At Haldi, A Michelin-Starred Chef Explores the Cuisine of Calcutta’s Jews
For Indian fare that extends well beyond paint-by-the-numbers samosas and curries, it’s always been a safe bet to head to Manhattan’s Murray Hill (i.e., Curry Hill), a coriander-scented stretch of Lexington Avenue, thickly populated by restaurants serving all manner of regional Indian cuisines. But goodness knows, it can be hard to choose amongst the myriad spots, peddling everything from Mumbai chaats to Pakistani kebabs to Goan fish stew. Which is why it might behoove you to know that Haldi — an otherwise unassuming space on the corner of 29th Street — is now being helmed by the esteemed Hemant Mathur, an innovative chef who received Michelin stars for the high-end establishments, Tulsi and Devi (the very first Indian eatery to receive that honor in New York). But don’t expect fussy, high-falutin fare at Haldi either; instead, Mathur has elected to explore the gastronomic traditions of Bengal, including, most intriguingly, the influence of the Jewish population of Calcutta.
Having emigrated from countries like Iraq and Syria in the 1900’s, these early settlers ended up creating a unique culinary marriage between India and the Middle East. Think sweet fruits and nuts, starchy potatoes and rice, ground meats and hearty stews, prepared in traditional Bengali fashion, and enhanced by heady spices such as cardamom, fenugreek and clove. And on Haldi’s new, expanded menu, that’s best expressed by a starter of Aloo Beet Cutlets; oblong fritters of potato and peanuts, stained scarlet from a puree of creamy beets, as well as Chicken Makmura; a bowl of bouncy minced chicken balls reminiscent of kofte, cloaked in a raisin-studded almond cashew gravy, and Bamia Khuta, tender chunks of lamb cuddled up to whole pods of okra, swimming in a sweet and sour sauce that’s been enlivened with fresh mint.
There’s been a real movement to modernize Jewish food recently, resulting in a number of chic, sake challah-serving restaurants in painfully hip neighborhoods throughout the city. But if you ask us, it’s infinitely more exciting to learn about our native cuisine’s 200 year-old Indian roots, right in the heart of humble, bustling Curry Hill.