If you live in New York City and eat out at its many Indian restaurants, chances are you’ve tasted Bangladeshi food — even though you might not have been aware of it.
The menus at the restaurants where you ate Bangladeshi food may even have declared that they offer “authentic Indian food.” But much of the Indian restaurant business in New York is dominated by owners, managers, waiters and chefs from Bangladesh.
While there are no hard figures on this phenomenon, Abu Ahmed, Pakistani-Bangladeshi owner of the Indian restaurant Haveli, in the East Village, estimates that as many as 95 percent of the city’s Indian restaurants are actually run by Bangladeshis. Shiva Natarajan, an Indian who runs the restaurant Chola, says it’s more of “a 70-30 thing.” “Yes, the midrange restaurant business is definitely dominated by Bangladeshis,” Natarajan says. “In fact, a chef in one of the popular Indian restaurants I was part of earlier, was Bangladeshi.”
The Bangladeshi presence in New York’s Indian restaurants dates at least to the 1970s. By 2000, it was prominent enough to gain the notice of The New York Times, which cautioned readers: “In New York, don’t take ‘Indian’ food too literally.”
Joel Danker’s 2007 book, “The World on a Plate: A Tour Through America’s Ethnic Cuisine,” says the New York trend actually has roots in England, but has grown fast in New York as the Bangladeshi population has swollen here. Bangladeshis are now the fastest-growing immigrant community in New York, numbering nearly 185,000, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.
So why don’t Bangladeshi food entrepreneurs open Bangladeshi restaurants in New York City? A few do. But “it’s easier to market Indian food, because our guests know India and find it exotic,” says Misba Ahmed, manager of Indian Tanpura restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “They don’t know Bangladesh or its cuisine.” A Bangladeshi himself, Ahmed says that even the chefs at the restaurant are from Bangladesh.
“Ninety-five percent of our guests are white and it’s easy to sell our food to them,” agrees Abu Ahmed of Haveli, where the cooks and waiters are all Bangladeshi. “Even in cases when they can tell the difference, they aren’t too sure,” he says.
It might be tough for many to tell the difference between authentic Indian food and what’s served in a Bangladeshi-run Indian restaurant. But food critics say there are two major giveaways — ingredients and the spellings on the menu.
“It’s the use of mustard oil. Bangladeshis are generous with it in their cuisine, while Indians prefer vegetable oil,” says Dave Cook, author of the New York-based food blog Eating in Translation. “Also, the base of most Indian food is ground spices, turmeric, red chili, coriander and cumin. Whereas Bangladeshi cuisine mainly uses green chilies, cumin, turmeric and the food is a little sweeter.”
Many of the Bangladeshi-run restaurants use vegetable oil to prepare their “Indian” dishes. “Indian food is mainly cooked in vegetable oil. So we do the same,” says Boshir Khan the Bangladeshi owner of the popular Panna II restaurant on Manhattan’s First Avenue, in an area of many Indian restaurants known as Curry Hill. But the spicing can be a giveaway. “Our food is mildly spiced compared to authentic Indian cuisine,” he says.
Another telltale sign is the spellings on the menu. “You can tell sometimes by the weird spelling of Indian dishes that are derived from Bengali,” says Anne Noyes Saini, who writes on food culture and immigration at various media outlets. “The ‘a’ is replaced by ‘o.’” So palak paneer becomes palok poneer, chicken xacuti is shakoothi and so on.
What happens in a Bangladeshi-run restaurant when the customers are from India? “When Indians visit the restaurant, I go into the kitchen and ask the chef to prepare the dishes closer to the Indian way,” said Khan. The restaurant’s Bangladeshi wait staff may find it more difficult to know what to do when customers expect them to be Indian. Mohammad Rofiq Islam was 16 when he began to work at First Avenue’s Milon Restaurant. Now 22, he says it was difficult pretending to be Indian, especially in front of Indian guests.
“I was confused about what to say when guests would start chatting with me about India,” says Islam, now 22. “Later, I learned to steer the conversation to a direction I’m familiar with, for example Bollywood films. I say I love Salman Khan,” the Indian actor, “and that would be it.” And for non-Indian guests, Rofiq has other topics to talk about. “If guests are from England or Australia, I talk about cricket. We are all cricket playing nations so I’m comfortable with the topic. I say I love Sachin Tendulkar and that’s good validation.”
New York has a number of popular, authentic Bangladeshi restaurants, like Neerob in Parkchester, the Bronx. It’s a hole-in-the-wall that gets much praise from food critics; the aromas of mustard oil and cumin hit you as soon as you walk in. The menu is dominated by fish dishes, bhortas and all things Bangladeshi, though all-time subcontinental favorites like chicken tikka and chicken tandoor are on the menu. Its flavoring is starkly different from the fiery Indian offering.
These restaurants — and the Indian ones run by Bangladeshis — don’t cause Indian restaurateurs like Natarajan to lose sleep. “Most Indian restaurants have moved to the high-end, fine dining space, so the gap left by them is filled by these ‘Bangladeshi Indian’ restaurants,” says Natarajan. “One has to remember that India’s food landscape is vast — so there is a lot of space for everyone.”
So it looks like diners in many New York Indian restaurants will continue enjoying Bangladeshi cuisine for some time to come.
“When all is going well, why change anything? It’s just good business,” says Boshir Khan. Asked if he ever plans to open an exclusive Bangladeshi restaurant, Khan says: “Someday. But not today.”