It became clear to me the minute I started researching about mithai in Jackson Heights that Indians love their sweets. How else would one account for the proliferance of sweet shops, of which I counted at least 5 in the small triangle between Broadway, 74th St and 37th Avenue? Eager to reacquaint myself with Indian dessert, I arrived at Jackson Heights an hour before my scheduled dinner in search for some sweets.
sweets galore

sweets galore

The sweet shops in Jackson Heights are generally humble looking establishments. With the exception of Maharaja Sweets’ chandeliers, the main aesthetic feature at a sweet shop is its glass display filled with trays of sugary tidbits. Deep fried dough steeped in syrup, hard milk and cashew candy rolled with flecks of silver, moist milk cakes tasting of cardamom and saffron, all in full display. At the three places I did go, the shopkeepers were friendly and helpful, steering Sarah and I towards their favorites.

falooda

falooda

Curiosity got the best of me at Shaheen’s, where I opted for a very foreign sounding falooda. I am glad that Sarah was here to share the dish with me, as this dish of Persian origin was big and very saccharine. The dish, very popular in Mumbai is filled with kulfi, milk, milk curds, vermicelli, basil seeds and topped off with rose syrup, and is a myraid of textures in a bowl, ranging from icy, creamy to slithery. I can’t say I enjoyed it, but I am glad I tried it. We also split a gulab jamun, a round ball, similar to a donut hole but denser soaked through with sugar. To our surprise, this was not quite so sweet, and really freshly fried and pleasant with cups of fragrant chai.

boxes

boxes

After dinner at Jackson Diner (good but overrated), I presented our group with the spoils of Sarah and my sweet escapade. From Al Naimat, I purchased Jalebi, straws of fried cake batter bent in a pretzel shape and coated with a crystallized sugar exterior. I say straws because the hardened strings seemed almost hollow, that sugar syrup flows into the mouth upon one bite. Strangely, it reminds me of Grandma Cheng’s favorite Cantonese sweet, Sa Chi Ma, also best when fresh and sugary. Al Naimat must go through a lot of Jalebi, because the box I bought tasted fresh, not tainted with the foul scent of stale oil.

From Rajbhog we had a selection of burfis, cham chams and halwas, more subtle than the jalebi, also not quite as sweet. Milk acts as a base, and mixed with other components allows the different flavors to shine. Kaju burfi remains my favorite, the smoky nuttiness of cashew clearly apparent. Cham chams are new to me and delicious, tasting faintly of rose syrup and saffron and very moist from the cream that is nozzled into it.

Indian sweets are not very easy to like, especially for people not used to the saccharine or the spice profiles that sometimes appear potpourri like. And while I still don’t know what makes one mithai good and the other mediocre, I’ve discovered a taste for sure, and am glad to extend my mithai education in Jackson Heights.  

Al Naimat

3703 74th St, Jackson Heights, NY

Shaheen Sweets and Cuisine

7209 Broadway, Jackson Heights, NY

Rajbhog Sweets

7227 37th Ave, Jackson Heights, NY

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Television can be such insidious poison, particularly reality tv shows like “America’s next top model” and tv challenges. “Man v. Food” belongs to the latter category. In the show, the host pits his stomach against some pretty extreme challenges, and on the New York stop, he takes on phaal, ostensibly described as the hottest curry in the country, at Bricklane Curry. Despite its rather senseless premise, “Man v Food” has a sizeable following, and amongst its viewers is my friend Sarah. Now Sarah is usually a very sensible girl, and I am still not sure why she was so eager to take on the challenge. But we are good friends, so if she had to succumb to the siren call of crass tv promotions and hot indian curries, I would be there to provide moral support.

After much mental preparation (what’s the most effective way to eat the curry? rice or no rice? should we bring milk to neutralize the acid?) we met at Bricklane on Saturday, where a line had spilled out of the door whereas its neighbors on Curry Lane were half empty, a testimony to its reputation as one of the better Indian restaurants on the block. No doubt business must have picked up since the show too, with many others like Sarah eager to try the phaal. According to our very chatty server Chad, about 20-30 bowls of phaal is sold every given day after the episode of “Man v Food” had aired. We were soon seated and after a plate of aloo chaat (very middling, needs acid) to line the stomach, and armed with raita and a mango lassi, S dug into her phaal. As for me? I am happy to be a pure spectator and ordered a dish of Goan fish curry (tasty, but not quite aromatic enough).

Forgive my pun, but the phaal was truly foul. Made with a paste of 13 different peppers and other assorted spices such as ginger.  In honesty, the spice level might have been tolerable if the dish tasted a little better, but the grey sludge was largely bitter and devoid of other more appealing flavors. Instead of an instantaneous burning sensation, one encounters a slow burn in the mouth that intensifies and travels down the esophagus. I had merely 3 small bites and was quite put off. Poor Sarah on the other hand had to struggle through the bowl, cooling off once in a while with the aforementioned yogurt mix and drink, and then plunging right back into the fiery depths of curry hell. By the time she had eaten all the chicken chunks in the dish and all was left was a third of the dish filled with black gunk (sauce), Sarah decided, in a haze of pain, that the virtual P’hall of fame and the free beer for completing the dare wasn’t worth it. Indeed, it isn’t, but for those foolhardy enough, game on!

Brick Lane Curry House

306 E 6th St (Between 1st and 2nd Aves)

bricklanecurryhouse.com