The Desi Food Truck is parking on Broadway and 111th street these days. I love the colourful red truck with its designs in yellow, blue and green, suggestive of the intricate borders of Indian saris. Yet there is nothing intricate about my favorite Desi snack, the “Puri Bhaji.” When I think of bhaji I usually think of the round croquet like onion fritters the Chef makes from one of our many Madhur Jaffrey cookbooks, but I was confused enough by these “Puri Bhaji” that the genial truckmeister, an Indian man who told me his name is José, said he would give me a taste. He took a fried puffy piece of amber bread, a miniature exemplar of hollow puffy puri bread, sliced it in half, opened it up and put in a scoop of chicken, squirting it with a greenish brown sauce. The puri bahji was a flavor bomb in my mouth, a taste combo that had the quality of a meal at the best halal carts. Though I hate to use that overused word, I just have to say it was umami. While puri bhaji is common streetfood in the subcontinent and breakfast in northern India, The Desi Truck advertises it as “The GameChanger.” Not only is it a game changer, but at $5/2 bhaji, it’s a bargain, and one of the few things I’ve had lately that I can say is a true snack attack—affordable, savory, satisfying—the whole raison d’etre of the “snack attack” column I started in 2007, and which lives on in this blog. You can get potato, chicken or beef—get the chicken—and the filling is not put inside the hollow bread, but in the middle, as if into a taco.
A Thought about “Ethnic” Food
“Desi”is Sanskrit for the Indian subcontinent. I love that within six blocks on Broadway we can go from Mexico to the Indian subcontinent and to Szechuan, China. On 110th the tamale lady not only sells tamales but also full hearty meals to the Mexican men and boys who work packing produce at Westside Market. Then you go one block up to the Desi cart, and five blocks north Columbia University’s Chinese students line up at carts and trucks for bites of home. At Desi I was on line behind a young man who spoke to “José" in Hindi or Urdu. It makes me remember that New York City’s ethnic food carts and trucks (and in the case of the Tamale Lady, a grocery cart) did not serendipitously roll up to serve me, a foreigner, but to offer a taste of home to fellow immigrants. Sometimes in all our hipster fervor about Smorgasburg and fusion foods like ramen burgers and katsu crunch corndogs, it’s easy to forget that the vibrant food scene we take for granted is a byproduct of homesickness.