JERSEY CITY, NJ – There’s a famous saying by President Herbert Hoover, who served during the Great Depression: “All men are equal before fish.” Take it as you may, it could mean the rigors of fishing, or perhaps, if he was a pescatarian, or just a mere gourmand, Hoover was advocating the merits of devouring fish with gusto; not bothering to look around as to who else was in the process of relishing every bite of a fresh water or ocean catch.
One can get that palpable feeling when in Korai Kitchen, a nondescript Bangladeshi restaurant with narrow interiors, and seating for around two dozen people or so, on Summit Avenue, in Jersey City, New Jersey.
The fabulously-cooked food at Korai Kitchen has made it a rage for authentic Bangladeshi cuisine, in New Jersey, and now a name to reckon with all over the US. Earlier this month, Yelp named Korai Kitchen, which opened last year, among its ‘Top 100 Places to Eat in 2019’, in the US, one of only two restaurants in New Jersey that made the cut, along with JJ’s Diner in Pleasantville, off Atlantic City.
In fact, the Yelp list has only two Indian restaurants in the list: at #19 is ‘It’s a Punjabi Affair’, located in Amarillo, TX; and Spicy Bite, in Milan, NM, at #84. Korai Kitchen is ranked #22.
The Yelp list is based on rating and volume of reviews while accounting for the overall volume of reviews in each business’s area so as not to penalize businesses in areas with relatively low review volume. This certainly helps a restaurant like Korai Kitchen, which is located away from the hustle and bustle of Newark Avenue a couple of blocks away, a ‘Little India’, which is a hub of myriad Indian restaurants and grocery stores.
Delectable fish concoctions are among Korai Kitchen’s signature dishes. The co-owner of the restaurant, and the cook, as she terms herself (not chef, she reprimanded me with a smile on a recent visit), Nur-E Gulshan Rahman, 61, makes daily for lunch and dinner, fried and curry rohu and hilsa (the latter is more expensive, and has to be pre-ordered).
All fish, which Rahman makes fresh in the kitchen of the restaurant, is imported from Bangladesh. The fried rohu, on our lunch visit, was cooked to perfection, as savory and filling as fish can be.
As I took the delicate flesh apart to cleave out the bones, there was hardly any oil in the insides. The terrific taste of the fish immediately took me back to heady days of old, of fish cooked after hours of preparation by my grandmother and aunts in Kerala, and my mother in Delhi.
And this was even before I tried the Palak Shrimp, another hallmark of Korai Kitchen. The shrimp was almost crusty, with the spinach having just the right tangy flavors to it, for a zesty combination. On some days, the experiment for the shrimp ranges also to cooking it in pumpkin curry.
As we piled generously some chicken, egg and vegetable dishes on our plate to go with parathas and rice – needless to say overeating quite a bit – it was the overpowering feeling of home-cooked goodness that emanated from every morsel.
The chicken curry was light on spices, doused in coconut milk, with ample hints of ginger, garlic, cumin, and coriander in it. It didn’t overpower the meat itself. The egg curry, with full boiled eggs, was terrific. It was a dish one could have for breakfast, lunch and dinner, over and over; ready to be satiated again.
Korai Kitchen serves several bhortas, which are placed on the buffet containers. Don’t miss out on these delicious separate mashed paste concoctions, of lentils, tomatoes, boiled eggplants. It adds excellent variety. Unlike the strongly laced spicy chile achchars of lemon and mangoes served up in Indian restaurants which can make one rush for gulps of water, the bhortas just tickle the palate; makes one crave for ladles of more food.
Nur-E Gulshan Rahman’s daughter, Nur-E Farhana Rahman, 31, is also the co-owner of the restaurant. A former management consultant, she handles the front side of the restaurant.
“We deliberately didn’t want to be on Newark Avenue,” she said, chatting, as we had lunch. The idea was to carve a niche identity for Bangladeshi cuisine, in a new location, she added.
For dessert, we had ‘Mishti Doi’, a perennial Bangladeshi favorite, which cuts across borders in South Asia. A sweet and slightly tart yogurt, it’s the perfect end to a scrumptious meal.
Nur-E Gulshan Rahman brought especially to our table a special treat: a Shutki Bhorta, a paste, almost like a chutney, made from dried fish.
As I tucked into it, savoring it with some plain rice, it struck me that here’s a dish that one cannot acquire a taste for within a short span of time. It’s a contrivance only people who grew up in coastal regions or are used to its cuisine, consider a delicacy and staple fare, can go to great lengths to get a taste of.
Nur-E Farhana Rahman agreed with me, with her signature hearty laugh, and understanding nodding of her head.
(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)