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November 23, 1999


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Dhabas, New York Style

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Lavina Melwani in New York

If you are sad, heart-broken or simply lonely in America -- there is one sure-fire Indian remedy guaranteed to work: Order a plate of piping hot samosas and a cup of steaming chai at a dhaba -- and see your troubles evaporate.

These dhabas or roadside stalls, often grandly billed as 'hotals' by proprietors, have been the saviors of India's urban masses. A hot cup of chai can indeed alleviate life's problems and, fortunately for Indian immigrants in America, this elixir can now be found in dozens of small restaurants that have sprouted up not only in the Little Indias but also in the main thoroughfares of Manhattan.

Although the owners of these eateries would not like to call them dhabas, these no-frills joints offer all the same benefits -- delicious spicy food at very cheap rates. These matchbox-sized fast food places have been a lifesaver for countless young professionals and students who don't have the time or the culinary skill to cook up a meal.

Here, for under $ 5 they can get a hot, appetizing meal like mom used to make -- running the gamut from the party foods like Makhni Murg to the simpler delights of daal and roti. A satisfying meal of two creamy idlis, a bowl of sambar and coconut chutney on the side costs just $ 2.95.

These tiny Indian restaurants draw newly-arrived immigrants like moths to a flame: they are welcoming places full of familiar aromas, nostalgic filmi music and the possibility of work, be it ever so humble as washing dishes or peeling potatoes -- it is a start.

Now Indian families can get to indulge in street foods without boarding a plane home. Chaat-papri, ragda, pani puri and bhel puri have all become commonplace in these fast food restaurants. The food in these takeout places is so cheap compared to that of upscale, well-decorated Indian restaurants that people can eat here several times a week without busting their budget.

Many of them offer all-you-can-eat buffets for as low as $ 4.95.

Indeed, walk down Jackson Heights in Queens or in Edison, NJ and you see many such takeout places with names like Sher-e-Punjab, Madras Palace, Jackson Diner, Shaheen and Curry in a Hurry. Some of these places offer specialities and have been anointed by NY Times reviews.

Swagat Gourmet in Edison, for instance, is a family-owned business which offers ritual food; Bombay Hut offers Indian and Mexican vegetarian cuisine; Jhupdi, also in Edison, offers authentic Gujarati food like dhokli, khandavi and Vagharelo Rotalo.

Vegetarians have never had it so good: Gujarati and South Indian cooking is overwhelmingly vegetable and lentil-based, and there are countless places serving this cuisine. Dosa Hut, which recently opened a branch in Long Island, is an unpretentious little joint next to the Hindu Temple in Flushing, Queens with nothing more than a counter, some huge pots and a handful of chairs and tables. Yet you can get everything from rava Mysore and masala dosa to hot pepper uthappam and Madras coffee.

These ordinary-looking places have a second life -- most of them take catering orders for anything from small parties to big events. There is even one that has been proudly named The Dhaba! This small restaurant in South Plainfield, New Jersey, offers tandoori, vegetarian and non-vegetarian food.

In Jackson Heights and Jersey City you can even find small stalls selling sugar-cane juice and paan.

Like in India, the paanwalla still reigns over his roadside shack, creating sybaritic delights out of betel leaves, painting them with a dab of this and a dab of that -- the perfect end to a day of gastronomic delights.

Then you also have small ramshackle places that nurture and nourish the south Asian cabbies in Manhattan. Here they can get sarson ka saag and chole, support and information. The most popular ones on the East side are Kabana and Chatkara, and Kashmir and Chenab on the West side. There are a handful of small restaurants in Manhattan's Little India on Lexington Avenue.

Curry in a Hurry makes no bones about its fast food origins and has the menu and prices up on the wall. Yet its ambitious and large menu would put any American fast food place to shame. It offers everything from the prosaic daal to the gourmet halim.

You will never, ever lack for dosas, makai-ki-roti or dhoklas in mid-town Manhattan which is fast becoming the Chowpatty of the Broadway business area. There are now enough dhabas here to keep Indian truckers, taxi-drivers, importers and garment dealers satiated. This crowded field includes Tandoori Club, Minar and Dimple, which specializes in Gujarati food.

At lunchtime, these places are packed with Indians, and you see business deals being finalized over the $ 5 mixed platter of chicken curry, sabzi and daal.

Minar, which has wonderful, almost home-cooked food, has become an oasis for Indians who call for takeout from the surrounding area. At lunchtime, people queue up patiently for their feast, listening to Hindi film music and browsing through the free Indian papers kept in a stack at the counter.

A meal costs about $ 5 and it is possible to while a few hours with friends, munching pakoras and drinking masala tea for less than three bucks.

While many Americans have discovered Minar on their own, it is a business so involved with its Indian life that it has made no attempts to win and woo food critics. Other small joints down in the village, however, are more media-savvy.

Kumar Kalantry and his partners who own the matchbox-sized vegetarian restaurant, Thali, in Greenwich Village have grabbed the attention of food critics by its cheeky unpretentiousness.

The space, just six feet by fifty feet, was a hallway. Painted orange with small, custom-designed mahogany tables and chairs, it seats only 20 people at a time. It has no menus and you eat whatever has been cooked that day.

Since the place has no storage, the chef cooks what has been bought for the day, specializing in a simple, home-cooked style.

You won't get rich Mughlai dishes here -- only real home-cooked dishes like pumpkin, karela and tinda sabzi. The entire meal, from appetizer to main course and mithai, is served on a thali, $ 6 at lunch and $ 10 at dinner.

According to Kalantry, earlier 80 per cent of his clients were American but as more Indians have read the reviews they are packing into the tiny space. Now at least 50 per cent of the customers are Indian, hankering for traditional, home-cooked food.

Indian cuisine has certainly become as popular as Chinese cuisine in big cities in America.

Small takeout joints for Indian food are becoming as ubiquitous as Chinese takeouts and can be found even in the suburbs. With the burgeoning Indian population and an ever more adventurous American mainstream, there seems to be no end to the demand for Indian cuisine.

After all, for Indians, a Big Mac or a Blimpie just doesn't have the emotional zing of dhaba food. As you dig into hot alu sabzi and puris, you are transported back to Old Delhi's famous Paranthewali Galli, the Lane of the Flatbreads. You are once again five years old, eating at a cheery, ramshackle joint with your family -- and time stands still.

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