How about a nice cup of chai?
Hollywood’s traditional idea of a New York cabbie is probably Robert De Niro’s alienated Vietnam vet Travis Bickle, or the wiseguy Jews, Italians and Poles of the 1970s TV hit show “Taxi.” But those stereotypes couldn’t be further from today’s reality. According to the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission, the most common driver surname today is Singh, followed by Mohammed – two out of every three New York cabbies today hail from South Asia, predominantly from Pakistan and Punjab.
So while Travis Bickle might have gone in search of coffee and pie on his break, his real-world equivalent is more likely to want a plate of saag and a decent cup of chai. And ask any south Asian driver anywhere in the city to name his favorite eating spot, the most frequent answer will be Punjabi Grocery and Deli. “Even if I’ve just dropped someone in Harlem and I’m on 114th street, if I need a cup of tea I’ll get on the FDR Drive and come down here,” says Mahmood Butt, a veteran Pakistani driver sipping on a paper cup of the Deli’s legendary frothy, spiced brew. Of course any tea drinker in New York City could relate to the impulse to drive 113 streets in search of a decent cuppa, but the allure of Punjabi Deli is far deeper.
Why go all the way down to the Lower East Side to eat when there’s food all around, I ask Bishen Ghotra Singh, as he nudges his cab forward in the line outside the Hilton in Midtown. “The owner, he’s my best friend,” says the turbaned driver. “And it’s always easy to get parking.” Parking, of course, is a major issue for cab drivers. The city isn’t designed for parking – most of the vehicles on its streets are cabs and trucks, which tend to only make brief stops to disgorge or take on their freight. So when a cabbie gets peckish, he has a problem. Even more so when he needs the bathroom. New York is notoriously bereft of public bathroom facilities, and while most of the city’s residents know to sneak in to McDonalds or Starbucks or even Barnes and Noble when nature calls, the absence of parking deprives cabbies of even those options. Many drivers on night shifts simply make do with a bottle.
No wonder then, that many drivers call Ranbir Singh their best friend. The first thing the stocky, bearded Sikh with the warm eyes and ready smile did after buying Punjabi Deli four years ago, was put in an extra toilet. Ranbir, of course, understood his market well – he’d worked as a driver himself for six years. Indeed, Punjabi Deli had been his favorite stop when he was driving, even when it had only one bathroom. Its location — in an unprepossessing basement storefront on a sparse patch of First Street, separated from Houston by only a traffic median – makes for plenty of parking at all hours of the day. The easiest way to find it, of course, is simply look for the cluster of yellow cabs outside at any time of day or night.
“We have all the conveniences the cab driver needs,” Ranbir’s partner, Kulwinder Singh, offers as explanation for the deli’s popularity. And he’s not just talking about the bathrooms, either. He points to hundreds of cassettes of devotional and filmi music to keep the driver connected with home between fares, the deli also keeps a supply of such basics as rolls of the paper spool for the standard taxi receipt machine and bulbs for the light in the driver’s cabin. Then there’s piles of pain killers, bottled water and such favorite driver snacks as roasted black chick peas. And, of course, always a good supply of change.
But it is not simply the conveniences that make Punjabi Deli the eatery of choice among the men who Manhattan moving. The main attraction, of course, is the food. “It’s delicious and very good for the digestion,” enthuses Rashpal Singh, a driver who’s just finished a platter of red lentil dal with a cornmeal roti. “You see, it’s light, there’s no meat, and it’s not very spicy, which is good if you’re having to digest while sitting in a car.”
Punjabi’s most popular entrée is Saag – a creamy, lightly spiced blend of spinach and mustard leaf, eaten with roti or on basmati rice. And three days a week, when the drivers are lucky, it’s Saag Paneer, the same dish cooked with fried cubes of delicious homemade paneer, a creamy farmer’s cheese. Punjabi’s kitchen is up in Queens – the downtown hole-in-a-wall is too small to house a full kitchen – and the food is brought down two or three times a day, depending on demand. The menu changes daily, depending on the availability of season vegetables such as okra, but Saag and Chole – chick peas stewed with cumin, tomatoes and garam masala – are the standards. Tonight there’s also soupy red-lentil dal, a lightly spiced cabbage and potato dish, mouthwatering eggplant simmered with coriander almost down to a paste, and the ever present saag and chole. There are plenty of delicious kulfi desserts, all of them with diminished sugar content to guard against the high incidence of diabetes among South Asian drivers.
What do drivers who come here for breakfast eat, I ask, anticipating being made privy to some Punjabi culinary secrets. “Bagel. With butter or cream cheese,” says Mulwinder Singh. Some things are the same all over New York. But pressed for other options, he comes up with Pinni – mixed nuts and grains roasted and ground together with dried milk. “It’s the Punjabi energy bar,” quips Rashpal Singh. “Eaten any time you need it.”
Punjabi’s menu appeals the cab driver’s unique appetites: “It’s light food, because if we eat meat then we go to sleep,” says Butt. “We don’t like to eat too much, and this light food is best. This is the cheapest and best food in Manhattan – and nobody makes better tea.” There’s no great secret in the chai, of course – its base is the rather lifeless American deli standard Lipton teabag, brewed with half-water half-milk and a tantalizing blend of tea masala and cardamom.
Unlike Travis Bickle, today’s drivers are mostly conscious of their health – driving a cab is not a dead-end job, as much as an entry-level position for immigrants looking to make good. “This is the best job for a student,” says Bengali driver Enamul Jalil. “You can work irregular hours and make enough money to keep yourself going through school.” Not that the money is great. What allows a yellow cab to work New York’s streets is its medallion issued by the TLC – and there are only a finite number of those. The going rate for buying one these days is in the region of $250,000, with the result that most drivers are simply renting their cars from large fleets. And simply covering costs consumes somewhere between $100 and $125 of what a driver makes on a shift, leaving a balance that seldom amounts to much more than $100. No wonder then, that many of the drivers have left their families back in Asia and share small apartments in the outer boroughs with three or four other drivers. “I like to eat light, mostly fruit and vegetables, or salads,” says Jalil. “Because I have to be aware of my health, sitting around for eight hours every day. And driving a cab is extremely stressful, too.”
Driving a cab all night, of course, is inherently alienating. Punjabi drivers try to break down their loneliness through a CB radio network, and other attempts at building a community. And if that community has a hall, it is Punjabi Deli. “This food is home cooking for cab drivers, because most are from Pakistan or Punjab,” says Rashpal Singh. “And you know if you come here, you find friendship and familiarity. You can speak in your home language, and it helps to know you are not alone out there.”
But its secret is out, of course, among the hipsters, aspirant filmmakers and dot-com entrepreneurs of the neighborhood. “Many Americans come here now,” says Ranbir Singh. “Thirty percent of the customers now are from the neighborhood. We don’t mind. We welcome all, black, white, no matter. When the disco places close, that’s when people start to stream in here.” After all, almost everyone in New York is from elsewhere, and most sometimes crave a little home cooking – comfort food, prepared with love and served with camaraderie — even if it’s from someone else’s home.
This first appeared in Eat magazine in 2000