New York is one of my absolute favourite destinations which I tend to frequent a lot (those who know me will be rolling their eyes in agreement). I have been drawn to it since the age of 5 when we took our first family trip and have been coming back almost once a year since.
The typical trip for most people to New York consists of a short break in Manhattan, hitting the major shopping districts like Fifth Avenue or sightseeing the top spots of the Big Apple such as the Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building, Brooklyn Bridge to name a few, I could go on and on about the city I gave my heart to.
I however, have the privilege of seeing New York State through a local set of eyes owing thanks to the fact that my extended family are locals! My family live in various areas around New York such as Queens, Long Island, New Jersey and other places that I still haven’t made it to..YET! My main base for the last few years has been Long Island which is approximately an hour’s drive / train ride from the city. Whilst I now spend my time outside of the city, there is no keeping me away for long and something will always pull me there at least once in my trip.
What I want to focus your attention on is how big New York is and more importantly, how multi-cultural it is. Very much like my country and city (London, England) we are a population of millions from all different backgrounds, cultures and religions. As you travel around various boroughs in New York you will find different areas are popular for a race/culture of people. You can experience this in the main city with areas such as Little Italy or China Town but to see more areas like this then venture out to one of the neighbouring boroughs.
There are five major boroughs in New York, Manhattan, Staten Island, Brooklyn, Bronx and Queens. Again, owing to my family I have spent a lot of time in Queens so know it well and can point out areas of Queens which house certain races of people. For example, Jackson Heights is an interesting one as this has a mixture of Latinos and Asians (of Indian and Pakistani origin). There is Flushing which has a large Asian/Oriental community, although I found a large Indian/Pakistani community here as well. Jamaica in Queens’s lives up to its name with a large community of Caribbean’s ranging from Jamaican, Trinidadian, Bajan plus many more Caribbean origins. Queens is a large Borough and there are still many areas I haven’t visited or communities I haven’t hung out with but I will because this is also a great way to try traditional foods.
The community that we are drawn to is in an area of Queens known as Liberty Avenue, Richmond Hill. This area houses a large community of Indo-Caribbean people that I want to bring to your attention as a lot of tourists don’t know about these little hidden gems.
To back it up a bit and give you a brief background as to why we know about this area is because of my maternal heritage. My mother’s family are Indians that were born and brought up in Guyana, South America. This tiny little country is still quite unknown and when I mention my mother’s country and background to my UK friends I generally get a confused look and then an attempt at guessing where in the world Guyana is, many point out Ghana in Africa which is a clever guess but a little further than the real location. Once I explain the correct area of the world, I am then given an awkward smile as they still don’t understand or want to push the matter further.
So, quick facts on Guyana. Located in South America although not a Spanish speaking country, bordering Brazil, Suriname and Venezuela. The language is English (with a Caribbean accent). They are the producers of famous Demerara sugar which is widely used around the world. The Dutch established colonies in Guyana which was then taken by the British renaming Guyana as British Guiana. The British had slaves working a lot of the plantations but once the slavery act was abolished and the Brits still needed workers, they passed an act known as indentured labouring which allowed them to bring over Indians and ship them into Guyana with a promise of a better life (it was in fact a very clever worded slave movement). Guyana reached its independence in 1966 but the community of Indians either remained or re located to the UK, USA and Canada, the majority being USA and Canada. This is the very quick and brief facts to give you an understanding.
The Indians who were now born and bred in Guyana who look traditionally Indian, will blow your mind with the heaviest Caribbean accent! My friends to this day look at me in amazement when they hear the twinge of Caribbean coming from my Indian looking Grandmother (I still enjoy the shocked looks).
Our community is quite small in England so when we visit New York, Liberty Avenue it feels like a trip to Guyana. The real Guyana is on my dream list of places to visit, the land where my mother once lived. However, there are some security risks to visiting and when I have mentioned my travel plans to various uncles and aunts I am advised “They will teef yuh money, chop yeh arse with a cutlass and throw you in di bush” which translates to “they will steal my money, probably chop me up with a knife and then dispose of me in a jungle or wooded area”. For now, Liberty Avenue is the Holy Grail that I and my fellow UK relatives will make sure we visit when we are in New York.
Getting to Liberty Ave from the city is easy. You need the A train (subway) to Lefferts Boulevard. As soon as you get out, you will smell the aromas of food, see the Sari and jewellery stores and hear the music we love to play loudly known as Soca Chutney.
Why should you come to Richmond Hill? The food plays a massive part as to why you should take a visit. This is a major reason why I come here and I can recommend some great places and dishes to try. The fact that this is an Indian community that grew up in a tropical South American/Caribbean country, the food has formed a fusion of Caribbean and Indian spice. My first stop is Singh’s Roti Shop which is famous for a Trinidadian dish known as doubles. This dish is a major highlight of my visit and it consists of an Indian thick roti which is filled with a chick pea and potato curry, at only $1 a piece its worth getting a couple of these as they are delicious and generally devoured in 60 seconds! Head a few steps away from this and try Sybils bakery and restaurant. This is where you can try Guyanese chicken curries or a cook up rice which is a rice dish with peas /veg and meat. Sybils has some of the best Guyanese food and a great place for you to try your first taste, there is a lot on the menu so consider a doggy bag for later. I could talk about the food for ages there are so many more dishes I could recommend.
I usually try and fill my case up with a few baked dishes that we can’t get in the UK, unless a relative has the time to make it. There is a fantastic store where you can stock up on Guyanese bread / pickles and hot sauce which we love to throw over all our foods. Little Guyana Bake Shop has all of this and for a takeaway there is a fresh baked section with cakes and sweet treats that my mother would tell me about. The best gift I can ever bring back to my mother is food from her roots. The suit case starts to fill up with Salara bread (a red coconut bread), pine tart (a baked fruit tart), and Casava Pone (a cassava based desert). I also notice behind the counter a dish I am crazy for and a dish my Grandma will make on special occasions or family gatherings. It is called a phoulourie which is deep fried split pea dough with spices mixed into it. You have chutney served on the side and they are incredible and very moreish.
As you can tell, the food plays a major reason for my visit which is a must for anyone visiting. The other reason is the music, a lot of the new soca chutney music and artists hit the USA / Canada way before it reaches us in the UK. Many times I visit the music stores and start jamming away with the store owners while they proudly play me the latest hits. This frustrates my poor cousins who are generally not a fan of the music but at my behest, begrudgingly take me to Richmond Hill and watch me dance away while they cover their ears asking me to hurry up, I buy a few cds to add to my suitcase and then move onto the other great shopping experience, clothes and jewellery.
If you frequent New York a lot then make a trip here next time, this is like having another holiday experience and a real eye opener to see how fantastic the Indo Caribbean community are. If you head to one of the restaurants for dinner you will get to see the lively party side, along with incredible food and the fusion of Indian/Calypso music. I hope this has given you a little insight to another side of New York but please check out my video on Richmond Hill for more info