In recent decades, Middlesex County has become home to one of the largest South Asian populations in the region. Today, nearly 30 percent of Edison residents and almost 40 percent of neighboring Iselin residents have roots on the Subcontinent. As a result, the towns boast some of the most delicious and wide-ranging Indian and Pakistani restaurants in the United States.
The lifeline of the community is Oak Tree Road, a one-mile commercial stretch that cuts through both towns. Among its groceries, jewelry stores and sari shops are nearly 60 eating places. The food is fresh, affordable and stirringly authentic. Here are your essential stops, arranged from south to north.
1655 Oak Tree Road
Indian-Chinese cuisine originated in Kolkata where, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Hakka-speaking Chinese from Guangdong and Fujian provinces emigrated to prosperous India to work as dentists, tannery owners, beauticians and shoemakers. They combined Chinese cooking techniques, such as stir-fry, with Indian vegetables, meats and spices, such as cumin, coriander and turmeric. Ming, named for the Chinese dynasty and more upscale than its neighbors, presents perfect renditions of Indian-Chinese classics such as chili paneer ($16), a spicy stir-fry of diced paneer (a dense, fresh, unsalted white cheese) with onions and peppers in soy sauce; Drums of Heaven ($8), fiery deep-fried chicken wings bathed in a spring onion, garlic and chili-pepper sauce; and cauliflower Manchurian ($7), battered and fried cauliflower florets in a piquant garlic, ginger and minced chili-pepper glaze.
1679 Oak Tree Road
This mom-and-pop operation specializes in vegetarian food from the state of Gujarat on India’s northwest coast. Jhupdi means “hut” in Hindi, and the restaurant is decorated to evoke an animated Indian village. It serves an incredible Gujarati thali ($13.95), a meal of lentils, vegetables, rice, yogurt, pickles and dessert presented in small bowls on a thali (plate). This style of eating is ubiquitous in India, but the components often vary by region. Jhupdi’s thali includes Gujarati kadhi, a yogurt-based, sweet-and-spicy curry; kathol, a stew of lentils and beans with tamarind and jaggery; and methi thepla, a whole-wheat flatbread with fenugreek.
Thali is traditionally eaten with one’s hands, but it’s fine to use flatbread as scoops. The feast comes with the perfectly matched beverage: chaas, a salty buttermilk seasoned with cumin and fennel.
1700 Oak Tree Road, #17
Swagath means “welcome.” For the Iyengar family, who opened Swagath in 1988, the word means not just hospitality, but an introduction to the vegetarian cuisine of their native state, Karnataka, in Southern India. Dinner begins with a complimentary bowl of rasam, a fine tomato soup seasoned with tamarind and black pepper. Swagath is one of only four Oak Tree Road restaurants that serve South Indian mainstays such as dosa (rice-and-lentil crêpes) and idli (steamed rice-and-lentil cakes). Swagath’s thin and crunchy mysore masala dosa ($7.50) smears a bracing garlic and red-chili chutney over the crêpe’s potato filling.
Don’t miss the bese bele bath ($8.95), an extravagant rice-and-lentil casserole with chilies, mustard seeds, curry leaves and tamarind, studded with cashews.
Kwality Ice Cream
1734 Oak Tree Road
In 2001, Kwality became the first Indian ice cream parlor to open in the United States. It makes American-style ice cream in 56 eclectic, Indian-inspired flavors, but the indigenous attraction is kulfi, an Indian treat with a denser, creamier texture. Its three traditional flavors—malai (cream), pista (pistachio) and kesar (saffron)—are lovely. So are Kwality’s more exotic, strong-flavored ice creams, such as sitapha (custard apple) and mitha paan (sweet betel leaf). The restaurant’s falooda—a float-like drink of kulfi, basil seeds, rosewater-flavored syrup, and rice vermicelli—is a satisfying mish-mash of textures and flavors. It’s found nowhere else on the street.
1335 Oak Tree Road
While many of the restaurants on Oak Tree Road are vegetarian, Shalimar is a carnivore’s paradise. The restaurant has a glass case of decadent Pakistani and North Indian meat curries and grilled meats and prides itself on its use of high-quality halal meats.
Shalimar’s non-vegetarian platter ($10.99) offers a choice of two meats from a list of 12. I highly recommend lamb boti tikka (cubed lamb, marinated in yogurt, lemon juice and ginger-garlic paste and grilled) and keema mattar (minced goat meat and pea curry). The platter comes with choice of aromatic basmati rice or naan. Shalimar’s naan has a crisp surface, a pillowy core, a hint of sourness and a distinctive char.
1349 Oak Tree Road
Mumbai, on India’s west coast, draws migrants from all over the country to its glittery and gritty streets. These recurring waves of immigrants from India—and China, the Middle East, Iran and Africa—give the street food of the former Bombay its depth.
The best place to sample this eclectic street cuisine is Chowpatty, which is named after the Mumbai beach famous for its handcarts and counters serving street food. Chandrakant Patel and his wife, who hail from Mumbai, opened their restaurant in 1990.
Order two dishes here; the first, pav bhaji, is native to Mumbai. Pav bhaji means “bread and vegetables.” These small, rounded buns ($6.95) are generously smeared with melted butter and bhaji (mashed potatoes, carrots, onions, tomatoes and cauliflower). The buns are served with chopped raw onions and a lemon wedge.
The other must is the popular and filling snack called chaat ($6.25). Chaats, a world onto themselves, are concoctions of diced potatoes, chickpeas and yogurt served with a mouth-watering mix of spices, tamarind sauce and toppings.
Among the many types are dahi bataka puri (small, deep-fried flatbreads and potatoes served with yogurt), and samosa chaat, which has a savory profile. Chaats offer an unusual mix of textures and flavors rarely found in other cuisines—hot and cold, raw and cooked, spicy and soothing.
Jassi Sweets Center
1404 Oak Tree Road
Jassi is often overlooked, as its unassuming signage is easy to miss. But the establishment is a must-stop for its glasses of distinctively perky fresh sugarcane juice ($4). The juice is a natural refresher throughout Asia and Africa, but the Indian version is spiked with ginger and lemon, giving it a sweet, sour and spicy taste. In warmer months, tall stalks of green cane waiting to be run through the traditional press sit outside the Jassi Sweets Center’s doors. Proprietor Jaswant Singh, who moved from Punjab to the United States in 1978 and opened the first Indian restaurant on Oak Tree Road shortly after, tucks slices of fresh ginger and wedges of lemon or lime into folded stalks and inserts them into a machine, where rollers press out glasses of milky, sweet juice.
Jassi is also a haven for mithai, an umbrella term for a variety of confections from northern and western India. Mithai are made with combinations of flour, sugar, nuts, legumes, and milk or khoya (a semisolid dairy product made by slowly boiling milk until it thickens); they are often enhanced with cardamom, rosewater or saffron.
End your day with a barfi ($9.50 a pound), a square or diamond-shaped treat with a fudge-like consistency, which comes in pistachio, almond, or chocolate.Click here to leave a comment