“I’m a chaat person,” explained Nowshin Ali the other day, over FaceTime. We were discussing the menu at Jalsa Grill & Gravy, the restaurant she co-owns with her business partner, Anurag Shrivastava, in Brooklyn’s Little Pakistan, south of Prospect Park. Ali and Shrivastava met while co-managing a nearby Afghani restaurant; in 2018, they opened their own place, featuring the food of their native India. For Ali, who immigrated to the U.S. with her young son in 2013, this means the signature dishes of Lucknow, her home town, including chaats and biryani.
Chaats are defined on Jalsa’s menu as well as I’ve ever seen: “crispy-crunchy-spicy-tangy Indian snacks.” In India, they’re often sold on the street; in the U.S., they’re treated like appetizers. Was I a chaat person before I tried Jalsa’s iterations? I’d always enjoyed them, but I don’t remember ever crowing in pleasure the way I did after taking a bite of Shrivastava’s palak chaat: a pile of spinach—lightly battered in chickpea flour, warm yet nearly raw, bright green and refreshing—tossed with glossy tamarind sauce, house-made chaat masala, crispy shards of lentil noodle, onion, tomato, and cilantro.
I had planned to visit Jalsa before the pandemic, at the passionate urging of two friends who live near the restaurant. Instead, Jalsa came to me; it remains open for takeout and delivery. And how could it not? Ali and Shrivastava are not much for sitting still. Before the crisis, they were also running a nonprofit, supplemented by their income from the restaurant, called People in Need, which provides an after-school program for neighborhood children and workshops for empowering immigrant women.
The after-school program is currently closed, but People in Need is helping to facilitate remote learning, as well as getting groceries to locals who are incapacitated or just hard on their luck—a cabdriver suddenly without passengers, a doctor’s office receptionist without patients. In recent weeks, many food-oriented businesses have pivoted toward community service, finding ways to feed hospital staffs and people who have lost their jobs. In Little Pakistan, the precedent stretches back years. The Council of Peoples Organization (COPO), which has offered legal services to South Asian and Muslim immigrants since 2002, was born out of the neighborhood’s first Pakistani grocery store.
Normally, Ali and Shrivastava share cooking duties with Varun Patri, a chef with twenty-three years of experience. Because Patri lives in New Jersey, he’s been unable to come to work and prepare the dishes for which he’s usually responsible. “So he’s telling us everything over the phone, what to do,” Ali told me. They were fast learners: the cubes of fresh paneer I ordered the other night were curdy and light, slicked in a luscious makhani sauce, made with tomato, heavy cream, and onion caramelized in butter.
I ate my paneer makhani with a thrillingly bitter lime pickle; with yellow shahi rice, steamed in chicken stock and turmeric; with gobi ka keema, a mix of minced cauliflower and bell peppers cooked down until it’s sweet and pastelike, punctuated by the gentle crunch of freshly ground whole spices. I drizzled tamarind sauce over bronzed, sharp-edged samosas filled simply with soft potato flecked with fennel seeds. One morning, I enjoyed the last bites of Ali’s spicy dum biryani straight from the refrigerator for breakfast.
When I asked her about the future of Jalsa, Ali told me that she couldn’t imagine the restaurant closing. “We will put our life into it,” she said. She told me about a mother in the neighborhood who was sick with COVID-19 and quarantined from her children in their small apartment. The mother had been rising at 5 A.M. each day to cook for her family, sanitizing the kitchen before the kids woke up. “They talk through the door,” Ali said. “It’s heartbreaking. So I’ve been sending them cooked food from Jalsa.” (Dishes $7-$15.) ♦
Source: Thanks https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/04/20/an-indian-restaurant-in-little-pakistan-feeds-its-neighbors