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By Carly Menkin

Little Italy and Chinatown may not sound all that exotic to you. But chances are, the nearest Metropolis has one of these two ethnic boroughs within your grasp. Where I live, there are around 800 different languages being spoken at any given time. More than one third of our population are foreign born and, let’s be honest, most of the rest did not arrive aboard the Mayflower. New York City is home to one of the most diverse populations on the planet and I’m glad I’m able to add to the melting pot.

As a proud, first generation American, I’ve seen the many sacrifices my parents made to raise their children in the land of opportunity. One thing they’ve never let go of is the community that surrounds our family and the culture that permeates from it. The music, the warmth of our people, and most importantly, the food, never dissolved along the arduous journey from South Africa to the States. Whenever strangers find themselves in a strange land, they long for one thing, a piece of home. A smell, a taste, a whisper of a familiar tongue. So when they find one another, they try to emulate what they love by developing a new colony to honor the motherland. These ethnic enclaves are a testament to Lady Liberty and all she’s done to accept immigrants with open arms. And in New York City, boy are they a plenty.

From the Dominican flavor of Washington Heights at the top of Manhattan to the icy touch of Russia at the bottom of Brooklyn in Brighton Beach, New York has been flooded by waves of ethnic groups that have established strong roots in a foreign land. These communities are celebrated annually by events like the Puerto Rican Day Parade and the West Indian Day Parade that shimmy down 6th Avenue from Central Park to Herald Square. But where they truly leave their mark is by affecting NY’s ever changing contemporary cuisine. Fusion restaurants like At Vermillion meld Latin and Indian flavors to produce dishes like ‘duck vindaloo arepas’ and ‘mango cardamom flan,’ while bringing together the best of both worlds. On 32nd Street, between 5th & 6th Avenue, you’ll find Korea Town, where although authentic bi bim bap reigns supreme, it’s actually traditional flavors served in a modern way aboard the Korilla Korean BBQ food truck that have caused a new generation to crave kimchi. Jewish delis, Irish pubs and Turkish kitchens can be discovered even in the most unsuspecting neighborhoods, like that of Murray Hill just above the East Village; which has been affectionately dubbed as Curry Hill due to the copious amounts of Indian cuisine that dominate the area. 

In my neighborhood of Astoria, Queens, Greek food has been the local fare since the 1960’s, when a huge influx of Greek immigrants started to call the borough home. In fact, it’s the largest Greek population outside of Greece and was famously satirized in the quirky comedy “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” I’m not lying when I say that I have genuinely seen old Greek men standing outside with bottles of Windex in hand, stirring my curiosity as I wonder what ailment they are going to cure with this handy blue spray. After the tragic heroes began their Odyssey in Queens, large groups of Egyptians, Brazilians, Bengali and Bosnian families developed thriving communities as well. These four corners of the world can be tasted in a three-block radius of my cozy pre-war apartment. Arepas Venezuelan cuisine, which offers Guyanese tropical arepas complete with fried plantains, faces the Greek Captain, which serves fresh Mediterranean plates likes Branzino with lemon potatoes and tzatziki sauce. In neighboring Sunnyside, an English shop sells sweets from abroad that warms my heart and melts in my mouth, bringing me back to childhood days of Cadbury chocolates. The diversity is astounding.

When I first moved to NY I longed for a piece of home. And I found it, on a plate at Braai. This South African inspired haven of exotic wines and high end game, like African roadrunner (aka ostrich, is aptly named for the traditional South African style of BBQ). Between the chicken bobotie with apricot chutney and the coconut truffle pap (a sort of fluffy polenta), my soul felt a sense of relief. In a city of millions, someone made me feel like I belonged. Whatever your hearts ache for; your stomach can help guide the way to the satisfaction you crave. Because if there’s one language we all speak, its name is food.  And the taste of home, well that’s priceless.

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