your mouth.  The Nepali thali avoids pyrotechnics, it is deliciously under spiced, and lets the flavors of the vegetables and the meats seep through.  You can have it with meat or in the vegetarian version—I would recommend going for the goat meat version, which the proprietor refers to as “mutton”, following the norm throughout South Asia.

This is a different South Asian restaurant that brings with it a fresh perspective.  The way the thali was cooked is the way home food would be cooked.  And if you are a noodle soup afficionado, give the Thukpa a try.  It is lesser known than Vietnamese Pho or Japanese Ramen, but is just as good.  This is a place not to be missed. 
Jewel Of Himalaya Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Jin Ramen, Harlem, Near Columbia University

There is a new Ramen place, Jin Ramen, on 125th and Broadway.  It caters largely to a Columbia University crowd and serves four kinds of Ramen—Shio, Miso, Shoyu, and Tonkotsu, the latter one in a spicy and non-spicy version.  Ramen places in the US are sort of like the way McDonalds are in India.  A popular fast food concept that has been moved to a new geography and upscaled to offer more of a “dining experience”.  Most Ramen-Yas in Japan are places where the food is served at a feverish pace, the sitting counters are tight and customer turnout is rapid.  Food orders are taken at the counter and no one lingers at the table beyond the time it takes to slurp down a bowl of noodles and broth.  On the other hand, Jin Ramen, like other places in New York, is a sit-in establishment where the waitress will take your order. 

I had the Tonkotsu Ramen, the richest of the Ramens, where the soup is boiled with pork bones and cartilege for hours, the end result a rich and heavy broth laden with fat globules.  Immersed in this broth are slices of pork belly and Ramen noodles—the outcome a thick and satisfying meal  with so much fat that at the end, you will not need any chap stick for hours (if it is winter).   My son had the Shio Ramen.  Not to be confused with the more commonly available soy based Shoyu Ramen, Shio has a light, yellowish broth that is made with chicken and some pork.  Tonkotsu lacks the Shio’s delicate flavors, but brings with it more of the straight line acceleration of a big-engined muscle car.
Jin was crowded even on a late Sunday evening, and peak times during weekends require a longish wait.  The sitting space is small and the cooking area, on display beyond the counters, is a hotbed of activity with steam peeling off of bubbling broths, colanders of noodles scooped out of cauldrons two at a time, and things getting cooked on large flames on large cooktops.  Jin serves straight upfront Ramen without a lot of variants, as you will find in Menchenko Tei, for instance.  While I am not a Ramen expert by any stretch, the food felt as good as I have had in Japan.

Jin Ramen on Urbanspoon