By India Witkin
Photography by Joana Meurkens
New York City’s beloved 24 hour deli pushes through it’s first closure in 26 years
Seventies Bollywood music harmoniously plays in sync with the chime of the microwave, signaling the commencement of a delicious and very filling meal that Kulwinder assures will hold you down for at least 9 hours. Since its inception in 1994, Kulwinder Singh has kept Punjabi Deli running every hour of every day. “Eat more, take home, you will be okay,” he says grinning and handing me another plate of food to try.
This time it’s a plate of aloo phali mildly spiced potato with green beans and dal makhani black lentil and kidney beans served with roti to scoop it into your salivating mouth.
Punjabi Deli is a staple of New York’s food scene and a magnet to celebrities and ordinary New Yorkers alike, including their most loyal group of customers: New York City’s taxi drivers. Singh immigrated to the United States in the mid ‘70s, and like many immigrants during this time, found himself by the wheel of a yellow cab. Desperate to find an accommodating rest-stop with refreshments and snacks at any hour of the day, he decided to open up his own shop.
“We see the customer like a God to the business. As long as the customer is happy, they will come again and again.”
Singh, a practicing Sikh and former cab driver, was well-aware of the cultural and religious dietary restrictions his customers faced and decided to serve the kind of food everybody could eat, an all vegetarian assortment of homestyle Punjabi food. Punjab, located in the Northwest frontier of India bordering Pakistan is the most popular style of food you’ll see in American restaurants.
Singh has thrown his own distinct spin on his Punjab cuisine and has adapted it for the varied communities he feeds, all of those that hail from the subcontinent and beyond.
The pandemic forced their doors shut for four months, and customers yearned for their salted pakoras (spiced chickpea fritters), creamy saag (mustard seeds, spinach and broccoli rabe) with roti, and their popular sweet and milky chai.
The homestyle food he serves is not to be underplayed nor discredited; it’s the kind of food that can bring you back to a feeling of safety, comfort and wholesomeness. Food is more than just a business for Kulwinder Singh, he is a man of strong faith and spirituality who sees food as an offering to God, and it is his duty to provide that for his customers. Over the past two decades, his prices have remained affordable amidst rising rents and restaurant closures.
He wants everyone to be able to afford his offerings. A full plate of food with a drink will cost you $5.00 – $7.50 and a bowl of pakoras for $2.00.
Kulwinder Singh’s humble kindness and spirituality is at the core of Punjabi Deli, a second home and crucial life line for New Yorkers and we know he’s not going anywhere just yet.
“I love all the people that make us wonderful, reason for those people I am here,” he says as I ask for a refill of chai.
Punjabi Deli | 114 E 1st Str, New York | $ | Mon-Sun: 8am – 10:30pm | IG: @punjabidelinyc | Recommended dishes: chai, pakoras, dal makhani, bhindi masala| (212) 533-3356
A South Indian feast in the basement of the first Hindu Temple ever established in North America
“Namaste aap kaise hain?” asks the Hindu priest to Temple-goers and passerbyers as his bare chest, long red skirt and well-fed belly catches me by surprise. At the iconic Temple, devotees slip off their shoes, get their temperatures taken and pray to the gallery of Hindu gods before arriving at a silver life-sized statue of Ganesh. You’d almost forget you were in Queens, the most ethnically diverse urban area in the world.
The Hindu Temple Society of North American, established in 1970, was the first Hindu Temple on our continent. “It is said in our scriptures when you do the pooja or service to God it is incomplete unless you make an offering of food,” says Dr. Uma. When she became President in 1992 after being a longtime Trustee, she remodeled their tiny kitchen from one serving small simple offerings, to a full fledged canteen after witnessing the devotees long for ghar ka khanna or home cooked food.
“If you’re hungry, you can’t concentrate on God,” Dr. Uma says.
People came from all over Queens and the Tri-State area to get a mouthful of the authentic South Indian food before the day’s prayers, which is served in the brightly lit basement of the Temple. It became a hit, so much so that Dr. Uma is proud to say that her canteen started a trend that has now been replicated in Temples across the country.
There is a scarcity of South Indian food in New York, a regional cuisine characterized by the light, paper thin dosa, cloud-like rice-lentil cake, idli, and the lentil-based tamarind vegetable stew, sambar with loads of coconut coriander chutney.
I arrive at the patio where I hear the laughter and chatter in a variety of languages spoken in India. Amongst them familiar words and phrases which remind me of monsoon summers in my second home of Bangalore. Indian-American families and solo diners watching Bollywood soaps or cricket matches on their phones flock to the Temple Canteen; you might even spot a few adventurous non-Indians accompanied by a buddy or two.
The food was exceptional but my favorite was the pondicherry masala dosa which is spiced potatoes, onion, ginger and chili with little bits of nuts, wrapped in a long paper-thin rice pancake. You dip it into the sambar and scoop a generous amount of chili chutney. If your stomach is not made of steel, then try the yogurt rice infused with subtle spices and ginger to soothe your tingley senses.
It was breathtakingly satisfying, so much so that I ordered a few dishes to-go for my mother, neighbor and friends. As I prepared for my two-hour long train journey home on the 7 train, I turned back to the Temple bathed in golden light for one final namaste and bow.
Hindu Temple Canteen | 45-57 Bowne St, Flushing, Queens, NY | $ | Mon-Sun: 8am – 10:30pm | IG: @punjabidelinyc | Recommended dishes: Pondicherry masala dosa, rava dosa, idli jumbo with sambar, and yogurt rice| (718)-460-8493|
To hear about the restaurant owners and chefs, tune into Episode One of Eating America with India, where she explores the Indian diaspora in New York City through food. She discusses issues of immigration, race and religion while highlighting the history of India and the cuisine.
72,000 restaurants have closed in the midst of the pandemic, only adding more urgency in supporting these immigrant and black owned small-businesses, which add to the richness of American multiculturalism. Eating America with India is hosted by India Witkin and produced by Mixed Mag. Available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Itunes, Podcast Addict, Overcast and Buzzsprout.
India is a New York native, born to an Indian mother and a Dutch/Italian father. Her parents had a mutual love for the country so they decided to name her, India.