My name is Ashok Kondabolu, a.k.a. Dapwell, former band member of the now defunct rap group, Das Racist. I grew up in Jackson Heights, Queens, a neighborhood with a wide variety of ethnicities, each with their respective restaurants, bars, clothing stores, and barbershops. But I don't get the word "ethnic," in the context of grocery stores. Aren't all grocery stores "ethnic" in the scope of the world? And aren't they all just grocery stores? This is my column dedicated to exploring those air-quote shops, inspecting their wares with cultural fixers in an attempt to learn about the uniqueness of the food cultures that exist within those aisles, butcher counters, and check out lines.
My mom has worked in American hospitals since 1991. Throughout my youth, she would wake up at 5 AM, take a bus and two trains to work on her daily commute, and come home around 8 PM. Over the last 22 years, she's been cooking almost every night of the week after a long day on the job. My mother was a young doctor when she left India after her arranged marriage, and had to learn how to prepare food in her new American life. This was pretty difficult because the wide array of vegetables and spices necessary to cook Telugu food was not so easy to procure 8,000 miles away in Queens, New York.
Indian men of a certain age often fall into the man-child category. They may "provide" for their family, but aren't entirely capable of taking care of themselves when it comes to things like clothing and feeding themselves. Now that I think of it, maybe men of all races fall into this category. Anyway, this is often combined with a stubbornness to eat "American" food, so the onus falls upon their wives to prepare, more often than not, quite complicated, long, and labor-intensive recipes on a daily basis.
Thankfully, my mother's cooking markedly improved sometime in the late 90s, when she got tired of cooking elaborate meals and started trying to put together new dishes with ingredients she'd never used before. I guess it was all due to the sheer boredom and repetition of her constant cooking. She told me that she only started cooking meat because my dad ate it, but she also tried it in medical school, where friends would slip it over to her on lunch breaks. Peer pressure.
I figured there was no better way to kick off this column than to interview someone I know too well/someone who grocery shops too often. Naturally, I followed my mom to two classic Queen spots: Patel Brothers, and a Halal butcher that she loves because they're "quick and friendly." Along with my father (and chauffeur), we headed over to the shop to pick up a few things for dinner that night while I badgered her with culinary questions. Here are her unenthusiastic responses to all of the food that we found on our shopping safari with pictures as evidence by my friend, Jakey Begin.
"I like these smaller, round eggplants because they're easy to stuff and fry. It's important to get food this fresh—especially when it's imported."
This is a ridged gourd. You can make a chutney with this by mashing it in a mortar and pestle and combining it with imli [tamarind] and whatever other spices."
"Okra is often breaded, fried, seasoned, and served simply like that."
"I switched from whole milk a long time ago. I'm health-conscious, I guess. When we make yogurt at home, there has to be some fat in it for the process to work. Buttermilk is good to eat with a little rice, or to marinate chicken and other things with. We also drink it with lime and salt in the summer."
"Coconuts are grated with non-vegetarian food, or used with some vegetables. At least that's what I do. We also smash them for religious rituals."
"Masoor dal is great for mixing with vegetables. I like using ulava charu [pronounced and usually spelled without the "v"] a boiled horse gram lentil. It's cooked for several hours. A very concentrated juice comes from it, and then we add a spoonful of brown sugar and some seasonings. Afterwards, the pulp that is left is fed to horses and cows. And oxen as well. Oxen are used heavily for farming, and during harvesting season, they feed them this lentil to help them power through their work. It is a specialty of my state, Andhra Pradesh, and the south in general."
"Dettol is an antiseptic. It has even been around since I was a kid. Maybe it came from the British, I'm not sure."
"Jaggery is brown sugar. It's the first pressing of sugar from the sugar cane. It's healthier because there is iron and calcium. We use it in our cooking to make sweets and desserts."
"The swastika is an ancient Hindu symbol. The Nazis appropriated it and it's caused awkwardness for Hindu people in the West ever since."
"Parle G biscuits are small, sweet biscuits Indians sometimes drink with tea. Kids often eat them as snacks. The "G" is for glucose—Indians think glucose, which is just sugar, will cure any disease or ailment… or the marketers try to make them think that."
"Toothbrushes. Indians buy these in bulk. I'm not entirely sure why— toothbrushes won't suddenly cost a thousand dollars."
"Ghee is clarified butter. I think everybody knows that though. It helps soothe some of the spiciness of certain dishes. This is done by mixing it in with the rice while you are eating."
"I started coming to this halal grocery store for a decade. I'd come after Patel brothers. It's clean and they respond quickly. You can call ahead and they get the orders ready and hand the bag over. I can finish all my shopping within a block."
"Your father is generally pretty useless when we go shopping. Sometimes he carries the bags, but today you're here."
I motioned to the Sikh man at the door that I was good to carry the grocery bags, so Jakey and I headed for the car while my mom paid the cashier. On the drive home, my mom convinced us to let her cook a few things before we went back to Brooklyn so Jakey could taste some real deal south Indian shit. I sat in the kitchen while my mom cooked, checking my Gmail account with a ten-year-old Gateway laptop with a broken screen, connected to a 15-inch CRT monitor while Jakey pretended (or maybe not!) to enjoy the food and insisted it wasn't too spicy. All in all, not a bad day in Queens.