Food can be nourishing or decadent, fun to eat or boring. It can also get you a visa. That’s how Raman Kumar ended up in New York City, more than 7,000 miles away from his home in the Punjab region of India. He knew how to cook.
Kumar, 53, came to the United States in 1985, when he was 22, sponsored by his cousin Baldev Malholtra to work as a chef in Malhotra’s restaurant, Taste of India I. Malhotra had opened Taste of India I about a decade earlier in Greenwich Village, near NYU. “It was a fast-paced restaurant with a lot of buffets,” Kumar says. “We served a lot of students.” But when the lease ran out, he says, the restaurant became a victim of its own success: “If the landlord knows you’re doing well, they’ll raise the rent, so they did.” Kumar, who is relaxed and quick to laugh, took it in stride when Taste of India I closed in the late 1990s, after more than 20 years in business.
His restaurant career wasn’t over. By then he had partnered with Malhotra to open a second restaurant in New Dorp, a quiet neighborhood on the eastern shore of Staten Island. Indian food might seem commonplace now, but at the time it was pioneering. “We were the first Indian restaurant on Staten Island,” Kumar says. “Maybe someone else was cooking Indian food at home,” he jokes. The restaurant, which they named Taste of India II, has been a staple on the Island since it opened in 1990. “A lot of Indian restaurants come and go on Staten Island,” Kumar says. “I find myself unique.”
Malhotra and Kumar were prescient. In the 26 years since Taste of India II opened, the Indian population on Staten Island has nearly doubled, from 3,900 to 7,500, according to the 1990 Census and the 2014 American Community Survey one-year estimate. “Once you have a community, families join each other and it becomes a self-reinforcing cycle,” says Howard Shih, Research and Policy Director at the Asian American Federation in New York City. The Kumar family exemplifies this pattern. “Over the years, one by one my family came here,” Kumar says.
The result is a family tree with roots in India and fruit in New York City. Malhotra was a U.S. citizen when his company sponsored Kumar on a work visa. After Kumar received his green card, he was able to sponsor his brother. He met his wife at age 30, eight years after he moved to the United States, when he took a short trip back to India. They married, and she moved to Staten Island two years later. Now Kumar lives in the South Shore of Staten Island with his wife and sons, ages 15 and 12, who are U.S. citizens. Kumar’s sister, his wife’s brother, and both his and his wife’s parents also moved to the United States.
Food is central to the family’s immigration. Kumar’s brother works as a chef at a restaurant in Manhattan. Kumar and his cousin still co-own Taste of India II, where Kumar is a full-time manager and part-time chef, and where Kumar’s wife’s brother, Mintu Singh, and Kumar’s nephew are servers. Singh’s 18-month-old daughter Harneet is already hooked on the food her dad grew up with in India. “I tried to give her milk and cereal, but she won’t eat it,” Singh says. “But if you give her any Indian food, she’ll eat it and point to it for more.”
The food at Taste of India II reflects the family’s close ties to home. They serve North Indian Punjabi food characterized by spices like ginger, garlic, turmeric powder, tamarind, chili powder, and curry powder. While the food is still rich in spices, Kumar has toned down the chili-pepper heat to accommodate his customer’s tastes, because most of them are not Indian. “We have a big Italian population on Staten Island, so there are a lot of milder dishes with vegetable combinations,” Kumar says. Chicken tikka masala is the signature dish, and masala the signature sauce; Singh attributes the sauce’s popularity to a base of tomato paste, basil, ginger and garlic, which is similar to Italian sauces.
After more than two decades, Taste of India II is still the go-to (or order-from) place for Indian food for families, couples, and friends of all ages and ethnicities. “Everyone comes to the restaurant—Russians, Chinese, Italian,” says Singh. “Many of our customers come in once or twice a week,” says Ravindu Yushanadha, a waiter from Sri Lanka. And Singh says one couple has been coming ever since Taste of India I closed 20 years ago.
On a Sunday afternoon in early February, Tina Ahuja and around 35 of her relatives rented out Taste of India II to celebrate Ahuja’s sixteenth birthday. “My cousins, aunts, uncles—our whole family, basically, came,” she said. Ahuja and her relatives, like Kumar, are from the Punjab region of India. Ahuja and her parents live in Staten Island, but some of her relatives drove to the party from New Jersey and Long Island.
In 2015, for the second year in a row, Taste of India II was voted the best Indian restaurant in Staten Island by readers of the Staten Island Advance, the local newspaper. Though it requires long hours and hard work, Kumar says he loves owning a restaurant: “Money you can make, but if you enjoy what you do then all things good for business are good for the person.”Tags: chicken tikka masala, ethnic cuisine, Indian, restaurants, Staten Island