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Savoring the Motherland at Home

Two Bangladeshi New Yorkers share their culture with their city and empower their community through their new street food pop-up.

By Rahima Nasa

Puffed rice shakes against the inside of a plastic container as a street vendor attempts to mix the contents together. After a few shakes, he pours the contents into a paper cone made from a page of an old Bangladeshi newspaper, and serves it to a customer eager to consume her jhal muri.

While jhal muri is a ubiquitous part of Bangladeshi street food culture – as well as many other South Asian countries who have their variation and name for it – it is not as common to see a vendor in New York City serving up the fiery snack. It’s also not as common to see street vendors who exclusively serve up Bangladeshi food, let alone Bangladeshi street food.

At least that’s what Mahfuzul Islam, 25, and his cousin Alvi Zaman, 21, noticed when they visited the Queens Night Market more than a year ago. While the two Queens natives were excited to get a taste of the rich cultural diversity of their borough, they were disappointed by the lack of Bangladeshi offerings at the market. That’s when they decided to start Jhal NYC, a pop-up food stand that serves Bangladeshi street food like jhal muri (jhal means spicy in Bengali ) and fuchka.

Jhal NYC
The Jhal NYC crew with one of their vendor stands.  Photo by Rahima Nasa

While Bangladeshi New Yorkers savor the nostalgia of their motherland that Jhal NYC brings them, others in the city are getting their first introduction to Bangladeshi food. Zaman distinctly recalls how people waited on line for almost 40 minutes during their first pop-up stand a year ago. Most of the customers weren’t even Bengali. That’s how they began to realize that they weren’t just selling food, it was also about sharing their culture and history.

“We always have to explain what the ingredients are and find creative ways to describe the tastes but people aren’t only interested in the food, they like the stories attached with it,” Zaman said.

Most recently, Jhal has managed to bring distinct tastes of Bangladeshi street food to all five boroughs of the city, which had been a personal goal of Islam. Islam explained that this accomplishment makes them “truly Jhal NYC.”

The duo is not shy about their willingness to embrace the distinct Bengali New Yorker subculture they grew up in through Jhal. They do this by combining the food they were raised on with the aesthetics of the city they grew up in. The clearest example of this can be gleaned from their Instagram account. In one post, the face of Sheikh Muhjibar Rahman, Bangladesh’s first prime minister, is photoshopped onto the head of New York Knicks icon Patrick Ewing.

Photo taken from the Jhal NYC instagram, @jhalnyc
The Jhal NYC instagram, @jhalnyc, reflects the group’s mix of New York City and Bangladeshi culture.

In other posts, pictures of cherished cultural Bengali figures like Kazi Nazrul and Rabindranath Tagore are juxtaposed with texts to promote their next pop-up event. Their brand aesthetic is also crafted through their pop-up stands, where they try to re-create the experience of going to a stand in Bangladesh as much as possible.

Most notable of this experience is the jhal muri served in a newspaper cone, a tribute to Bangladeshi pragmatism, hustle, and upcycling.

“Being able to hustle is essential to Bengali culture. You have to work hard, and have an optimistic attitude about what you’re doing,” said Islam. “You gotta keep moving.”

Jhal NYC also serves as the two cousins’ way of helping empower the local Bangladeshi community. It started with their cousins, many of whom are young, new immigrants. Aside from making some money, it became a way for them to connect with their cousins. For Islam and Zaman,  it offers opportunities to practice speaking English. And for their young cousins, it provides a space for them to get to know their new community.

Islam also wanted to find a way to empower his mother, who is a stay-at-home mom. He saw an opportunity for his mother and other moms in his community to get involved by helping make the food, earn income and improve their language skills. It became a way for them to interact with more people and help battle depression, which many immigrants suffer from as a result of feeling isolated from their native country.

Jhal NYC has even partnered with Women’s Initiative for Self Empowerment (WISE), a social entrepreneurship and leadership development organization for young Muslim women, to promote these opportunities to other stay-at-home mothers and new immigrants in the community. Through the partnership, young women learn the skills they need to start their own businesses.

“Our mothers taught us how to cook and they are the ones who eat the food we were selling. It was empowering too see my mom get involved like this,” he said.