Manhattan has its slices of South Asia – Curry Hill, Curry Row in the East Village, and dhabas scattered across the island. But to fully immerse ourselves in New York’s chai culture, we trekked to Jackson Heights, Queens, the heart of the city’s South Asian community. Descending the steps from the 7 train, you might feel like you were dropped off in the middle of Mumbai – and saved the airfare! Surrounded by sweet shops, sari stores, sidewalk astrologers, and halal butchers, we knew we had come to the right place to find some of the best chai wallahs in New York.
Tinny Bollywood music drifted out of a roadside chaat shop and the smell of samosas frying filled the hot, sticky air. We bumped into a six-foot sardar pitching palm reading services. The only future we were interested in at the moment was where we were going to find the best chai in the neighborhood. Without hesitation, he directed us to Al Naimat Restaurant & Sweets at the corner of 74th St and 37th Ave. Twirling his wiry white mustache, he promised their chai was “Sab se acchi.” He was right. Al Naimat’s chai was incredibly tasty. While standard masala chai was on the menu, we opted for a cup of Kashmiri chai. Light pink, delicately spiced and topped with crushed pistachios and almonds, the taste was closer to a rose-infused milk sweet than the gingery brew more commonly found at chai stands around India. It went perfectly with the mithai we snacked on – rich pista barfi and super sweet gulab jamun.
Eager to discover what exactly made the chai so delicious, we chatted up Rusha, who was running the sweets counter. She was perfectly happy to talk about the restaurant, her family in Pakistan, and life in Queens. But she couldn’t let us in on the secret recipe – the chai wallah had left for the day, and he was the only one who knew exactly how it was made. Rusha did, however, reveal the surprising ingredient behind Kashmiri chai’s pink color: a dash of baking soda. She invited us to come back to meet the chai wallah and learn his special recipe.
We wish we could return to Al Naimat. Alas, we have packed our bags and are heading to India in just a few days. Inshallah, we will come across many variations on Al Naimat’s Kashmiri chai during our travels – perhaps we’ll even get the chance to whip up a pot with chai wallahs in Srinagar. For those of you who can’t make the flight to Kashmir, there’s always the 7 train to Jackson Heights.