Gillapi, a Bangladeshi dessert, looks like a sad, flattened waffle. But when I bit into one of the golden-hued babies at Alo Sweets & Desserts in Jackson Heights, Queens, I thought I'd been transported to nirvana. It crunched, and then oozed syrup down my wrist. I licked the sweetness off my hand, forgetting I sat at a Formica table with my husband, Callan, my friend Cybele, and Jenine Lurie, a New York City foodie guiding us on a tasting tour of this enclave known for its South Asian food, imports and atmosphere.
Shopping for saris and bangles had drawn me to this 'hood near Astoria, where a "Little India" strip lines 74th Street between Roosevelt and 37th avenues. My cravings for subcontinental chic stemmed from multiple viewings of "Bend It Like Beckham" and reading too much Salman Rushdie. Thanks to a large population of Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, the South Asian business district of Jackson Heights feels like a bit of New Delhi in the land of old delis.
Indian clothing and jewelry shops dominate 74th Street, the part of Jackson Heights, Queens, known as Little India.
(Helayne Seidman - For The Washington Post)
I knew a kurta (a collarless shirt) from a salwar kameez (a tunic-and-pants suit). But I needed help sussing out the neighborhood's curry houses, Paki sweet huts and Indian markets, so I decided to take one of Lurie's three-hour walking tours. She promotes her odysseys through Jackson Heights and other New York neighborhoods such as Chinatown and the Bronx's Italian Arthur Avenue. "There's something special about the street food and snacks in the outer boroughs," she said as we rode the subway's E train from midtown Manhattan to Queens. "These ethnic communities, it's almost as if they stay stagnant and their food stays genuine." We exited at Roosevelt Avenue. I caught whiffs of curry, cardamom and . . . soy sauce?
Turns out Jackson Heights isn't just a Little India these days. Arguably the most ethnically diverse section of New York's most ethnically diverse borough, it hosts significant populations from South America, Asia, even Russia -- a true example of the cliched melting pot. "Traditionally, Jackson Heights is where Indian women come to shop for clothing and jewelry before they get married, but the neighborhood has grown to something beyond that," said Lurie. "This really is a crossroads for Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Chinese and South Americans."
Jackson Heights, located east of Astoria and south of LaGuardia Airport, began in the early 20th century as the first planned garden apartment community in the United States. In the past several decades, the neighborhood has morphed into a latter-day Lower East Side, a multi-culti mixing bowl where new immigrants live, work, shop and eat. "Nobody walks down the streets here feeling like a minority, because there isn't any dominant ethnic group," says K.C. Williams of the Jackson Heights Office of the Forest Hills Community House, which provides English classes and housing services to immigrants. "When you get off the train, you think, 'I'm in India!' Turn the corner, and you're in Ecuador, Peru or Mexico. There's such an international mix."
Outside the subway, our pakora-craving quartet got its first glimpse of northwest Queens. More gritty than pretty, squat buildings wore signs in Hindi, Chinese and who knows what other languages. Two gray-bearded Sikhs in turbans and sneakers stepped aside as an elderly Asian woman wheeled her cart into Pacific Supermarket. "Are we in America?" wondered Cybele as we entered the cavernous grocery Lurie dubbed "the Wal-Mart of Chinese food."
Workers iced down mournful-eyed fish and sea cucumbers (eeewww!) that looked like shriveled zucchini. Lurie pointed out foods both alien (spiky, smelly durian fruit, plucked chickens with strange black skin) and familiar (Chinese pork rinds, frozen dumplings). We picked up golden persimmons for the road.
Walking as we gobbled sesame balls filled with sweet bean paste, we crossed under Roosevelt Avenue's rattling 7 train to 74th Street, or "Sari Alley," the South Asian heart of Jackson Heights. A woman in a pink sari ducked into a gold shop, its windows Midas-bright with 22-karat bangles and a gilded statue of the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh. Cybele peered into the New Menka Salon, where a beautician applied what looked like dental floss to a woman's eyebrow, then swiftly tugged, yanking out a bunch of stray hairs. The henna hand-painting that the salon also offered sounded far more soothing.
Our culinary passage to India -- and Pakistan and Bangladesh -- continued at Sheereen Mahal, where neon lights and an ancient linoleum floor seemed charmingly out of step with what we ate: Pakistani dahi balla (lentil balls in yogurt sauce) and warm nan. At Alo Sweets & Desserts, a sitar wailed on the stereo as we sampled those dreamy gillapi with paper cups of chai.
Lurie next took us to Indian grocer Patel Brothers, with Taj Mahal-style arches and 40-pound bags of basmati rice piled up near the entrance. At this stop, Lurie had Farida Young -- a neighborhood Pakistani immigrant -- shepherd us around. Young walked the aisles in her salwar kameez, breaking open cardamom pods for us to taste, explaining how to prepare a bitter gourd (green and wrinkled, it looked like a dragon toe) and showing how much oil (lots) to use when frying samosas. We left with bags of chickpeas, incense and many cooking tips.