Welcome to the Neighborhood

The teams from MSG Kitchen and Jhal NYC present a very special, one-day museum featuring Bengali and Fujianese artists and 5-course tasting.

Welcome to the Neighborhood

Our 5-course tasting menu is more than just a meal; it's a dialogue. Each dish is accompanied by a narrative, journeying through the Bengali and Fujianese immigrant experience and following their path to being at the forefront of the Indian and Chinese restaurant scene in NYC.

Event Menu

Aloo Bhortha

Bhortha is a term used in Bengali cuisine to describe a style of dishes where ingredients are typically boiled or roasted, then mashed, and seasoned with various spices, green chilies, onions, and mustard oil. They’re almost always served with plain rice and are an essential part of the Bengali dining experience. Bhortha’s tend to be on the simpler side and are often seen as a comfort food. Aloo bhortha might be the most classic of all bhorthas, almost like Bengali mashed potatoes. This however is our take on it – with a little twist in the addition of scallions and Chinese celery, which is like a wild celery, very strong celery flavor, but thinner stalks.

We decided to start with this dish as a quick bite, something you’d be offered when visiting home. The familiarity of eating bhortha, the pleasant sting of mustard oil and the strong celery flavor like from a noodle soup Grandma had on ready for your arrival - strong flavors reminiscent of where we came from.

It was the 1970s and 1980s where Fujianese and Bengali immigrants were largely welcomed into the United States, after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, and many found their way to NYC. Though, many, if not most, came through largely by illegal means like being smuggled in ship crates or abandoning steamboats on their way to other countries like Britain. However they did it, they made it here, found a home here, and forged familiarity here – mostly through food, language and community. With the help of later legislation like the Diversity Visa Program lottery and the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, many finally were able to gain citizenship or green cards.

Chicken Keema Spring Roll

When Bengali and Fujianese communities arrived in New York, they didn’t exactly have the warmest of welcomes. The Fujianese, for instance, were often at odds with their Cantonese cousins. The Fujianese that arrived in the US during the 1980s largely only spoke their native dialect and couldn’t communicate with the Cantonese, who also spoke their own dialect. Congregating in the same neighborhoods also meant competing for space, resources, and clientele.

Before the 1980’s, there was an earlier migration of Bengalis, predominantly from what is now Bangladesh; many of them were sailors, peddlers, and ex-seamen from the British empire who decided to jump ship and settle in the U.S in places like Harlem, New Orleans and Detroit. At the time due to the racial dynamics of the United States, Bengalis found comfort and community within the Black and Puerto Rican communities of these cities and would often marry into them. They would still maintain extensive communication networks between themselves, helping newcomers find housing, work, and spouses. This network was already in place when the Diversity Visa Program lottery and the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 passed, so the first Bengalis of this new wave of immigration were able to take advantage of these networks and create a tight knit community.

Often, these minorities within minority communities are grouped up in a monolithic way, and just as how it shows itself to us in our understanding of these communities, it can show itself in food as well. When you think of samosas or spring rolls, you’re usually thinking of versions of those dishes that are different from the Bengali or Fujianese versions. Bengali’s samosa is filled typically with a similarly spiced minced chicken filling to the one you are eating, as opposed to the potato filling you may be more familiar with, which is more common in other South Asian cultures, popularized by the classic Indian restaurant. The Chinese spring rolls you might be thinking of are usually fried and filled with some shredded vegetables and maybe some charsiu, but Fujianese spring rolls are not fried, they eat the wrappers as is, and wrap them with a mixture of bean sprouts, pressed tofu, chives, pork belly, and pickled radish. Interestingly enough, Fujianese and Bengali families will both swear by TYJ brand spring roll wrappers for these respective snacks. Growing up and helping your mom peel the wrappers to make samosas or spring rolls before big family events, or holidays is a core memory for many of us.

Chili Lychee Chicken

This is our version of a Chili Chicken, a beloved Indo-Chinese classic, combined with flavors of Sweet and Sour Pork. We made our sweet and sour sauce by using lychees and tamarind, combined with common household Bengali spices (cumin, coriander, cinnamon, green cardamom, bay leaf) and a mixture of Bengali and Sichuan chili powders. In Fujianese restaurants you might find a dish called Lychee Pork, which is the FJ version of sweet and sour pork. It’s called this not because of the use of lychees in the sauce, but rather the shape the pork is cut into such that it curls into a jagged sphere when fried. In our version, we decided to use lychees for the sweet fruitiness it offers, combined with tamarind in addition to black vinegar for the sour component.

Bengali and Fujianese families tend to be the ones behind your affordable everyday Indian and Chinese restaurants. Most Fujianese go through the Chinese takeout pipeline, though more recently you’ll see them expanding to Japanese/sushi and Boba shops. There are networks in place that help Fujianese immigrants find work in restaurants, learn the business, and eventually open their own.

You have been to an Indian restaurant. Most Americans at this point have been to an Indian restaurant. You might know the classic Indian restaurants of Murray Hill, or in Midtown. All those Indian restaurants are modeled after the British Curry House, which in turn was essentially created by Bangladeshi immigrants. Just like how most take out Chinese restaurants in North America serve a cuisine that is not truly authentic to the cultures of the people running the restaurants, the Indian restaurant and its parent, the British curry house were created in the UK from Sylhet-Bangladeshi immigrants. Now Indian takeaways are much more popular in the UK than in the US, to the point where people call Chicken Tikka Masala the national dish of Britain. There are conflicting reports of how chicken tikka masala came to be, as it is not something that was created in South Asia, but more than a few reports believe it was also created by Sylheti-Bengalis. The Indian food known the world over, the tandoori chickens, the chicken tikka masalas, the vindaloos, and the jhalfrezis, were popularized by Bangladeshis. Bangladeshis who felt that their own cuisine would be too foreign to sell and so opted to create this hybridized cuisine.

This tale also spins around Indo-Chinese cuisine, a hit across South Asia and now creeping into the West's South Asian spots. Elmhurst has NYC's first Indo-Chinese restaurant, Tangra. For many, life's big moments are marked by these flavors. But its roots? Colonial-era Kolkata, full of recent Chinese settlers—Hakka, Cantonese, Hubei—meshing their culinary arts with Bengali flavors. Thus, the chicken lollipop and chow mein were born. It's a curious middle ground, this cuisine, not quite Indian, not quite Chinese, but a mainstay nonetheless. For many families, running these eateries mirrored their Western counterparts. In Bangladesh today, "eating out" implies these very dishes. Chili chicken became one of these iconic dishes, the equivalent of a General Tso or Orange Chicken. Yet, cuisine and culture are not static ideals.. Post-'60s, amid the Tibetan uprising, refugees pouring into West Bengal places like Kolkata and Darjeeling wove their touch into this culinary tapestry, gifting it Momos and Thukpa. The '80s and '90s saw Bangladeshis in Southeast Asia, ferrying back exotic twists. So, this cuisine, ever dynamic, keeps simmering on.

These communities and stories are often hidden behind the monolithic representations of immigrant communities in the US. Even many South Asians are unaware of the rich history of Indo-Chinese cuisine. We wanted to use this course to talk about monolithic representations and unseen communities. Oftentimes these unseen communities are actually right in front of us, integrated into our everyday lives. We have a responsibility to learn about and learn from these communities so that they’re not forgotten.

Kitchuri Rice Porridge

Kitchuri is a porridge of rice and mung beans, like a spiced congee, and similarly elicits a feeling of comfort, like a warm hug. This one is made simply with onion, garlic, ginger, Chinese celery stems, and rehydrated shiitake mushrooms. It’s spiced with turmeric, coriander, cumin, bay leaf, white pepper, and cinnamon, and seasoned with a little bit of fish sauce, mushroom powder, and hondashi. On top, there’s a salad of Chinese celery leaves, garlic achar, and fried shallots.

With this dish we wanted to remind everyone here of the warmth that food can provide. The connection to a memory, the comfort and warmth that radiates from within. This is what we imagine provided comfort to many of the immigrants from the Bengali and Fujianese communities - a warm bowl of porridge, when they probably couldn’t afford much else.

The means by which both these communities came into the States wasn’t always the cleanest or the prettiest. Many were survivors of human trafficking or came here with massive debts to pay to shady organizations. One such story is of the Golden Venture, a cargo ship that smuggled in almost 300 Fujianese into NY on June 6, 1993. These “passengers” were loaded into cramped cargo holds on the freighter ship, surviving the 4 month journey on peanuts and rice. Many suffered through illness, beatings by gang leaders running the smuggling ring, or even raped. When they got to NY, the boat was stranded after a mutiny happened on board and the rendezvous group was arrested by the police, so the asylum seekers tried to swim to the shores of Rockaway beach, 10 drowning as a result. When they touched ground, they were immediately taken into custody, with only 10% of them granted asylum and only half of the remainder left in immigrant prisons, fighting their cases with largely pro-bono lawyers.

The first Bangladeshi immigrants were ship jumpers, eventually this evolved into lottery visas and those seeking asylum. But undocumented immigration to the U.S remains steadfast, even now, with Bangladeshis making one of the largest undocumented Asian groups in NYC. In this day and age the largest populations of Bangladeshi trafficking is not in the U.S but to countries like Italy, the U.A.E and Malaysia. Bangladeshis lured with promises of good wages and a safer way of life are sent to these countries only to have their traffickers hold their passports and forced to work in inhumane and unsafe conditions, sleeping ten to a room, barely making anything to send back to their homes. This trafficking is a huge part of our story and is happening right now.

These hardships are a part of our history as well. They shade in the generational trauma we feel as children of these immigrants. We want to honor these memories as well as the others, and understand the power that food can have in providing comfort when all else fails.

Peanut & Palm Sugar Chāvah

For something a little sweet, and very homey feeling, we decided to make something Sean’s Grandma used to make for him growing up, a sweet glutinous rice dumpling called chāvah (or tangyuan in mandarin).

This one is filled with a mixture of sesame, peanuts, palm sugar, coconut oil, and green cardamom. Palm sugar might be one of the most common Bengali dessert flavors. These chāvah are simply boiled in cardamom water that has a little bit of kerwa in it. Kewra is a plant that is related to pandan. It’s essence is called Kewra water and is often used to add floral notes and fragrance in everything from savory biriyanis to sweet desserts.

We wanted to leave you all with just a few thought questions around the themes in which we hoped to cover tonight. We encourage you all to think about hidden communities, about monoliths and assimilation. Some thoughts and questions we came up with while planning for this meal were:

  • Has the assimilation generation ended or has assimilation just taken a new form? What does assimilation look like in today’s culture, if we are not past the assimilation mentality?
  • What do we do about monolithic grouping of cultures? Is it a negative thing, or can it help create a new culture around “Asian Americaness” as it’s seen in the States or in countries that have more of a history of multiculturalism?
  • This legacy of restaurant ownership is fading away. Like we mentioned earlier, culture and cuisine are not static and the restaurant communities we speak of are turning into a thing of the past by the day. As our communities become more established, Bangladeshi and Fujianese families are less inclined to go into the grueling restaurant business. Is this version of restaurant culture over? Is that a bad thing? How do we continue to remember and give credit to this part of history?


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