Searching for Curry and Enlightenment on the Indian Buffet Line – Smithsonian

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A return to trays of glistening tandoori and hand-rolled naan for the first time since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic is a return to normalcy
Raj Tawney
Freelance writer
It had been nearly two years since I graced the line of an Indian buffet before recently giving it another shot, in time for Diwali this year. My local haunt had always been Diwan in Hicksville, New York (aka “Little India” to local Long Islanders). But its interior had been closed since March 2020 and it was surviving on a takeout menu paired with occasional outdoor dining on a refashioned patio area adjacent to Route 107. Trust me, eating cold chicken tikka with the sound of cars whizzing by wasn’t ideal. Plus, I was still too uncomfortable eating among strangers since the pandemic began. 
My wife, Michelle, and I had grown accustomed to cooking our own Indian food at home or ordering in. Eating in our pajamas didn’t feel the same as sitting inside of an actual restaurant. And more so than missing the sit-down, white tablecloth experience, we longed for a buffet. 
Sure, buffets aren’t considered fine dining by any means, but eating from one meant more to me than just observing hot curries sizzling in tin trays under heating lamps. Buffets represent an amalgamation of the American dream, along with its promises of variety and free choice. The mostly-family owned establishments who offered buffet options were opening a window into their culinary world to a range of eaters—from the timid to the adventurous—providing a chance to explore and experiment without intimidation. For myself, eating at an Indian buffet was my chance to connect with half of my ethnic heritage while also enlightening new friends and family to the dishes of my father’s side. 
Growing up outside of New York City, where the largest concentration of Indians in the U.S. resides, my weekends were spent eating and shopping for spices in either Jackson Heights, Queens or Hicksville in the center of Long Island—two of the most culturally rich Desi communities in the country. For countless blocks, rows of Indian-centric storefronts line the sidewalks—from women’s jewelry and sari boutiques, to dedicated grocery chains like Patel Brothers and Apna Bazaar, and countless restaurants with some specializing in regional fare. As I became older, I started to wonder where these establishments derived from. 
 
It wasn’t until the Immigration and Immunization Act of 1965 when the United States saw an influx of immigrants from Asia—particularly those seeking employment along with higher education. My father, Roop, was one of those immigrants, leaving Mumbai in search for a better education and subsequent career path as an engineer. When he first arrived in the mid-1970s, he wound up rooming with friends in Jackson Heights. Many years later, he’d take my mom, my brother, Ravi, and me to one of his favorite restaurants—Jackson Diner—where we ran excitedly to the buffet line to grab glistening red chunks of tandoori chicken, bubbling chickpeas in a brown curry (chana masala), pureed spinach with blocks of cheese floating about (palak paneer) and delicious hand-rolled bread covered in garlic and chives (naan), among a seemingly endless sea of colors and aromas wafting intensely before our faces. I remember staring at the edge of the buffet line, plate in hand, wondering who imagined this type of free-wheeling concept. Did buffets exist in India before they were brought to the U.S.?
“[In India], buffets became common in the 1980s in the bigger cities to save on labor costs and accommodate new varieties,” says Krishnendu Ray, an associate professor of food studies at New York University and author of The Ethnic Restaurateur. Though the concept had been around in Sikh temples in India since the 1500s, known as a langar, business models didn’t present themselves until the 20th century. Following a massive wave of immigration in the second half of the 20th century, when more Indian restaurants began to open, buffets featuring South Asian delicacies began to find their place in American culture, though it’s still taking time to find a mainstream audience. “Outsiders do not want to pay for Indian food what they do for French or Italian or Spanish or Nordic food,” says Ray. “There is also a demand side problem with Indian food. It is neither very popular––compared to Chinese, Italian and Mexican—nor very prestigious compared to mostly Euro-American cuisines such as French, Italian, New American, Nordic, Spanish and even Greek now, plus Japonaiserie [a Euro-American reading of aspects of Japanese haute cuisines].”     
In the United States, the idea of a buffet had only been cordially introduced during the 1939 World’s Fair Exhibition when Sweden presented a smörgåsbord, their 600-year-old method of displaying food. In the 1940s, entrepreneur Herb McDonald opened the Buckaroo Buffet in Las Vegas—the first all-you-can-eat restaurant. 
Still, even though Indian restaurants are most likely to exist in areas that have highly-populated Indian communities—like Chicago, Washington D.C., Houston, Dallas, major California cities, Atlanta and so on—it doesn’t mean there isn’t an interest in the cuisine where Indians don’t largely reside.
Recently, Michelle and I moved from New York to Miami after both losing our jobs during the pandemic. As foodies, we were excited by the volume of Cuban, Peruvian, Puerto Rican and other South American restaurants that covered greater Miami-Dade County, along with their beautiful, vibrant communities. However, finding an Indian restaurant was difficult due to a low Desi population. After some research, I stumbled onto Ashoka—an unassuming restaurant in a mini mall on the outskirts of Miami—that offered a lunch buffet. At first, Michelle and I were apprehensive to try it. How good could an Indian buffet in Miami possibly be? Still, we longed for one and took a chance. 
So, one Saturday afternoon, we masked and gloved up, and walked inside. The feeling was overwhelming. Yes, there was distance and new reinforced plastic guards in front of each station, but the buffet was open nonetheless, and it glowed like a treasure trunk waiting to be discovered. I was happy to see customers dining inside again, unlike in New York, where many restaurants’ doors were still closed.
“We saw business drop by 80 percent at the beginning,” says Amrit Punjabi, owner of Ashoka, who opened his restaurant in 2015. “There is actually a larger Desi community than you might expect in Miami. Indian food is loved by so many cultures around the world including Latin Americans,” Punjabi assured me when discussing his desire to open his business in Miami-Dade County, where about 70 percent of its population identifies at Hispanic or Latino and Asian alone only hover around 1 percent. 
“As the pandemic progressed, our customers started supporting us through takeout orders,” Punjabi adds. “They started asking us to start the buffet again. So once we got the green light, we did.” Ashoka reopened its buffet in late summer, following CDC and local guidelines. They offer gloves to customers, change serving spoons every hour and serve fresh naans at the table to ensure less contact. “Currently, we are at 70 percent of our pre-pandemic sales and getting stronger every month,” says Punjabi. “Every day, there are a handful of pre-pandemic customers who are returning to enjoy in person and they are bringing their friends and families.”     
I was grateful to be sitting inside the restaurant once again. As Bollywood music played over the wall speaker, fellow diners chatted about their day, and the scents of curry and incense cross-pollinated the room’s air, I felt a sense of normalcy for the first time in over a year. 
Still, I wonder about the future of buffets and their place in a post-pandemic world. Of the more than 5,000 buffets across the country, large corporations like Golden Corral and Sizzler may retain a stronghold, serving up mainstream meals for mass palettes. But what about independently owned businesses that offer authentic segments of American life?
Toward the end of our meal, Michelle and I picked on the remaining slices of naan while we finished our pot of chai that we’d ordered to the table. That day, we felt hopeful again. I can only hope to come back soon.
 
Raj Tawney | READ MORE
Raj Tawney is a writer from New York. He explores culture, race, food and history from his multiracial American perspective. He's contributed to The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today and many other publications. Find him at rajtawney.com.
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