Thursday, May 23, 2024

How Much Can Elevated Street Food Capture the Original Inspiration?

When the team behind Junoon, an Indian fine dining destination in Manhattan, announced it was opening a restaurant, Jazba, dedicated to street food, my heart did a hopeful flip. I knew I shouldn’t get my expectations up; I’d been burned before by restaurants promising something I’d eaten only in India, and serving a paltry facsimile. But when Eater NY reported that galouti kebab would be on the menu, and that the restaurant had brought a chef from Tunday Kababi, a famous kebab shop in Lucknow, to make it, I frantically made a reservation.

In the days leading up to my meal, I gushed about this potentially life-altering development to anyone who would listen. Galouti kebab, a staple of my dad’s hometown of Lucknow, is something I’ve rarely seen outside India. And when I have, it hasn’t been good. The kebab is supposed to be minced into oblivion, a pillowy pate of buffalo meat, mutton, or goat, spiced with a heavily guarded masala recipe, and fried in ghee for the barest smashburger-esque crust to keep it all in. Stateside, I’d found a whopping two restaurants that offered it, but each time I visited I was served essentially a burger, or something indistinguishable from other kebabs. It was wrong. It was heartbreaking. Now, there was a new promise that I didn’t have to get on a plane for 24 hours to experience what has come to feel like an integral part of my heritage.

It is perhaps a cliche experience for children of immigrants to hear stories of where their parents came from and feel a variety of distances — time, language, culture, literal mileage — and for them to then realize just how big the world is; to feel the awe, the kind that means dread as well as wonder, at being able to relate to their parents at all. But here was the other cliche: that food can transcend these divides. The galouti kebab whispered that I could experience the great collapsing of my dad’s hometown and mine on top of each other. Leading up to my reservation, however, I found myself in a near panic. What if it didn’t taste exactly like the kebab I’d eaten at outdoor stands across Lucknow? And then, a different dread: What if it did, and this special, rare thing I thought could only exist across the world became not so special at all?

Like with any good regional delicacy, there is a story that borders on myth around the galouti kebab. Early versions were developed for Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula (sometimes spelled Asad-ud-Daula). The ruler of Awadh, who reigned from 1775 until his death in 1797, couldn’t enjoy kebab after losing all his teeth in old age, so he held a contest for who could make the most tender kebab that wouldn’t require chewing. But Haji Murad Ali is credited with inventing the galouti kebab, or “tunday ke kebab,” an even finer and more tender preparation for Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, who ruled from 1847 through 1856. The name is a reference to the fact that Ali only had one hand (“tunday” meaning “one arm”). In 1905, Ali founded Tunday Kababi in Lucknow, as many chefs of the former nawab spread across the city, opening restaurants serving the dishes they developed for royalty. In homage to Ali, kebab-makers across Lucknow form the patties with one arm behind their backs.

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I didn’t know this the first time I ate the kebab, at 22 years old on a trip to India with my grandparents and a cousin. I just knew I’d never seen my grandfather so happy on the car ride to Sakhawat, a kebab shop that’s been open in Lucknow since 1911. I don’t know how long it’d been since he’d been to Lucknow, or gotten a chance to eat galouti kebab. I only know he demanded this outing despite the cough he’d developed upon landing in North India’s air, which seemed to affect him more and more every day.

We sat in a lofted seating area, looking down on the man forming kebabs with one hand, lining the patties on the edge of a plate for another cook to fry. Eating them, I felt a tingling heat I’d never experienced. The chile mellowed beneath the other spices, all of them building and building until I felt my consciousness lift three inches past my brow, like the last time I’d successfully smoked a joint. My cousin and I were giddy, sweeping up the kebab with roomali roti and washing it down with Limca, barely able to form sentences but in complete agreement this was a meal we’d remember forever. My grandfather beamed, I’m not sure whether for himself or for us.

Years later, I watched that familial joy spread across my dad’s face. He hadn’t been back to Lucknow since before I was born, and was determined to take me and my spouse to Hazratganj, the neighborhood where he and his brother went to school. But it had changed since he was there, and as I watched his mounting panic over not recognizing anything, I suggested we find somewhere to eat. A shopkeeper at a Foot Locker pointed us down a main thoroughfare, promising if we kept to the left we’d find the best kebab in town. There we sat, and ordered galouti kebab (the first of many on that trip) and I watched my dad’s posture change. He relaxed into the plate, piling raw onion on top of each bite, smiling and ordering more. Finally, he was home.

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These are the kind of experiences this entire food media industry seems built to uphold: Food as culture, food as ultimate connection between the generations, the honest cuisine of the roadside stand as more “authentic” than any fine dining room. This was a meal I still recall as the best part of the trip, the first time my dad and I had ever been to India together. This is what we journeyed for. No hotel meal or high-end experience could compare.

Jazba is not a roadside stand. It sits on an East Village corner, formerly the home of Momofuku Ssäm Bar, windows still looking out on the first location of Milk Bar. My partner and I were greeted by an iPad-wielding manager checking our Resy reservation, and seated opposite the backlit liquor bottles of the bar. Servers sported matching buttoned-up shirts with loud patterns, and the fried chicken was served in cheeky faux-newsprint, an ode to street food wrapped in the real thing. After we ordered our kebab and other dishes, we sat sipping cocktails made with infused gin and bourbon, $16 each.

The kebabs arrived, two mutton patties for $19, each on a triangle of paratha, flanked by a tangle of marinated red onion and a yogurt-coated achaar. A rip of paratha pressed into the kebab immediately gave way to a nearly creamy interior, and I knew they got it right. The same giddiness came to me as the spice layered on my tongue and my cheeks began to buzz, the same marvel that meat could even achieve such a texture, my tongue searching the inside of my mouth for the last bits of browned crust to savor.

It was everything I’d been waiting for, and yet, I kept waiting. I wanted the dish to bring a transformation of some sort, to be swept back to the streets of Lucknow surrounded by people for whom the dish wasn’t a novelty. I wanted to not just be reminded of the past, but have it here somehow. Impossible, but the sort of thing — if you read enough moving personal essays or watch enough episodes of television exalting the power of food — you start to believe can be real. On some level I thought that eating a galouti kebab in New York City would make it my dad’s hometown, would close the diasporic divide.

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But here, there was no watching the kebab-maker with one arm behind his back, no steeling myself to order in my atrocious Hindi. The noise from the street was a different noise. Here, we finished our cocktails and moved on to cotes du Rhone, which the server poured a taste of for my approval. We enjoyed dishes from other parts of the country — a butter chicken from Delhi, green chile chicken from Telangana — and paid with a credit card. We walked out into my hometown, into familiarity, and everything was the same.

An instinct kicked inside me to say that this was a problem, that somehow Jazba did something wrong by serving cocktails and playing pop music and looking every bit like the cool, colorful East Village restaurant it is. But it is not necessarily a problem for two kinds of cultural experiences to exist. A restaurant in New York, even one that aims to celebrate Indian street food, will never be a roadside stand in Lucknow. Food in all its beauty and history and cultural importance can never make it so. And why would I even want that?

As I walked to the subway, the spice lingered in my mouth. It was the same spice as when I was 22, as when I was 32, the tingle a ghost of those other meals. The hometowns are not the same, but now a piece of one is available in the other. This piece has adapted to fit its new surroundings but it’s still the same at its core. Sounds familiar.

María Jesús Contreras is a freelance illustrator.

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