Friday, February 08, 2008

Comfort eating in Queens

After a morning dealing with my backed up post, I foraged desperately in the kitchen for lunch. But as month old yoghurt and a couple of butternut squashes weren’t looking that appealing, I hopped to Queens on the V train, drawn by the siren call of inexpensive Indian food. (I’m fed up with paying Manhattan prices for my grocery shopping: real estate prices here mean that everything pretty much seems to double on this side of the East River.)

Unlike in London, where council housing was built on bomb sites and on the foundations of Victorian housing stock throughout the inner city in the aftermath of the Second World War and the '60s slum clearances, (next to Harrods as well as in Dalston), Manhattan’s accommodation doesn't have an ethnically diverse occupancy. (In London I have Somali, Bangladeshi, Indian, Chinese and Ghanaian familes on my street, and my local supermarket stocks food from all these countries.)

In the past thirty years, or so, recent immigrants from Asia & Central America have eschewed Manhattan, preferring to settle in the other, more affordable four boroughs in their own ethnic areas. Chinatown remains the last bastion of ethnic culture on Manhattan, yet even here rents are being squeezed. From the top of Central Park down, Manhattan can feel curiously, disconcertingly, white compared to London.

Walking through Jackson Heights, I see one other blonde in the two hours I am there. The area is split between Hispanics and Indians, with banks the only representatives of big brand America. There are gold jewellery shops, Asian supermarkets, sari & kurta boutiques, Mexican food carts and Indian beauty shops. Sometimes I feel distinctly out of place, as though I am a tourist in someone else’s culture. But that's not to say I feel unsafe here. Quite the contrary. This is one of my favourite places in New York.

I head to 74th Street to Patel’s Grocery Store, and immediately am back in my comfort zone. I could be in any local supermarket in London here and it feels more familiar than Whole Foods with its anally retentive organic crunchiness. Loading up with paneer, coconut milk, masoor dahl, basmati, chana, amchoor, haldi, jeera, I sneak some imported-from-the-UK Patak’s pastes in too for lazy moments, and then chat with a old lady from Gujarat about the freshness of the coriander whilst she picks me out a bunch.

Being surrounded by food inevitably makes me ravenously hungry and I slip next door to The Jackson Diner for chili-spiked saag paneer, dahl makhani, raitha and sensational fluffy, butter drenched garlic naan. I read my guilty airport copy of Hello, feeling thoroughly English and completely at home. It’s food that links us to places, far more than geography.

I am back home in the East Village just three hours after I have left. It does me good to be reminded that New York isn’t just yellow cabs, the Empire State Building and shopping.