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Wednesday, 31 July 2013

A Unique Slice of the Big Apple

Written by  Ash Quadir

JH_Subway_Entrance_2PlanetHop! loves to feature unique destinations from around the world, which are vivrant, historic and, of course, memorable.  These are the sort of spots that cannot be fully appreciated in just one visit.  They beckon a return trip.  Often these destinations include the many multi-cultural neighborhoods found in large cities such as Paris, Sydney, Vancouver, Los Angeles - the list is pretty extensive.  But perhaps no city is as diverse as New York City, which is a melting pot of dozens of cultures, including a totally unique showcase like Jackson Heights in the Burough of Queens.  Your mouth may water, and you may rush out to book that plane ticket after reading this article - but first, read on...

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Many agree that New York City is one of the ultimate destinations on the planet. This is why over 50 million people visit every year. Yeah, that's right, you heard me right - over 50 million people per year visit the Big Apple every 365 days! Yikes – that's lot!

During the average visit, it's almost impossible to experience all that the city has to offer. Most people settle for the top spots like the Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building, Grand Central Station, Central Park, St. Patrick's Cathedral, Ground Zero and, of course Times Square. While all of these places are definitely worth a visit, I've decided to take a different tack. On a recent trip to the city, I spent some time exploring one of the city's many multicultural neighborhoods – namely Jackson Heights in the borough of Queens.

JH_Street

From what I've read, Jackson Heights used to be almost exclusively farmland a little over a hundred years ago. Then over time, English-style garden co-ops and homes began to pop up. Legend even holds that it was home to its own golf course. But eventually all of this was paved over into the concrete jungle we all know – and maybe love - today. Jackson Heights is now a bustling neighborhood that is truly, truly diverse. Within a few blocks of each other, you'll run into people from half a dozen different parts of the world, including Latin America, China, Korea, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (Bangladeshi's seem to be capturing quite a bit of territory according to some that I spoke to).

During my visit, I spent most of my time in the predominately Bangladeshi neighborhood, boxed in between 37 Street and Roosevelt Ave. and 72 – 74 Streets. One of the most amazing things about Jackson Heights is that it's located only a relatively short trip on the 7 train from Times Square. In about 30 minutes you're miraculously transported into another world (without the need to get on a plane). From the moment I got off at Roosevelt Ave., I felt like I was walking on any city street in Bangladesh. (I know what I'm talking about, since I've been there several times.) Most of the people walking about were Bangladeshi, chatting away in their native tongue and most of the shops had signs written in English and Bangla. (Think of a Bangladeshi version of any Chinatown.)

A few highlights from the area include 74th Street, where jewelry shops abound. It's like the Fort Knox of NYC, with the amount of gold on display! Apparently most South Asian marriages cannot be sealed without a lot of gold involved! (I didn't have the budget to even buy a trinket.)

 

JH_Gold_Street   JH_Gold_Store_Front   JH_Inside_Gold_Store

 

With the price of gold at an all-time high, I did my best to avoid the aforementioned gold shops – even though this alone posed quite a challenge. Instead, I spent some time browsing through a few clothing shops – in particular Karishma and the India Sari Palace. These shops make tailor made suits at amazing prices. But the standout pieces of clothing were saris and salawar kameezes, which adorned many a mannequins in the display windows. The mannequins were gorgeously attired and, if you blinked twice, looked very "real." Saris are 5 to 9 yards long and are draped cleverly around women, come in bright colors and prints and are often decorated with sequins. I saw a few stunning examples that were made of silk with sequins that cost over a thousand dollars! The same goes for the salwar kameezes, which can be worn by both men and women and consist of a loose pajama-like trouser and a long shirt or tunic. The ones made for females are usually more colorful than the male versions and are often stunning to look at.  They can also be as pricey as saris. But there are definitely nice examples of both that are much more affordable and still look good. I snagged a salwar for my sweetheart for around $50.

Another item for the gents is the one piece tunic called a panjabi, which come in various colors; some plain, some very fancy and at different price points. They are similar to the salwar for guys; and yes, I did pick up a cream-colored one for myself for $25. If you want to grab some attention, wear a panjabi to the mall - with your partner in a bright salwar – and you'll definitely be making a fashion statement. Who knows, you might even start a new fashion trend!

 

JH_Zhara_Shop

 

But more than anything else, the thing that left the strongest impression on me – and on my palette – were the many great restaurants, grocery stores and sweet shops that abound in Jackson Heights. You'll see lots of mangos and other exotic fruits – not to mention fresh vegetables and a thousand other different types of confections.

JH_Halal_MeatThe grocery stores also cater to the Bangladeshi appetite for fish and halal meats like chicken, goat and beef. Every grocery store seemed to have a butcher's station, where you can see the action happen as fresh fish – sometimes still alive – and meats hanging from hooks are cut to order. (No, I didn't see any live chickens, goats or cows wandering around! ) Lest I get sued, everything looked sanitary – as far as I could tell.

However, you simply can't leave Jackson Heights without having a bite to eat at one of the many restaurants or food carts. I had lunch at a restaurant / grocery shop called Khaabar Baari (The Food House), where I ate something called haleem with naan bread. The Bangladeshi version of haleem is a stew made with beef (or lamb) and spices, mixed with lentils and cilantro, ginger slices and a squeezed wedge of lime. You dip the naan and scoop up the beef and lentils into your mouth. It's a bit spicy – but I loved the taste of the lentils and meat that almost melted your mouth! And to cleanse your palette, the perfect drink to have is a lassi, which is made out of yogurt and mango (it's like an Asian smoothie).

A Bangladeshi friend of mine also suggested some other culinary delights to try including: kababs, curry, polao, birani, dosa, samosa, tandoori chicken and, definitely some sweets like sondesh and roshagolla, as well as kulfi or pistachio ice cream. For desert, I settled for a sondesh - which is made out of cottage cheese and sugar and sliced pistachios - and a cup of chai (tea) in the Bangladeshi style (lots and lots of condensed milk and sugar). Wisely, I saved the other treats for next time.

 

JH_Khabar_Bari   

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Totally stuffed, I walked around a bit more (to burn off a few calories) and did some grocery shopping. Since I'm a tea lover, I bought some masala chai (spicy tea), a jar of Horlicks – a malt drink which is very popular around the world but can't be found in most US grocery stores - and had some absolutely luscious lychees. It's a red fruit a little larger than a cherry, which, once you peel the rind, contains a soft, pearly white flesh that literally drips with juicy sweetness. If you leave this planet without trying one (or several) you've done yourself a disservice. They also can be found in most Chinatowns during the spring and summer months. (If you're desperate, you can find canned lychees – but nothing beats fresh ones.)

 

JH_Vegetable_Seller    JH_Produce_2

 

I was tempted to cross Broadway to the "Hispanic" part of Jackson Heights, as there were just as many shops and treats beckoning to me from over there – but you really should take a few days to fully appreciate and explore the different parts of Jackson Heights.  Almost reluctantly, I headed back to subway station.

My lasting impression of Jackson Heights - before I hopped onto the 7 train back to Manhattan – was: wow, I didn't have to go all the way to Bangladesh to enjoy a slice of Bangladesh! Shopping, food and people – it was all there in this little corner of Queens. This is what sets NYC apart from so many other cities on this planet – it's so diverse!

30 short minutes later, I was back in Times Square. It was a little surreal to essentially be in "Bangladesh" one moment and back to "America" the next.  Although the common tourist traps in NYC are great, I highly recommend taking a trip off the beaten path to a place like Jackson Heights. It's totally AUTHENTIC!

 

Make sure to click on the Additional Info and Related Video tabs for more details...

Good places to shop:

Aura Fashions

India Sari Palace

Karishma

Lavanya

Zhara

 

Good places to buy gold:

Amba Jewelers

Karan Jewelers

Krishna Jewelers

Mita Jewelers

Sona Chaandii

 

Good places to eat:

Aladdin

Dera Restaurant

Kabab King

Kabab & Curry

Khaabar Bari

Mumbai Grill

Maharaja Sweets

Rhajboh Sweets

 

Good places to buy groceries:

Apna Bazaar Carry & Carry

Haat Bazaar

Patel Brothers

Subzi Mandi

 

To get there by subway:

It's easy to get there by subway. Take the V, R, G, E, or F and get off at the Jackson Heights-Roosevelt Avenue station; or take the 7 to the 74St. Broadway stop. The E and F are express trains - only three stops from midtown Manhattan ; but the 7 stops at most stations along the route and can be caught from Times Square.

Jackson Heights - Life and Culture
Ash Quadir

Ash Quadir

Ash is CEO and Co-Founder of PlanetHop! He's been best friends with Co-Founder Dave Camp for a loooong time and has joined him on many of his jaunts around the world. Ash has a wide variety of interests that range from writing books and screenplays, to creating websites. His greatest desire is to see more of this glorious planet of ours :)

Website: ashquadir.com