Last week I was in New York for the IACP conference, a huge annual gathering of culinary folks from all over the U.S. — chefs, food writers, bloggers, entrepreneurs.
As part of one of the official pre-conference activities I’d signed up to take an Indian food tour of Queens with Madhur Jaffrey. I was particularly jazzed about this. Madhur Jaffrey is one of the world’s foremost authorities on Indian food. Her first book, an Invitation to Indian Cooking, was published in 1973 and is still widely considered a classic. She has written more than 15 books on Indian cuisine and hosted Indian cooking programs on the BBC. She’s also a film and television actress. (For further study: Madhur Jaffrey’s lengthy IMDB entry.)
Meeting Madhur, and getting ready for Indian food
On the morning of the tour, Ms. Jaffrey — an elegant, regal woman — showed up at the conference hotel in a chic black jacket with a fur-lined collar, oversize sunglasses and sparkly stud earrings. She passed out handouts that listed what we’d try: Gujarati sweets, homemade chapatis, parathas, chana masalas, paan, goat curry, plus chaat and curries from Kerala. We’d also visit an Indian grocery store.
Twelve of us piled into a small white bus near Times Square and set off for Jackson Heights. About 20 minutes later we pulled up to Rajbhog Sweets, a bright, spotless cafe owned by a family from Gujarat.
The sweets were already on the tables: sticky, syrup-soaked jalebis, creamy milk-fudge squares of barfi. We sipped hot chai and nibbled on the sweets — “Not too much, there are several meals to come,” Madhur warned — and we tried a light, spicy, canary-yellow piece of dhokla, a garbanzo-flour cake topped with chili oil, mustard seeds and cilantro.
I kept asking Madhur questions. “So people eat this in the morning?” She said yes. “They eat them both at the same time?” She said the sweet and savory combo was very desirable.
Before we got off the bus, Madhur had said that Rajbhog’s chapatis were the best she’s tried in the U.S.
Owners Nirav and Neha Shah invited us into the kitchen, where we watched the cook, Sabita, roll out the dough with a thin rolling pin. She heated the chapatis on a grill and then placed them on a gas flame, where they ballooned into puffy ovals.
Madhur also gave us a short history lesson on where the word “chapati” comes from — chapat means to slap, so chapati is a bread made by slapping or hand-patting the dough into a thin sheet.
Parathas, paan and ogling the Indian produce aisles
The next stop was just a half-block away: cauliflower and potato parathas from Raj Sweets, and black garbanzo bean curry. “The garbanzo bean was originally black,” Madhur told us. (As an aside, this is about where I pinched myself for the fifth time that day. How did I get lucky enough to take this tour?)
Our last three stops were just as great as the rest: a stroll through Patel Brothers Indian supermarket, where I ogled the fresh curry leaves, and a sumptuous goat curry from a place called Kabab King. We visited Kerala Kitchen — the only Keralan food restaurant in New York that Madhur knows of — where we tried creamy and smoky fish curries, several types of dosas and coconut mung-bean rice.
But there was still one last stop to come: chaat.
Chaat: the snack I’ve always wanted
I thought chaat, an umbrella term for Indian snack food, meant fried crunchy potato chip-like things, or some sort of breaded, fried nugget.
Totally not true. Bhel puri, from Usha Foods in Floral Park, was just as baroque as any of the street snacks I’d see in Mexico — cold garbanzo beans lay mixed with potatoes, tamarind and puffed rice, topped with crispy-fried garbanzo noodles and lots of cilantro. It was like an Indian-Mexican potato salad. Why was the whole world not eating this?
Madhur saw my look of glee (I was shoveling in the stuff as if I had grown an extra stomach) and she smiled.
“I love chaat!” I said.
“Good,” she said. “Indians love chaat. They can’t live without their chaat.”
I’m so grateful to have been on this tour. An Invitation to Indian Cooking is in my Amazon queue. Can’t wait to get it and start cooking.