Monday, March 23, 2009

Big Apple Masala

Mowgli and I were recently in New York, visiting family and friends and wandering around the city. We started with half a day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where even the museum shop cashiers have accents, and overhearing a conversation in English was a rarity. Mowgli’s cousin, who had angelically picked us up from the airport the night before, was with us, as was my mom, who had angelically taken the train up from Baltimore the day after returning from a week in Los Angeles.

At the Empire State Building the next day, all the line attendants and salespeople asked us where we were from as we made our way past posters hawking a virtual helicopter IMAX tour of the city. I realize it’s a sales ploy, but we did have a fun chat with a guy from the Dominican Republic. I asked if he’d read “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” (he hadn’t) because I’d just finished it, and it was written by a Dominicano. I missed my book club meeting about it because of the trip, and was aching to discuss it, but alas, all I could do was recommend it.

Later that day, we met up with the cousin who accompanied us to the museum and took the commuter train home with him to Jersey City. After seeing his (very nice) home, we went over to another of Mowgli’s cousin’s to meet his new baby, who had had a big day. In the morning, his family (mom, dad, both sets of grandparents, and one great-grandmother) had performed his naming ceremony. His name was said (softly, I assume) into his ears, and then written in a dish of uncooked rice, and he was given something sweet for the first time. We admired the baby, enjoyed visiting with the family, and had some excellent food that had been prepared and brought in for the occasion.

We were fortunate to be staying with my cousin and her girlfriend in Murray Hill, which most locals refer to as Curry Hill, as there are at least three Indian restaurants per block, many of them Southern Indian. This cuisine is hard to come by where we live (most Indian restaurants in the U.S. serve Northern food), so the first decision of the day was where to walk for amazing Tamilian food – a far cry from committing to 20 minutes in the car for so-so idli.

One night after drinks with our best man and his wife, we ended up around the corner from the apartment at a greasy, brightly lit place full of cab drivers eating parathas with their hands. Mowgli ordered in Hindi, a language he doesn’t really speak, and was moderately successful – he was asked to repeat part of his order. But soon, we were tearing into parathas with our hands, too.

The next day, we journeyed back to Jersey to visit another cousin and her husband, parents and children. On the R train, an older Indian gentleman asked us for help finding the Rector Street stop, which is where we happened to be getting off. On the PATH train on the way back, an older lady from a South American country flashed three fingers at me twice. I thought she was signing “OK” so I signed “OK” back and gave her a thumbs-up for good measure. Mowgli was laughing the whole time – she wanted help finding the 33rd Street stop, so I went over to her with my map and helped her out.

Our last meal in the city was not Indian, but Ukranian (which is pretty much Polish). We took my cousin and her girlfriend out to thank them for their hospitality, and they returned the favor by taking us around the corner to an amazing Italian pastry shop where Frank Sinatra once dug into cannoli, and many of the customers were Asian. Welcome to New York.

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