Do Immigrants Go For Authentic Food?
By Joshuan Brustein
A small Indian and Bangladeshi restaurant named Desh Priyo opened
in Astoria, Queens about the time when Apurva Mehrotra moved into
his brother's apartment.
One of the new restaurants signature dishes was biriyani,
a rice dish that was also a family specialty, and the restaurant
was located directly in between the brothers apartment and
their subway stop. It didnt take long for the two men to fall
in love with their new neighbor.
When I first moved into the apartment, I was definitely there
10 out of my first 15 days, said Apurva. He and his brother
continue to eat at Desh Priyo at least once a week, and often dine
there as many as four days a week.
When Desh Priyo suddenly closed this spring, the brothers had a
large problem. Just when things began to get serious, though, the
restaurant re-opened. The time the restaurant was closed seemed
like an eternity, but I think it was only about two weeks,
If they would have been closed for more than a month, I probably
could have seen myself going to Jackson Heights.
The trip to Jackson Heights is a familiar one for many immigrants
in New York. The streets surrounding the Roosevelt Avenue subway
stop offer an astonishing variety of cuisines. A halal grocery squeezes
itself between one restaurant offering el sabor de Mexico and another
serving authentic Japanese sushi. Neon signs of chickens and pigs
flash in the windows of Ecuadorian, Puerto Rican, or just Latin
One man sells fresh sugar cane juice next to an Indian restaurant,
proudly proclaiming its absolute vegetarian character. A few blocks
away, another chops papayas and mangos to be served with salt and
hot sauce to diners descending from the 7 train running overhead.
Jennifer Ugarte, a New Yorker of Peruvian descent who was raised
on the Lower East Side, has recently found herself getting on that
train often. She grew up disliking Peruvian food, even toting a
backpack full of macaroni and cheese on family trips to Peru. But
after years worth of summers in South America, Ugarte developed
a taste for the food of the region. Now, she travels to Roosevelt
Avenue about once a week, because its a nice reminder
of over there, she said.
For some things, though, an even a longer trip is required. Fried
hot dogs served on a platter with french fries, called salehiphapaf
in Peru, are found easily in Lima. As far as Ugarte has been able
to determine, the popular dish does not exist in New York.
It seems like the simplest thing in the world, but I cant
seem to find it here, no variation of if, not even in the Peruvian
restaurants, she said. And I cant make it, it
doesnt come out right.
Another one of Ugartes favorites, chocolate panetton, a type
of cake, is also unavailable in New York. For these treats, Ugarte
has to wait for her next visit to Peru. She plans to move there
this fall, maybe for good. Preparing herself for a permanent relocation,
Ugarte has already found a restaurant in Peru that serves macaroni
Jackson Heights is also a popular place for those who want to taste
the food of others. Moses Flores, who moved from Puebla, Mexico
twelve years ago, spent several years in Queens before moving to
Westchester. He still visits on the weekends but not to eat
There is good Mexican food near home," he said. He and
his wife come to Queens to visit friends, shop, and to try many
different kinds of food Dominican, Puerto Rican, Colombian.
"Queens has everything," he said.
But Amilda Dymi, an immigrant from Albania, would not agree. She
hasnt been able to find a good Albanian restaurant anywhere
in New York since she moved here to study at Columbia University
over five years ago. Dymi now lives in Norwood in the North Bronx.
Many of her Albanian neighbors have opened restaurants, she said.
But they are almost always Italian restaurants, which are easier
to market to non-Albanians.
Albanian food is a lot like Mediterranean food -- Italian
food, Greek food, she said, and one can usually find something
similar to the traditional Albanian dishes on the menus at restaurants
that serve such food. I guess thats why no one bothered
[to open any Albanian restaurant]. I was surprised when I first
Dymi said that there are a few Albanian restaurants in the Bronx,
and several others in Ridgewood, Queens. The Albanian-owned Italian
restaurants also occasionally offer a few Albanian dishes. But serving
Albanian food and serving good Albanian food are two different things.
Dymi believes that staying at home is often the best option.
Im not saying that Im a great cook, but its
better than what they serve there, she said.
Kevin Park and his wife, Young Lin, who recently moved to Manhattan
from Korea, also get most of their native food from their own kitchen.
But that doesnt mean they dont have to travel around
the city to eat Korean. The couple cooks Korean food daily, which
means they need a lot of ingredients that arent necessarily
being stocked at the local Gristedes.
On Saturdays, Park and Lin travel to Manhattans little Korea
on 32nd Street. The district has everything they need -- they have
never been to the larger version in Flushing.
This grocery trip has turned into a weekly date. We go shopping
on Saturday, and go out for lunch while we are there, said
Park. The focus of these Saturday trips is bean paste. While other
Korean ingredients can be found in other stores (albeit in slightly
modified varieties) good bean paste is impossible to find anywhere
else. And its a staple of many Korean dishes.
Western people dont like it because of the smell,
said Park, speculating on why bean paste hasnt become popular
here. We dont like the smell either, Lin adds.
Just the taste.
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