Saturday, June 27, 2015

Sapthagiri: Vegetarian Kosher South Indian Food in Jersey City.

A lot of people in New Jersey feel that the real world is over the river in New York. They are wrong. New Jersey is - and always has been - the starter home of globalization. With rental prices insanely high in the city itself, newer immigrants have to look outside to find affordable housing. Jersey City was one such urban basket case waiting to be revitalized. Long the butt of coarse Jersey jokes and considered the Chernobyl of the Meadowlands, rated even lower on the Jersey snob scale than neighboring Newark, Jersey city is now home to thousands of middle class families from India. While the Woodside neighborhood in Queens is known as New York's Little India, Jersey City's Indian population has drawn far more people from the technology centers in India's south.

Rice with meat, or without, and a Bollywood DVD for later!
Newark Avenue is the commercial center for folks from Bangalore and Kerala who spend summer evenings strolling along in gender segregated groups, munching fresh Indian sweets and mango ice cream, chatting in Tamil and Malayalam, and driving madly around honking horns in recently leased cars that seem straight out of a Bollywood movie. Just like home. Except this is home. In Jersey City.

Sweet or spicy hot, and nothing in between.
I learned about the wonders of this amazing restaurant row from reading the blog of Ed Ward, the cranky NPR rock historian who recently moved back to the USA after decades of vividly grumpy blogging and writing in Berlin and France. Ed found one of the cheapest hotels in the NYC region a few streets away from the convenient PATH train, run by Indians in the middle of this subcontinental smorgasbord. He pointed out that while most of us are familiar with the cuisines of North India, there are fewer places where you can try south Indian food, which caters to far larger proportion of pure vegetarians. Personally, I find Indian vegetarian food is the only food I enjoy during my brief and sad forays into the meatless realm. And so off we went to Newark Ave.

Donuts! Spicy lentil donuts! 
The "pure vegetarian south and North Indian cuisine" restaurant Sapthagiri had the best reviews on New Jersey Indian websites and on Ed Ward's blog, so it was a no brainer. With my son, Aron in tow, as well as sister and quasi-sister along, we sped down the Jersey Turnpike and were there a mere half hour after leaving Teaneck, in the heart of Jersey's bland kosher enclave. We weren' disappointed. The menu is enormous, and cheap. Not only that, but Sapthagiri accommodates all kinds of religious food restrictions. Not only does it have a certificate attesting to it having been checked and found kosher by local rabbis, it also serves dished for the rarely considered Jain population. Jains pre-date Hinduism by a few centuries and they have a strong respect for all forms of life - ahimsa means eating no animal product at all - and go as far as forbidding the consumption of roots and tubers that might disturb small insects beneath the soil. That means no onions, no garlic, no carrots, no potatoes. Not every dish here is Jain ahimsa-free. Small amounts of animal suffering - mostly to onion bugs - are allowed.  Then we ordered some appetizers: samosa, puffy rice iddly, and medu vada, lentil donuts, all of which are soaked in a spicy lentil dal soup. Stupid move: we didn't realize how much more food was to come...

" Pani Puri" And I thought "special chats" were only an internet scam.
I also took a wild stab at the menu and ordered pani puri, described as a "special chat." I had no idea what it was, so I asked the waiter to demonstrate how to eat it. He did, using one of the fried puri and then bringing a plate of five more to replace the one used as an example. Puri are small, hard fried globes of thin bread. You pop a whole in the top and fill it with some spiced chickpeas, and then spoon a watery mix of spiced water and tamarind into it and pop the whole thing in your mouth where it explodes like a crispy water balloon filled with spice.

Fumie's animal friends admire a Southern Indian thali.
Next: a thali - south Indian mixed veggie curries, dal, pickles, and sauces with rice and chapati. this was $12.99 and more food than anybody could finish. Not only that, but as soon as you had finished one bowl of some tamarind sauce or chick pea curry the waiter would appear offering to top up your serving with more, on the house. Essentially, its all you can eat. The waiters are friendly and patient, working as a crack team of foodie pros making sure you have enough chapati and sauce. Aron seemed to like it, surprising since he comes from a country where vegetarian food consists of two kinds of potato and cabbage.

Brain cells exploding with delight. No animals were harmed in the making of this photograph.
I ordered a dosa, the thin, crispy rice pancake of south India. Mine was a Mysore Masala dosa, slathered with a spicy sauce and then folded around a mound of spiced potato, peas, and ground cashew nuts. Dosa are one of the things I crave while living in Hungary. I can get them in Berlin, or in Britain. The Mika Tivadar kert bar on Kazinczy utca around the corner from my flat in Budapest, has a truck serving dosas, but when I checked it out I could not discern any aroma that would identify the food as Indian in any way. Or food for that matter. And their dosa looked suspiciously like a palacsinta, so as often  happens when faced with the Hungarian take on ethnic street food, I passed.

Again: never eat anything bigger than your head.
Halfway through this the waiter offered to bring me more lentil dal, checking to see which of the thali bowls might need filling. Are they mad? I thought? At these prices how can they make any money doing this? Easily. The place was packed at 8 pm, mostly Indian families but also what seemed to be the entire Rastafarian community of the Newark metropolitan area: vegetarians all. Me? I am only an occasional vegetarian. Soon I will post some of my adventures into the world of radical ahimsa... Shake Shack!

804 Newark ave. Jersey City, New Jersey 07306
Open 7 days 11 AM to 10 PM. No reservations.


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Unknown said...

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