But New York has a way of overshadowing the cultural abundance that percolates directly beyond its borders. That’s quite literally the case with Jersey City, just across the Hudson River. Here, the country’s most vibrant Indian neighborhood lies hidden under the silhouette of a lower Manhattan skyline.
The country’s most vibrant Indian neighborhood lies hidden under the silhouette of the Lower Manhattan skyline.
Hailing from a state in the northwestern part of India, this cuisine typically consists of savory proteins slathered in rich gravies. Chicken makhani and lamb vindaloo are long-running standouts on the lengthy menu.
“When I opened, I was the second one here,” he recalls. “Now there are more than 20 Indian restaurants on either side. And over the last 10 years, it is getting increasingly popular.”
Rasoi, an endearing diner specializing in Punjabi fare, has been in India Square in Jersey City for 23 years.
Old, new and fusion fare
As of late, speciality shops are popping up, focusing on particular items and regions.
Rassoi’s sizzling chicken platter is both popular and quite colorful.
While most of these establishments own an unassuming, ‘home-cooked’ kind of vibe, a polished, upscale element is emerging.
Although he appreciates the experimentation, Bhalla is more compelled by preparations most familiar to his youth. “If I’m not eating my mom’s cooking, I’ll eat at Rasoi,” he admits.
Even before finding a new home here, ‘JC’ was already informing the flavors of his old one. “Long before I moved, my parents would always go food shopping in Jersey City,” he says. “It’s the hub for my people.”
The sentiment is shared by many Indian immigrants throughout the Tri-State area. And in a surprising role reversal, more and more New Yorkers — of all backgrounds — find themselves exiting to Jersey when its time for cultural exploration.
‘India away from India’
Navratan korma (‘nine gem’ vegetable curry) is a must-have if dining at Raaz.
“Jersey City is like India away from India,” notes Vikas Khanna, a Michelin-starred chef and former host of MasterChef India. “The aromas, cuisine and traditions are very intact here with the community. I travel here [from New York City] for inspirations. I’m proud to see the growth of heritage and acceptance of India here. It is now the more expanded version of a Jackson Heights.”
Saggar traces much of that expansion back to the immediate aftermath of September 11, when some New Yorkers where eager to leave the city without venturing too far away. Indeed, with the steel towers of the Financial District looming overhead, you often feel as though you never left.
More than a good meal
Samosa chaat is served on a tawa pan at Raaz.
But he also points to the widespread cultural acceptance his people have enjoyed on this side of the river. It goes well beyond fans of the food.
“We are the only city in the US that closes down the streets for four separate Indian festivals throughout the year,” he proudly declares, adding that the local government has actively supported these efforts.
That support has proven particularly crucial throughout 2020. Like all other brick-and-mortars in the food and beverage space, Rasoi is reeling from pandemic-related shutdowns, in spite of high-volume takeout pre-pandemic.
Fulop, who assumed office in July of 2013, is quick to deflect praise back at the business owners. “The reality is that this community deserves the credit for organically changing an area of the city that was in need,” he tells CNN.
Jersey City is host to the Surati Holi Hai. One of the largest Festival of Colors, it was canceled because of Covid this year, but this photo from 2019 depicts the colorful, lively celebration.
“Where the city has been helpful is providing resources on grants, streetscape redesign, small business loans, expanded branding, and resources to complement their efforts and make the area more appealing.”
Clutching paper bags loaded full with egg bhurji and surti gotala, they rush out the door. Not because they’re eager to leave. They just need to catch the last PATH train back to that other city they call home.
Brad Japhe is a freelance journalist specializing in food, beverage and travel. He was born and raised in the Tri-State area, not far from the fragrant streets of Jersey City. When he’s not writing, he hosts frequent pairing seminars/educational dinners in both Los Angeles and New York (and now, virtually), and has curated drink menus for festivals and restaurants. Follow him on Instagram @Journeys_with_Japhe.