While gourmet friends run their confused fingers over long menus, agonising over choices of appetisers, entrées and desserts, I am calm and cool. Not for me this frenzied experimentation. When the waiter comes around with his pad, after my friends stutter through their orders, I look the man in the eye and say, “Masala Dosa.”
Nothing, in my opinion, lends itself to so many improvisations as a masala dosa does. You only have to travel around the south in India to appreciate how, even while retaining its name and the core characteristics, a dosa can be so different. In Chennai, for example, dosas tend to be thin, crispy and so long that they jut out of the plate. In Bangalore, they tend to be thick and dark, often with a dash of butter skiing down its hot surface. Sambhar is de rigueur in Chennai. In Bangalore, you have to ask for it. Go west, to Mysore or Udipi, and the style gets closer to Tamil Nadu’s. On the east, as you step into dry and rocky Rayalaseema region of Andhra Pradesh, you have to be prepared for a sharp bite in your tongue thanks to a generous smear of “gun powder” on the softer side of the dosa.
What generally passes for Indian food abroad is often North Indian, usually Punjabi. That’s justifiable, especially in a place like New York; less than four percent of the city’s Indians are South Indian in origin. So dosas were the last thing I expected to find in NYC.
As it turned out, they were the first thing I had after I landed. That evening was crisp and cold. My cousin had come down to show me around. As we walked around Times Square, Grand Central and the Empire State Building, I said to him, “There aren’t too many Indians walking around here.” He smiled. “It’s true. But wait, let me take you to my favourite place.”
Lexington Avenue has so many Indian restaurants — with evocative names like Cardamom, Roomali, Pongal, Tiffin Wallah, Curry Leaf, Yogi’s Kitchen — that the neighbourhood is called ‘Curry Hill’. We stopped at a restaurant called Chennai Garden, which was so understated, I would have probably missed it. Inside, most of the patrons seemed to be Indians, except in a corner, a man with a skull cap, busy talking to a white girl. We found ourselves a table right in the middle. And it was during the course of the meal — I had ordered Chennai thali, a combination of idli, vada, masala dosa, uthapam and a sweet, and my cousin, a masala dosa — that I realised I had a mission: I had to get a taste of the best dosa in New York.
There are quite a few places to explore. Not just obvious choices like restaurants; one should also, for instance, visit temples. The next day we took the subway and then a bus to Bowne Street at Flushing, Queens, east of Manhattan. The canteen at the Ganesha temple there has successfully recreated a slice of India: A man near the counter was shouting out the orders; a woman dressed in a churidhar-kurta was feeding her son crushed idlis, while her husband was chatting away on a phone; and the dosa, it could have been from any restaurant in Chennai, if a bit more spicy.
It was like listening to someone singing Kurai Ondrum Illai exactly like M.S. Subbalakshmi. “I want something distinctly New York,” I told my cousin. He said, “Then, you should try street food. The best for dosas is near Washington Square Park: NY Dosas, run by a friendly fellow called Thiru Kumar. Easy to find.”
I made my pilgrimage with a chirpy friend from Indonesia.
Thiru Kumar, a lean man with a big moustache and a bigger smile, isn’t Indian. He was a driving instructor in Sri Lanka before he emigrated to USA in 1995. In New York, he did some odd jobs for a while before getting a license to set up his cart near Washington Park. That was many years ago. Today, he is a legend in the making, and especially popular with the students from the nearby New York University. In 2007, he won the Vendy Award for the best street food in New York.