My recent Bangladeshi meal provided a little glimpse into the future of United Nations of Food. I know that somewhere around 50-80 national cuisines will be “unfindable”–meaning that no restaurant in NYC explicitly claims to serve those particular cuisines. But I’m convinced that many of those cuisines will be hidden somewhere. For example, plenty of Algerian chefs are hiding behind menus filled with “Moroccan food,” there are Central Americans all over the United States who claim to serve “Mexican food,” and I’ve heard (unsubstantiated) rumors that a chef from Burkina Faso runs a “Senegalese” restaurant in NYC.
And it turns out that Bangladeshi food frequently hides behind the guise of “Indian” restaurants in NYC. There are very few restaurants that claim to serve Bangladeshi food, but if you live in NYC, I’ll bet that you routinely eat food prepared by Bangladeshis. Apparently, the vast majority (perhaps 95%, depending on who you ask) of Indian restaurants in NYC are actually owned by Bangladeshis—it even says so in this New York Times article from about ten years ago.
I wasn’t explicitly looking for Bangladeshi food, but when a Bangladeshi called me for GMAT tutoring advice, I told her about my little obsession with international food. She very graciously agreed to take me out for Bangladeshi food, even though we’d never actually met before that. Cool, huh?
Of course, we went to an “Indian” restaurant in Curry Hill, called Angon on the Sixth (soon to be renamed Mela on the Sixth). Most of the menu consisted of Indian classics, but my gracious Bangladeshi friend had a friendly conversation (in Bengali) with the gracious Bangladeshi server/co-owner, and we ended up with a few plates of legitimate Bangladeshi food.
I’m not going to gush too much about the food this time. We ordered an appetizer platter (a mixture of samosas, pakoras, and alu tikka for $5.95), but my new Bangladeshi friend looked at the plate with a touch of disdain: “I’m sorry, this is pretty much Indian food,” she said, poking at a samosa disapprovingly. “In Bangladesh, we fill the samosas with liver. It’s amazing, you’ll have to try it sometime.” (In case you’re curious, I loved the samosas, even if they weren’t particularly Bangladeshi.)
For our entrees, we ordered shrimp dopeaja ($10.95), which is a Bangladeshi specialty consisting of shrimp cooked in a deeply onion-y red sauce, and khichury ($10.95), a delicious rice/lentil/chicken/onion dish. At a glance, the khichury resembles a standard biryani/fried rice hybrid, but it was surprisingly light and dry, without the oily finish of many similar dishes. My Bangladeshi companion swore that the food wasn’t the best representation of Bangladeshi cuisine, but I thought that both entrees were perfectly solid. We finished the meal with a nice cup of milky South Asian chai, which was (unsurprisingly) amazing.
OK, enough about the food and tea. Here’s the thing: what the hell is up with the Bangladeshi national restaurant performance anxiety? If most of the great South Asian chefs/restaurateurs in NYC are actually Bangladeshi, why are most of them hiding in “Indian” restaurants? Bangladesh isn’t exactly a small country (162 million people), and its cuisine is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a carbon copy of Indian cuisine. So why don’t a few of these great Bangladeshi chefs offer up their own cuisine, rather than just pretending to be Indians?
On one hand, I get it: Americans are familiar with Indian food, and Indian food is therefore easier to sell than Bangladeshi food. But there are plenty of adventurous palates in a place like NYC, and I’m sure that a great Bangladeshi chef could proudly display his/her national cuisine and be wildly successful, at least in this city.
So if any Bangladeshi chefs or restaurateurs are reading this, I beg you to come out of the international food closet, and feed us your own national dishes. If my new Bangladeshi friend is correct, NYC will be a much better place when Bangladeshi liver samosas are as ubiquitous as burgers, burritos, and naan.
Angon on the Sixth (or maybe Mela on the Sixth)
320 East Sixth Street, Manhattan
Subway: Astor Place (6 train)