By Vyasar Ganesan
When I mention the Chinese, Sorabh looks uncomfortable. His mother, Sushma, tells me that it’s only recently that so many have been coming here. This is news to me, because Flushing is a place so impossibly full of Asians of all kinds: in ten minutes, you can walk from New Asian Foods, Inc., an Indian bakery and eatery in a neighborhood full of Indian temples, to the heart of downtown, and see nothing but Chinese advertisements, Chinese bakeries, Chinese policemen, while a flow of Chinese pedestrians slogs over the sidewalk in an inexorable wave.
“Only two years past, they have been coming,” she says. “Now they are everywhere.”
Sorabh looks at me, hoping I won’t engage her. But I feel compelled to point out that the same can be said for Indians. They too are everywhere in Flushing, Queens, New York, America. Sushma shrugs. “Yes, yes, but the Chinese have been here only recently.”
New Asian Foods, Inc. is next to a laundromat and a Chinese restaurant on Cherry Avenue in Queens. On the left side of the store there is a long, narrow mirror, and on the right and front, windows to the street. The kitchen stretches long, towards the back of the establishment, creating the feeling of being inside a shoebox. There are no chairs for customers. The only displayed prices on food items are a laminated sheet, detailing how much for x-number of rotis, and oil-smudged scraps of paper around the trays of sweets.
The fried snacks and the mixed vegetables are all unlabeled, but I find that they are all cheap, not to mention delicious and filling. Crunching down on three buttery samosa ($2.00), I know it is better to eat than to argue. Hundreds of thousands of Indians have been coming to this country every year for more than a decade, with a significant majority entering through New York, Long Island, New Jersey, and other ports on the eastern seaboard, whereas the Chinese are old hands at the immigration game. Flushing’s Chinatown has been around since the 70s, but that’s not important right now.
In the back, I can see a team of six or seven women pound out the 3,000 or so circles of bread that will be transformed by the heavy iron griddle into Punjabi-style rotis, shipped to college students in North Carolina, buffet halls in California, temples in Virginia, diners on airplanes headed across the world. Rotis have enough in common with flour tortillas to be popular in America, and they are the most consumed, prepared, and marketed leavened flatbreads in all of India’s culinary history. They are such simple things, a dash of water in a cup of flour, puffed by an open flame and covered in clarified butter, but a roti has worth that goes beyond its dross components.
Besides rotis, New Asian Foods, Inc. has the standard Indian snacks and sweets of any classic shop. The samosas are the most popular item – heavy, buttery crusts filled with potatoes, peas, and spices – for customers to munch on while they place their roti orders. There is also a pile of jalebis in the back. Sushma pulls one of the pretzel-shaped strands off and offers it to me while we chat. The crunchy dough, more sugar than flour, is so soaked in warm orange syrup it falls apart after one bite. There are whole sacks of bhujia, spicy fried bits and pieces that are pushed out of a machine resembling a noodle maker. New Asian Foods, Inc. makes all kinds of laddu, balls of semolina or chickpea flower sweetened with anything from coconut milk to cane sugar, dotted with green, red, and yellow.
This is the kind of place a mother could go to for help serving an evening with tea, a hostess throwing a dessert party, a college student looking for a cheap snack. In India these snack food shops are all over, in big cities and small villages. They are cheap, not very clean places, but that’s not why people flock to them. Snack shops serve social functions, places where the community can meet, loiter, play, and eat together. This one in Queens isn’t exactly an inviting center for Indians to mingle and hang out in (no chairs), but they make everything in-house, and they make it right.
Sushma Thukral started selling rotis from a shopping cart in 1993, one year after she came to America. She walked the streets of Queens with her two daughters, and American-born baby Sorabh in tow, for four years, before opening her business on Cherry.
“When I first started, the health inspector gave me lot of trouble.” Sushma sighs, puts a hand to her temple, her troubles. “And my husband, you know, he is a not-good person. Always he is lying to me all the times. If he go to deliver the bread, he go to Atlantic City, for enjoy.”
Sushma divorced her husband in 2001. By then, she’d opened a second branch of New Asian Foods, Inc. in New Jersey, and business was booming. Sorabh’s father took note.
“You know how, in a divorce, things are fifty-fifty?” Sorabh asks.
Sushma shakes her head. “I don’t want to divide my children. So I said, whatever you want to take, you take it.”
In this way, all three of the children stayed with Sushma, while the father moved to run the new business. Even now, according to Sushma, he doesn’t care about his children, “whether they live or die.” Her bright eyes are not upset or ashamed when she says this, but direct, open, forceful. With a stout warmth she works the counters, and with broad hands she demonstrates for the cooks on the line. For all this potency, Sushma retains all of the graciousness of a mother. Her oldest daughter serves in the National Guard, and she pulls a picture out to show me. A close-cropped haircut in military fatigues stares resolutely, and I smile with approval. Sushma kisses the photograph of her daughter and says, “I love you, beti.”
Sorabh, age twenty, is small enough to nearly pass without notice. When I came in to buy a samosa, it took me a minute to cognitively realize he was there. In a gray sweater too big for him, Chicago baseball cap pulled down low, he could almost disappear. A crop of stubble marks his chin, and his eyes are big, as big as his mother’s, childishly big in his short stature. His manner is identical to Sushma’s, if somewhat reduced. Sorabh looks me in the eye the whole time, breaking contact only to serve a customer. His chin sticks out when he speaks, and serves to emphasize a voice part drawl, part slang, all college student. “I started working here, to help mom out, you know,” he says, avoiding his mother’s eyes.
“My baby boy,” she coos, and gives him an engulfing hug. “He always helps me.” Sorabh grins, blushing a little.
The Thukrals needed all the help they could get. When the shop was first established on Cherry Avenue, the price to rent and maintain it was too high for a struggling family with three kids to pay on their own. That’s where Girish Patel and his brother, the owners of the Patel Brothers grocery stores, stepped in. They gave Sushma money whenever she needed it, no matter the risk of harboring a potential competitor. The Patel brothers’ support convinced the Flushing Indian community to help Sushma when her husband left. Even her landlord, who owns the string of buildings on her block gives her extra time to pay the rent. He is always on hand to watch the store or fix a pipe – a thing like a miracle in a place like New York.
But perhaps miracles are not out of the question for a place as special as New Asian Foods, Inc. Finding a roti shop that also produces a volume of quality sweets, snacks, and other foods, and produces them fresh, is rare. Even the Patel Brothers don’t have it that good. Sushma is a woman in charge of a commercial kitchen, a woman who owns a business, and, in the eyes of Flushing’s Asian community, a woman out of her cultural mandate. She crosses boundaries the way my mother did when I was young: a single mother in a rough situation, working hard for her children’s futures, resisting remarriage, doing everything on her own. Now my mother has her own business that works for her, but the struggle to survive is still there, the need to be a mother, to provide for her young. The Thukrals are in a similar moment; things are stable for Sushma now, but Sorabh is applying to pharmacy school, and plans to leave Flushing one day. In time, we serve as frozen mirrors for one another, staring down a list of what-could-have-beens, of opposites that are not quite opposite. But what the Thukrals serve me is what I grew up eating, fried treats that melt any iciness between us. In food, we could not be any closer.
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Vyasar Ganesan is a writer from Austin, TX. He’s been published in various places, including the “National Gallery of Writing”, “Agave Magazine” and “My Entertainment World He has an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University. His specific literary interests are food writing, Indian life in America, and travel writing, among other fields.