Traveling the World...Without Leaving New York
There are the relics of the French in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, those of the Russians in the East Village, an Egyptian obelisk in Central Park, and more — all sauced by the flavors of every cuisine and fed by nearly every dish in existence. And then there are the corners of Queens where the most diverse peoples coexist at their most peaceable, in a swath of heterogeneous humanity where more than 100 countries are represented and people babble in what experts say may be as many as 800 tongues.
On an evening in Washington Square Park, musicians of all disciplines gather ‘round the shimmering fountain at its center and riff; blues might be playing to the east, a folk band to the west, and maybe even a lone odd musician somewhere bowing a saw as if it were a violin. They make their music in something of a French shadow: The marble arch that looms over the park was erected in 1892, New York’s version of Paris’ Arc de Triomphe. After the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, the arch was illuminated in the red, white and blue of the French flag in homage to the country that inspired the monument.
One foreign monument is not a replica: Cleopatra’s Needle stood by the Nile River in 1450 B.C., commissioned by a pharaoh to celebrate his 30-year reign. In 1881 it was moved to Central Park, a gift from Egypt to America in return for financial assistance. Today the hieroglyphics are fading under acid rain.
Far downtown in the East Village lies a Russian enclave: the Russian Turkish Baths. A gritty, 125-year-old city fixture, the bare-bones spa avails icy plunge pools and steam rooms to the public. The spa is unisex, and workers with names like Vlad and Sven stand bare-chested inside superheated saunas, where they douse customers in ice water or flagellate them with bushels of oak leaves for the platza, a bracing spa treatment. To recover, there’s beet soup and hearty Russian potato dumplings, called pierogis, in place of the organic salads most spas serve.
For a journey into the foods of the world, interested parties need simply hop aboard the No. 7 train, dubbed the “International Express” for the diversity of the neighborhoods in Queens through which it travels. In Jackson Heights, stepping off the train invites the heady curries of Little India and introduces visitors to tiny one-person booths selling sweet paan — miniature triangular packets made of bright green betel leaves folded over a mix of spices, fruit and nuts. The leaf, a relative of the pepper plant with a decidedly acquired taste, has a mildly caffeinating effect. It is chewed but not swallowed, and the telltale sign of paan addiction decorates the streets here — red dots on the pavement where chewers have spit, much like chewing tobacco, irritating some neighbors who say it is a bad habit.
A less controversial bite to eat can be found a block and a world away at Himalayan Yak, a restaurant along Roosevelt Avenue that specializes in food from the mountainous regions of Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet. Here, behind ornate carved doors, is Nepal’s answer to the dumpling: the cult-favorite momo, served steamed in baskets and filled with a mash-up of Asiatic and Indian flavors. There is also yak meat on the menu, as the restaurant name would suggest, including yak sausage flavored with yak blood.
Customers wash it all down with a Tibetan specialty: steaming cups of butter tea with salt in place of sugar. “There is a 50-50 chance a customer trying butter tea for the first time will be into it,” says Yugine Lama, a waitress originally from Nepal. “People from the Himalayan region are usually into butter tea. They drink it in order to keep themselves really warm,” she says. Loaded with fat, it is a nomadic Sherpa staple. “Then there are some people who try it and say, ‘Wow! This is really weird!’” Lama adds with a laugh.
Further along Roosevelt Avenue, underneath the rumbling train, merchants also sell their countries’ varied specialties from hand trucks and carts. There is the “Balut Guy,” for example, nearly always at the 69th Street–Fisk Avenue subway stop, who sells the Filipino specialty balut. A fertilized duck egg, the balut is cooked, cracked and eaten by shooting the entire contents back, maybe with a dash of vinegar; the soft fetal duck inside is eaten bones and all. Most mornings a mother-and-daughter team from Mexico can also be found selling warm corn husk–wrapped tamales from a handcart. They stay up all night, they say, shaping the cornmeal patties by hand and stuffing them with mild cheese and meats.
At the end of the International Express lies the city’s largest Chinatown, and the world’s largest outside of China. It is too big and delicious to choose just one noodle joint, tea house or dumpling shack to hit. Rather, wanderers should follow the serendipity of their nose, with an eye to both the ground and the sky. Flushing’s best spots are often hidden in underground malls, where steps descend from the pavement into caverns packed with stalls of aromatic Asian specialties. Or up high: second and third floors of small tenement buildings are packed with Korean karaoke bars, the facades hung with colorful signs pointing upward.
A fusion of faiths
Immigrants in this city not only swirl their cultures and flavors into New York’s melting pot, but they also spice it up with their many faiths.
On the Lower East Side’s tiny Eldridge Street, for example, sits the circa 1887 Eldridge Street Synagogue, founded by immigrants from Russia, Poland and Lithuania. Once a ruin where pigeons roosted in the eaves, the building lay on the brink of collapse until 1986, when a professor from New York University rallied a group together to ultimately save the crumbling structure. Today it has been meticulously restored to its former glory: gold stars fan out across the blue ceiling illuminated by hundreds of green glass chandeliers, each fixture amazingly original. A warp in the wood floor in the back is a rut left by thousands of congregants throughout the years as they swayed in prayer.
And in Flushing, Queens, the colonnaded corridors of Ganesh Temple welcome visitors into a marble temple where robed monks wander the room performing puja, or prayer rituals to idols of the Hindu pantheon made of obsidian and gold. Marigolds and fresh coconuts are piled before elephant-headed statues and many-armed goddesses. Guests are invited to make a small donation and spend as much time as they like in the serene space, admiring the glittering faith.
Further into the Flushing neighborhood lies a historic site that serves as a beacon to faith in New York City: the site of the first decree of religious freedom in the United States, the Flushing Remonstrance of 1657. The document was written in response to the persecution of a sect of Christians called the Quakers who had set up their house of worship, called a meeting house, in the area. The Remonstrance is said to be the document upon which the dearly-held American tenet of religious freedom is modeled.
Still hosting services along Northern Boulevard, the simple original meeting house marks the oldest place of worship in the entire United States and yet seems to stand for even more; it is a testament to a metropolis of tolerance, wherein lives the world.