New York City’s Kosher Indian Restaurants
New York City is considered to be one of the most ethnically diversified regions in the world. So many different types of cultures and traditions have been brought to New York City by a continuous wave of immigrants. As a result, there has been a dramatic increase in the amount of immigrant restaurants in New York City serving a number of different traditional foods. I will primarily focus on one specific example of a mass increase of immigrant restaurants catered toward a specific group of people: The kosher Indian restaurants of New York City. All of these restaurants are rather new phenomena, created within the past few decades.
Before beginning to take a look at the various kosher Indian restaurants in New York City, one must first learn a little about the history of Indian Jews and their immigration to New York City. The Jews of India can be broken down into 3 groups, the Cochin Jews, the Baghdadis, and Bene Israel. The Cochin Jews lived in and around Cochin from the 15th century. The Baghdadis mainly originated in Baghdad and Syria and settled in and around Mumbai and Calcutta in the 19th century. Bene Israel Jews have been present in India since around the time when the Babylonians took over the ancient Kingdom of Israel around 586 BCE. Currently, almost all Cochin and Baghdadis have left India and immigrated to Israel, Canada, America, and other regions. There are still some Bene Israel Jews, although many have immigrated to Israel. In 1950, about 35,000 Jews lived in Mumbai. That number has fallen to 3,500 due to the increase in Indian Jewish immigration. Since many of these Jews have lived in India for such a long period of time, they have adopted many Indian culinary traditions and created many kosher dishes out of Indian cuisine.
After learning a bit about Indian Jewish history and immigration, I wondered why are there so many kosher Indian restaurants in New York City when the Indian Jewish population in the City is rather small. Most Indian Jews immigrated to Israel; only a handful of Indian Jews have come to live in New York City. Clearly the restaurants have not been created just to serve their own specific Jewish community. Consider Madras Mahal, a Kosher Indian vegetarian restaurant created in 1985 and located on Lexington Avenue between 27th and 28th street. If you take a look at their website, the first thing that catches your eye is the words “New York City’s 1st Indian Kosher Celebrity Restaurant” written in large letters at the top of the page. They claim to be the “First Indian restaurant in Little India to promote kosher Indian Vegetarian food.” These advertisements seem to be directed toward all Jews in New York City. These restaurants seem to be trying to expose Jews to a new kind of cuisine they probably have not had in their past. Shalom Bombay, another kosher Indian restaurant located on Lexington Avenue between 39th and 40th street, displays many videos and paragraphs on their website focusing on their unique Indian spices and dishes that one will not find outside of Indian restaurants.
Cuisine offered at Madras Mahal:
These restaurants are successful, apparent by how many have been created around the Lexington Avenue area in the past couple of decades. They have an edge that many other kosher immigrant restaurants do not have. Most kosher immigrant restaurants – whether Chinese, Japanese, or even Pizza stores – are quite common, and have been around in various Jewish communities for a long time. Jews have gotten quite used to the cuisine offered by such immigrant restaurants and have been in search of something new. Kosher Indian food is unique to most Jews living in New York City, as they have never encountered the food before.
Some of the immigrant owners of these restaurants are clearly interested in Indian Jewish heritage. The owner of Shalom Bombay is himself Jewish, and on his website there is an article under the “About Us” tab that gives a brief history of Indian Jews. However, non-Jewish immigrants run many of the other kosher Indian restaurants, particularly the ones located in the Lexington Avenue 28th street area. If the owners of many of these restaurants are not Jewish, then it is likely that they are focused on bringing in customers to their restaurants whom are not Jewish as well as targeting New York City’s Jewish population.
The kosher foods offered at these restaurants are unlike any other ethnic cuisine. Almost all of the restaurants I have taken a look at highlight the fact that they offer so many spices and call their menus unique. Bhojan, another kosher Indian restaurant located on Lexington Avenue between 27th and 28th street, offers many vegetarian dishes, small dishes and chaats. A chaat is a small, savory snack that was typically sold at local food carts in India and its surrounding areas. At Bhojan, all of the food is served at once. The appetizers, entrees, condiments, bread, rice, and dessert are simultaneously served to the customer in small separate bowls on a large platter. This sort of meal is known as a thalis, which originates from Indian tradition. At Madras Mahal, another vegetarian restaurant, one can also find lots of different spices offered on their menu. Rice and lentils are in many of the dishes served at these restaurants, as they are among the most widely used ingredients in Indian cuisine. Pongal is another kosher Indian restaurant, also located on Lexington Avenue between 27th and 28th street. It is a vegetarian restaurant serving many different spicy dishes along with onions, potatoes, peppers, and some soups. The restaurant was created in 1996 and also mentions on its website how it has a unique menu.
A meal at Bhojan:
These restaurants are all quite similar in that they seem to be catered toward the various kinds of Jews in New York City who eat kosher and are looking to try something new and exotic. Most of these restaurants are vegetarian or at least serve mainly vegetarian dishes and seem to specialize in their exotic concoctions of vegetables along with many different spices. I believe the eccentric dishes served at these Indian restaurants are what keep them in business. It is uncommon to find a restaurant that offers such exotic dishes and also happens to be kosher, whether it is an Indian restaurant or a restaurant of any culinary tradition. Many people like that feeling of uncertainty and surprise while they taste new foods, and these Indian restaurants offer many Jews that kind of opportunity.
Pongal Restaurant Take-Out Menu:
Most of the kosher Indian restaurants I have taken a look at have a certificate of Kashrut, meaning that the foods imported and prepared for customers at the restaurant were approved by some Jewish organization to pass all of the laws of Kashrut. Shalom Bombay has received a certificate of Kashrut from the Orthodox Union, which is considered to be one of the more widely respectable organizations in the koshering business. Bhojan as well as The Mahal also posted kosher certificates on their restaurants.
Symbol of Kashrut used by the Orthodox Union:
Why would the kosher Indian restaurants that are run by owners whom are not Jewish claim a certificate of kashrut and become kosher in the first place? If they were to become a non-kosher restaurant, wouldn’t they gain more non-Jewish customers than they would lose Jewish customers? There are a few possible answers to these questions. The simplest answer, which applies to any kosher restaurant, is price and customer consistency. The prices of foods at kosher restaurants are simply higher than the same foods offered at other non-kosher restaurants. Some factors for raising the price of the foods include all the necessary procedures kosher restaurants must follow in order to keep their restaurant kosher. That does not, however, justify the entire price increase. Since Jews who only eat kosher are limited to restaurants that serve kosher, kosher restaurants can raise prices because they own the Jewish food market. Additionally, Jewish customers are likely to return again and again to a select few restaurants, since there are not an abundant amount of restaurants they can choose from.
The second answer, which can be applied specifically toward many of these Indian restaurants, deals with the fact that these restaurants offer mainly vegetarian food. It is likely that the vegetarian food offered at all Indian restaurants is in fact kosher or nearly kosher. It does not take much devoted time and effort to make a vegetarian restaurant kosher. Such a restaurant would only have to make minor adjustments to some of their ingredients. Claiming a certificate of kashrut will probably not be a difficult task for a vegetarian restaurant keeping in mind that a few minor adjustments to some of the dishes will probably be needed. So many of these kosher Indian restaurants offer food that is quite similar or nearly identical to that of the non-kosher Indian restaurants. Therefore, they can still attract some non-Jews to eat at their restaurant while also attracting the Jewish population.
Another possible answer is the fact that these kosher restaurants can take advantage of the many Jewish holidays and celebrations. Madras Mahal states on their website that due to popular demand, they have expanded into the world of catering which includes serving at Jewish weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, and other Jewish events. These events and festivities offer a nice opportunity for kosher Indian restaurants to make additional revenue. Madras Mahal also happens to follow the Jain and Swaminarayan diets, which seems to point towards the fact that the restaurant was created as a kosher restaurant simply because it was a task requiring little effort that has now created the opportunity for a new group of customers to come eat at the restaurant.
Now that it seems clear why these Indian restaurants have chosen to serve kosher food, I have also had a difficult time trying to understand why so many of these kosher Indian restaurants are located on Lexington Avenue between 26th and 29th street. Why pick such a small area and build these restaurants forming direct competition with one another? The answer is actually pretty simple. 26th – 29th streets along Lexington Avenue is an area within the Gramercy-Flatiron districts that has been given the nickname “Curry Hill” and is otherwise known as Little India. (Curry is the name of an Indian dish of meat and vegetables cooked in an Indian style sauce of strong spices and served with rice).
Another possible reason for creating kosher Indian restaurants in Little India is that, while it is in the center of an Indian neighborhood attracting Indian immigrants, it also happens to be close to a Jewish neighborhood as well. Just north of Little Italy, approaching Murray Hill, there exists a notably large Jewish population with some kosher restaurants around the 34th street area. One of Yeshiva University’s campuses, the Israel Henry Beren campus also known as the Stern College for Women, is located on Lexington Avenue and 34th street. The kosher Indian restaurants located in Little India are a classic example of hitting two birds with one stone; they are located in the heart of New York City’s Indian population while bordering one of Manhattans larger Jewish neighborhoods.
The kosher Indian restaurants of Lexington Avenue have become more and more popular over the past few decades. Much thought and preparation was put into the idea of creating kosher Indian restaurants to help satisfy both the Indian and Jewish populations of Manhattan. As many of these restaurants have continued to emerge in the area, they are evidently becoming more successful. The location is in such close proximity to both Indian and Jewish neighborhoods, and the cuisine works well for both ethnic groups. For Indians, it is the food of their home country, and for Jews, kosher Indian cuisine provides an opportunity to try something new and exotic while sticking to Jewish tradition of strictly eating kosher food.
Madras Mahal Menu: