Found myself crossing two rivers this afternoon (via bridge and tunnel) giving a friend a ride to Newark airport. It’s not often that I’m in Jersey and, coming from Brooklyn, it always seemed like distant territory duly marked by the change in license plates. But, New Jersey is really very close, just as close to Manhattan as are Brooklyn and Queens. I was sitting on pier 41 in Red Hook yesterday (finally made it to Steve’s Key Lime Pies!) looking out over lower Brooklyn, Staten Island, and New Jersey. It was all so surprisingly close, especially when measured against my usual gauge for NYC distance: time spent in slow moving traffic that’s keeping me from where I want to be. New Jersey and New York share a similar space yet it’s a rare instance when I’m in the former. After dropping my friend off at the airport, I thought I’d stay in the area for dinner.
I had heard great things about the Indian food in the South Asian and Middle Eastern communities of Northern Jersey. Having never been to any of them, I thought I’d pick a place that sounded good and see where it took me. Tonight, I ended up on Oak Tree Road in Iselin. Not knowing the area, I took the time to walk up and down the main drag.
There were three outstanding elements to my dining experience tonight, all of them notable for the same reason- they were EXTREME!! Extreme flavors, extreme ingredients, extreme tastes. I didn’t expect it or see it coming. I stumbled upon it, or, perhaps, I wanted it in some way. Food is a drug and the chemical shifts that come from eating can change your whole outlook, mood, and perception for that moment.
1. Hot Green Chili Peppers in Spicy Gravy (picture 1)
Yes that is a hot green chili pepper wrapped inside my delicious paratha. I did in fact make a chili pepper sandwich. Why would anyone make a dish like this and what is the benefit of eating straight up hot green chili? Speed, my friend. Speed, heat, and fire. I felt my blood turn hot, my heart rate increase and my veins bulge. Circulation was working overtime and blood and heat was rushing through my body, burning whatever came into its path. The only other example I can think of that had a similar effect was when I immersed myself in a room filled with ultra-violet light.
2. Sugar Can Juice with Ginger, Lemon, and a dash of Masala (pictures 2 and 3)
Sugar, straight from the source. No evaporation, no refining, no crystallization, no anything. Just pure, simple, sugar juice. Yes, sugar juice; direct from the cane, in its purest form. I stepped outside and took a few sips. First of all, it is nothing like the sweetness of candy or of cakes. That stuff is a ruse, full of empty promises. This is entirely different. It was warm and had a surprisingly full body, a slight thickness. It had that gentle and nurturing quality that comes with sweetness but also the stimulation and energy that comes with sugar. Instantly, my body absorbed this tonic of natural ingredients and my nerves and synapses and muscle tissue all fired off and hummed as I made my way to the bottom of the cup. Afterwards, I was buzzing and walked quicker than usual, as if on a conveyer belt moving in the same direction. My lips were tingling and there was a brief moment in which I couldn’t stop burring them like a horse, much the same way trumpet players do when they’re warming up. The hyperactivity didn’t last long and the feeling of the drink mellowed rather quickly. I never suffered a “sugar crash” and instead felt like I perked up for a bit but was then let gently down, invigorated and charged.
3. Pan Ice Cream (pictures 4 and 5)
I discovered pan, or paan, while walking through the Indian neighborhoods of Manhattan and Queens. Have you ever had it? Paan is a type of refreshment, of sorts, and is commonly eaten after meals to function as a palate cleanser and digestive aid. The paan itself is a spade shaped leaf (from the Betel plant) wrapped around a spice mixture. It comes in two main varieties, a “sweet” kind and one with tobacco, and they are both unlike anything else I’ve ever tasted. The flavors are often intense and can be much to deal with all at once. With the sweet kind, I’ve had different friends on different occasions say that it tastes like somebody is taking a household cleaner like Windex or Lysol and spraying it directly into your mouth. I describe it as being ‘severely refreshing.’ But, they have their place and often times are quite good. As I was in the mood for either paan or lassi depending on what seemed better, this unexpected spotting of ‘Pan Ice Cream’ posed as an excellent hybrid option. Confetti and potpourri flavored ice cream. Its richness was a good balance to the acute flavors of the spices. Think kaleidoscopic bright rainbow flavors bursting out of soft, smooth, white creaminess. It was fun. And made me feel light-headed. Like sucking out the air of a helium filled balloon. Or like after you’ve been laughing too hard. It was comedy, really. It tasted great, too. Comedy in a cup. A perfect way to end a meal that started with hot chili peppers.
Shahnawaz Grill, 1380 Oak Tree Rd. Iselin, NJ
Jassi Sweets Center, 12 Marconi Ave. Iselin, NJ
Kwality Ice Cream, 1734 Oak Tree Rd. Iselin, NJ