Fuchka in NYC
The burst of flavours as you bite into the crunchy shells of fuchka and the tang of tamarind as a spicy mouthful of jhalmuri infuses with your senses – Mahfuzul Islam and Alvi Zaman took this taste of home to the streets of New York when they founded Jhal NYC, a Bengali street food venture that not only represents Bangladeshi food culture but also empowers immigrants within the Bangladeshi-American community.
What had started out as a pop-up stand soon expanded into a venture that helped those around them - their mothers, aunts, cousins and others of the same community. The mothers and aunts make the dishes, and their cousins help man the stands - it’s a beautiful family effort that displays the heart of Bengali culture. In a recent interview, Mahfuzul Islam shared their story with us.
Where did the idea for Jhal NYC come from?
The idea came from our love of food and wanting to express our culture, especially to those exposed to it for the first time. Jhal is the manifestation of our interests with the people around us mixed into the fold. Born and raised in Queens, New York, we saw an under-representation of Bangladeshi culture in the food scene and took it upon ourselves to change that.
What is it like to give many New Yorkers their first taste of a ubiquitous part of Bangladeshi culture?
It’s definitely exciting for us. As Bangladeshis, we feel a lot of pride in being able to share our food and culture with people. In addition to the food itself, the aesthetics we present such as banners fashioned out of newspaper and images of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Kazi Nazrul Islaml and Robi Thakur act as segues into conversation about our history and literature. We have people reaching out from all parts of the world to express how proud or fascinated they are by what we’re doing. I hope as a result of Jhal, people are able to delve deeper and learn more about Bangladesh.
From your experience in the food industry, what do you think makes Bengali street-food different?
Bengali street-food stands out not only because of the strong flavours involved, but also because of the communal and economic aspects. The sort of joy that comes from hanging out with your friends with plates of fuchka or newspaper cones of jhalmuri is unique. It’s also interesting to think how this particular type of street-food came about - from a lack of access to electricity and refrigeration. The result of that is simple yet flavourful street-food that doesn’t spoil easily or require heating.
Recently, you guys did a video on what it’s like to be fuchka and jhalmuri vendors in Bangladesh, what was the concept behind that?
Yes, in the video we followed a fuchka and a jhalmuri vendor to see what a day in their lives was like. The concept behind it was to show what it meant to be working class in Bangladesh and embrace their hustle and bustle. We wanted to highlight lives that often get overshadowed and explore the parallel of a day-to-day grind. We hoped for it to be the beginning of a transnational dialogue that connects and engages us with the Bangladeshi community.
At its core, Jhal is a social entrepreneurship that empowers those around you, especially the women in your lives. What is your goal with regard to helping them?
Of course, the initial experience for every woman varies depending on the scenario they step into once they come here, but there’s usually a sense of alienation that comes from not being able to understand the culture and language. For us, the goal is to help them actualize what they want to do in their lives. If they have education or career related aspirations, then we work to connect them with the right resources. We also try to expose them to activities they wouldn’t normally opt for like bowling or mini-golfing so they can enjoy themselves and try new things.
Do you plan to expand your menu and serve more of the popular Bengali dishes that you grew up eating at your own home?
Yeah, it’d be great if we could do that somewhere down the line. I would love for the American public to try shutki for the first time, or get a taste of the delicacies we have every day such as biryani and haleem. It’d be amazing if we could expose them to the full gamut of Bangladeshi cuisine.
Your future plans include a ‘brick and mortar’ place where people could regularly go to get a taste of Bangladeshi cuisine. What progress have you made in reaching that goal?
Still working on it! Since we don’t have a background in this industry, we’re learning more everyday and reaching out. The vision we have is for a place where one can step in and explore all the amazing things Bangladesh has to offer - not just food but music and art as well. For Bangladeshis, we want it to be a sort of community centre where they can enjoy all things close to home.