Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

So Close, and Yet So Far Away

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

So Close, and Yet So Far Away

Article excerpt

The saris in the window of Sheetal boutique were so luscious I was salivating. I decided I had to have one. But which? The turquoise to green to yellow silk sari that looked like melting pistachio ice cream? The grape-colored number with the vine-like embroidery? Or, wait, look at that tomato-red one the shopkeeper has unfurled for a customer at the counter?

I couldn't pick just one from the hundreds at the store. Besides, I didn't need a sari.

What I needed was food.

I ambled on, joining the families of Indian parents, some pushing strollers, a daddy occasionally passing by with a toddler riding his shoulder. I stopped briefly outside the video store to survey the latest Bollywood hits, and couldn't resist going into Chowpatty Sweet Mart, where neon-colored candies and plop-shaped little cakes sat arranged and, judging by the small crowd pressed close to the counter, alluring. My hunger panged. I read the labels: Mava Barji? Kasar Penda? I had no idea what to ask for, only that whatever it was would blow my diet.

I walked out, much to the chagrin of my stomach, to search for fare that was a little more familiar. The very next doorway was Chowpatty restaurant. I soon realized that despite my years of eating at Indian restaurants, the menu here was a challenge. I looked around and realized I was the only non-Indian-speaker in the place. I was a stranger in a strange place, out of my comfort zone and immersed in another culture. I'd been transported to India, without having to get on a plane. In fact, I'd driven less than two hours to get to this mile-long stretch of Oak Tree Road in Edison/ Iselin known as Little India.

It's just one of the many immigrant enclaves where the community holds tight to its culture, traditions and way of life. Where you can smell the exotic smells, taste dishes you've never heard of, close your eyes and listen to the music of another language. When you haven't got the time, money or stamina for a trip to the actual country, such outposts can provide a faraway fix. You can find dozens of them within a three-hour drive of North Jersey.

We've collected some best places to feel like you're someplace else. No passport required, but do bring an appetite, a sense of adventure, an open mind and maybe a foreign dictionary for those mystery sweets.

Edison/Iselin

WHERE YOU MIGHT THINK YOU ARE: India

THE HOOD: Many point to 1965, when U.S. immigration laws were expanded to include people from countries outside Europe, as the beginning of the Indian migration to the region. Actually, the first wave wasn't direct to Edison, but to more urban areas in Hoboken and Queens. After settling in, Indian engineers, doctors and businesspeople started eyeing Edison because it was inexpensive, had good schools and was near high-tech jobs. At about the same time, the town's strip mall shops were being vacated. The Indian entrepreneurs bought them up and created shops that were a lot like the ones back home. Today Oak Tree Road boasts some 400 Indian businesses.

DON'T MISS: Chowpatty (chowpattyfoods.com): The restaurant and the sweet shop are in Iselin.

* Rasoi, Iselin (rasoiindianrestaurant.com/rasoi2): authentic northern Indian fare, with a much-lauded buffet and good vegetarian dishes.

* Kwality Ice Cream, Edison (kwalityfoods.com): Handmade ice cream and kulfi (the Indian version of ice cream, but denser and creamier). But even your American ice cream can have a touch of India: Order a scoop flavored with Sitafal or Fresh Chickoo, ginger or cardamom.

* Big Cinemas Movie City 8, Edison (us.bigcinemas.com/ loc_moviecity8.asp): Not only can you binge on Bollywood in the eight-screen theater, but during intermission (yes, intermission) order a side of somosas with your popcorn.

INFO: oaktreeroad.us.

Brighton Beach, Brooklyn

WHERE YOU THINK YOU ARE: Russia. That's why its nickname is Little Odessa.

THE HOOD: Once a 19th-century resort town, Brighton Beach went Cyrillic when Russians and Ukrainians, most of them Jewish, began arriving in the 1970s. …

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