On the latest MUNCHIES: The Podcast, editor-in-chief Helen Hollyman sat down at Punjabi Grocery & Deli with rapper HEEMS to discuss life as a young Punjabi-American, Punjabi cuisine, and the importance of activism.
Here's the transcript of our conversation from MUNCHIES: The Podcast with Himanshu Suri, edited to the main interview. For the full discussion, you'll have to listen to the audio above.
Being a cab driver in NYC isn't easy. You're drinking coffee all night to stay awake, you've gotta piss, find some time to eat, and then there's nowhere to park. But in New York, Punjabi Grocery & Deli is the oasis that's served as a respite for taxi driver for years. You used to be able to park your cab in front, jump out, get some food, and rest for a few moments. But in 2010, the city decided to build a plaza, resulting in construction that blocked the front of the establishment. The deli watched their profits drop by 80 percent. I'm Helen Hollyman, editor-in-chief of MUNCHIES, and today I'm talking to the unexpected person who helped solve the problem: Himanshu Suri, a.k.a. HEEMS.
HEEMS is a Punjabi-American rapper most known for the now defunct rap group Das Racist. He's since moved on to becoming a solo artist among many other things, from activist to poet to screenwriter. Last summer, the NYC Taxi Workers' Alliance launched a petition to have the area in front of the restaurant become a designated taxi relief stand. And recently, attorney and community organizer Ali Najmi, teamed up with HEEMS to revitalize the campaign.
According to the NYC Taxi & Limousine Commission, almost half of the city's 13,000 cab drivers hail from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India. For many of them, Punjabi Grocery & Deli is the place they go between their long shifts.
So Punjabi Grocery & Deli is…. "Not just a place to eat, but a meeting place for that that community of color to function. In a lot of ways, the cabbie community, or rather the working class community—especially immigrant communities such as Asian and Latino communities—don't get active in politics and are typically afraid to engage in the institutions that are there to protect them. So for us, as the first generation of Americans from India and Pakistan, it feels like it's our responsibility to take it upon ourselves," according to HEEMS.
When HEEMS heard that they had lost 80 percent of their business because of the construction, he knew that he had to do something about it. So today, we came to visit this place, talk to HEEMS about being a Punjabi-American artist, and eat some amazing Punjabi food.
He describes the space around us: "It's small, a little cramped, and there are some stairs outside where people hang out. And in front of us is a masala-spiced snack, like an American Lays potato chip. There are some cassette tapes, groceries, candies, and great vegetarian Indian food."
In front of us, there's an incredible selection of Punjabi cuisine: saag paneer, chaat masala, and hearty combo platters that will keep you full for an entire day.
"This is true to amritsari dhaba-style vegetarian. There's a lot of ghee, clarified butter, and it's all very heavy, filling food. We liked to be filled up. Punjabi people are like the Italians of India, because we're a very food oriented family, you feel me?"
So HEEMS goes ahead and orders us samosas and chai tea, and we hang out and wait. The New York Taxi Drivers' Guide Book for Tourists sits behind the counter. "Besides the fact that this place is an important community center for taxi drivers to connect, it's also a great place to come in and grab a tea and get set for the night. It's important. Like I said, I've been playing rap shows around here for the past seven years, so it's a void filler where I can grab good, cheap food and speak my language for a minute, which is nice. And then I get to ask the people who come in here things like, 'Are you from India or Pakistan?', 'When did you come here?', and take these kind of biographical surveys on taxi drivers from South Asia."
As it turns out, HEEMS's father was a taxi driver in New York during the 80s. "You know, I asked my father about his experiences as a cab driver when I was getting some info for this. He said, and this is very typical of my dad to make up words in English, 'You know, I didn't like it because of the boundation.' I was like 'What do you mean, "boundation?"' He was like 'You know, you feel bounded'. I was like, 'Alright,' but as a poet, I really fuck with "boundation." I was like 'Alright, I feel you'."
As we start drinking our chai teas, the samosas come out, which look like a hearty stew doused in chickpeas, tamarind, and yogurt. We walk outside and find a stoop to sit on.
We begin to dig into our samosas as HEEMS describes his favorite Punjabi dishes: "When I did the score for the Bourdain episode on Punjab, I rapped on there about saag makki di roti. That's pretty classic. Then there's saag paneer with naan, or onion kulcha. Tandoori is pretty big, and lots of dried meats, too. Lots of chicken tikkas without the the gravy with lots of clarified butter (ghee), on the bread, on everything. Onions are a crucial part of Punjabi food, like, you might see a motherfucker with a straight-up onion in his left hand, biting into, then take a bite of his naan and chicken, and then after that a bite of the onion. He don't even cut it up, which is very Punjabi."
Could his next big project involve food?
"I've already been talking to some people about a bao sandwich spot with a vegetarian option that's got inspiration from sandwiches from around the world. I've got a little bit too much going on right now with this Asia tour I'm planning and the FOX sitcom pilot I'm working on about my life that's picking up. Maybe that's why I haven't slept in three days. I think of food as another creative endeavor and I try to balance everything out. Punjabi food and culture is a really big part of my homelife. Maybe that's why I'm involved with it and why I rap about food and stuff. Food is also a really mundane part of life and like rap or folk traditions, it's fun to make music about it. Punjabi people are really big on music, food, poetry, and family. And those are pretty much the pillars I put my head on."
HEEMS latest album, Eat Pray Thug, released earlier this year, was inspired by both India and New York alike.
"I think I made happier, pop songs for the album while I was in India, but when I was in New York, I was writing darker songs about racism and post-9/11 themes. The stuff in New York ended up being on the sad side, but I think I'm personally happier in India."
Besides the latest album and restoring the taxi parking at Punjabi Grocery & Deli, we want to know more about the pilot HEEMS has been working on for his potential TV show with FOX. "So I sold some story rights to FOX and they've agreed to develop a sitcom based on me, specifically. I'm a rapper who lives in Queens with his family, and it's gotten pretty far along in the process, but we're still going. Getting it picked up is the goal. I'm working with Sanjay Shah from Fresh Off The Boat and we are trying to keep it as real as possible. It's based on our lives as South Asians who grew up in America and lived with our families as adults, which is a pretty normal part of our culture. It's been a pretty interesting two years in TV. The success of shows like Fresh Off the Boat and Blackish have opened the doors, so we are hoping to see more of our community on TV. If there's more brown chefs doing innovative stuff, that would be amazing, too."
But for HEEMS, in order to have more brown chefs in the world, there needs to be, "Less brown doctors. That's my new album title [laughs]. Every Indian kid knows what I'm talking about. If we have less doctors, we'll have other things, which includes more chefs, writers, and artists. That's the goal for me: to show brown culture. The one thing that unifies everything for me is India, whether it's food, or music, or whatever. I've got nothing else to say. I just wanna take a nap, which is also perfect after a hearty ghee-filled meal."