In Search of Curry and Lights on the Indian Buffet Line | Arts & Culture

Indian buffets invite a range of eaters – from the timid to the more adventurous – to explore and experience without intimidation.
Flickr user Dave Kliman

It had been almost two years since I’d graced the line of an Indian buffet before recently giving it another chance, in time for Diwali this year. My local haunt has always been Diwan in Hicksville, New York (aka “Little India” for Long Islanders). But its interior had been closed since March 2020, and it survived thanks to a take-out menu paired with occasional alfresco dining on a renovated patio adjacent to Route 107. Believe me, eating cold chicken tikka with the noise of cars driving past. pass was not ideal. In addition, I was still too uncomfortable eating with strangers since the start of the pandemic.

My wife, Michelle, and I were used to cooking our own Indian dishes at home or ordering. Eating in your pajamas was not the same as sitting inside a real restaurant. And more than missing out on the sitting white tablecloth experience, we craved a buffet.

Of course, the buffets are by no means considered fine dining, but eating at one meant more to me than just watching hot curries sizzle in pewter trays under heat lamps. The buffets represent an amalgamation of the American dream, with its promises of variety and free choice. The predominantly family-owned establishments that offered buffet options opened a window into their culinary world for a range of eaters – from the timid to the more adventurous – offering a chance to explore and experiment without intimidation. For me, eating at an Indian buffet was my chance to connect with half of my ethnic heritage while also enlightening new friends and family with the dishes from my dad’s side.

Growing up outside of New York City, where the largest concentration of Indians reside in the United States, my weekends were spent eating and buying spices in Jackson Heights, Queens or Hicksville in downtown Long Island, two of the most culturally rich Desi communities in the country. On countless city blocks, rows of India-centric storefronts line the sidewalks, from women’s jewelry and sari shops to dedicated grocery chains like Patel Brothers and Apna Bazaar, and countless restaurants including some specialize in regional dishes. As I got older, I started to wonder where these establishments came from.

In search of curry and enlightenment on the Indian buffet line

Jackson Heights, Queens, is one of the most culturally rich Desi communities in the country.

Scott Gries / Getty Images

It wasn’t until the 1965 Immigration and Vaccination Act that the United States saw an influx of immigrants from Asia, especially those seeking employment while pursuing higher education. My father, Roop, was one of those immigrants, leaving Mumbai in search of a better education and a future career as an engineer. When he arrived in the mid-1970s, he ended up living with friends in Jackson Heights. Many years later he would take my mom, brother Ravi, and I to one of his favorite restaurants, the Jackson Diner, where we enthusiastically ran to the buffet line to grab chunks of chicken. shiny red tandoori, bubbling chickpeas in a brown curry (chana masala), mashed spinach with blocks of floating cheese (palak paneer) and delicious hand rolled bread topped with garlic and chives (naan), among a seemingly endless sea of ​​colors and aromas floating intensely before our faces. I remember staring at the edge of the buffet line, plate in hand, wondering who came up with this kind of freewheeling concept. Did buffets exist in India before being imported to the United States?

“[In India], buffets became common in the 1980s in big cities to save on labor costs and accommodate new varieties, ”says Krishnendu Ray, associate professor of food studies at New York University and author of The ethnic restaurateur. Although the concept had existed in Sikh temples in India since the 1500s, known as langar, business models did not appear until the 20th century. Following a massive wave of immigration in the second half of the 20th century, when more and more Indian restaurants began to open, buffets featuring South Asian specialties began to find their place in American culture, even s ‘it still takes time to find a general audience. “Foreigners don’t want to pay for Indian food what they do for French, Italian, Spanish or Nordic food,” says Ray. “There is also a demand problem with Indian food. It is neither very popular – compared to Chinese, Italian and Mexican cuisines – nor very prestigious compared to predominantly Euro-American cuisines such as French, Italian, Neo. – American, Nordic, Spanish and even Greek now, plus Japanese. [a Euro-American reading of aspects of Japanese haute cuisines]. ”

In search of curry and enlightenment on the Indian buffet line

Langar is served in Bathinda, India on November 19, 2021, to celebrate the anniversary of the birth of Guru Nanak Dev Ji, founder of the Sikh religion.

Sanjeev Kumar / Hindustan Times via Getty Images

In the United States, the idea of ​​a buffet was only cordially presented at the 1939 World’s Fair, when Sweden introduced a smörgåsbord, their 600-year-old method of presenting food. In the 1940s, entrepreneur Herb McDonald opened the Buckaroo Buffet in Las Vegas, the first all-you-can-eat restaurant.

Yet even though Indian restaurants are more likely to exist in areas that have heavily populated Indian communities – such as Chicago, Washington DC, Houston, Dallas, major cities of California, Atlanta, and so on – this does not mean say that there is no interest in cooking where Indians do not largely reside.

Recently Michelle and I moved from New York to Miami after both losing our jobs during the pandemic. As foodies, we were enthused by the volume of Cuban, Peruvian, Puerto Rican and other South American restaurants that spanned the great Miami-Dade County, along with their beautiful and vibrant communities. However, finding an Indian restaurant was difficult due to the low Desi population. After some research, I came across Ashoka – an unpretentious restaurant in a mini mall on the outskirts of Miami – that offered a lunch buffet. At first Michelle and I were afraid to try it. How good could an Indian buffet in Miami be? Still, we wanted one and gave it a shot.

So one Saturday afternoon, we put on our masks and gloves, and went inside. The feeling was overwhelming. Yes, there was distance and new reinforced plastic guards in front of each station, but the buffet was open nonetheless and it shone like a treasure chest to be discovered. I was happy to see customers dine inside again, unlike in New York where the doors of many restaurants were still closed.

In search of curry and enlightenment on the Indian buffet line

Raj and his wife, Michelle

Courtesy of Raj Tawney

“We saw business drop 80% at the start,” says Amrit Punjabi, owner of Ashoka, which opened his restaurant in 2015. “There is actually a Desi community bigger than we could possibly imagine. wait in Miami. Indian food is loved by so many cultures around the world, including Latin Americans, ”Punjabi assured me when discussing his desire to open his business in Miami-Dade County, where about 70 percent of its population identifies with Hispanics or Latinos and Asians alone. about 1 percent.

“As the pandemic progressed, our customers began to support us through take out orders,” Punjabi adds. “They started asking us to restart the buffet. So once we got the green light, we did.” Ashoka reopened her buffet at the end of the summer, per CDC guidelines and local guidelines. They offer gloves to customers, change serving spoons every hour and serve fresh naans at the table to ensure less contact. Currently we are at 70 percent of our sales before the pandemic and we are growing stronger every month, “Punjabi explains.” Every day there are a handful of pre-pandemic customers who return to enjoy in person and they bring their friends and families. ”

I was grateful to be seated inside the restaurant again. As Bollywood music played on the wall speaker, the other diners chatted about their day, and the scents of curry and incense wafted through the air in the room, I felt a sense of normalcy for the first time in over a year.

In search of curry and enlightenment on the Indian buffet line

The Jackson Diner in Jackson Heights, Queens, has been serving Indian classics and delicacies since it opened in 1980.

Flickr user Wally Gobetz

However, I wonder about the future of buffets and their place in a post-pandemic world. Of the more than 5,000 buffets across the country, big companies like Golden Corral and Sizzler can maintain a stronghold, serving up traditional meals for the mass pallets. But what about independent companies that offer authentic segments of American life?

Towards the end of our meal, Michelle and I chose the remaining slices of naan while we finished our pot of chai that we had ordered at the table. That day, we regained hope. I can only hope to return soon.

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